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The positivity program that’s helping Aussie kids help themselves

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Aussie Optimism is a series of school-based programs improving the mental health of children and pre-adolescents around Western Australia. Developed by Curtin University Associate Professor Clare Roberts, Associate Professor Rosanna Rooney and Dr Robert Kane, the evidence-based, universal program aims to promote children’s mental wellbeing and prevent depression and anxiety, which are ranked as the leading causes of the non-fatal burden of disease worldwide.

For one hour a week for a school term, children in years 1-8 work with their teacher to learn how to identify their feelings, evaluate their thoughts more accurately, empathise with their classmates and develop positive coping, social and self-awareness skills. Aussie Optimism develops children’s emotional and mental resilience, preparing them to meet the challenges and stresses of life, such as peer pressure, changing friendships, the transition to high school and the changes that come with adolescence.

Aussie Optimism consists of four developmentally appropriate programs: Feelings and Friends for students in years 1 to 3, Positive Thinking Skills for students in year 4, Social Life Skills for students in year 5 to 6 and Optimistic Thinking Skills for students in year 8. It also offers a family-based program aimed at parents of children making the transition to high school.

Teachers who wish to deliver Aussie Optimism programs in their classrooms attend a one-day training workshop at Curtin University or selected locations around WA. The programs are founded on theories of learned helplessness and positive psychology  and focus on developing competencies in children rather than alleviating problems.

“Say a child fails a maths test – they might think it means they’re stupid and it’s the end of the world, but Aussie Optimism teaches them to look for evidence about other things they might be good at, or reasons why they failed, such as they didn’t study, and encourages them to look at what else they have going for them in their life,” explains Rooney.

“It’s helping children to reappraise things in a more accurate and usually more positive manner.”

Between 2011 and 2016, 23,951 students took part in Aussie Optimism programs, with an average of 3,992 students accessing the programs each year. During the same time period, 1,284 teachers delivered Aussie Optimism programs in their classrooms.

The program was mapped to the Australian Curriculum Health and Physical Education syllabus in 2013 and is one of four ‘whole school approach’ programs recommended by the Department of Education.

The program is also endorsed by Mind Matters, a mental health initiative by Beyond Blue; Kids Matter, a national mental health and wellbeing framework; and YouthCare, a state-based chaplaincy service.

Roberts and Kane first delivered Aussie Optimism to schools in 1997 in response to a growing need to address the prevalence of depression and anxiety in young children.

“Universal prevention interventions are aimed at the general public who have not been screened for any risk factors. These programs enable all children, particularly those with anxiety and depression, to access intervention without the social stigma that is sometimes associated with undergoing treatment, and also enables the prevention of anxiety and depression in those children who have yet to develop internalising symptoms,” explains Rooney.

“Other advantages of universal programs are: they save the cost of screening, they offer help to a large number of people, and they offer help to children who are unwilling or unable to access traditional treatment.

“Before Aussie Optimism, there was nothing being run in Western Australia on a universal scale, so the program addresses that gap.”

Aussie Optimism is based on extensive research conducted by Roberts, Rooney and Kane from the late 1990s onwards into universal mental health promotion programs. Roberts ran a number of program pilots in metropolitan and regional schools throughout Western Australia, and the promising results of this early research saw the program first embedded in schools in 1997.

In 2011, Rooney led a team that received a $340,000 State Government Healthway grant. In 2013, following the retirement of Roberts, Rooney co-led a team with Kane that received a $1.14 million State Government Mental Health Commission grant. The cumulative funding enabled further evolution of Aussie Optimism programs and dissemination into additional public and private schools around Western Australia. It also enabled the researchers to conduct follow-up studies of students who participated in earlier trials to evaluate the efficacy of the programs over the long-term.

Findings indicate that Aussie Optimism reduces anxiety and depression symptoms and disorders, reduces suicidality, and increases family functioning, social skills and mental health in young children and pre-adolescents.

“This program is helping students understand their thinking style and giving them the knowledge to be able to change their thinking. I remember a conversation with a parent whose daughter was working through some issues. Her brother encouraged her to change her thinking through practical ways he had learned in Aussie Optimism. It’s encouraging to see the effect the course is having in a larger sense,”

Jenny Palandri, YouthCARE chaplain, 2016

 “I enjoyed doing Aussie Optimism because I learned how to pause and take a breath before saying something so that it wouldn’t come out the wrong way. It helped me realise how other people are feeling. This is really helpful now I am Faction Captain because I have to teach sports skills to the pre-primary children and I want to make my lesson fun and happy.”

Elysse Shore, Willetton Primary School, 2018

Aussie Optimism was awarded Curtin University’s Division of Health Sciences’ Research Group of the Year in 2004, Suicide Prevention Australia’s LIFE Award in the Youth Category in 2008 and was shortlisted for the Mental Health Commission Good Outcomes Awards in 2013.

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