In Australia, 22.0 % of “children enrolled in their first year of formal fulltime school are developmentally vulnerable” (Australian Government, 2012, p. 26). “Vulnerable” means students are already developing either internalising disorders (shy, withdrawn, depressed) or externalising disorders (bullying, aggression, obstinacy) and have failed to develop socially acceptable cooperative behaviours. In these reports “vulnerable” is the most challenged category in the bottom 0 – 10 percentile, while those “at risk” are children in the 10 – 25 percentile By the end of school or soon after, the situation has deteriorated, with 26.4% of young Australians aged 16–24 years having a mental disorder (Slade et al., 2009), which includes substance and alcohol abuse. Children can be less than ideally supported at home during their school experience by having parents who are struggling with their own mental health issues (15%), fair to poor health (12%) or disabilities (17%) (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2012, p. 69). A relationship outside the family with at least one caring adult, often a teacher, can be “the single most important element in protecting young people who have multiple risks in their lives” (Sabol & Pianta, 2012). New Zealand’s principle family youth court judge Becroft claimed (2009, p. 14), based on the court’s 20 year history as well as world-wide research, that “the battle to prevent a young person’s serious offending is really won or lost in those pivotal first years of early childhood” (p. 14). Plainly, teachers and schools need additional strategies to deal with these challenges.
The Virtues Project TM provides teachers with the insight to identify which children are vulnerable (high risk) and struggling and also the strategies with which to bring out their strengths and help them build resilience to meet these challenges. This has helped turn around challenging behaviours in a Kindergarten to Year 12 school specifically catering for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students where “[t]he whole experience with the Virtues Project has been very positive for the college in turning around behaviour” (Commonwealth of Australia, 2003, pp. 96-97), in a low SES school (Government of South Australia, 2005) struggling with persistent problems of bullying, violence and disenchantment (Lane, 2005), a South Australia primary school (Jordan, Chand, & Mott, 2005) where the key was whole school culture change, and other schools (Commonwealth of Australia, 2008).
New Zealand research in a preschool (Patton, 2007) showed how teachers applied these strategies to eliminate the problematic behaviours in the most at-risk children who were in the clinical range for either internalising or externalising disorders. In addition and without prompting, these teachers then trained parents in the same strategies. Teachers love to teach and parents with young children are receptive to advice from them. There are reportedly 70 schools in New Zealand using project (Virtues Project Trust Board, 2006), and a number of them have been the subject of research that has shown dramatic improvements in student behaviour (Dixon, 2005).
In Canada, at Parry Sound High School (2009; Skinner, 2008) with 50% First Nations and where there were intercultural and behaviour problems, the students took it upon themselves to visit the feeder primary schools and train them in the virtues system so they arrived prepared for the positive empowering culture in the high school. These examples show not only the high social validity of The Virtues Project, but the likelihood of producing self-replicating change systems at no additional cost to the funders of the original intervention.
The Calgary School District (Canada) has nearly a quarter of schools in the district, or approximately 52 schools with 18,400 students using this project (Calgary Board of Education, 5 June 2007) with this report showing a significant drop in antisocial behaviour and an increase in student reported perceptions of safety.