Embracing rites of passage to build wellbeing and belonging

Friday, 29 Oct 2021

Student Leadership induction - an annual service where the former leaders hand over the role to their successors.

As adults, many of us can reflect on the rites of passage that we experienced growing up - such as transition into adulthood, graduations, weddings, retirement and even funerals. These are momentous occasions where we celebrate change and ease a person into their new stage of life. 

These rituals remind us that we are constantly evolving and that life is a transformative journey. They connect us with the past and help us to make sense of change. 

Many communities across the globe hold true to longstanding rituals today. In Indigenous communities such as the Eora Nation in the Sydney Basin, boys are accepted into adulthood when a tooth is knocked out by a fellow male member of the clan, and girls learn important medicinal and culinary skills and are then welcomed by other adult women into adulthood. 

In the Christian context, rites of passage are outlined by ceremonies including Baptism, Weddings and Funerals. Confirmation is the opportunity for a person, usually a teen, to confirm their desire to live their lives according to their baptismal covenant. Similarly, Jewish boys and girls celebrate their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs at age 13 and 12 in order to demonstrate their commitment to their faith and responsibility to Jewish law. 

Modern societies however more generally have lost their rites of passage traditions. This is due to a range of societal changes from reductions in physical connection to family, cultural groups or a reduction in familiar connection to religious ceremonies and practices. 

Schools therefore can take this opportunity to mark the transitions from one stage of life to another utilising their own rites of passage measures. Marking these transitions can be seen as fundamental in the growth, connectedness and health of the individual and the community more broadly.

Schools must build their own practices and traditions for their rites of passage but over the last 20 years there are the practices that I and my respective school communities have valued the most:

Honouring Letter - where the parent writes a letter to their adolescent about their unconditional love, and respect for particular character traits or virtues they possess. 

Student Mentoring - Each student in their final three years of schooling is involved in a mentoring relationship, with both a staff member and also with a young group of students. This is often done in gender groups as role models.

Uniform Changes - The movement and handover of a shirt or jacket or availability of  a badge to represent transition and change.

Letter to Future Self - At least three years should transpire before the student gets their letter back. In my experience this can be done at least twice in their schooling journey and is an opportunity to project and reflect. 

School Camps - These are exciting and challenging, but they can be more than just a list of physical activities. They can include conversations, rituals, group challenges and opportunities to build connection and grow together. It is important that school camps are long enough so that challenge, reflection and growth can take place. Many schools incorporate a 24 hour solo experience within one of their senior camps.Time disconnected from devices and other voices and influences and think about what is truly important to them and their direction as young people.

Year 12 Valedictory Week - A graduation service, presentation ceremony and a graduation dinner all with parents present. A Guard of Honour walk through the campus from the youngest year level classrooms to the senior car park is symbolic of the journey. In Coffs Harbour, all senior students also do a jump off the jetty as part of their traditions.

Rites of passage create a sense of belonging and connection with the community which then builds self-esteem and resilience. They also create opportunities to recognise gifts, talents and character traits that are productive and community building. Let’s embrace and respect these opportunities for the wellbeing of our emerging youth, and the whole community. 

Nick Johnstone 

This article first appeared in the November 2021 edition of Focus Magazine