By Danielle Kutchel
The transition to high school is often fraught with anxiety.
Students worry about making friends, getting lost, navigating a hectic timetable and of course, the threat of bullying.
But at the Happiness Project, there are ways of getting around these anxieties to smooth the path.
Now in its third year, the Happiness Project is a three day program run by the City of Greater Dandenong Youth and Family Services team during the January school holidays.
Over three days, around 20 students aged between 11 and 13 and drawn from a variety of schools across the municipality, spend time working on activities designed to build their resilience as they make the difficult transition from grade 6 to year 7.
Morning information sessions cover topics such as the difference between primary and secondary school, how to build friendships and how to deal with stress in a new environment. The afternoon sessions include team building exercises delivered at Clip ‘n Climb, Noble Park Aquatic Centre and Zone Bowling.
The comprehensive program also includes self-reflection activities that help the participants celebrate their achievements – whether it be putting on a climbing harness, or making a new friend.
Many of the students are drawn from socially isolated backgrounds, so building connections with peers is an important step.
Program facilitators work alongside school wellbeing coordinators to target the students who are most in need of assistance, before connecting with them and their families and offering a place in the project.
Past participants have praised the program and some even returned this year to act as informal peer leaders, greeting the new crop of students and letting them know that high school isn’t so bad after all.
And at the end of the three days, students are able to take away their workbook full of strategies and tactics to help guide them as they enter secondary school.
Lead program facilitator Jess McKenna said the program fills a gap in the community.
“It originally came about because we recognised there was a gap in the support offered for year 6 students transitioning into year 7. There wasn’t anything out there that allowed the really vulnerable children extra assistance during that time
“It keeps going because there’s a need for it out there.”
Even on the second day there are signs that the Happiness Project is bearing fruit. Students enter with a bit more excitement, and tell the facilitators about their new friends. Slowly, they open up to each other, sharing thoughts and eventually talking over each other in their rush to contribute to the discussion and be heard.
Ultimately, said Ms McKenna, it’s all about connecting with peers at what can be a challenging time for students.
“It’s perfectly normal to be worried and have concerns, but there are ways that we can work through it together and if we reach out and be connected, we’re going to help ease those worries,” she said.