An impassioned plea…

An impassioned plea, by my friend and colleague, Fiona Birkin

I’m sure at some stage in your life, you have watched an impressive demonstration of how, with one flick of a finger, energy can be transferred through a carefully thought out maze of dominos. There is a sense of excitement, wonder and anticipation as we see energy powering its way towards its final, planned and observable action.

It’s interesting how the concept of dominos, the very physics of it, can also be seen in a social context.

Kathryn’s choice to end her life was a cataclysmic bomb blast; the energy was powerful! I mistakenly thought that, with that one monumental ‘flick’, my quest to improve the mental health outcomes for children would just move through the stages like the best demonstration of falling dominos; but  it seems, like many bomb blasts, the energy that flowed through me from Kathryn’s death was erratic, wide spread and quickly dispersed.

My talk at a TeachMeet, my presentation at an international online conference, my chats in the staffroom, my work with a colleague on a Unit of Inquiry that focusses on social emotional learning, my discussions with key leaders in my school were like domino shrapnel; they hit some people, had an emotional effect and then their lives got pulled back into the same old routines.

Not one person has answered my Tweets or responded to my requests at my presentations.

I have asked people to go back to their schools, to reflect on what they are doing to promote social emotional wellbeing. I want to get an understanding of what programs and resources are being used, what and how much professional development is focused on the wellbeing of our children. I want to know just how much understanding there is amongst teachers about the personality disorders that can be ‘nurtured’ in an environment that through an over crowded curriculum and a focus on academics manages to miss/ignore the ‘red flags’. It’s like the dominos hadn’t been placed correctly, there wasn’t a clear discernible path; or the power of that first explosion was too immense to be directed down one path.

So despite the fact that people had told me how they have been moved by my talks, they were not moved into action. I now understand why. For energy to bring about a specific action, there needs to be control and a path to follow. I was in too many pieces. One email, provided that first measured push.

The provocation? An article in The Age; to be specific, the photo of two people wrapped in a grief so intense, it was like seeing the loss of a child by suicide personified. I felt as if someone had journeyed into my soul  and taken a photo of my pain for all the world to see!

I was so moved, felt such a connection, that I wrote to Annette and Stuart. Annette wrote back and told me she had shared my letter with friends who are teachers and with Professor Patrick McGorry, who in turn, has arranged to meet with me.

The painful irony of all this, is that when I was trying to help Kathryn battle her demons and I felt as if no one was giving me the information or help I needed, I read about Professor McGorry and had thought, I’ll write to him, he should be able to give me a straight answer.

I didn’t write.  I felt it would be presumptuous to bother someone so well known for his work and that surely, anything he knew must be known by the mental health professionals I was already dealing with.

Now that Kathryn has lost her battle, here I am, being asked by the very person I shied away from, to meet and talk openly about the state of the mental health system here in Australia; to share Kathryn’s story. In a sad way, it’s like when road works on a dangerous intersection only gets started after there has been a number of fatalities.

I could scream to the heavens, “but why  did one of the fatalities have to be my Kathryn?” But that won’t help me, it won’t keep the dominos falling, falling until all that energy transfers into a bigger more powerful action; a reformation to the way this country thinks about, teaches and responds to mental health.

It is up to me to make sure all the dominoes remain positioned correctly so that the momentum is not lost. I will do this because the world needs to know what Kathryn refused to believe, her life was important, meaningful and treasured. I will take up her baton of love for humanity and I will fight for her.

All I need from you, is answers to the questions I have been asking educators for a year now:

What is your school doing for social emotional learning (SEL)?

What resources do you use?

How much PD do teachers get on social emotional learning?

Do teachers have a clear understanding of the ‘red flags’ that could gradually morph into full blown personality disorders and or depression?

What is your schools protocol when a student is struggling socially and or emotionally?

By Fiona Birkin

17 thoughts on “An impassioned plea…

  1. Hi All – a UK Private school perspective.
    Yes we have to address SEL, and it is core to almost all of our pastoral work.
    4 core values – Responsibility for oneself, Respect for each other, Loyalty to our school and Integrity above all, with a cadence to the latter.
    The Golden Rules (primary) and Key values (Secondary) awards which rise up through the school have the highest value and never get awarded for academic success, but for the way each adheres and promotes our values. All new staff get deep immersion into the KV, and it takes time to switch off from linkage to academic success. I don’t know about Red Flags, but we have independent, confidential counselling available through out the year, and our counsellor is well known and highly respected. We are dealing with some tough issues just now, arising not from school which has become a safe haven but from homes which don’t have the above. Student self-referring and positive adult engagement when role modelling is needed help.
    The most important focus in our school is well-being – all everything is secondary, but works best is an open culture in which we all accept that life is messy.
    I don’t know if this is helpful.


