Aboriginal youth are often exposed to multiple risk factors, which impact significantly on their wellbeing and on their engagement at school. While a number of programs have sought to address issues faced by Aboriginal boys, interventions for girls are less common.
The Aboriginal Girls Circle (AGC) was designed to increase social connection, participation and self-confidence among young Aboriginal women attending secondary schools. Since 2010 a pilot version of the intervention has been in progress at Dubbo College, NSW.
The AGC was set up by the National Association for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect (NAPCAN) and Associate Professor Sue Roffey from the University of Western Sydney. Based on the Circle Solutions framework (Roffey, 2014; Roffey & McCarthy, 2013) the AGC, along with the Circle Solutions approach, has been profiled in an audio interview with Sue Roffey.
Researchers from the University of Western Sydney’s School of Education evaluated the AGC pilot in order to determine the effects of the AGC for participants’ resilience, connectedness, self-concept, and cultural identity. The team undertaking this research included both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal researchers. An important emphasis in this research was the need to identify cultural dimensions of resilience and wellbeing for Aboriginal youth.
This article outlines the work of the AGC, before describing some details of the research findings.
The Aboriginal Girls Circle
The AGC aims to empower young women to discover and use their own strengths; and to identify, develop and take pride in themselves and their community. It aims to help them learn how to make positive decisions and take action together to create change where they see a need. It also aims to help girls find a sense of healthy belonging within their own community and with the wider Australian society.
The Circle Solutions framework promotes principles of inclusion, democracy, safety and respect, while teaching skills to foster resilience and wellbeing (Roffey, 2014). Through this approach everyone is encouraged to participate, maintaining three simple but important protocols: i) when one person is speaking everyone else listens; ii) no one has to speak if they choose not to; and iii) there are no put-downs (Roffey 2011, 2014). Most Circle Solutions activities are presented as non-competitive games. This emphasis on positivity, fun and freedom promotes a sense of enjoyment and ownership, enabling the participants to explore their strengths and abilities in a supportive environment where their ideas and interests shape the agenda.
The AGC trial is described on the NAPCAN website. Each year the AGC commenced with a residential camp—an experience acknowledged by the participants as central to their enjoyment, learning and the benefit they receive. The camp introduced the Circle Solutions framework and philosophy, built relationships, and fostered a sense of collective and individual capacity for making a difference in the girls’ own lives and in the community. In addition, the girls were asked to identify an issue they would like to work on throughout the year as a community engagement project. This particular focus of the AGC aimed to build a positive sense of connectedness while developing valuable leadership and communication skills.
Ongoing weekly AGC sessions provided the girls with support to develop initiatives in response to the community issues they identified. In pursuing these initiatives, the girls undertook: interviews with community and family members; classroom presentations; the creation of a book, a play, and dance performances; and an expo. The themes addressed by the girls have so far included cultural awareness, racism, friendship and fighting, and health issues in their community.
Crucial to the success of the pilot was the work of the school-based AGC Coordinator, an Aboriginal support worker, who provided regular guidance to the girls by running weekly circles, and assisting with their projects. The AGC Coordinator provided ongoing, culturally meaningful support to the girls, maintained connections with key community members, and facilitated effective communication with families.
Equally vital for the AGC pilot was the ongoing involvement and support of the Aboriginal Education Consultative Group (AECG), and local community Elders. Parents and community Elders were invited to participate in AGC sessions, with storytelling by Elders providing particular highlights for the girls. The importance of this kind of community engagement was underscored by findings that Aboriginal students’ sense of identity, self-esteem and important resilience factors were related to their social relationships within the community, at home and with peers.
Ethical protocols for research with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations require meaningful engagement in which the voices and cultural perspectives of Aboriginal participants are respected and valued (AIATSIS, 2012). Mindful of the lack of culturally informed research on the development of resilience in Aboriginal populations (Dobia & O’Rourke, 2011), the research into the AGC was designed to investigate the relationship between cultural identity, connectedness and various dimensions of resilience, while also examining the effects of the program.
After preliminary consultations with community members, the research involved field observations of the AGC in action, together with a series of interviews and focus groups involving participants, group leaders, community Elders, and teachers. Surveys of students and school staff were then conducted at two school campuses where the AGC had been conducted and, for purposes of comparison, at a nearby high school.
The student survey included 41 Aboriginal Students, 16 of whom had participated in the AGC, and a further 16 non-Aboriginal students. The other survey was completed by 22 staff occupying a variety of roles within the schools, including school executive, class teachers, Aboriginal Education Officers, Aboriginal Community Liaison Officers, and Aboriginal Norta Norta program tutors whose role is to support academic achievement.
Survey results were analysed to measure the effects of the program on key variables relating to student connectedness, resilience, cultural identity, and self-concept. A full description of research methodology is available in the Final Pilot Report.
