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You are reading: Addressing Social and Emotional Learning: Fostering Resilience and Academic Self-efficacy in Educationally Disadvantaged Learners Transitioning to University

Written by Dr Joanne Lisciandro, Dr Angela Jones and Dr Karin Strehlow, Murdoch University

Background and Context
The burden of mental health issues on university students and their ability to successfully access, transition and participate in university has been recurrent in contemporary educational discourse (Cleary, Walter, & Jackson, 2011; Said, Kypri, & Bowman, 2013). This is especially true in the changing higher education space as the ‘widening participation’ agenda plays out in the wake of the Review of Higher Education in 2008 (Bradley et al., 2008). Walter (2015) noted that “one in four young people between the ages of 15 and 25 will develop a mental health disorder” (para. 1 ), many of whom are currently enrolled at university; and “86% of university students severely affected by mental illness will drop out, adding to their sense of worthlessness and failure” (para. 6). Thus, the mental wellbeing of university students is of paramount concern, both for the student, and for the institution.

Retention is a primary goal for universities, yet personal circumstances leading to attrition are often seen as beyond the control of the institution (Bedford, 2009; Hodges et al., 2013; Whannell, Whannell, & Bedford, 2013 ). Retention strategies for students presenting with mental health or emotional issues affecting study are often limited to providing a counselling service (frequently unable to offer long-term, ongoing support) and equity support. However, many students are either unaware of, or reluctant to access such services in the first instance (Hodges et al., 2013). Instead, problems are often raised with their tutors and lecturers who generally have little/no mental health training and are unable to support the student except with reactive approaches, such as suggesting assignment extensions and referral to services.

Mental health issues are of particular concern in pre-university enabling programs which often specifically target equity groups, such as those with medical conditions (including mental health issues), disability, low socioeconomic backgrounds, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) backgrounds and students on Humanitarian visas. This is supported by research into one of Murdoch University’s key enabling programs, OnTrack, where ‘medical and/or emotional issues’ was the most common reason for student withdrawal (Lisciandro & Gibbs, In-press). Research into other Australian enabling programs, sometimes referred to as “bridging courses, university preparation courses, foundation courses and pathway courses” suggests that this is a common phenomenon (Hodges et al., 2013, p. 14). The National Association of Enabling Educators of Australia (NAEEA) recently established a special interest group called Mental Health in recognition of the need for further research and action in this important area of concern (Crawford, 2015). Walter (2015) suggests that “it is imperative that we support tertiary students in ways that promote not only their learning but their emotional and mental resilience” (para. 13), and “social and emotional learning should be explicitly taught alongside academic skills, with a focus on self-care, coping and resilience” (para. 15). Academic educators are becoming increasingly aware that strategies to support university students with mental health issues needs to be revisited, both within enabling programs and in university courses. Taking heed of Walter’s suggestions, we recognise that this is possible by embedding social and emotional learning within the enabling curriculum, alongside traditional ‘academic’ skills.

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