‘Get comfortable with worry’: Primary-school mental health
In recent years most of the emphasis in mental health education has been on teenagers and adults, with less focus on children. But now a teacher in a Corkcity primary school has designed his own programme promoting positive mental health for his sixth class students, aged 12 and 13.
Mark Russell of the all-boys Blarney Street School was approached by parents, who told him their children were “full of worry when they were at home”, particularly concerning the move to secondary school. It was the first time Russell had been approached in this way and the parents asked if he had any suggestions.
“I had done a lot of research over the years into positive mental health, as I’m into sport and I work with teams in Blackrock GAA Club, Cork,” he says. “I realised a lot of it was transferable to children.”
Fourth class primary school students follow Friends for Life, a childhood emotional resilience programme. “It’s a brilliant programme,” says Russell, “but it’s not advanced enough for sixth class. They want to compare themselves to sport stars and what’s relevant to them.” So he adapted Friends for Life, combining it with his own material to make it age-appropriate.
Able to breathe
Russell taught them about how to deal with stress and worry through meditating. One student, Ryan Sharpe, explains the simplicity of meditation: “You don’t need any fancy equipment or clothes. All you need is to be able to breathe.” Another student, Alan Wiczolek, says they learned how to calm down in stressful situations. “If you are nervous in front of tests or an audience, it helps.”
The 16 boys in the class took part in a body exercise. Evan O’Flaherty describes the process.
“We were in groups of four. We got sheets of papers, then we got the smallest people in the class to lie down on them, and we outlined them. Each group got a set emotion – anxiety, worry, anger and nervousness. We had to write what would happen with that emotion.” Among the bodily clues, they identified headaches, sweating, butterflies in the stomach and shaky hands.
Russell taught them coping mechanisms for the body clues, putting words over them to cancel out the feelings. The resulting body poster hangs on the door of their classroom with various slogans, including reminders to “be in the now”, “smile” and “focus on your breath”. There is also a clock face with “Now” written in place of each of the numbers, and a “Mindfull or Mindful?” illustration.
The exercise might have ended there, but the annual Edmund Rice SchoolsTrust Conference was being held in Newbridge, Co Kildare in April, and the theme was mental health. (Blarney Street is a former Christian Brothers School, and a member of the trust.) Unable to send a representative to present at the conference, principal Billy Lynch asked the boys to turn their project into a video.
Set to an instrumental version of REM’s Mad World, the video contains now dialogue. Instead, the boys hold up flashcards based on the work done in the body exercise. The central message is “Get comfortable feeling uncomfortable”. They edited the lighting themselves, moving from dark colours to bright, reflecting the move from not coping to coping.
Russell says the video is emotive yet simple. “Even adults who have never referenced mindfulness before could look at it and understand what it’s all about.”
The boys loved the finished product, as did their parents. It was very well received at the conference and posted on YouTube. Schools as far away as Argentina and South Africa have contacted the class with positive feedback.
Russell says the many things children worry about, from having the right runners to completing their homework, may seem insignificant to adults. But in the children’s world these little worries might be everything. “As adults we say it’s nothing, don’t worry about it,” he adds. “It wasn’t until they realised it was normal to feel these things that they learned to handle these emotions.”
A child from a Cork primary school took his own life last year, which Russell believes has heightened parents’ worries. “Mental health isn’t just a matter for teenagers anymore, or secondary schools,” he says. “He was a primary school child who didn’t know how to deal with certain situations. Children are exposed to so much on social media.”
While suicide is not specifically mentioned in primary school, Russell says there is “nothing wrong with exposing them to coping mechanisms, without referencing anything outside of that”.
He says it is easy for teachers to get caught up in the academics and results of everything. “My primary concern is that the children are safe and happy when they come to school, and that they feel secure. I don’t want them carrying unnecessary pressures into secondary school.”
Asked what worries them about secondary school, the boys cited needles, new friends, new teachers, sports’ days, tests and keeping up, among other anxieties. Some are even thinking as far ahead as the Leaving Certificate.
Russell’s next step is to work on cognitive aspects. “While this is more about a coping mechanism for an incident, the next stage would be to get them to figure out how they process thought, and the lifelong benefit of positive thinking.”
