TEACHERS, youth workers and health care professionals will gather at Caves Beach to learn about a positive psychology program that goes beyond academic success and rewards students for tasks that improve wellbeing, including interviewing their grandparents, starting a petition for a cause they care about and setting a screen time reduction goal.
Wallsend's Macquarie College assistant principal of wellbeing Joshua Brown is the founding director of the Invictus Wellbeing Institute, which offers one and four year programs that have been picked up in 13 - and soon to be 20 - schools across Australia and New Zealand.
The institute operates like a faculty within Macquarie College.
"The program is a subject we teach at school, but it's also a rite of passage that allows you to transition from childhood to adulthood," Mr Brown said.
"We've got the most educated group of young people ever with the highest rates of depression and anxiety ever seen.
"We know the system is failing our kids for a complicated cluster of reasons - it's not solely family breakdown, time online or geopolitical tensions, it's a cultural melee.
"What's the use of a high ATAR and university education if it's not going to provide a high quality of life?
"You can have all the skills in the world but if you can't manage yourself and use them in a way that contributes to the world, the net gain to any nation is not as big as it should be.
"On a broad societal level it raises the question, what does success really look like?"
The program stands out on timetables typically filled with subjects including maths, physics and English by aiming to teach students how to recognise and cope with their emotions, find their purpose, build empathy and maintain resilient relationships.
"The quality of your relationships determines the quality of your life," Mr Brown said.
"Relationships don't take care of themselves. They need cultivating - but how do you do that?"
Mr Brown said the program was influenced by Martin Seligman's book Flourish, which discusses the five pillars of positive psychology as positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment, or making a measurable difference.
"Positive psychology is about rather than bringing you to zero, how do we bring you into the black, so that when setbacks come you're got something in the bank to draw down on."
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The four year program is broken into the "elements" of network, master, journey and serve.
The one year program condenses the four elements into four terms.
Each element has a series of challenges each worth 10 points.
These include students identifying a relationship they want to work on enhancing throughout the year; identifying a personal habit or characteristic they want to develop and joining a group of people that exhibit this characteristic; and setting a screen time reduction goal and investing instead in face-to-face time with a friend.
They also include reading a book about a topic they know nothing about; learning a new language or musical instrument; spending a lunchtime with a person in their grade they don't really know; hiking to the highest place in their area and watching the sunrise or sunset; and participating in an environmental clean-up initiative.
"We want to limit risk factors and increase protective factors.
"Time in nature, close human relationships face-to-face and exercise to release natural feel-good chemicals are protective factors," he said.
"Poor management of social media is a risk factor.
"We want to challenge them to do more of the positive things."
Students need to gain 100 points to finish an element.
Those who complete two elements receive a bronze award. Three elements is silver and four elements is gold.
Each element has an attached "memory event", an experience in which they "live out" the values they've learned about, "providing them with an emotional anchor to ground their experience in".
Mr Brown uses the example of taking year nine students hiking up Mount Kosciuszko.
"Having struggles and overcoming challenges previously provides a memory to draw upon," he said.
"They can then apply the emotional learning to a new situation." Participants also go on a camp every year.
"[The awards] put some structure around working towards becoming a better version of yourself," Mr Brown said.
"It's about building the quality of character and the quality of work.
"It does not matter if you're getting your house repaired or your child is being operated on, what matters is the quality of your character and the quality of your work."
While some parents may judge a school on their NAPLAN or HSC results and see teachers' roles as helping their child achieve academic success, Mr Brown said it was now more important than ever that schools also spent time developing the whole person.
"A lot of character development has been outsourced from the family and a lot of traditional support networks that don't exist anymore.
"We also know we've got a huge rise in individualism.
"This reminds us that community is really important and we need each other.
"It's important young people understand it's not just about you, you're part of your school, your city, your nation."
Mr Brown said the idea for the Invictus Wellbeing program was born in 2014.
The college was running the Duke of Edinburgh program, which was founded in 1956 but doesn't have an attached curriculum or reflect positive psychology.
He decided to establish his own that did tick these boxes.
Charlton Christian College and St Philip's Christian College Cessnock picked it up in 2015.
He said the September 2 conference would draw people from across the country and was intended to "build a scholarly community" and upskill leaders of the program spread across the 13 schools.
Guest speakers include John Hendry OAM and Melinda Tankard-Reist.
"Even on a pure rational level, kids who feel better do better," he said.
"While it's not the focus, it's a great way to improve academic success."
Mr Brown said there was ongoing research to measure the effectiveness of the program and modify it.
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