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Should we teach primary school children about mental health?

Helen Jeys explains why it's important to help students cope with stressful situations from an early age

Posted by Hannah Oakman | December 31, 2016 | Health & wellbeing

A recent article in the American Science magazine commented on the research by Tufts University Massachusetts, that stress impacts memory retrieval. In other words, when we are in a stressful situation – such as an exam – our brains are not able to access the information we have learned and which is necessary for us to be able to perform at our best.  

As we approach the season of entrance examinations, we will all know of the increased stress levels of our Year 6 students and their parents who start to talk about their children panicking and experiencing genuinely stressful reactions to the assessments. We know so well that such problems accelerate with age. The NSPCC reported last year that the number of young people, so stressed about exam success that they were seeking counselling, had risen by 200% in recent years. In 2013–14, ChildLine said it received more than 34,000 approaches from young people over such worries. Young Minds also estimate that approximately three children in every classroom suffer with a mental health disorder; a statistic that is growing year on year.

So, we evidently need to be doing what we can to improve the abilities of our students to cope with stressful situations and I have been exploring what we can do with our youngest students in this regard. This is a new venture for me, having always focused on proactive approaches to help manage the stress levels of senior school students, but the more I hear about the importance of good habits needing to start early, the more I, alongside my Junior School Head, Bridget Howard, have been investigating ways of doing so.

The teaching of mindfulness gives our children a toolkit that they can use as they go through life

In collaboration with Laura Earnshaw, therefore, we have introduced her myHappymind programme into our Year 1 curriculum. Laura feels strongly that the reality of our global environment is that life is faster, more challenging and characterised by constant change. While this undoubtedly provides huge opportunities, it also means that our children are growing up in a world that will provide few guarantees. Against this backdrop, myHappymind was developed with a very simple purpose; to give today’s children the skills they need to thrive in tomorrow’s world. 

Using an online portal by teachers in school, supported by an app for parents to use with their child at home, its approach is to teach children healthy habits and thereby develop resilient children who celebrate themselves and others, build positive relationships and thrive. By teaching children the science of their brains, they develop an understanding of how to manage their own mental wellbeing in times of challenge.  There is also a focus on character education so that children learn how to be at their very best. Furthermore, there is a focus on mindfulness and teaching it to the youngest children. Seeing children trace their fingers as they concentrate on ‘happy breathing’ has been a great way of encouraging the youngest of our students to be in the moment and to deal with stressful situations. We know, now, how much mindfulness can improve the mental, emotional, social and physical health and wellbeing of young people and, as our pupils enter an increasingly pressurised and stressful world, we need to reassess and alter our curriculum so that as with all other areas we teach, we are equipping them as best we can for successful lives as adults in the 21st century.

Both Bridget and I feel strongly that the introduction of myHappymind and the teaching of mindfulness gives our children a toolkit that they can use as they go through life. Indeed, mindfulness has been described as ‘the WD40 of education’, helping pupils find the focus needed to achieve their goals in life. We have introduced mindfulness drop-in sessions at lunchtimes and these are proving extremely popular among our girls.  Indeed, it has been heart-warming to hear the girls’ responses to the practices. One of our girls said: “I love the lunchtime sessions because I feel calmer going into the afternoon lessons.”

If our endeavours to help our youngest children are having these effects, then perhaps we can enable them to approach stress with the strategies needed not only to cope, but flourish in today’s world.

Helen Jeys is Headmistress at Alderley Edge School for Girls: www.aesg.co.uk 

Laura Earnshaw is the Founder of myHappymind: www.myHappymind.org

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