Pioneering behaviour change

How PhD researcher Elle Coleman is using her personal experience to create a safer future

Content warning: the following story mentions child and sexual abuse.

When Elle Coleman was finishing high school, she wasn’t sure of her next steps.  

"I had a really bad time in Year 12. I had a strong history of abuse as well as familial violence cycles, and those experiences led me into not doing too well in the HSC," she explains.  

A survivor of child sexual abuse and harassment, Elle enrolled in a bridging program at UOW College to study journalism, with a passion for advocating for victim-survivors.  

“I did a year of journalism and realised at the core of the things that I love to do, was to help people. Psychology was the way that I found I could that best, rather than through journalism. I thought, ‘okay, this is this is where I'm going to end up to fuel that passion with working with victim-survivors, working on understanding the motivators of behaviour to then influence behaviour change, to help people overall.’” 

Now in the third year of her psychology PhD, Elle is a pioneer of the School of Psychology Behaviour Statement, a response to the 2021 National Student Safety Survey. 

I spoke out and responded by saying I would like to know exactly what the plan is to combat sexual assault and harassment. Speaking out was terrifying; but by speaking out, more students spoke up with cries and suggestions for change. It felt like hope. Incredible staff members responded with an ‘I hear you, I agree with you, let’s work together to implement these changes.’” 

Along with colleagues in the School of Psychology, Elle hosted focus meetings to hear student voices, and found current policy focused on supporting victim-survivors after the fact.  

“School of Psychology Deputy Head Jane Herbert suggested we write something like a vision statement that clearly labels inappropriate behaviours while encapsulating the positive, inclusive, and supportive culture we want to see in the School of Psychology,” says Elle.  

The Behaviour Statement outlines acceptable and unacceptable behaviour by staff and students and clarifies clear reporting pathways for inappropriate behaviour.  

Elle took great responsibility in implementing the statement, ensuring the meetings would end in practical targeted goals to put the statement into action, as well as involving UOW Safe and Respectful Communities (SARC).  

“I didn’t want to see the Behaviour Statement become a document buried in policy that would be ignored by everyone. It needed to be more than words to be an agent for behaviour change. I walked into the doors of people who have the power to say yes to the next steps in the change process and wouldn’t leave until the next steps were guaranteed,” Elle says.  

“I marketed the document to SARC as a base for creating behaviour change, not just in the School of Psychology, but across the entire university and now the statement, born from those collaborative efforts  is doing just that.” 

Elle is set to begin working with other UOW faculties and schools to implement and adopt the Behaviour Statement for their needs, and working with SARC to help undergraduate students recognise inappropriate behaviour. 

“A big problem was people did not have the words to describe the behaviours they were experiencing, and so we implemented specific and targeted language with examples of what these behaviours look like. In having a document like this, we now have a basis to address very specifically what inappropriate behaviour looks like to provide an avenue to call it out when it happens,” Elle says. 

“The statement is not just going to be another document; it is going to be a values piece that lives on here long after I am gone from the University. There is ongoing work, and so much potential for ongoing work, to make sure that the fire for behaviour change and the prevention of sexual assault and harassment does not burn out. It feels so incredibly wonderful to be part of this process.”