SUNS 47 and 48 ‘LITERACY’ and ‘SCHOOL COUNSELLORS’

LITERACY HAS MANY PARTS

Literacy is often considered to have four components, listening, speaking, reading and writing. Listening is the first element addressed, with that starting the day children are born and developing as a skill for the rest their lives. Speaking follows, with children learning to speak on the basis of what they hear and how they interpret the conversations of parents, siblings, peers and other adults.

The elements of reading first come to the attention of children through stories read and literature shared with them by parents and older brothers and sisters. The influence of teachers, fellow students and school comes later, with early awareness firstly coming from home.

Writing is the last of these skills to be explored and again it starts at home. Children first taste the elements of writing through using chalk, crayons, felt pens and coloured pencils on varying surfaces. These might be drawing boards, concreted areas, card and paper. From their initial scribblings grows an awareness of what later becomes printing and writing.

The pathway to developing literacy skills transitions from home. Included are the influences of child-care centres, pre-school and finally school. Exposure to early literacy opportunities at home determines the readiness of children to commence those stages of learning which are part of formal school education. Children do best when learning starts at home, moving with the child to include what takes place at school.

Curriculum demands

Curriculum requirements are constantly changing. This places pressure on school leaders and teachers to comply with new requirements. Constant changes to what is taught does not help create steady, predictable learning environments. To educate students as demanded by everyone from curriculum specialists to government ministers would require a school day far longer than the five hours and twenty minutes of daily instructional time.

Neglected needs

Because of pressures placed on schools there are important literacy areas that can all too frequently be overlooked. Handwriting often gets minimal attention. This happens because the curriculum is so crowded. It might also be due to oversight, or can come about because handwriting is being replaced by keyboarding.

Linda Silverman commented on this situation. “Keyboarding is an essential life skill in this new millennium whereas handwriting is not. … If the major issue is (handwriting) … the solution is as simple as providing a child with a keyboard. (‘Poor handwriting: A major case of Underachievement’, online source).

I disagree. Handwriting is an ingredient of learning and development as essential now as it was decades ago. Sadly, it has been relegated. There are far too many students whose writing is illegible. Workbooks are tatty and dogeared, with entries hardly decipherable. This is poor testament to the development of handwriting skills.

Spelling and associated word study are literacy basics. For many years they were de-emphasised and regarded as impediments getting in the way of creativity. Fortunately that has changed. Spelling and grammar have been reinstated to the level of being included in NAPLAN testing. However, the many years of lowered expectation reduced literacy outcomes and deprived many of key language competencies. While spelling and grammar checks can be computer generated, nothing is better than being able to edit text without the need to depend on technology.

Handwriting competence spelling confidence and grammatical appreciation should be part of everyone’s knowledge base.
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SCHOOL COUNSELLORS ARE DESPERATELY NEEDED

There is a desperate need for counsellors to be appointed as staff members in ALL our schools. Mental health and well-being issues demand that our system look at this as a number one priority. There are counsellors in some of our high schools but their role is more in the area of career guidance and vocational support. Secondary schools also have school nurses to whom students can talk about matters. However, for the most part they are more focussed on physical well-being and social issues rather than mental health needs. No counsellors are appointed as primary school staff members.

With scrutiny of school staffing numbers under constant review, it is hardly likely that the issue is going to be addressed any time soon.
However ignoring the matter, is overlooking deep seated issues of student need.

Student Services

The Student Services Section of our Education Department provides support for schools. Students with special learning needs are assisted by visits from Student Services staff. They help students with speech, hearing and sight issues. Staff also test students needing assessment to determine if they qualify for in school support.

While guidance officers (GO’s) were a part of the Student Services team, pressures of work and heavy case loads, along with working conditions lead to many resigning or going into private practice.

Needs Not Met

The issue is one that has been ongoing for a long time. In 2003, a group of principals from around the NT met with our then Education Minister Syd Stirling and told him that the need for counselling support was the number one issue confronting Northern Territory schools. The department was then allowed to advertise for Well Being Teachers (WBT’s) with counselling qualifications to be appointed. They would provide student counselling services in our primary schools. Not all Darwin and Palmerston Schools would benefit. Rather one or two WBT’s would support each region and work with schools on a rotational or ‘as needs’ basis.

Counselling needs for some schools were partially met while other schools missed out altogether. It soon became apparent that a well being teacher with responsibility for up to 12 schools would simply tinker at the edges of student needs. There was no time for in-depth counselling

The well being teacher concept quickly faded. Some advertised positions never filled. Other positions were vacated as incumbents applied for and won other advertised jobs and were never replaced. Within the relatively short time frame of two or three years, this initiative was consigned to history.

Why Primary Schools?

Issues confronting children appear from a very early age. Yet it is considered that counselling is not really necessary until students reach their secondary years. This opinion is just so wrong. Issues confronting younger children can be deep seated and problematic. To leave them untreated will impact on students’ behaviours and attitudes as they grow older. Problems and concerns confronting them impact on their lives, becoming an ingrained part of behaviour and attitude. One in five young people are stressed and depressed and that percentage is growing all the time. It is far better that issues are addressed and nipped in the bud before they become insurmountable. That will not happen unless and until counsellors are appointed as staff members in our schools.
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