Measuring the effectiveness of school-wide strategies on mental-health and the sympathetic nervous system

Each year AISNSW calls for applications for schools to undertake research over a two-year period, with support from The Evidence Institute, academic mentors and critical friends. After completing a rigorous selection process in 2019, Skillset Senior College was awarded a School Based Research Project for their project Measuring the effectiveness of school-wide strategies on mental-health and the sympathetic nervous system.

Project Overview

This research seeks to explore the impact of occupational therapy, exercise and resilience training on student anxiety, depression, wellbeing and cortisol levels (the stress hormone).

The research project is being delivered in two distinct phases. In Phase 1, teachers will identify what activities have the most significant impact on depression, anxiety and wellbeing by collecting self-report questionnaire data and measuring cortisol levels from saliva samples. Data is being collected pre/post activity so the research team can isolate which intervention had the greatest positive impact. In Phase 2, the data collected from Phase 1 will be used to inform and subsequently embed the most effective strategies into the daily timetable. The research team will continue to monitor the effectiveness of these strategies over the course of an entire school year.

The research team

The project is led at the school level by Dr Martin Hughes, who is also fulfilling the role of academic mentor. The team is comprised of staff at Skillset Senior College who are supported by critical friends from Charles Sturt University.

Progress to date

Initial data collection took place in early 2020, however, plans for the remainder of the year were impacted by COVID-19 and adjustments to the research design were required.

As part of Phase 1, the team facilitated successful implementation of daily occupational therapy, exercise and resilience sessions. This involved each group meeting every morning between 10 and 10.15 across Term 1, as well as taking part in a weekly 50 minute session.

  • The exercise group, run by PDHPE teacher Jonathan Hosking, participated in a short walk every morning along with basketball and touch football sessions.
  • The resilience training group, run by Head of Wellbeing Jaye Shean, spent time completing a self-authoring journal writing about their past, present and future. They also engaged in additional lessons discussing wellbeing strategies.
  • The occupational therapy group, run by Lead Teacher and Science teacher Christopher Harris, saw students participate in HeartMath breathing techniques and activities designed to engage the central nervous system.

In addition to this practical implementation:

  • pre and post cortisol samples were collected
  • a series of medical and wellbeing questionnaires were completed by students
  • initial statistical analysis was undertaken
  •  a draft manuscript discussing results was written in preparation for publication.

Where to next?

The second year of the project will see the team redo data collection across Terms 1-3 and receive details of lab-based salivary cortisol analysis. Due to the potential risks with collecting saliva samples in 2021, they are considering hair sampling as an option. They have plans in place to brief the new 2021 Year 10 cohort and their parents to share the project’s aims and gain consent for participation.

The project has been gathering interest across both the education community and academia. The team has been working on a number of publications, has been invited to present at the Occupational Therapy Australia (OTA) annual meeting, and is considering some future aligned research possibilities.

About Skillset Senior College

Skillset Senior College is an innovative independent senior school established in 2015 with a focus on student wellbeing and personal achievement, currently with campuses in Bathurst and Dubbo. Their major focus is on building meaningful relationships with students and improving their wellbeing. Many Skillset Senior College students come from a trauma background and in some cases have missed many years of schooling having become completely disengaged with mainstream education. Skillset Senior College's priority is to give students a worthwhile education while increasing their ability and resilience to cope with and prevent serious mental health issues.

Contact details

Project Lead: Martin Hughes

School website:

Contact number: 1300 167 794


Twitter: @SkillsetRandD