by Collett SmartOur Year 12s Need Creative Rites of Passage
I have written before, on how different this Year looks for our Year 12 students. I know that students are struggling, because I am a parent of a Year 12. I have also had parents contact me for months, asking how they can support their child through this year.
So how can we point them to Hope?


In the last few weeks our kids heard that they will be losing more lasts. They’re really struggling with the news. It is absolutely vital that we find new ways to help them celebrate this last milestone year. Our Year 12s need creative Rites of Passage. 

We know that Victoria announced further lockdowns this term. Some students took Lockdown 2.0 in their stride, while others found it more  challenging than the first time.

NSW students heard that all graduations, inter-school sport, excursions, camps and formals had been cancelled for the rest of term 3. Some students heard this news just as they were about to sit their trial exams.

Then (what we all suspected would be next), Queensland confirmed there would be no schoolies celebrations this year.


What YOU Told Me About Your Year 12s

I reached out on my Facebook page, over a week ago, and asked you to email me:

  1. How your year 12 child (or student/s) is handling the announcements about changes.
  2. What has been cancelled completely.
  3. What your school is doing, to still help Year 12s celebrate and experience the end of school Rite of Passage (i.e. How have they been creative in coming up with different but great alternatives?).

I was flooded with emails, inbox messages and even phone calls from people I had never met. I heard about a lot of pain in families right now.

Your stories

Parents stories describe lots and lots of tears. Sadness at losses and, for some, fear and a perceived loss of hope about the future. One student told their parent, “There is nothing to look forward to, nothing.” Some said their children are handling things ok.

A common thread is the frustration of NSW parents and schools, at the perceived inconsistency between social distancing rules for school events, compared to what is allowed on public transport, in restaurants, food courts and sports clubs. Especially those in regional areas.

Tony George, the principal of The King’s School in Sydney, drew attention to the nonsensical and confusing rules between club, public and private school sport (Inter-school sport was then permitted to go ahead last week). Another principal felt that school leadership haven’t been trusted to go ahead with well planned, closely monitored and socially distanced (outdoor) graduations. Yet, restaurants, pubs and cafe’s could still host patrons from anywhere around the city. A NSW mother even began a petition, calling out some of theses irregularities.


Your children’s specific losses include:

  • Formals
  • Graduation assemblies
  • Year 12 parent/child breakfasts
  • Year 12 family chapel service
  • Year 12 Mothers’ Lunch
  • Old Boys hosted lunch for Year 12s
  • Valedictory dinners
  • Inter-school sport competitions
  • Last inter-state school competitions
  • Inter-school art and drama events
  • Last school excursions
  • Being the Seniors in the school and not being able to enjoy the associated privileges because schools are closed
  • Year 12 common rooms or Year 12 areas closed (because they can’t appropriately socially distance and they’re not allowed to share cutlery/microwave etc)
  • Year 12 camp
  • Duke of Edinburgh hike postponed
  • Final fun week activities
  • Staff vs Year 12 sports matches
  • Year 12 beach day
  • Year 12 ‘Muck Up’ day
  • Last whole school assembly, run by Year 12s
  • Study camps
  • Year group photos
  • University Open Days (onsite)
  • 18th birthday parties
  • End of term offsite picnic
  • Schoolies
  • Overseas/interstate gap year
  • Casual work and apprenticeship unknowns


Why Rites of Passage Matter

In Sydney alone, there have been a number of reports of suicide tragedies in senior students this year. In August, the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) data for Victoria recorded a 33 per cent rise in children presenting to hospital with self-harm injuries, compared to the same time last year.

Please hear me – I am not implying that the loss of Year 12 rites of passage alone has lead to such tragedies! But when young people are struggling (already having experienced bush fires or floods, personal or parental job losses, illness, death of loved ones and/or mental health challenges) for some, this loss of ‘lasts’ can add to their sense of hopelessness. Year 12 student Carla Tomaras told the ABC that a rise in mental health issues among young people was not surprising to her.

So, it is not ok to say to our Year 12s, “Oh come on, it’s not THAT big in the greater scheme of things.” or,  “Oh well, at least it’s not a war.” I’ve written before how unkind these statements are, but we also have no idea what some of these young people are quietly carrying.


But, Doesn’t Hardship Build Resilience?

