A FEW months ago I wrote about my sister's descent into psychosis and eventually homicide.
I wrote about how we had tried to get her help at hospitals and psychiatric wards and rehabs, but were told again and again that we would have to manage the situation at home.
Anna's experience opened my eyes to the shocking inadequacies of the Victorian mental health system. But the truth is my sister needed help long before she was suicidal; long before she was turned away from hospital after hospital.
As a kid, she couldn't keep a friend. Her wry jokes and imaginative musings on slaters were charming to us, but to classmates, she was just weird. Once in a while she'd manage to snag a wide-eyed newcomer, but they'd soon realise that Anna liked to talk a lot more than she liked to listen. Most of her 'friendships' spanned weeks, if that.
At the time we held out hope that she would figure it out - that this would be the year she would finally discover her place. But that didn't happen, and with each new rejection she was falling deeper into a world of mental illness that her young mind couldn't possibly begin to understand.
We should have realised that social isolation in childhood is a key factor in predicting adult mental illness. We should have realised that Anna was showing signs of depression and anxiety; that she desperately needed support or intervention.
Instead Mum and Dad did everything they could to keep her happy at home: buying her pets and toys and excusing bad behaviour.
Far from thwarting mental illness, our efforts helped to cement a cycle of reliance on instant gratification which Anna still battles now.
A train had been set in motion and neither my parents nor I had any idea where the break was. Ingrid Howell, a paediatric speech pathologist, explains: "Lack of social skills causes kids to view themselves as different and shield themselves from exclusion. If not addressed, they can act out, make poor choices, or fall in with the wrong crowd."
These factors can compound on one another, creating a vicious cycle of poor self-esteem, mental illness and bad decisions. We should have done better. The school should have done better.
Do you remember your first day at university? Or a new job? A party where you hovered awkwardly by the chip bowl, anxiety rising in your throat as you scanned the mingling guests for friends? Being left out is horrible. Social isolation, especially in children, is unacceptable.
So what are we doing about it?
"We try our best to look after students who have trouble making friends," says Adam, a grade 6 teacher, "but we probably spend 1-2 hours a week on it at best. We just don't have the time to give these kids the same level of focus as those who are disrupting lesson time."
Elle, a grade 2 teacher, echoes the sentiment. "In an ideal world, teachers would have the time and resources to be able to individually support students who need it. I often wake up at 3am worrying about my students, how I can help fix any problems they have or assist them with issues they're facing. But between teaching, assessments, curriculum demands,
meetings, professional development and parent relations, I just don't have time to provide enough individual attention."
I ask Adam if isolated kids can access support from aides or therapists. "The funding for in-class aides is complex, and it's not uncommon for a child to miss out by one 'score point'," he said.
Elle agreed and said: "To even get an aide, students have to be on the extreme end of the spectrum, leaving the vast majority of kids who have extra needs unsupported."
There are other services available to kids, such as paediatric occupational therapists, speech pathologists and child psychologists, but Adam explains that "families of students who require these type of services need to organise and pay for them privately."
Do many families do this?
"No. I haven't had students use these services unless their needs were on the extreme end," he said.
So what could we do to better support kids like Anna?
Elle lists a 'trifecta' which she believes to be the gold standard: One: All students with special needs are allocated an aide. Two: Staff are supported with professional development in order to further our knowledge and understanding to support students and their families. Three: Parents respect and listen to the recommendations of teachers.
Both Adam and Elle agree that smaller class sizes would create more time to dedicate to quieter students. But, as Adam points out, one teacher can never do everything: "Upskilling teachers is always beneficial, but another program would just be one more thing to go on the pile of things we need to keep up to date with," he said.
Monica, an early childhood educator and parent to a child on the autism spectrum, said it was important to zoom out and look at the overall social culture of schools.
"Large class sizes make it extremely difficult to create a culture of inclusion and acceptance of difference, because efficiency dictates that students must conform to rigid social rules," she said.
"We need to be supporting teachers and students in whichever way necessary, so that they can foster a culture where difference in kids is not shunned, but celebrated."
There isn't an easy answer, because the problem of isolated kids lies within a complex web of other problems, including overworked teachers, underfunded support services, a conformist social culture, and a hierarchy of needs which places social skills somewhere near the bottom.
You can't begin to tackle one issue without becoming mired in the details of the others.
But that doesn't mean it's OK to put kids like Anna or Monica's son in the too-hard basket. We are a rich, highly developed country. There's no reason why we can't find better ways to support all students and their families.
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