A great example for primary schools

We asked Australian schools who practice child and family-sensitive approaches to share how they successfully support children at school when their parent experiences a mental illness.

Our thanks go to the Woori Yallock Primary School in Victoria for sharing the information below and for setting a terrific example to other school environments.

How one primary school supports children, parents and families where a parent has a mental illness

Tell us about Woori Yallock, and your approach to mental health in the school environment.

‘Woori Yallock Primary School has a student population of 183 with a high Student Family Occupation index, SFO 0.69. This places our school in the top third for disadvantaged schools in the state. Current school policies support school-level protective factors that include a positive climate that fosters relationships, high expectations, excellence in teaching and opportunities for students to meaningfully participate in school activities.

Mental health is recognised as an integral component of school health promotion and educational outcomes. Our policy documents emphasise the need to support students to develop the skills and competencies for managing their personal and social environments, future learning and life in general.

Careful planning and integrating of health promotion actions ensure that programs complement each other and are included in overall strategic planning. As a school we want to build student strengths and encourage the development of as many protective factors as possible to increase our students’ capacities.’

How did you become aware of the needs of children of parents with a mental illness?

‘We became aware of the issues through the Yarra Ranges Child and Youth Strategy of 2014-2024. There was also a needs analysis by SFYS Yarra Ranges that identified this area of mental health as one of the key priority areas. Anecdotal data collected from our teachers identified that over 40% of our parents have a mental illness or mental health problem. This is supported by conversations with parents, by the Wellbeing Team, and the support people we tried to engage with these families.’

What has your school done in response to this?

  • We have built a strong and cohesive Student Wellbeing Team who meet regularly to discuss emerging issues and themes amongst our students and families.
  • We work on making sure our school is a safe environment, supports secure attachments and creates a sense of belonging through social inclusion and participation.
  • We advocate for students and parents to develop the skills to maintain positive relationships, and resilience to social and emotional stressors and triggers.

‘Initially, we addressed these needs on an individual basis. We recognised the number far exceeded our capacity to adequately support these families and even identify their needs in a more targeted manner. We became aware of the impact of the parents’ mental health and the direct effect on their children. We also identified staff knowledge and awareness of these issues and that they would benefit from further education on this topic to help their students. We considered building staff capacity to support students in the classroom where concerns arise there. This is referred onto the Wellbeing Team who respond accordingly.

We became aware of the Supporting Kids in Primary Schools (SKIPs) and Children and Mentally Ill Parents (CHAMPS) programs which deal directly with the issue of mental illness in families, and were very interested as they are evidence-based. Conversations confirmed that this would be a beneficial partnership which would address these key issues and increase our staff’s capacity to best support these students and their parents.’

What does the school do to support children of parents with a mental illness while at school/in the classroom?

‘We encourage parents to communicate closely with the school to enable support to be put in place. If children want to talk, opportunities are there to speak to the Chaplain or Primary Welfare Officer. Wherever possible we aim to keep things as calm and predictable as possible. If the need arises for referral to a service provider (e.g. a psychologist or psychiatrist) we are careful that communication filters down to all adults involved in the student’s support. Regular evaluation and follow-up are also built into this support.’

What do you do to support parents with mental illness and link them (or their families) with services?

‘We are receptive to exploring programs and then we identify whether they will meet the needs of our community and align with our frameworks to integrate in our wellbeing practice. We understand that it’s not just about injecting a program into a school – but we also consider sustainability at all levels. This includes students, parents and staff, as follow-up is critical in achieving the best outcomes for our families.

Over the years we have developed key partnerships with different services that enable our wellbeing objectives to be achieved. The process of linking these parents to other services is often assisted through a referral process in which we support families to access the services and supports that meets their needs. It also helps if strong partnerships have been developed with some of our key agencies and ongoing contact through the years continues. We clearly explain that with the involvement of the right agencies, better outcomes are achieved all round for parents and their children.

It has been our experience that assisting the more vulnerable of our families with the referral often leads to better engagement of that family with service providers, and better future outcomes. When families see and hear us talking with contacts, and because of their trust in us, this then is transferred in a lot of cases to these workers.

So we will tell a family that we will ‘walk them through the process’ and assist them in ‘sharing their story’. Then the task perhaps doesn’t seem so ominous to them. This works far better than just giving a family a phone number and asking them to ring it for help. More often than not, they will walk out of the office and not make contact. Offering personal support with the first contact contributes in many ways to the success that we have with our families. Being able to make recommendations with professionals we ourselves trust is very reassuring to these families.’

What do you do to build other children’s awareness and knowledge of parental mental illness?

‘The SKIPS and CHAMPS programs address this beautifully. The Wellbeing Team then either respond to questions or direct people to websites such as beyondblue, headspaceNo Wrong Door youth service directory. We have number of handouts that we can give as required. We are trying to build a culture in the school where it is okay to talk about mental health.’

What do you do to equip your staff to support families where a parent has a mental illness?

