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An electronic journal for leaders in education
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Keeping Connected: Young People, Identity and Schooling

Katie Wright
Margaret Robertson

Katie Wright is a Research Fellow in the Faculty of Education at the University of Melbourne and Project Manger for the Keeping Connected study. Margaret Robertson is the Executive Director of the Royal Children’s Hospital Education Institute.

It is well established in the fields of education and adolescent health that engagement with learning and connectedness to others within the school environment are key to positive health, academic and life outcomes (Resnick et al. 1997; Resnick 2000; Patton et al. 2000; McNeely et al. 2002; Hawkins et al. 2004). As disengagement from school is a process rather than an event in itself, students with an ongoing health condition and those who miss school following accident trauma are highly vulnerable in respect to their educational achievement, social connectedness, and overall health and well-being (Monck et al. 1994; MacDonald 1999; Osterman 2000; Bond et al. 2001; Dwyer and Wyn 2001; Lamb et al. 2004).

Students who experience disruption to their lives as a result of illness or accident face difficulties on several fronts: the illness/trauma event, being in a different place, and, often, absence from significant others. And for young people generally the social meaning and context of education is highly relevant to whether and what they learn, what they achieve and the long-term possibilities they begin to set up for their future lives.

While students with developmental disabilities have a recognised system of service delivery, it has been noted in the international literature that students with chronic health conditions do not have a comparable set of services (Thies and McAllister 2001). The increasing incidence of chronic illness among young people makes this a pressing issue, and it is also significant for students who experience accident trauma.

Although Australian research in this area is limited (Shui 2001), important issues have been identified. Shiu (2004) surveyed parents and teachers in New South Wales about their perceptions of the needs of students facing these difficulties. The coordination of services between home, school and health professionals, academic assistance and peer support were identified as important ways in which schools can assist students. Other research has highlighted particular concerns of young people themselves, such as friendship issues when returning to school after absence (Dockett 2004).

Recent accounts in the educational and adolescent health literature emphasise the importance of flexible school policies built on partnerships between health and education systems at the community and state level (Thies and McAllister 2001). Key service providers that support students in this situation intersect the fields of health and education. However, it appears rare for understandings of the issues to be developed through systematic service delivery, or through collaborative research.

There is a need for further research that considers the views and experiences of young people, families, school staff and health professionals, and the inadequacy of current policy for students with particular health issues.

The Keeping Connected research project

The present study, Keeping Connected: Young People, Identity and Schooling brings together a team of leading education and adolescent health researchers from the Faculty of Education at the University of Melbourne, and the Centre for Adolescent Health, in  partnership with the Royal Children’s Hospital (RCH) Education Institute.

Since its establishment in 1999, the RCH Education Institute has supported students to continue their studies and to maintain social connections with peers at school. The study is seeking a better understanding of the situation faced by these young people. It will examine the ways in which education is socially meaningful to them; and how schooling, individual identities, family relationships and other social contexts support or work against their continued engagement with school.

The study takes an approach that foregrounds education relationships rather than the chronic illness experience, and uses a mixed methodology, but emphasises qualitative and longitudinal investigation of the perspectives of young people themselves. The project seeks to illuminate the experiences of students in this situation and build a new foundation for best practice for the professionals and institutions who work with these young people.

Over the next two years, young people from metropolitan Melbourne, regional Victoria and Tasmania will complete surveys to help build a picture of this group of students. The survey data will document the characteristics, well-being and school engagement of students supported by the RCH Education Institute.

The experiences of around 30 students will then be investigated in greater depth over two years. This part of the project will build on existing work (Garrow 1992; Rich and Chalfen 1999; Rich et al. 2000; Moss 2002) utilising a student-centred approach that produces narrative and visual accounts in various forms, as well as semi-structured researcher-led conversations. This group will include students at late primary and beginning secondary levels, facing transition to adolescence; students in the middle secondary years, a common time of disengagement from school; and those in post-compulsory education, who are often more engaged but for whom the consequences of disengagement are more serious.

The researchers will also interview approximately 15–20 young people who were supported by the RCH Education Institute during its first year of operation in 1999. The perspectives of former clients, being both older and further removed from the initial impact (McLeod 2000; Drew 2003), will provide points of comparison with the 30 young people involved in case studies described above, and with previous studies by the project’s researchers: Sarah Drew (2003) in relation to cancer; and Lyn Yates (McLeod 2000, 2003; Yates 2003) in relation to schooling.

The views of parents, education and health professionals will also be examined to provide further insights into the experiences of young people from the perspectives of those who work with and support them.


Many young people with chronic illness or accident trauma often miss schooling. As a result they often get caught in a spiral of catching up and disconnection from school and important peer relationships. The Keeping Connected project is a significant and multidisciplinary approach to gaining new knowledge about young people in this situation and the professional and institutional practices that support them. By taking an approach that foregrounds educational and social relationships, the Keeping Connected study will produce guidelines for better practice by health and schooling professionals, and provide improved knowledge about the processes by which social and educational disconnection occurs.

For more information about the project, contact Dr Katie Wright (kwright@unimelb.edu.au) or visit the project website once it is live: www.edfac.unimelb.edu.au/keepingconnected.

Keeping Connected: Young People, Identity and Schooling is funded by the Australian Research Council (LP0669735) in association with the RCH Education Institute. The project team is comprised of nine chief investigators: Professor Lyn Yates, Dr Julianne Moss, Dr Julie White, Dr Trevor Hay, Dr Peter Ferguson, Dr Mary Dixon, Dr Lyndal Bond, Dr Sarah Drew and Dr Pamela St Leger; two project officers, Dr Katie Wright and Miss Amy Basile; two representatives of the RCH Education Institute, Ms Margaret Robertson and Mr Tony Potas; and PhD student, Ms Brenda Tait.


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Subject Headings

Mental Health