Yes, learning to overcome difficulty can build resilience. But resilience doesn’t develop out of the hardship itself. Resilience is built through a number of supporting factors which surround the person going through the hardship. Most significantly – relationships. Through trusting, supportive adult-child relationships. Parents, teachers, school counsellors and school leadership – that’s us!

Harvard’s Centre on the Developing Child reports,

“The single most common factor for children who develop resilience is at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive parent, caregiver, or other adult.”

No we can’t change COVID-19, but brushing off pain, belittling and ridiculing doesn’t build resilience, let alone connection. Rather, acknowledging, listening and finding healthy alternative pathways does. It’s in the safe spaces we create, that emotions should be allowed to surface and be heard. Places where young people can be vulnerable, yet completely and unconditionally accepted. Without these factors, the build up of hardships can be crushing instead of building.

So the question is, “How are we communicating support and care to our Year 12s, in the things that matter to them at the moment?”


Your and My Role 

Perhaps the Year 12s in our homes or classrooms simply need us to acknowledge that there have been many losses this year? That there are so many unknowns. That mask wearing everywhere can be unsettling and anxiety provoking for some. That fears or anxiety about the unknown and concerns about loss of job prospects, are normal responses. That some have felt (and still feel) lonely. Others continue to be worried about vulnerable family members. That missing out on the social events really sucks.

Perhaps all we need to do is lean in right now?  Lean in and show empathy. And then get a little creative with some Rites of Passage events.


Rites of Passage are Good for Us

When you are at school, everything builds up to the final year. Some major Rites of Passage events happen then. Essentially, it is normal for teenagers to look forward to these events as markers of maturity and gaining even more independence.

Cristine Legare, a researcher and psychology professor at the University of Texas, explains (here and here) that,

“Rituals are universal practices of human culture… (they) have social, psychological and instrumental functions… Rituals signify transition points in the individual life span and provide psychologically meaningful ways to participate in the beliefs and practices of the community….
Initiation rites are commonly found across cultures as a coming of age ritual to mark the time when adolescents enter adulthood”

So, our Years 12s need creative Rites of Passage this year.


What Schools Can Do 

Parents responses to me were quite mixed, in terms of schools Connection, Communication and Care during Covid-19 announcements.

Some schools have been completely on the ball and had a response drafted and sent out to families, by the time students arrived home after a government announcement (about closures, exams, formals, graduations and so on.) What broke my heart was reading that it took a week for some parents to hear anything from their child’s school (following media reports), and some who still (up to last Friday) haven’t heard a word about alternative celebrations from their school’s leadership.

I’ve worked in schools a long time and I know, without a doubt, that principals and teachers care for their students! That’s what they’re in the business of doing. They’re really doing their utmost to keep students safe. But if I might remind schools, your students and parents don’t know what’s happening behind the scenes if you don’t tell them. These issues for our Year 12s are not something to be silent on.

(Note to Parents: If you haven’t heard from your child’s school – ask.)

If, as a school, you are still trying to work out the details – perhaps say that? Let the parents and students know you are thinking of them and thinking of alternatives. But please don’t say nothing at all.


We need to keep in mind that:

  • no news raises anxiety and stress levels
  • these social events are a big part of maintaining wellbeing in this year group
  • schools need to keep communicating with parents and students on a regular basis
  • kind communication demonstrates care


Help Students Own Their Events

Perhaps schools could ask the students for their ideas? After all, they’re mostly legal adults this year. Show them that their opinions matter to you. Give your Year 12s the opportunity to brainstorm and participate in setting up their own ‘lasts.’ Not just the school prefects, but everyone that would like to be involved.

Some students will relish the chance to own these events for themselves. Or at least have a voice in the planning and executing of them. Of course you will get some outrageous ideas, but young people are amazing and creative when given the chance. This might be the most creative year yet!


The Creative Rites For Year 12s – That YOU Told Me About

Keepsakes and Treasures

One thing we can still do is produce keepsakes. e.g. Year 12 Jerseys (thankfully handed out at the start of the year) and year books, special signed photos and other souvenirs.