‘We provide our staff with the appropriate knowledge, skills and attitudes to promote mental health. These competencies are supported through professional practices that encourage staff to work together, and to build partnerships with other professionals. We have built into our culture open communication with staff and have found they are comfortable to approach our Wellbeing Team to enquire and debrief or ask questions regarding these issues.

We offer support material and periodically send updates around mental illness and behavioural indicators that may trigger or reassure concerns. Staff email queries and concerns to the Wellbeing Team to either meet to discuss the issues or chat to via email. Confidentiality is always a priority. Once parent/student permission is granted then relevant information is shared to inform staff of the status of the family. Staff always appreciate follow-up communication on these issues.’

What have been some of the challenges for you?

‘Time factors and (periodically) the overwhelming need of our community. Because of their mental illness, many of these parents have issues with trust and the fear of being labelled. Along with the stigma associated with this we have experienced some challenges with engagement and sustaining relationships. Building parent’s trust takes time, but is necessary if we are to engage successfully. A positive thing is that there is a Wellbeing Team here to support and address these challenges. Without this collaboration any success with these families would be minimal. We share this with families so that they are aware that we approach the issue of wellbeing through a team approach.

Along with mental illness and the stigma around it, some parents are resistant and avoid engaging fully with us (or with supported referrals to outside agencies).’

Tell us about some of the successes you’ve experienced, and why you think this is.

‘We have worked directly to establish a safe and trusting environment where parents actively seek us out when they need us. Other parents who have experienced successful and supportive outcomes have actually referred other parents to us. We receive genuine and heartfelt appreciation from parents who are grateful for our support and non-judgemental approach. It’s been great to see parents’ motivation in supporting their children shift and their confidence grow.’

The success stems from the following:

  • ‘The partnerships we have been able to form with local service providers have enhanced the success of these families. Our strength lies in our in-depth knowledge of service systems and agency referral processes.
  • Our Wellbeing Team’s contribution to improvements in policy and service system delivery is driven by our deep understanding of what children and families need to have good mental health and quality of life.
  • Professional Family Case Meetings that are held once a term enable transparency between all stakeholders and help children and families access the support they need.
  • Positive handover and transitions with other schools and welfare agencies.
  • Working collaboratively with a diverse and comprehensive skill set.
  • A strong, stable and consistent workforce has meant that the opportunities are there for positive and trusting relationships to develop.
  • We can actually see the difference our programs are having in building student capacity. Teachers also reflect this.
  • Using evidence-based data for funding applications to enable the implementation of supportive programs.’

What are your plans for continuing or increasing your support for COPMI families?

‘We regularly review our data and the Wellbeing Team collaborate with regular meetings to discuss key issues and families in need. We have a focus on early intervention and prevention and are trying to build this culture into our school framework. We have started a supportive playgroup which provides an ideal setting to build relationships with our parents and encourage appropriate referrals where needed.

Our long-term plan would be to offer appropriate programs across the developmental ranges of our students, ongoing monitoring of families and offering referrals to agencies where needed. Access to local data to inform practice and policy implementation continues to important.’

Have you partnered with any organisations and how did that come about?

‘We have established relationships with key agencies that support our objectives in working with and supporting our school community. We network, collaborate and work with localised service providers who have recommended programs that support our framework. We then identify and are able to match needs with services, knowing we will have greater success.

We are well aware of the limitations of our abilities and we believe in referring families to qualified professionals. These include:

What key resources would you recommend to other schools?

What is your message for other schools?

‘Stay hopeful and remain persistent. Be committed to work from a strong ethos that change in families requires long-term planning to promote healthy outcomes.

Some families may not adopt solution-based thinking. Some parents think that some concerns need to be fixed and are not part of a child’s life experience. Family perception and interpretation of situations creates emotional reactions and guides behaviour. When parents have been involved with our mental health programs they will often tell us how their relationships with their children have changed. Some have been amazed that their child is more affectionate and there is less conflict within their relationship. Their confidence in their ability to parent always increases and their confidence in handling difficult situations changes also. Parents also meet and form relationships with others and feel less isolated and disconnected.

Try to use a ‘strength-based’ approach and encourage parents as much as possible. Also, never give up on your families despite the challenges – persist, persist, persist. Often these families have a history of agencies disengaging, let them know that you are always there and will not give up on them.

Inspire your students. Students need a stabilised mind set in order to learn. Help educate your students to think forward, build their capacity for social and emotional regulation and provide them with help-seeking tools and behaviours. Utilise programs that will encourage students to learn ways to become effective adults.’

Are you happy to be contacted by other schools seeking advice?


Andre Campbell, Primary Welfare Officer, Woori Yallock Primary School, Healesville Rd, Woori Yallock VIC 3139 Ph: 5964 7258 Fax: 03 5964 610 Email: campbell.andre.w@edumail.vic.gov.au

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For use by families where a parent has a mental illness, their supporters, and services who work with them.