In the Spring of 2019 after several months of drought and a dwindling town water supply, a small school in a rural village of the Mid Coast Local Government Area was under threat from a number of massive bushfires as they gained ferocious energy trying to join up. And, like many schools across NSW during the “Black Summer” bushfires, Tinonee Public School had to follow emergency evacuation orders as the fire and flames edged closer to the school grounds which ironically overlooked the mighty, but at that time, depleted Manning River. During that time the school would remain non-operational for four days.
Tinonee Public School is located just a short drive from the major population centre of Taree and this quaint school sits in a beautiful bushland setting abundant with wildlife, including home to the area’s largest population of koalas. In fact, the koalas and the 150 school children share the same learning space giving the children an everyday joyous experience in nature.
In the weeks of November 2019 that natural environment was threatened when the Hillville, Rumba Dump complex, Darawank and Failford road bushfires burnt through the nearby National Parks and State Forests and in their path destroyed a neighbouring school in the tiny village of Bobin, north-west of Wingham as well as hundreds of homes, farms and outbuildings across the Mid Coast.
Since those fires the children of Tinonee Public School have endured the disruption and social isolation of the Covid19 pandemic and a major flood in March of 2021 which also inundated and damaged hundreds of homes, rural properties, businesses and public infrastructure.
Needless to say, the impact on the mental wellbeing of the children, their families and the entire school community from this triple whammy of disasters has been significant.
Karen Austin is the School Principal of Tinonee Public School, a position she has held for the last four years and she’s seen her fair share of challenges on school communities over the length of her 37 year teaching career but none more so than during these last three disaster-ridden years. Tinonee Public School prides itself on its learning foundations of ‘every student being valued and cared for’.
So when an offer from Mission Australia Taree came along in 2021 to take part in a mental wellbeing program based on the three central pillars of Gratitude, Empathy and Mindfulness called The Resilience Project, Karen says she had no qualms at all in providing the students with a support measure that might help cushion the blows a little more and bolster their resilience with some practical tools to help them and their families navigate this ever changing and challenging world.
Mission Australia Taree facilitates Communities for Children programs across the Mid Coast and strengthens this work further with a community-led collective impact initiative known as Mid Coast 4 Kids. In 2021 the organisation was successful in securing funding from the Primary Health Network to run a one-year Community Wellbeing Program as a recovery measure in response to the 2019-20 fires and now the other disasters which have since followed.
The Resilience Project was started by Hugh Van Cuylenburg in 2008, after he spent a few months living and volunteering in the far north of India. In this desert community, there was no running water, no electricity and no beds; everyone slept on the floor of their hut. Despite the fact these people had very little to call their own, Hugh was continually blown away by how happy they were.
It was this experience, and subsequent post graduate studies, that led Hugh to some pretty simple conclusions about the things that we need to be doing here in Australia if we want to be happier.
What he learnt from this village that practicing Gratitude, Empathy and Mindfulness leads us to a happier more fulfilling experience. Once he discovered these three principles were also evidence-based, he decided to share these simple and highly effective wellbeing strategies in a program for schools. Ten years on, he and his Resilience Project team have worked with over 1000 schools.
The Resilience Project was launched at eight schools across the Mid Coast in March this year, including Tinonee Public with a visit from Peter Seehusen, the school Partnership Manager who presented to the children with an animated and funny delivery of stories around what gratitude, empathy and mindfulness looks like in a child’s world. Every child in the school has been given a journal filled with reflection activities based on these three central principles of GEM (gratitude, empathy and mindfulness).
Since the March launch the school’s wellbeing support teacher, Trent Saville has been presenting classes based on The Resilience Program’s lesson plans and activities as well as using the journals. There is a wealth of resources available through the program but some of the simplest are the most effective according to Trent…like the 4/7/8 breathing exercises that get the kids to try shallow, short and sharp breathing and then followed by some reflection activities using their own experience on gratitude with a physical reminder of filling up a bucket with all the good things in their lives.
Karen says she is already seeing the positive results of the program….”the proof is in the pudding and that for me is in the playground where recently I witnessed a group of boys having a bit of an issue and then I watched on as the older boys in the group sorted it out for themselves using empathy and self-regulation.” That Karen says was The Resilience Project in action: “the older boys stepped in and they sorted it out.”
Trent says that he sees everyday how getting the kids to focus on gratitude is making a difference to their perspective, reflecting on their own lives compared to others in the videos they watch and the books they read – comparative examples from overseas where they get to see that “our equipment is not broken, we don’t have to play in the dirt.” He says the meditations are also really making a difference with use of an app called the Smiling Mind. “And whenever I see the kids getting angry or anxious the 4/7/8 breathing exercises really make a difference.” And for Trent it’s close to home with his own son who is also student at his school. “I can hear him say more and more ‘I really appreciate that dad.’ It really is teaching our kids how to look beyond their own blinkers.”
Karen says what she likes about The Resilience Project the most is that it gets the kids in touch with their “soft skills” – feelings and emotions and it gives them a common language, the words to use to identify how they are feeling and why they are reacting in a certain way. “This to me is the big difference: our playgrounds are happier, the older kids are helping the younger kids and the boys are opening up. In just one term we’ve noticed such a difference and we will be continuing with this program even beyond the funding period because we can see what a difference it’s made.”
Tinonee Public School has been embedding this program in all of its school activities and resources, including a regular spot in the school newsletter and using it to leverage off other wellbeing initiatives such as the school’s ‘Three in My Tree’ program that gives every student a nominated three people they feel they can go to going to in times of need. “All of these programs and initiatives work very well together and have created a really settled and positive environment in our school”, says Karen.
Tinonee Public School have been embedding The Resilience Project into their school community, including regular spots in the school newsletter and their SchoolBag App.