  • Photos: Although the more formal year group photos might have been cancelled, there is still an opportunity to take informal class or group photos. Someone suggested creative socially distanced photos (with masks on, spread out on the oval or waving from the banisters.)
  • Unique 2020 keepsakes: Kate Rayment, the principal of St Scholastica’s College in Glebe, told the SMH that she wanted to acknowledge the year like no other. She wanted the girls to remember it with pride and turned around, into something they can be proud of. Something that says, “We survived this.” So Kate has, “…given each year 12 student a commemorative badge, featuring the school’s crest encircled by symbols of the COVID age – hand-washing, social distancing, lockdown and sanitiser.”

  • Certificates: The Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta has also reported their plan to present a special certificate to every student in the Class of 2020, to acknowledge their resilience.
  • Journals: My colleague Sharon Witt has recently created Year 12 ISO Journals (Covering; gratitude, goals, kindness, connection, emotions and more). These can be purchased in boxes of 40. Wouldn’t this be an amazing keepsake gift for each Year 12 at your school?


Creative Event Alternatives for Year 12s

I love the ideas that I was sent by you!

I had many reports of formals and graduation dinners being postponed to late term 4, after finals and in hope that lockdowns will have eased somewhat. With many hoping that at least the year 12 student body and their teachers might attend (even if parents can’t attend the valedictory dinner).

Graduation assemblies are only a few weeks away and it is these that have students and parents anxious right now. However, at this stage, I am thrilled to hear that many schools are determined to honour the Year 12s in both formal and fun ways.

One Director of Pastoral Care is working closely with a parent committee of a Year 12 boys’ school and told me that they are still planning some extra activities for their final days of school.  Another public school has year 12 teachers and the principal involved in organising events.

Graduation ideas:

  • Some are having year 12s graduate via Zoom/video link, with parents connecting offsite and the rest of the school from other classrooms
  • One or two schools are considering holding back the formal graduation assembly, to one morning during the first week of term 4. (In Victoria and NSW there is approximately one week before final exams begin in term 4.)
  • Socially distanced outdoor graduation assemblies – should restrictions ease/change
  • A few schools have offered to film the graduation and then provide a copy to each family as a keepsake
  • Some will  ensure there is a good photo taken of each student
  • A Sydney public school and a private school reported plans to hold a modified ‘walk of fame’. Year 12s will walk along corridors, past classrooms, throughout the whole school, while students cheer and celebrate loudly. (One of my favourite Education journalists, Jordan Baker, wrote about her walk along ‘The Yellow Brick Road’)
  • Some schools have plans to have music playing, with balloons and decorations on classroom doors and corridors, to celebrate the year 12s graduation day


Fun last week events:

  • A final Year 12 fun assembly zoomed in to all other classes
  • One group of students are putting together a Year 12 video, including student and staff interviews, footage of the students over the years and possibly some fun skits
  • A socially distanced colour run, on the oval, for Year 12s only
  • An early BBQ dinner in their final week – where students can come together on the school premises
  • House farewells
  • Year 12 volleyball/soccer games on the oval
  • A special Year 12 Chapel service
  • Socially distanced picnics on the oval – BYO food
  • A last day Year 12 breakfast
  • ‘Kiss and Ride’ pick up  – where parents drive up to the school gate, with cars decorated with balloons and streamers. There will be a loud speaker and students announced as parents pull up
  • Students photographed climbing into the car, with parents hanging out of the windows at final day pick up
  • Parents taking students out to tea, lunch or dinner to celebrate the end of school
  • Small ‘pods’ of students getting together at a local restaurant or for beach walks to celebrate among themselves.


A word on Schoolies week:

Love it or hate, for many students ‘Schoolies’ represents a time to relax and unwind after a long year. When it goes well (and it often can), young people get to book a place, shop for food, cook and clean for themselves, and enjoy a holiday with good friends. All before more adult responsibilities begin the following year. This year might look different, but if a week away camping, glamping or flatting is something your young adult child is considering, perhaps you could help them find ways to support local tourism and do a laid back week away this year?

Last Thoughts

Rites of Passage are really about building memories, signifying milestones and progression to new phases of our lives. 2020 is a year that will never be forgotten.

These memories, their unique send off, their passage into the adult world, however crazy, will be part of this group’s unique end of schooling.

There is still so much potential to make joyful, meaningful and Hope-filled memories in the next few weeks.  Let’s send every class of 2020 off with a sense of exuberant triumph!


Let us know what your school is doing…







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