Blarney Street School’s culture also promotes positive mental wellbeing. All achievements are celebrated. The school has applied for the Amber Flag, developed by Suicide Aware, which recognises positive mental health in schools, clubs and society. The school does a 10-minute exercise at 10am once a month. “Being active promotes positive mental health,” says principal Billy Lynch.
There’s also a positivity box inviting suggestions on how to improve the school. “The suggestions are all studied, and the students then select and read some of them out on the intercom every week,” Lynch says. “Some children even used their own initiative to start cleaning the school grounds, which expanded into a community clean-up.”
The Lord Mayor of Cork recognised the school’s efforts and hosted the student council on a visit to city hall.
As a result of the work they’ve done, Russell has noticed a huge change in his students’ approach to matches and tests. The nerves aren’t as apparent, he says. They realise they’re not the only ones who feel nervous or anxious. “It’s normal to feel the butterflies, the headaches and the sweating,” he says. “To know that they’re not alone is a great help to them.”
The sixth-class boys are practising what they’ve learned, especially the breathing. Jack Foley says he does it before a big match – “It calms me down.” Killian Fitzpatrick used it sitting his secondary school entrance exams. “I was quite nervous,” he says, “but I focused on my breath for two minutes.”
Jamie McSweeney was worried when his team took part in an online gaming tournament. “I did a few breaths. They still lost but it didn’t feel as bad.”
The students are very keen to share their experience with others. But there’s a humorous note of caution from Sean Paul Cooke.
“Always do meditation in the dressing room. If you do it on the pitch, it will be counted as daydreaming, and you may be kicked off by the manager!”
PANEL: 10 tips from Mr Russell’s sixth class on coping with stress and anxiety
- Don’t worry – it makes things harder.
- Stay calm and positive. Be yourself and love what you do.
- Don’t think about what’s next.
- Have a good attitude.
- Nothing is going to be as bad as you think it is.
- Go your own way instead of copying other people’s ways.
- Right now everything is okay. Be in the now.
- Don’t be afraid of a challenge. If your life has no challenge, you are not really living it.
- When life puts you in a tough situation, don’t say “why me?”. Say “try me”.
- See YouTube: http://iti.ms/2rqJUBD
Original article is available at: https://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/health-family/get-comfortable-with-worry-primary-school-mental-health-1.3083848
School wins order quashing direction that it enrol student
A secondary school has won a High Court order quashing a direction requiring it to enrol a student in breach of its own selection procedures for admission.
Ms Justice Úna Ní Raifeartaigh directed the matter be reconsidered by a different Department of Education appeals committee’s in accordance with her findings.
The judge earlier observed, while the Education Act provides ministerial directions in relation to admissions shall be respected by school boards of management, no relevant directions have been published by the Minister.
The school, represented by Feichín McDonagh SC and Joe Jeffers BL, took proceedings over the committee’s decision that the boy be enrolled next September.
In her judgment, Ms Justice Ní Raifeartaigh said the primary issue was whether the committee was entitled to take into account the fact the boy’s parents moved him from one primary school to a ‘feeder’ school for the last two years of his primary education as a result of discussions with the now former principal of the secondary school.
That principal had said those discussions were held but he had not, and could not, give any guarantee the boy would be enrolled.
The admissions policy provides, where children do not fall into categories such as siblings of past pupils and children already in the school and attendance at the primary feeder school, the selection procedure was to be by random lottery.
The boy was not selected by lottery and the committee decision, if valid, meant the school would be required to admit him despite his not being selected in accordance with the procedure in the school’s admissions policy, she said.
The boy was among 298 applicants for 180 places in the school for the 2017/2018 year. After offering places to 173 applicants who fell into the first five categories of the order of priority in its admissions policy, it had six remaining places.
The boy was not selected during a random selection process for those six and 34 other places that became available when some of the 173 offers were not taken up.
In their appeal, the boy’s parents argued they had a legitimate expectation he would be admitted after they moved him to the feeder school. That was not easy for him for reasons including he had to leave friends and repeat a class.
The appeals committee, having balanced the parents’ position and admissions policy, recommended he be enrolled.