    1. Thanks James for your reply. It’s heartening to know that there are some schools thinking and acting seriously about SEL. Are there any times set aside for explicit teaching of social emotional strategies? What sorts of book resources do you use – even picture story books?


      1. Hi Fiona
        In many ways SEL is embedded across our work. Our key values of Respect, Responsibility, Loyalty and Integrity are still quite new, and our Values award medals (6 of them) cannot be won through achievement, only by being one’s best self. We have an independent school counsellor always in at school, working privately and quietly with our community, and what is interesting to note is just how important such an independent safety valve is. In so many ways, research is showing that children want and deserve private support. Public praise and direct congratulation simply don’t do what people think – in fact in the wrong hands such public demonstrations of approval breed arrogance and superciliousness. I have just witnessed our marketing manager working with a 13 year old technologist as equal; question, answer, check and thanks over a 10 or so minute period. Perhaps what schools need to find for their children is time to work with their teachers. Leading learning is simply not leading teaching – parceling SEL is good at the outset, but the weave and weft of human experience needs to be just that, stitched throughout the school. Just started trialling Think like a learner, and we like it lots.


  2. Hello Fiona,

    I honestly don’t know how to respond to what I read about Kathryn.. I have a 15 year old daughter myself and feel compelled to help you and your mission.

    I am an educator for Da Vinci Innovation Academy in Los Angeles, California. We are a k-8 public charter school and I am a founding parent/educator. When we began this school, we knew that one of our tenets was going to be social emotional education for all of the students/familis and that we would practice compassionate communication and treat kids well- before academics.

    For Social/Emotional development, our teachers are hired based on their willingness to bring compassionate education into their lives and speak compassionately with the community members.

    Our Resources are Non- Violent Communication – Marshall Rosenberg
    How to talk to kids, so kids will listen and How to listen so kids will talk- Faber and Mazlish
    Emotional Intelligence – Goldman

    We also open the day with morning meeting where kids develop the language of Observation, Feeling, Need and request. Our kids feel safe communicating “how” they are.

    We end the day with closing meeting to reflect on the day

    We have time every week dedicated to social/emotional discussions during PD.

    We also have training for the signs of emotional distresses/triggers that are flags through our district.

    If there are problems, we make it a point to contact the school Councelors and there is a protocol where the student is not left alone and we call parents, but they cannot take them without a professional release.

    All students have acess to councelors.

    Since we are a community that focuses on knowing families, we know the kids pretty well. Their strengths and struggles.

    What more can I do for you?



    1. Hi Rita,
      Thank you so much for your response! That idea of morning and afternoon meetings with the students to help them focus on the positive aspects of the day, is very much like one of the strategies used in Positive Education at Geelong Grammar; they were fortunate to work with the guru of Positive Psychology, Martin Seligman. I highly recommend you get the Trudy Ludwig picture books (if you don’t already have them) and see if you can get a hold of a very nice series published by Pearson: Up Close and Personal, and There’s more to Me


  3. Hello Fiona – your article touched me deeply. My nephew, although a little older than Kathryn, committed suicide after years of struggle with depression. Although I’m no longer working within education I have shared your article as widely as I can online in the hope that you may get more answers to your question from my teaching friends. Jenny


    1. Hi Jenny,
      Thank you so much for spreading the word. I often feel I’m beating my head against a brick wall! But then I think of my daughter and all her pain, and I become determined to minimise the pain of other children.


  4. Please check this video out:
    It is a Ted Talk given by a 13 year old about happiness and school and where he finds it. I teach in a Quaker school and we believe, “there is that of the light of God in everyone.” We teach (or are supposed to teach) the Quaker tenants of: simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality, and stewardship. In addition, we foster and weave ways to create the habits of mind (empathy, reflection, resilience, curiosity and creativity) into our lessons. I suppose that is what I would say our school’s way of addressing social emotional learning. We do not have a specific protocol that I am aware of. I am so sad about the loss your friend is suffering and would also like to help but am not sure how. I am a fifth grade teacher and the only resource I know that we have is our Lower School counselor. Our Middle School’s counselor also is the assistant principal, which I think is a terrible idea, although she is a lovely person. My heart aches for your friend. Although I have never lost a child and hope to never ever suffer that, I have suffered great loss myself.


    1. Hi Heidi,
      Thank you for your response. I watch the video and was blown away! What an amazingly confident boy, what an inquirer!
      I am going to share it with colleagues (unless Edna does it first 🙂 ). I am sorry that you too have experienced a great loss; our lives are never quite the same.


