A new research collaboration between UOW and iAccelerate resident company The Quirky Kid Clinic is testing the life-changing potential of school-based social and emotional learning programs. 

Being a kid isn’t all fun and games. Navigating the complexities of friendships, social situations and emotions can be a real challenge for some, and access to the right tools and guidance can make a life-long difference.

That’s exactly what the Quirky Kid Clinic offers through The Best of Friends®, an award-winning social and emotional learning (SEL) program for children aged 7 to 11 years designed to be delivered in schools by teachers and school counsellors.

“The Best of Friends® program helps students gain the knowledge, attitudes and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, show empathy for others, develop and maintain friendships and make good decisions,” explains Leonardo Rocker, Director of the Quirky Kid Clinic.

“Rigorous research has shown that children who participate in SEL programs have better academic results and reduced behavioural issues, and are less likely to be on a waiting list for public housing or receive public assistance. They are also less likely to have any involvement with police before adulthood or spend time in a detention facility.”

The Quirky Kid Clinic – one of Australia’s leading child, adolescent and family psychology clinics based in Austinmer and Sydney – is a resident of UOW’s iAccelerate program, the University’s purpose-built business incubator at UOW Innovation Campus. Rocker says this access to the entrepreneurial ecosystem and support has sharpened the company’s focus and opened the doors to using new technologies to amplify the impact of its programs.

Quirky Kid’s relationship with UOW has also led to a new research collaboration with Dr Noelene Weatherby-Fell in the UOW School of Education under the NSW Department of Industry’s TechVouchers program, evaluating The Best of Friends® program’s efficacy and shaping its future development.

“The Best of Friends® is Australian-made, but a lot of other SEL programs come out of the United States and are out of context with our idiosyncrasies, our localised quirks and needs,” says Rocker.

“This study will greatly advance research and practice in relation to what really works when it comes to building social and emotional skills in Australia. By designing something that is tailored to our culture and our children we can dramatically improve the overall wellbeing of generations to come.”

The randomised control trial will see children take part in The Best of Friends® through a series of 10 one-hour small group sessions delivered by a trained facilitator, with interviews and assessments before commencement and on completion of the program. Parents receive weekly email updates with key program content so they can support their children as the program progresses.

Dr Weatherby-Fell says the program aligns well with her research interests, particularly in supporting the wellbeing of children and young people through resilience and associated protective and risk factors, and in building resilience in teacher education.

“Children can benefit not only from the knowledge and skills acquired through the program, but from a supportive environment in which to grow their confidence in themselves and their abilities,” she says. “Having friends, and knowing how to both establish and maintain friendships, is a significant protective factor in the development of resilience.”

“Along with the potential to enhance the program’s future efficacy, the collaborative research project offers an exciting opportunity to actively involve our own UOW pre-service teachers – the teachers of tomorrow – as trained program facilitators,” she adds.

The study is currently calling for participants in Sydney and Wollongong, and parents are invited find out more and to register their interest online.

The Best of Friends® program was developed by Quirky Kid’s educational and developmental psychologist Dr Kimberley O’Brien, drawing on decades of clinical and schools-based experience and PhD research. It comes with a range of resources that make it easy for educators to deliver, and engaging and exciting for students. Workbooks feature beautifully illustrated stories with relatable characters in common social and emotional situations, providing a springboard to learning through direct instructional techniques such as modelling, behaviour rehearsal, coaching and problem solving, and performance improvement activities such as rewards and peer feedback. Parents and facilitators are supported by online resources and tracking of each student’s progress, which also helps families to scaffold classroom learning at home.

Perfectly integrated with the Australian curriculum, The Best of Friends® program was launched in schools in 2017. Though it can be run by psychologists in clinics, Rocker says that delivery of the program in the school setting by teachers offers greater potential for impact.

“SEL programs delivered in the classroom and by teachers have been proven to deliver better outcomes, and that’s certainly been our experience with The Best of Friends® program thus far” he says.


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