The AGC was very well received within the school and the local community. It was found to have developed resilience, connectedness, self-concept, and cultural identity among the majority of girls who participated. All stakeholders commented on the way that the AGC program had developed the girls’ self-confidence. Specific gains were also reported for self-esteem and leadership ability. A number of girls reported that they now felt more connected to each other, and more involved with the school and its staff members. Higher empathy scores amongst the AGC participants compared with the rest of the sample suggested that the AGC’s emphasis on emotional literacy provided the girls with valuable personal and relationship skills.
There was evidence of social skills development in the girls’ comments on what they liked most about the AGC. Several comments emphasised ‘the cooperation that goes on in the group’ or the ‘communication’ within the circle. Others discussed the ability to ‘meet new people’ and to ‘be ourselves around’ each other, indicating that new friendships and trust within the circle were highly valued. The support for inclusion through the circle was also appreciated in that they ‘feel welcome, everyone knows’ them.
Both students and Aboriginal staff highlighted the value of having the girls come together in shared acknowledgement of their cultural identity. It is noteworthy that the girls themselves chose topics around culture and cultural identity for their project work, and nominated these elements as key factors in their sense of connection through the AGC. The importance of ensuring a strong cultural component to the AGC program was also emphasised by community members. This is consistent with research showing links between a positive sense of cultural identity, wellbeing, self-concept, and success.
Teaching staff, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, were very positive about their participation in Circle Solutions training and through their role in implementing the program. Staff felt they had learned valuable practical skills and substantially gained from their understanding of the Circle Solutions philosophy and framework.
Considerable support was found for the association between a positive sense of cultural identity and the resilience and wellbeing of Aboriginal youth. In addition, the AGC girls, Aboriginal staff and community members emphasised the importance of learning about Aboriginal culture to support positive development, confidence and strength.
The interactive effects of several environmental factors in supporting resilience highlighted the importance of a sense of connectedness and assistance for Aboriginal students’ wellbeing. In particular, peer relationships and community contributed strongly to Aboriginal students’ resilience, with home also important and school less so.
Aboriginal students’ self-esteem was related to their social relationships within the community, at home and with peers. Their enjoyment of school was linked to a sense of connectedness, support and meaningful participation. For Aboriginal students a positive academic self-concept was linked to positive peer relationships, connectedness and meaningful participation at school, as well as home support.
Priority areas for developing the AGC
Development of the community engagement component of the program is currently underway, including plans to enable AGC participants to achieve official recognition of their service learning at certificate level. As part of this initiative a number of the senior AGC girls are now involved in a volunteering program at a local infants’ school.
Community leaders and Elders highlighted the need for further engagement with community, particularly with regard to developing the cultural component of the AGC. NAPCAN and the UWS researchers are currently in discussion with AECG members about extending their role as partners in the program’s development. Involvement of Aboriginal staff as collaborators in the further development of the AGC will provide an opportunity for professional development, ownership and empowerment through the AGC.
The pilot research also highlighted several areas of risk for Aboriginal youth, including grief and suicide prevention, the need to address racism, and learning to de-escalate violence in order to manage conflict more effectively. Consideration is being given to planning around responding to these issues.
The success of the program has generated a number of requests to provide similar interventions for other groups, including boys’ groups, additional groups of girls, and parents. The next phase of AGC development involves establishing partnerships with AECG groups and schools in Western Sydney, identifying funding sources and building capacity to train and support local staff to facilitate the AGC.
Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS), 2012, ‘Guidelines for ethical research in Australian Indigenous studies. Revised 2nd ed.’ Canberra: AIATSIS. Retrieved December 2, 2013 from www.aiatsis.gov.au/research/ethics/documents/GERAIS.pdf Dobia, B., Bodkin-Andrews, G., Parada, R., O’Rourke, V., Gilbert, S., Daley, A. & Roffey, S., 2013, ‘Aboriginal Girls Circle: Enhancing Connectedness and Promoting Resilience for Aboriginal Girls. Final Pilot Report’ Penrith NSW: University of Western Sydney.http://handle.uws.edu.au:8081/1959.7/540709 Dobia, B. & O’Rourke, V., 2011, ‘Promoting the mental health and wellbeing of Indigenous children in Australian primary schools’, Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia. Available from www.kidsmatter.edu.au/sites/default/files/public/promoting-mental-health-wellbeing-indigenous-children.pdf Roffey, S.,2011, ‘Enhancing Connectedness in Australian Children and Young People’, Asian Journal of Counselling, 18 (1), 15–39. Roffey, S., 2014, ‘Circle Solutions for Student Wellbeing’, Sage Publications, London and San Francisco Roffey, S. & McCarthy, F., 2013, ‘Circle Solutions, a philosophy and pedagogy for learning positive relationships: What promotes and inhibits sustainable outcomes?’, The International Journal of Emotional Education, 5(1), 36-55.