The Benefits of Open Dialogue in Schools

Sarah Farrell-Whelan’s TEDx talk explores the benefits of integrating Open Dialogue into school environments, fostering meaningful connections between students and their social networks. 

Between Kindergarten and Year 12, Australian children spend over 10,000 hours in school. These formative hours shape their knowledge and skills, but more importantly, they also shape their interpersonal relationships and emotional development. As children navigate friendships, interactions with teachers, and increased independence, they embark on a complex and personal journey of self-discovery. However, this journey is not without challenges.

Children and young people are experiencing mental ill-health at higher rates than ever before. With a 5.5% increase over the past seven years, almost a quarter of young people are now experiencing mental health challenges. Additionally, the Australian Psychological society found worrying increases in mental ill-health in children as young as 18 months.

Sarah Farrell-Whelan’s thought-provoking TEDx talk explores the potential benefits of integrating Open Dialogue into school environments. This innovative approach centres on building meaningful connections between students and their social networks, including friends, parents, teachers, and school counsellors – anyone who plays a vital role in a student’s life.

“We have all had the experience as children of feeling unheard, or trying to find our own voice,” says Sarah. “And we, as adults, assume that children need us to speak for them to have their needs articulated for an adult world.”

However, this approach can actually have the opposite effect. By speaking for the child or teenager, they can often feel as if their perspective is not being communicated. To reduce this possibility, in an Open Dialogue network meeting, the child is placed at the centre of the conversation. They are supported to express themselves authentically. This approach also strengthens relationships and provides tailored support based on each student’s individual needs.

“I’m not asking more from our schools,” Sarah adds. “What I’m questioning is how can we stand steady with those working in our schools – the teachers and the staff – in doing what they are already doing very naturally; hearing and responding to children’s voices.”

When the staff at a school are already feeling overworked, it can often feel out of reach to provide the necessary support for the students’ mental health concerns. However, Open Dialogue actually helps to increase efficiency and maximise resources. This is because, under the traditional model, invested parties are involved in a complex web of conversations (often made up of emails, phone calls, and voice mails), usually limiting the role of the student. These fragmented interactions among teachers, parents, principals, and counsellors can result in the child’s voice getting lost in the process.

In contrast, Open Dialogue facilitates network meetings where all stakeholders gather in one location. This fosters open communication, bridges gaps in understanding, and ensures the child’s voice is heard and respected.

Sarah goes on to explain that dialogical meetings embrace polyphony (a term derived from music, where different parts, each with their own melody, can harmonize with each other), recognizing and embracing the diversity of lived experiences. They seek not just consensus but an appreciation for each individual’s unique lived experience. The student is never discussed without being present, and by involving them in all decisions and truly listening to their thoughts and feelings, person-centred care becomes a reality.

Imparting strong relationships at this critical developmental stage is essential. The Open Dialogue approach can equip students with powerful relational tools and resources that will enabling them to navigate future challenges with resilience and confidence.

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