Ākonga step ahead with stronger problem-solving skills

Issue: Volume 102, Number 7

Posted: 1 June 2023
Reference #: 1HAa5R

A social emotional learning curriculum trialled in some schools in Waitematā is already having an impact, with teachers and students reporting better problem-solving skills and emotion control.

Mienki, Year 7, and Bella, Year 8, look at examples of sensory strategies and think about what they could use in their daily lives.

Mienki, Year 7, and Bella, Year 8, look at examples of sensory strategies and think about what they could use in their daily lives.

STEPS-A (Skills Training for Emotional Problem Solving for Adolescents) is a social and emotional skills, evidence-based, training programme for rangatahi, with the curriculum divided into four main modules: mindfulness, distress tolerance, emotion regulation and interpersonal effectiveness.

The sustainable intervention offers schools the capacity to identify students who may be at risk of developing, or already be experiencing, mental health problems. The programme was first trialled in three secondary schools in West Auckland in 2018 and 2019 in response to the Child Youth and Family Mental Health Service seeing an increase in referrals, and schools reporting an overwhelming number of students who needed support.

Skills for life

This year, the early intervention programme has been adapted for intermediate school students, with 15 schools involved in a trial across North and West Auckland. Te Whatu Ora – Health New Zealand’s Marinoto Child and Youth Mental Health Services is running the apprenticeship training model for intermediate schools.

The aim is to teach the skills using different modalities: reading, discussion, small group work, watching and analysing a video in relation to skills, or doing a practical activity to reinforce the skills – sometimes in the form of a group work activity, mindfulness activity, a game or making a sensory tool.

“Also known as DBT (dialectical behaviour therapy) skills in schools – the DBT STEPS-A programme teaches students good life skills to cope with whatever life throws at them,” says Kirstin O’Connor, STEPS-A acting team lead, Child Youth and Family Mental Health Services, Te Whatu Ora, Waitematā.

“It’s a 30-week programme, run for an hour per week in schools alongside two of our STEPS-A coaches and at least two staff who may be school nurses, guidance counsellors, deans, senior leaders, classroom teachers or SENCOs. We’re supporting them to feel comfortable in running the programme after that 30 weeks,” she explains.

A STEPS-A manual.

A STEPS-A manual.

The team is mindful of the need to ensure the programme is culturally appropriate. There is a broad mix of cultures within staff and students, and recruitment is currently underway to appoint a cultural advisor. Auckland University of Technology (AUT) will be reviewing the project and part of this evaluation will look at cultural support and where adaptations may be needed to ensure it’s culturally sustaining.

“As we are in the pilot phase, our delivery team is working closely with schools and teachers to adapt and ensure the programme meets the needs of students in each group,” says Kirstin.

Encouraging results

Kirstin says partnership with teachers has been good for early intervention.

“We obviously have a relationship with schools, but that’s at the end when a student is really unwell. So it’s nice to have relationships with the schools being built earlier on,” she says.

The programme has been adapted for intermediate schools due to an increase in young people presenting with difficulties.

An initial trial at Murray’s Bay Intermediate in 2020 was very successful, with Kirstin saying, “Findings from this trial showed a reduction in the time students required from school staff, enabled students to better manage their emotions and behaviours, and improved their ability to learn, while also reducing office referrals and disciplinary action.”

These results mirror those found in clinical trials in Ireland and North America where participants reported significant reductions on overall emotional distress scores when compared to peer controls.

Tools and strategies

Devon Hiley is a Year 7/8 teacher at Massey Primary School and jumped at the chance to be involved.

Akonga made a small sensory pouch with different objects and shampoo: a sensory item to take home which incorporates touch, vision, smell and is a self soothing fidget item.

Akonga made a small sensory pouch with different objects and shampoo: a sensory item to take home which incorporates touch, vision, smell and is a self soothing fidget item.

“After Covid, every school will identify that anxiety is so much higher across Aotearoa. If the programme only works for one of the students in that group, then that child has skills they can pass on to others,” she says.

Alongside programme facilitators Susannah Limbrick and Lauren Glass, Devon is a familiar face for the 13 students who have been handpicked from across the Year 7 and 8 cohort.

“There’s a mixture of some students who have gaps in their ability to emotionally regulate in any high emotion environment, as well as some of our future leaders who need help managing the stress and anxiety that comes with those roles.

