Seen and heard

Professor Anne Graham

Professor Anne Graham (AO)

In 2018, Southern Cross University's Professor Anne Graham was made an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) for her contribution to childhood studies and children’s research. In light of devastating recent events, her dedication to young people is stronger than ever.

In terms of age, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is now well into adulthood. Born in 1989 as a global commitment to the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of every child without discrimination, Australia ratified the treaty in 1990. All other countries bar one – the US – have done so too.

At Southern Cross University, the treaty is fundamental to the mission and vision of the Centre for Children and Young People (CCYP). Led by its Founding Director, Professor Anne Graham AO, the CCYP has achieved plenty in relation to children's rights, wellbeing and safety. Yet as recent events demonstrate, there is always much to do.

"Australia has been rocked by three massive recent crises – the bushfires of 2019-20, the floods of 2022 and, of course, the global pandemic," says Anne. "Their impact has been seen vividly in the grief of lives lost, thousands of homes and businesses destroyed, schools closed and public spaces unusable, all contrasted by extraordinary courage, kindness, generosity and resilience as people united in the task of recovery."

Anne points out that the impact of such events demands constant vigilance to ensure that young people – especially the most vulnerable among them – are well supported.

"Many children and young people have experienced loss too. Much that was familiar to them has changed. While many disaster-affected children ultimately cope and demonstrate resilience, they are nevertheless at higher risk of mental health symptoms compared with unexposed peers. This is why it is important for them to have opportunities to share what they know, need and can contribute in adapting to adverse life experiences. They do have important things to say and they do have agency."

"If young people are to feel known, cared about and respected, they must be given opportunities to participate in decision-making that impacts their lives. This means we need to hear from them, listen to them, respond to their questions and concerns. These are the ones who will be faced with the world’s biggest issues, like climate change and world peace, in years to come."

"We need to ensure they are well resourced to create this better world. Out of the recent crises they have seen and experienced the hope that comes from communities working together. In the case of Southern Cross, they have seen their university step us as a place of refuge and support."

An ideal choice

A sociologist and Professor of Childhood Studies, whose background is in primary teaching and teacher education, Anne has spent years working for children's rights and was an ideal choice to lead the CCYP.

Launched in 2004, it began as a collaboration between the School of Education and the School of Law and Justice and was a bold move by a small, regional university trying to build credibility around social science research. As the university has continued to grow, so has the scope of the CCYP.

However, conceptions about children and youth were beginning to change and in recognising and respecting that, I believed the CCYP could provide a distinctive contribution. Accordingly, we have focused on research that is ethical, robust, relevant and, most of all, participatory. Furthermore, by also listening to the perspectives of young people and adults together, we can better understand challenges and work more collaboratively towards strategies and solutions."

Under the auspices of the CCYP, Anne has led more than seventy research projects – most focusing on children’s rights, wellbeing and safety – and she continues to work closely with the education sector, other state and Commonwealth government departments, key statutory bodies, national and international NGOs, and regionally based organisations.

We are unashamedly about impacting policy and practice in relation to children's lives," she says. "This is so important in the way children adapt to change manifested by major events in their lives – loss, grief, suicide, separation, natural disaster, forced migration and other issues. By gathering evidence from young people about their experiences, and what works, what does not and what could, we can develop policies, programs and resources that help to equip them when those big events occur. Again, you need only look at the past three years in Australia to see how quickly this can happen."

The global pandemic has provided clear evidence of this. Anne says that when COVID struck out of the blue in 2020, the CCYP had to think and work quickly to capture, analyse and implement ideas and strategies to help young people and schools with ways to negotiate lockdowns, cope with isolation, manage remote learning, transition back to school and adapt to rapidly changing circumstances.

The role of technology is another example, because it has changed the way young people relate, learn, socialise, see themselves and more.

"Young people have different ways to express themselves, project themselves, and sometimes this can be damaging. We talk to them about vulnerability, challenges and rights. What we don’t do in our research is treat them as broken or less than."

Seasons of change

Two programs in particular – Seasons for Growth and Stormbirds – demonstrate the merit of the CCYP's approach to research and impact.

Seasons for Growth provides children, young people and adults with knowledge and skills to adapt to significant change in family life following death, separation, divorce and other loss experiences. Stormbirds is a small-group psychosocial education program that provides an opportunity for children impacted by natural disaster. Both have driven programs that embrace a range of contexts and are highly reputed. More than 300,000 participants have engaged in programs in Australia, New Zealand, England, Scotland and Wales, in schools and community-based organisations, as well as in detention and prisons.

"We are providing opportunities for young people to learn knowledge and skills for life – naming and managing feelings, making good decisions, setting goals, knowing who and where they can reach out to for support," says Anne. "Guiding them to deal with change, adversity, uncertainty and grief is at the essence of this work – helping them to understand their reactions are normal and that ‘I am not the only one’."

Anne says there is never any trouble in getting children and young people involved. The CCYP is diligent in creating a safe and creative learning opportunity for them to be heard, connected and able to engage in problem-solving. In this way, they are affirmed as experts in their own lives.

Unfailingly optimistic, Anne says the world is in good hands with today's young.

"Young people do want to change the world for the better. From the viewpoint of transforming tomorrow, they are the ones who will be the agents of that transformation. They have the right to participate in the making of that tomorrow. That is why we need to hear from them, listen to them and work with them. If we do, that will be a momentous shift for good."