Inclusive cultures and pastoral care help students reach full potential

Issue: Volume 98, Number 12

Posted: 22 July 2019
Reference #: 1H9w6h

Guidance counsellors in Otago schools are using a range of initiatives, such as mindfulness exercises and peer support, to encourage students to be inclusive, socially confident and build positive relationships with each other.

Positive inclusion messages are emphasised and pastoral care and mentoring systems offered, to help students develop a sense of personal wellbeing in support of them reaching their full potential. 


At St Hilda’s Collegiate, students do mindfulness exercises to calm and focus themselves. The school’s guidance counsellor, Marcelle Nader-Turner, a neuropsychotherapy practitioner, has integrated mindfulness practice into the school by training staff, students and parents. 

“Our mindfulness programme has been implemented through extensive professional development with staff on how the brain works and why mindfulness and self-compassion are so important. This has been transferred to the girls and includes anything from focussing on the breath and noticing and naming sounds, to eating mindfully and being aware of the body,” she says. 

Marcelle monitors wellbeing and the effectiveness of mindfulness practice on lowering stress and anxiety. “We have noticed an enormous increase in girls struggling with anxiety.” she says. 

”Mindful self-compassion is an extremely powerful tool, where the act of showing ourselves loving kindness in the face of failure, shame or distress, helps us to soothe our inner critic and give us the opportunity to try again and feel connected in our humanness. To be human is to suffer at times and none of us are alone with that.”

Students and teachers at St Hilda’s report that students are now better at regulating their emotions when feeling anxious. 

Year 13 student, Harriet Jolly, is a member of the school’s wellbeing club and has found mindfulness very helpful: “We start periods one and three with an exercise and it really helps to calm our busy minds and improve our attention. A lot of girls transfer this knowledge to other areas of their life, like competitive sports, public speaking, exams and daily stressful life events or moments of anxiety.”

Wellbeing pop-ups

In 2018, Logan Park High School’s homework logbook was transformed into a wellbeing planner for every student. An introduction outlined how the brain and learning can be maximised by wellbeing practice. 

An end-of-year survey showed that only five percent of students had found the information, advice and activities in the planner helpful, says guidance counsellor Judy Buckingham.  

“This led to exploring other ways of connecting young people with information and support for wellbeing,” she says  “Last year we began a pilot scheme - ‘bites of wellbeing’ – fifteen- minute ‘pop up’ lessons aimed at supporting students to gain knowledge of mental health, human development, neuroscience and emotion, and topical issues related to wellbeing. 

“Early data reflects that more than ninety percent of students consider pop up wellbeing bites are a good idea. More than ninety nine percent would like to see more, and requests for topics continue to expand; from stress, exam planning, worry, mindfulness, to the power of the mind, anger, friendship. 

Overwhelmingly students are asking for strategies and tactics to navigate the challenges they experience,” Judy says.

Building an inclusive culture 

At the beginning of 2018, Mosgiel’s Taieri College began a two-year wellbeing campaign, challenging exclusion behaviours and promoting hauora (wellbeing).
Each week, the school counsellors have presented themes such as technology use and sleep hygiene, a ‘random acts of kindness’ week, a rainbow week and cultural inclusion - saying ‘hello’ in another language. 

The school identified that verbal putdowns distressed students, and started weekly message bulletins encouraging kindness and acceptance of difference - ethnic, sexuality or other. School counsellor Jean Andrews says that as a result, the school has seen fewer incidents of verbal putdowns and bullying. 

A restorative process has been embedded in the school. “If students want intervention in a situation which is upsetting them, we can get them together and the victim can say how he or she feels. We have found this works with about eighty percent of students and it creates a more restorative culture than a punitive one,” says Jean.

A group for LBGTI+ youth was set up by, and for, students questioning their sexuality or gender, which has helped to empower these students. The group meets regularly to support each other and talk about issues. 

“Our young leaders got up at assembly at the start of this year and invited young people questioning sexuality or gender to join the group. I felt that was a really strong thing to do and there wasn’t a ripple. It shows there’s quite a shift in the school culture towards accepting diverse sexuality and people,” says Jean.

Head guidance counsellor Diana Leonard says that focusing on inclusive practices and strengthening active bystander intervention helps minimise behaviours which can create anxiety and mental health challenges for students. 

