Why 'cotton-wool' parenting doesn't work – and what WA students actually need

The biggest problem principals worry about isn’t anything to do with education – it’s the mental health of the students trusted to their care.

And that concern for students’ mental health stems from their inability to be resilient and adaptable to setbacks in an era of ‘cotton-wool’ parenting, according to local education experts.

WA Secondary School Executives Association president Armando Giglia said there was a connection between students’ lack of resilience and mental health concerns such as severe anxiety.

“Unfortunately we’re seeing kids across the country not being able to adapt to things, they aren’t resilient, they can’t take a knock-back and it ends up with a number of students who eventually take their own lives because they are so anxious and they can’t get away from things,” he said ahead of the WACE and ATAR scores being released on Thursday.

Mr Giglia said students often faced adversity and could get to the point where they couldn't see that the sun would come up tomorrow.

“That’s a sad thing and that’s when they go into despair,” he said.

“That’s why we lose so many young people who are taking their own lives.”

According to support service Helping Minds, about 50 per cent of mental health conditions occurred before children turned 14; almost 75 per cent by the age of 25.

“Given these statistics, there needs to be a focus on building resilience from birth to reduce the risk of future mental health problems,” its website reads.

Helping Minds advises there are four main areas of developing resilience in young children, including to build, strengthen and promote supportive relationships; focus on autonomy and responsibility; create opportunities for personal challenge; and focus on managing emotions.

"We can not take away the risk and vulnerability from every student’s life but we can equip them with good education."

WA Primary Principals’ Association president Ian Anderson said children gained resilience learning from their mistakes and could be helped by an adult, but warned ‘cotton-wool’ parenting took that power away.

“If a parent (or adult) always steps in and solves all issues, then the child won’t have the experiences to learn from,” he said.

“A serious problem, however, should always be shared with a trusted adult, as no child should have to deal with these on their own. It is how the parent or adult deals with the problem which is important.”

Mr Anderson said often tests, competitions and setbacks created resilience – but it all depended on the context.

“If a great deal is made of the significance of the task, or the test is what we refer to as ‘high stakes' testing, children can be adversely impacted, as generally they want to please and this can create too much – or negative – pressure,” he said.

“However, learning that you don’t necessarily always win is good training to build resilience.

“To have a go is something we teach and encourage in schools. A mistake or error is a teaching and learning opportunity. If, however, we keep subjecting a child to tests that they are going to fail, we are teaching the child that they are not very good and the repeated failures confirm this.”

Mr Giglia said the transition from primary to high school was an important life change that called for resilience and adaptability and often pushed students out of their comfort zone.

“It’s a completely different setup when students go from a safe environment at primary school with a couple of teachers to high school where they have subject specialists and have to change classrooms and teachers every hour or so,” he said.

“There’s a point where they have to get used to that.”

Department of Education director general Lisa Rodgers, at the launch of the department’s new five-year strategic plan, said the primary-to-secondary transition was reflected in test results.

“Children go into secondary, and as a result of a whole range of factors ... you do tend to see a drop-off in regards to academic results; we see that in NAPLAN Year 7 results,” she said.

“Our NAPLAN Year 9 results are really very high across Australia so they pick up the pace once they’ve transitioned but what I’d like to see is that we don’t have that transition at Year 7 and we don't have a drop off in terms of academic results at Year 7.”

Ms Rodgers said the department's five-year plan aimed to support that transition as best it could and provide students with more capabilities than purely an education.

“Being able to turn up every single day at school, be able to settle and have friends, those are really important capabilities,” she said.

“There’s no silver bullet in life but education is the silver-est bullet I’ve ever seen in terms of preparing kids to be able to adapt or respond to the challenges that they have in their lives.

“We can not take away the challenges that they have in their lives, we can not take away the risk and vulnerability from every student’s life, but we can equip them with good education.”

WA Council of State School Organisations president Pania Turner said resilience was developed over time and when a student lacked resilience in one area it didn't mean they didn't have the skills to be resilient in another.


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