A new focus on mental health and wellbeing at Nelson College for Girls is developing happier students and helping to create new bonds between year groups.
While Nelson College for Girls is well-known for its academic achievement that is well above the national average, principal Cathy Ewing says the school is not resting on its laurels and continually looking at ways to improve and innovate. The ārahi mentoring programme was introduced last year to continue to improve positive outcomes for all students, both academically and personally.
As Ewing puts it, if a child does not have a good sense of wellbeing, there’s much less academic success. Strengthening relationships and creating more positive home and school environments removes barriers to engagement and improves all students’ chances to achieve at school and beyond, she says.
Ārahi means ‘to guide’ and is a time when a tight-knit group of 15 to 16 students across year groups come together with a teacher in three half-hour sessions each week to discuss aspects of wellbeing. It also covers topics from academic mentoring and positive psychology to gratitude and mindfulness. Ārahi has replaced ‘tutor time’ at the school, where a teacher would run over administrative tasks like notices, attendance and key events coming up. The ārahi teacher now holds the primary relationship with a student and her parents, alongside the dean.
Ewing says Nelson College for Girls’ ārahi programme is innovative. “Our approach not only has a significant time commitment, but also offers a holistic approach focussing on the student as a ‘whole person’.”
Nelson College for Girls is known for giving its students opportunities to take leadership roles and make change, inside and outside of school. Teachers Kathryn Stahl and Jo Beggs are the school’s enthusiastic mentoring programme facilitators, responsible for overseeing ārahi. They encouraged interested students to set up a ‘Student Wellbeing Whānau Group’ to look at additional ways wellbeing can be enhanced throughout the school.
Stahl says the group has been in contact with the counselling team and is coming up with some ‘really cool’ ideas. “They want to start Milo Mondays and No Phone Fridays. They’re keen to create a hang-out room with beanbags that’s a really nice space to just come and relax in.”
She says some of the best aspects of the approach are the open conversations during ārahi time, and the deeper communication between students, parents and teachers, with more cohesive support for the student.
Ewing says one of the most positive changes she’s noticed since ārahi was introduced is the chat between year groups. “We’re now seeing Year 13s connecting with Year 9s and vice versa. It sounds small but it’s a big deal. That’s what ārahi is all about; creating meaningful relationships and tiers of support.”
Yulana Monk is a Year 9 student, who chose to attend Nelson College for Girls for the opportunities it provided. “I wanted to come here because I thought the opportunities were better than the other schools I looked at, especially in areas like music, sport and drama.” Having been at an intermediate that was a natural feeder to a different secondary school, she says it was a bit nerve-wracking to start with as she didn’t know many people. “I’ve met lots of lovely new people including through ārahi.”
She says she found ārahi a bit different to start with because at her old school she’d only hang out with the same year group. “It’s been great. It’s just like a big friend group, everyone feels quite comfortable coming forward with any issues they’ve got going on.”