“Since last year’s campaign began, there has been a noted shift in the way students interact with each other. They use more inclusive language and are more pro-active to challenge exclusion behaviours.” Students are willing to be more involved in actions that promote diversity, she says.

“This year, we have continued to build on what was started last year. While it is difficult to measure effectiveness, we notice a more tolerant school culture, with increased ability by staff and students to manage conflict,” says Jean who is also Otago/Southland representative for the New Zealand Association of Counsellors. 

Anxiety and mindfulness

Anxiety keeps us alive with the amygdala part of the brain acting like a fire alarm system which alerts us to danger and makes sure we can run away or fight in a situation of danger. Our brains haven’t changed at all since our cave ancestors, but our environments have changed dramatically. 

A growing body of evidence shows that mindfulness and self-compassion may contribute to the growth and optimal functioning of the rational thinking part of the brain. 

“Children and young people now live with heightened stress and anxiety. Where is the time sitting, contemplating, feeling the emotions of the day and talking them through with people face to face? So many young people have their weeks full to the brim with extra-curricular activities, NCEA assessments and social media conversations. There’s no down time, or time to practise sitting with uncomfortable thoughts and feelings,” Marcelle Nader-Turner says.

“While relaxation is the act of melting into a comfortable situation such as taking a bath or reading a book in front of the fire, mindfulness is not necessarily about feeling relaxed. The aim of mindfulness is to observe and notice all thoughts, feelings and sensations, with a non -judgemental curiosity. Difficult and distressing feelings are allowed to be present and given space.”

Wellbeing check in

South Otago High School guidance counsellor Cath Bloxham runs a ‘wellbeing check-in’, supported by health professionals, at the start of each year. This gives Year 9 students an opportunity to talk about their concerns with Year 13 peer support leaders in a safe environment. The year 13 leaders get training before they undertake this role.

What students think

I enjoyed peer support in term one of year thirteen because it was my way of making the year nines feel comfortable. This means a lot for me because I myself get very scared when I start something new. It made me use my leadership skills while organising the year nines and this was good for me because I am not normally a leader. I think it is valuable for the year nines because it gives them a jump start and tells them there is nothing to be scared of when starting a new school. Brodie, year 13

With peer support I found it beneficial as it helped improve leadership roles. It allowed you to interact with people who you usually wouldn’t and gave you a chance to be that senior leader. I enjoyed the activities as they involved everyone and by the end of the term you could see the change within the juniors. They weren’t just sitting there awkwardly as they had at the beginning, they were contributing more and were more of a team. Dakota, year 13

I enjoyed going to peer support because it encouraged me to get involved and get to know other students better. I really enjoyed the games that we played. Jess, year 9

I got to meet year thirteen students that I didn’t know, they were nice to us and always kept us informed about what was happening around the school. I have made new friends in my peer support group. Chris, year 9.

Resources for guidance counsellors 

The Ministry of Education has a range of online resources for guidance counsellors including: 

Wellbeing survey

Schools are encouraged to gather data so they can understand how effective their efforts are to provide safe and caring environments for their learning community. 

The Wellbeing@School survey toolkit(external link) is free to all NZ Schools and gives an in-depth look at the way students and teachers experience school, and how well school systems support a positive school climate. 

The online surveys enable schools to gather anonymous information from students and teachers around a range of wellbeing indicators (e.g. feelings of belonging and safety). 

Schools can register to use the surveys(external link).

Resources for inclusive practices

The Ministry’s Inclusive Education Guidelines are a practical guide to help teachers and educational leaders recognise and meet the learning and wellbeing needs of diverse learners.

The 26 titles include:

  • LGBTQIA+ Students
  • Dyslexia and learning
  • FASD and learning
  • Assistive technology
  • Curriculum accessibility
  • Positive peer relationships

Inclusive practices self-review tools are available at the Wellbeing@School(external link) website. They provide support to build inclusive practices for all students, focus on students needing additional learning support, and inclusive practices for next steps including an action plan and review process resources. 

Strengthening wellbeing guide 

The Ministry of Education’s downloadable guide Te Pakiaka Tangata: Strengthening Student Wellbeing for Success(external link) aims to help secondary schools and wharekura provide good pastoral care, and guidance counselling.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 8:34 AM, 22 July 2019

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