Four ways to strengthen the help-seeking culture within your school

Jo Wiese

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“We can’t help everyone, but everyone can help someone.”
Ronald Reagan.
 
Imagine for a moment you were asked to write an acknowledgements section as a footnote to your life right up to now. Who would you thank for their help and support along your life’s journey? Your parents? Your partner? Your Year 2 teacher? Your counsellor?

Would it be a long list?

Professor Barbara Fredrickson wrote at the end of her book Positivity, “here’s my opportunity to voice my appreciation for those who’ve helped me along the way. Although I take full responsibility for the ideas in this book, science – like life itself – is always a communal endeavour.” (Fredrickson, 2009, p 267).

Your students may be taught skills like gratitude, building positive relationships and mindfulness that help them to connect to the idea that many people have contributed to their life and that in fact life is a ‘communal endeavour’. They may also be given opportunities to ‘give’ to others and thereby discover the wellbeing benefits of giving and helping others. However, I wonder if you or your students feel as comfortable asking for help as you feel offering help?
 
Research shows that four out of five Australian teenagers believe their peers may not seek support for depression or anxiety due to concerns about what others will think of them (Beyondblue, 2015).
 
What stops us from asking for help? Maybe we would happily ask for help from some people or in some settings but not others. Do we think we will be seen as weak? Help-seeking is a complex social skill that is influenced by many factors and requires vulnerability. The factors influencing our decision to seek help possibly include: our judgements and beliefs about ourselves, our relationships and our environment or context (Chan, 2013).
 
We know from research that help-seeking is an active coping strategy which can help prevent and treat emotional problems (Gulliver, Griffiths & Christensen, 2010). It can lead to greater engagement and is positively associated with long-term mastery and autonomous learning (Newman, 2002). We also know that those of us with a growth mindset believe that our talents and abilities can be developed through hard work, good strategies and with help from others (Dweck, 2017). But where do we start to build and enhance these growth-oriented skills within our students and staff?
 
In her new book Contextual Wellbeing, Positive Schools Initiative founder, Dr Helen Street reminds us that we need to move beyond just teaching our students what they must do for their wellbeing and look to the social context of our school and ask ourselves; “how can we create a social context that better supports young people’s mental health and wellbeing in schools?” (Street, 2018, p 29). She suggests that creating a positive school context involves looking closely at factors such as the relationships in our school, the social norms and the policies and practices that guide the attitudes and behaviour within the school culture. She reminds us that “we do things because they are ‘the norm’, not because someone tells us that doing something is a great idea.” (Street, 2018, p 89).
 
Educating your students and staff about the importance of asking for help (using strategies like R U OK? Day and Mental Health Week) is vital, but it’s equally important to create a culture within your school where help-seeking is the ‘norm’.
 
To actively and openly create and nurture the ‘norm’ of help-seeking within your school culture, I invite you to consider the following strategies:

  1. Walk the talk: Model ‘help-seeking’ to students and staff, show them some vulnerability and actively and openly ask them for help.

  2. Give students and staff a voice: Hold focus groups with students and staff to get feedback on the current cultural ‘norm’ about help-seeking and collaboratively develop ways to establish a new ‘norm’.

  3. Inquire Appreciatively: Use Appreciative Inquiry as a tool to highlight ways in which help-seeking is already an embedded ‘norm’ within your school and work towards strengthening this.

  4. Create a culture of generosity: Use the Reciprocity Ring exercise to create a culture where the natural impulse to help can be cultivated and supported.

Growing up, my Dad had a saying; “It never hurts to ask.” Over the years I embodied this belief and now, bringing up my own three children, I have created a ‘norm’ within the culture of my own family that ‘it never hurts to ask.’ This phrase and ‘motto’ gives us permission to fail; permission for us to not receive a ‘yes’ and permission to try again. My children have seen me model this over and over again, and now as teenagers I see them asking for help, possibly saying this mantra silently in their head.

Strengthening your positive school culture begins somewhere. Remember those people on your acknowledgements section of your life so far? All those people who gave you help and support; some you asked, some you didn’t. There is always someone willing to help. Remember – it never hurts to ask.

Resources:

Contextual Wellbeing

Appreciative Inquiry

Reciprocity Ring 

References:

Beyondblue. (2015). New campaign will help young Australians realise their brains can ‘have a mind of their own.

Chan, M. E. (2013). Antecedents of instrumental interpersonal help-seeking: An integrative review. Applied Psychology, 62, 571-596.

Dweck, C. S. (2017). Mindset. London: Robinson, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group.

Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Top-notch research reveals the 3-to-1 ratio that will change your life. New York: Three Rivers Press.

Gulliver, Amelia & Griffiths, Kathleen & Christensen, Helen. (2010). Perceived Barriers and Facilitators to Mental Health Help-Seeking in Young People: A Systematic Review. BMC psychiatry. 

Newman, R.S., (2002) How Self-Regulated Learners Cope with Academic Difficulty: The Role of Adaptive Help Seeking, Theory Into Practice, 41:2, 132-138,

Sawyer, M.G., Arney, F.M., Baghurst, P.A., Clark, J.J., Graetz, B.W., Kosky, R.J., Nurcombe, B., Patton, G.C., Prior, M.R., Raphael, B., Rey, J.M., Whaites, L.C. and Zubrick, S.R. (2001) The Mental Health of Young People in Australia: Key Findings from the Child and Adolescent Component of the National Survey of Mental Health and Well-Being. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 35, 806-814. 

Street, Dr. H. (2018). Contextual Wellbeing: Creative Positive Schools from the Inside Out. Subiaco, WA: Wise Solutions Pty Ltd.

 
Jo Wiese
Jo Wiese

Jo Wiese is an Associate Trainer for the Institute of Positive Education. She is a registered Psychologist and trained teacher, and developed a passion for Positive Psychology and Positive Education while working for 17 years as a School Psychologist.