“We have students that come from very tough backgrounds. We think it’s important to give them some tools and strategies to draw on. It’s early days still, but we do see them drawing on it a bit. But also, the parents love getting the emails I send each week – they’re all really on board.”

Huge progress

Devon says her role is to observe, take plenty of notes and act as a communicator between the facilitators and parents.

“I send an overview home each week of what we have done because some of it can be quite heavy stuff for the students, so the families have an idea what we’ve talked about and also can relate back to it at home, reinforcing the learning.”

While the students were initially nervous, she says that apart from illness, not one student has missed a session.

“I’ve seen the direct use of the skills in class. At this age little incidents happen – and I’ve been able to say, ‘How are we dealing with this? Are we making it bigger, are we making it smaller?’ At the moment, it’s getting them to see how they can use it and it takes time.

“The teachers get the notes from me, and they are able to say, ‘Hey, are we using our logical brain, or our emotional brain? How do you think we’ve dealt with this? In future how do you think we could deal with this?’

“I was so proud – one of my girls came in at the end of the holidays and said, ‘I had a right tantrum in the holidays. But then afterwards I was so annoyed with myself because I was in my emotion mind and not in my wise mind.’ The fact she’s using the language we use in the course is amazing.”

An exercise to observe how encouraging thoughts can help manage uncomfortable emotions and sensations.

An exercise to observe how encouraging thoughts can help manage uncomfortable emotions and sensations.

Changing mindset

Next year Devon hopes to run the programme with her class, as well as training and supporting colleagues.

“All children would benefit from this. That is the reason I am learning as well, so that I can take it next year.

“Last week we were doing art and one of the skills we had been learning was around observations and judgements; so rather than saying ‘I hate my artwork’, we took that opportunity to explain that it’s a mindset thing and finding an opportunity to find a different perspective.

“That’s a tiny little lesson from the whole programme, but if one of the students in my class takes that on, they’re benefiting from this course as well and that’s so important,” says Devon.

Cascade of consequences

Kirstin says the programme has been adapted for adolescents from the skills training programme in Dialectal Behaviour Therapy (DBT) developed by Dr Marsha Linehan, a professor at the University of Washington.

“We’re getting feedback from parents that some of the students are less angry, more engaged and able to cope with the everyday difficulties of being a preteen. For example they’re not getting involved in fights – where they might have previously been involved in a physical altercation.

“The success has been in allowing students the space to step back and think about that cascade of consequences that might happen if they behave in an unskillful way,” she says.

The intermediate school’s mahi is mid-trial, but some testing was done at 15 weeks, half way through the programme, and Kirstin says the data shows that coping skills have improved.

“We do five psychometric tests with students at the start of the programme to get a base line level. We look at their coping skills before the programme and we do another one at the end of the programme to understand if there has been an impact. We’ll have a lot more information at the end of term 2.”

It is also hoped the programme will help students who are being bullied.

“These days if bullying is happening there isn’t a separation between home and school – it can happen 24/7 and so there’s no separation and ability to process something that happened at school.

“So if you are someone who is vulnerable, or doesn’t have good coping skills and are being bombarded, it’s going to be much harder to make a good decision. The hope is that these skills are going to support young people to feel like they have a bit more of a kete – an array of things to draw from,” says Kirstin.

The STEPS-A team, Lauren Glass, Susannah Limbrick and Kristin O’Connor, with teacher Devon Hiley (back) at Massey Primary School.

The STEPS-A team, Lauren Glass, Susannah Limbrick and Kristin O’Connor, with teacher Devon Hiley (back) at Massey Primary School.


More on DBT

DBT in schools(external link) 

DBT website(external link) 

DBT NZ training(external link) 

Search DBT RU on Youtube

Instagram DBT in Schools(external link) 

What ākonga and whānau are saying

Ākonga voice

What do you like most about being part of the STEPS-A programme?

It teaches us how to control our emotions. Learning how to manage myself and emotions better. Mienki, 12

Having friends in the course makes it more fun. Charlotte, 12

It helps us to control our emotions in different ways, so we don’t get overwhelmed. Bella, 12

What are some of the key things you have learned?

