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Teaching and learning environments

Teaching and learning that involves exploration of the socio-ecological perspective and involvement in health promotion activities requires a safe, supportive environment. Sensitive and challenging issues may emerge, and students will need to know that they can trust their fellow students and their teachers to support them if they are to engage fully in these learning experiences. Teachers need to be aware of, and to value, the significant role that they can play in their students' learning.

The role of teachers as significant people in the lives of children and adolescents has featured in the literature on resilience for some time. Young people consistently affirm the importance of teachers who convey care, understanding, and respect, show an interest in them, and are prepared to listen and establish safe and trusting relationships. These teachers typically have high expectations, give firm guidance, provide structure and challenge, and have a belief that young people are resourceful and valuable members of society. They also look for strengths and assets as opposed to problems and deficits.

In describing how to be a "turnaround teacher" or mentor, Benard (2000) summarises three crucial protective factors that teachers provide:

  1. They are a point of connection for the young person.
  2. They build competence in young people.
  3. They encourage young people to contribute.

Vance and Sanchez (1998) reiterate the importance of teachers and mentors for students experiencing mental and emotional distress. For young people, these adults can have an intervention role that is an integral part of the mental health system (in addition to the specialist intervention roles offered by community mental health agencies).

Benard (2000) lists the following features present in the classroom of a "turnaround" teacher:

  • Asking questions that encourage self-reflection, critical thinking, and dialogue (especially around salient social and personal issues); making learning more experimental ... ; helping others through community service, peer helping, and cooperative learning; involving students in curriculum planning and giving them choices in their learning experiences; using participatory evaluation strategies; and involving students in creating the governing rules of the classroom. (Note the overlaps between these factors and the 'Characteristics of the models of health education' table.)

Another recurrent feature in the resilience research is an emphasis on the importance of having a successful educational experience overall, in a safe and caring school environment. Schools that help to build students' resilience are those that set high and realistic goals, provide clear and fair boundaries, and offer opportunities for young people to make many connections by becoming involved in worthwhile and valued activities, both curricular and co-curricular. Further useful information on safe environments can be found in New Zealand Schools/Ngā Kura o Aotearoa 2001, Ministry of Education (2002b), pages 32 and 33.