A STEP-UP Resilience Intervention for Supporting Indigenous Students Attending Boarding Schools

Its Development and Implementation


  • Katrina Rutherford Central Queensland University
  • Amelia Britton Central Queensland University
  • Janya McCalman Central Queensland University
  • Catherine Adams Transition Support Services, Department of Education Queensland
  • Mark Wenitong Apunipima Cape York Health Council, Cairns, QLD, Australia
  • Richard Stewart Transition Support Services, Department of Education Queensland; The Cairns Institute, James Cook University, Cairns, QLD, Australia.




Developing and nurturing resilience is critical to the social and emotional wellbeing (SEWB) of Indigenous Australian adolescents and their continuing life trajectories. The attendance of many Indigenous adolescents from remote communities at boarding schools creates a need to prioritise and proactively create opportunities that build and nurture student resilience. This requires sustainable and multi-dimensional school-wide approaches. Despite this need, there are no documented SEWB or resilience building approaches for Australian Indigenous students who attend boarding schools. We describe the use of participatory action research to develop and implement a two-year STEP-UP intervention with boarding schools, designed to create supportive environments for improving psychosocial resilience and wellbeing of remote-living Indigenous students. The intervention consisted of three components implemented annually across eight schools: a site-specific STEP-UP action plan; staff capacity development; and an annual Schools and Communities Conference. Thematic analysis of a systematic literature review, documented action planning, conference group processes, resilience theory and survey findings from the associated broader resilience study resulted in the identification of six resilience building domains: valuing culture and identity; developing cultural leadership; nurturing strong relationships; building social and emotional skills; creating safe, supportive environments; and building staff capacity. These domains became the resulting framework for STEP-UP planning and enabled focused examination of practices and future planning. Learnings from the intervention process suggest principles to consider when designing interventions: utilising a strengths-based approach; design responsiveness; collaborative partnerships; institutional capacity; and sustainability. A resilience toolkit website was developed to enable knowledge translation and sustainability beyond the study.

Author Biographies

Katrina Rutherford, Central Queensland University

Katrina is a senior teacher who has worked in the education sector for the past 20 years, with extensive experience working with remote Indigenous communities. She has worked as a primary school teacher, RATEP co-ordinator, transition support teacher and education advisor. For the past decade her work has focused on supporting students from Cape York who transition to boarding schools. Through this work she co-founded and collaborated on a CQU/TSS study: Pyscho-social resilience, vulnerability and suicide prevention: An impact evaluation of a mentoring approach to modify suicide risk for remote Indigenous Australian students at boarding school. Katrina is a strong advocate for equitable and culturally responsive education systems and has a keen interest in the development of social ecologies which promote and sustain the resilience and SEWB of Indigenous youth. She is currently undertaking her PhD research at CQUniversity exploring the post-schooling transitions of remote Indigenous boarding school graduates.

Amelia Britton, Central Queensland University

Amelia is a PhD candidate at CQUniversity. She has worked as a teacher and Guidance Officer with more than 15 years' experience working on Cape York and in Far North Queensland. She is passionate about supporting young people to have experiences and opportunities to enhance their growth into adulthood. She has most recently worked on a five-year Resilience studying examining psychosocial resilience and wellbeing of Indigenous students attending boarding schools. Her PhD research focuses on co-designing an alternate model of education with two remote Aboriginal communities to provide learning opportunities for their adolescents who don't meet the requirements of mainstream learning pathways.

Janya McCalman, Central Queensland University

Associate Professor Janya is Deputy Leader of the Centre for Indigenous Health Equity at Central Queensland University, which she co-manages with Professor Roxanne Bainbridge. She is a NHMRC research fellow and a public health researcher. Her research has focussed on the interactions between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians and schools, workplaces, health services and other community contexts which enable resilience, empowerment and wellbeing.

Catherine Adams, Transition Support Services, Department of Education Queensland

Cathy has a Masters of Education and has worked in Far North Queensland for more than 25 years teaching, writing curriculum and as a support teacher providing professional development to educators of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. In her current role, Cathy supports young people who have moved off Country to board and engage in secondary education; their families; the communities and schools they transition from; and the partner boarding schools/facilities they attend. Cathy is passionate about building understanding of how to best cater for the needs of her students so that they can reach their potential.

Mark Wenitong, Apunipima Cape York Health Council, Cairns, QLD, Australia

Dr Mark Wenitong is a Kabbi Kabbi and South Sea Islander medical practitioner and the Senior Medical Advisor for Apunipima Cape York Health Council, the Aboriginal community controlled primary health care service across Cape York. He has been extensively involved in both national and international Indigenous health education and policy and led several policy developments. He is a founder and past president of the Australian Indigenous Doctors Association and sits on several current health policy committees and boards including the Stars Foundation for young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. He was a consultant for Health Workforce Australia and is a chief investigator on a five-year Resilience study examining the psychosocial resilience and wellbeing of Indigenous students attending boarding schools. 

Richard Stewart, Transition Support Services, Department of Education Queensland; The Cairns Institute, James Cook University, Cairns, QLD, Australia.

Richard Stewart is the Manager of the Queensland Education Department Transition Support Services based in Cairns. The service, which is now in its eleventh year of operations provides in-community and in-school support for students and their families from remote Indigenous communities in Cape York and Palm Island.  He has extensive experience as a teacher, administrator and principal in a wide variety of educational settings and has led boarding schools and residential facilities in Papua New Guinea, Queensland and most recently in the Northern Territory. He has also worked in Indigenous education and employment program management for the Australian government in Far North Queensland and Arnhem Land. Richard is also undertaking PhD research through James Cook University into the transition to boarding school experience for families and students from the remote Indigenous community of Lockhart River on Cape York.



16-07-2020 — Updated on 19-04-2022


How to Cite

Rutherford, K., Britton, A., McCalman, J., Adams, C., Wenitong, M., & Stewart, R. (2022). A STEP-UP Resilience Intervention for Supporting Indigenous Students Attending Boarding Schools: Its Development and Implementation. Australian and International Journal of Rural Education, 30(2), 44–66. https://doi.org/10.47381/aijre.v30i2.254 (Original work published July 16, 2020)