The judge said she could readily understand, “at a human sympathy level”, why the committee did so but the legal issue was whether it was entitled to take into account the boy’s personal circumstances and what was said by the former principal.
She held the doctrine of legitimate expectation did not apply in this case and also held, based on various legal decisions, an appeals committee should “apply” an enrolment policy and has no jurisdiction to review a school’s entrance policy.
The committee took into account factors that the enrolment policy would not have permitted to be taken into account, she held.
On foot of those and other findings, she quashed the decision and directed a fresh hearing.
Original article is available at:https://www.irishtimes.com/news/crime-and-law/courts/high-court/school-wins-order-quashing-direction-that-it-enrol-student-1.3167421
Minister Bruton publishes the results of the 2015 Lifeskills Survey
The Minister for Education and Skills, Richard Bruton TD, today (Friday) published the results of the 2015 Lifeskills Survey.
This survey provides data on a number of important ‘lifeskills’ related issues within primary and post-primary schools, Youthreach Centres and Community Training Centres. It includes data on physical activity and healthy eating, aspects of Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE) and Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE), as well as anti-bullying, substance use, and road safety.
In publishing the Lifeskills survey, Minister Richard Bruton thanked those that participated in the online survey: “This survey provides valuable evidence about the very important work that our schools and centres are doing in a range of areas to promote students’ overall wellbeing. The survey also highlights those areas where there are challenges and we will work to meet those challenges”.
Some key findings include that 97% of primary schools address resisting peer pressure and developing resilience to make sound decisions. 92% have healthy eating policies in place. Only 4% of primary schools have a policy which prevents running in their schools. 93% of post-primary schools reported that they promote healthy school lunches with their students. This is a significant improvement from 66% of schools in 2012. 99% of post-primary schools also reported having student councils, giving a formal voice to their students.
The 2015 survey included questions for the first time on the links between primary schools and early years’ settings, schools’ engagement with Education for Sustainable Development, and their links with local enterprise. At post-primary level, the survey is also being used to support an evaluation of Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) by the HSE Sexual Health and Crisis Pregnancy Programme.
For the first time, Youthreach Centres and Community Training Centres (CTCs) were included in the 2015 survey. The inclusion of these centres yielded valuable information regarding practices in the centres that will inform the forthcoming evaluation of the Centres by SOLAS.
The Minister stated “Today in our schools, in our Youthreach Centres and in our Community Training Centres learners are gaining good habits, becoming informed decision makers and are given the opportunity to develop the resilience needed to live healthy, confident and happy lives. I would like to thank the Department of Health for their practical involvement in this initiative and also for sponsoring four raffle prizes of sport equipment vouchers for schools who participated in the 2015 survey.”
Minister of State for Health Promotion Catherine Byrne stated “It is important for the present and future health of our population that our young people are equipped with the key skills and knowledge to confidently make healthier life choices. Schools, Youthreach and Community Training Centres play a vital role in developing lifeskills which impact across our homes and wider communities. The Lifeskills survey results give us a valuable insight into a range of issues and the progress we are making, and my Department is delighted to support this initiative. The findings will help inform our ongoing implementation of Healthy Ireland in partnership with the Education sector”.
Notes for editors:
The 2015 survey allowed for measurement of progress in a range of policy areas since the last survey was conducted in 2012. The results will help to inform policy making in a range of areas including physical activity, healthy eating and aspects of the Social, Personal and Health Education Programme (SPHE) and Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) Programme.
The response rate to the 2015 Lifeskills Survey was 53% at primary level and 33% at post primary level. In 2012 the response rate was 68% at primary level and 52% at post primary level. The survey results therefore have a margin of error of about 2% at primary level and 5% at post-primary level.
To encourage schools to complete the survey, all participating schools were entered in a draw for sports equipment vouchers. The following schools will receive vouchers:
SN Seachnaill Naofa, Dunshaughlin, Co Meath.
St Mary’s Primary, Strokestown, Co. Roscommon.
Ballymakenny College, Ballymakenny Road, Drogheda.
Muckross Park College, Donnybrook, Dublin 4.
Original article is available at:https://www.education.ie/en/Press-Events/Press-Releases/2017-Press-Releases/PR2017-07-21.html