  5. Fiona. Having worked as a counselor for 18 years before entering the teaching profession I can understand the struggle you must be going through having spent a large portion of those 18 years dealing with persons struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts. As to your questions regarding what is going on in my school. There is little or no training in regard to recognizing the symptoms of or dealing with a student who is suffering from depression. We have spent a small portion of time on training staff and students how to recognize and deal with the signs of bullying and cyber-bullying. While a school psychologist visits our school once or sometimes twice a month for meetings regarding the individual plans of special needs students little if anything is ever addressed regarding the child’s emotional and social development. If a crisis would occur and we would loose a student to suicide I have read in the crisis manual that a psychologist would be sent from the Diocesan Office along with the Parish Priest to help minister to the needs of the students in the school. One of the adverse effects of implementing the Common Core curriculum here in the US has been a focus on academic achievement and little effort to assess and meet the needs of the “whole” student. As long as our educational systems focus only on academic success we are doomed to seeing more shootings in schools and more suicides among children. We need to start seeing and teaching to the whole student not just to their intellect. Ken


    1. Hi Ken,
      Thank you for your response. I agree with you, that the whole child must be considered. Have a look (or revisit) at Martin Seligman’s work in Positive Psychology. The organisation has also put out an eBook: My Wellbeing My Classroom. It is a marvellous place to start if you want to implement some positive psych into the classroom. A colleague and I have decided to try it out this year. Get a hold of Trudy Ludwig’s picture books on social emotional issues for children; and check out


  6. Hi Fiona,

    I haven’t heard any conversations directly related to social emotional learning at my current school.

    One of our administrators if off this week and I don’t know the details but she said something about her teenager going through a hard time and not being able to leave the child alone.

    I’m sorry I haven’t responded to your questions before.



    1. Hi Megan,
      Wow, you travel around a lot! Not to worry about responses to questions, we all get so snowed under with work. I’m just going to keep pestering people, if I don’t, I usually fall in a heap feeling quite desperate without my daughter.


  7. Hi Fiona

    I have been teaching at Landsdale Primary School, a large public primary school in Western Australia.

    What is our school doing for social emotional learning (SEL)? The short answer is: more than most schools but probably still not enough. We have a whole-school program called ‘iValues’ which is based upon Martin Seligman’s theory of positive psychology. The program combines our school’s values (e.g. “I am a global citizen”) with the explicit teaching of social and emotional skills.

    What resources do you use?

    In addition to the theoretical underpinnings provided by Seligman’s work, we also use the Aussie Optimism program and the Friendly Schools and Classrooms. I am a big fan of ‘Friendly Schools’ but many teachers found the rigid workbook structure of ‘Aussie Optimism’ to be quite limiting.

    How much PD do teachers get on social emotional learning?

    A moderate amount. We have several staff development days a year plus five mandated after school meetings each term. The primary topics of discussion at the moment would be (1) Australian Curriculum, esp as they relate to literacy and numeracy, (2) technology implementation and (3) social emotional learning. Teachers do, of course, have access to additional PD about social emotional learning but generally teachers would need to initiate this themselves.

    Do teachers have a clear understanding of the ‘red flags’ that could gradually morph into full blown personality disorders and or depression?

    Oh, this is such a hard question to answer. I believe that most do. However, it is so easy to miss the signs and there is so much scope to do better.

    What is your schools protocol when a student is struggling socially and or emotionally?

    Generally, teachers initiate a discussion with parents first. Depending upon the results of this, a case conference could be convened that includes a Deputy Principal and the School Psychologist. If necessary, we could refer students to a Medicare-funded psychologist who would meet with the child on school grounds. This is a service known an OnPsych:

    Thank you so much for all of your efforts to help our precious children. If there is anything I can do to help, please feel free to contact me.

    Paul Fuller


  8. Fiona, thank you for sharing the very sad story of Kathryn…my heart goes out to you and her family and everyone who has had the tragic and life-scarring loss of a child or other significant other. As a qualified student counsellor and teacher I think that i have always focused on the emotional intelligence of my students, friends and family. I do not know of amny schools that cater to the emotional needs of students…that’s usually the domain of “special education’, counsellors, child psychologists, etc. Schools tend to cater for the majority rather than the needs of a minority. I have also shared your article with other educators, friends and others. Hopefully people will consider the issue and ACT rather than just reACT. Parents of children with emotional problems/issues/concerns usually are placated by what the “expert” person at their child’s school will do to help their child…whether this “treatment or method takes on a life of its own is questionable…the school usually wants that child (and every child) to fit into the school’s ethos rather than specifically catering to the child’s particular circumstances or special needs. It’s usually easier to label the child and to then steer them into an existing lane of treatment rather than to create a special lane of their own.


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