If someone mocks us, we know how to deal with it instead of reacting in a bad way. We learned about the three minds: wise mind, emotion mind and reasonable mind. We want to make decisions when we are in our wise mind so that we think of other people’s feelings and what consequence our actions might have. Bella

Lauren Glass with Year 8 student Charlotte.

Lauren Glass with Year 8 student Charlotte.

Identifying which mindset I am in: wise, reasonable or emotional and trying to change it. Also, how to distract myself when I am in distress. Charlotte

Wise mind – what it is and how to get to it from reasonable and emotion mind. Mienki

Do you think the things you are learning will help you in life?

It will help me deal with complicated situations that I wouldn’t know how to deal with without the course. I can deal with problems in a more responsible way. Mienki

Everything we have learned so far teaches us how to cope with how we feel and how to avoid actions and words we might regret when we are mad. Charlotte

The strategies and skills might help us to take risks and step outside of our comfort zone. Bella

Whānau voice

Why did you think this programme would benefit your child?

I thought this programme would benefit my child because I know how much it has helped me as an adult. I would have loved to have learned these skills much earlier in life, and I believe everyone could benefit from a course in DBT.

Have you noticed any changes in your child? If so, can you give an example?

I think my son is still settling into the course. However, recently, after a series of conflicts between him and his siblings, he was able to mindfully reflect on his attitude and state of mind and how this may have contributed to the conflict. He was then able to think about ways to work through those emotions without making the situation worse for himself or others. 

Well Foundation, the official charity for North Shore and Waitakere Hospitals, continues to actively fundraise to support the roll out of the STEPS-A programme to intermediate schools in North and West Auckland.

To find out more visit www.wellfoundation.org.nz(external link).

Making sensory pouches was a fun and meaningful activity as part of the STEPS-A programme at Massey Primary School.

Making sensory pouches was a fun and meaningful activity as part of the STEPS-A programme at Massey Primary School.

Positive learning environments

Ākonga learn best in positive environments that nurture their social, emotional, and cognitive skills, and in which they are free from bullying and discrimination.

Social, Emotional Learning (SEL)

Social & Emotional Learning (SEL) enhances students’ capacity to integrate skills, attitudes, and behaviours so they can deal effectively with daily tasks and challenges – it is most effective when it is part of daily classroom life.

Approaches to support the social and emotional development of ākonga look like:

Using modeling and coaching to help ākonga recognise how they feel or how someone else might be feeling.

Teaching ākonga to use conflict-resolution skills and use dialogue to guide them through the steps to help them apply a skill in a new situation.

Practising group decision making and setting classroom rules in class meetings.

Teaching cooperative skills and plan to practise these through participation in team sports and games.

Supporting the development of problem-solving skills by analysing an event (this can be in any curriculum area) through a set of questions based on a problem-solving model.

Taking a tuakana-teina approach, in which a younger student is paired with an older one to teach, to build self-confidence, a sense of belonging, and enhance academic skills.

Teaching reflective listening with ākonga working with a partner to describe a situation and having the partner repeat what they heard.

By using the elements of SEL, teachers can help ākonga realise their potential through mana-enhancing, socially located and culturally sustaining ways.

Small ripples create big waves

The Bullying-Free NZ Week (BFNZ Week) is an annual event that usually takes place in May, culminating in the Mental Health Foundation’s Pink Shirt Day – which was on 19 May in 2023.

He kōtuinga mahi iti, he hua pai-ā rau. BFNZ Week is about small ripples creating big waves, and aims to raise awareness of how to prevent and respond to bullying in schools. The week provides an opportunity for schools to highlight their everyday work and focus on bullying prevention and awareness with students, staff, parents and whānau, and the whole school community.

Education Gazette would love to see how your early learning service, school or kura marked BFNZ Week and Pink Shirt Day! Send your photos to gazette@education.govt.nz.

More information about Bullying-Free NZ can be found at bullyingfree.nz(external link).

Further resources

Learn more about Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)(external link).

InsideOUT(external link) Kōaro has developed a range of resources for schools that can be downloaded digitally or ordered as physical copies. 

The Positive Behaviour for Learning School-Wide(external link) framework helps schools build a culture where positive behaviour and learning is a way of life. 

Ata(external link) is a collection of cards and activities for teaching and learning social and emotional skills, knowledge and strategies.  

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero, reporter@edgazette.govt.nz

Posted: 8:49 am, 1 June 2023

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