Few parents will be unaware of the increasing concern about children’s mental health. A delicate topic that was rarely if ever mentioned in the past now commands government and media attention. Tragic, high-profile stories of children driven to self-harm, or to take their own lives because of bullying and the daily pressures they face are all too common.
Recently, the BBC carried harrowing reports of pupils who struggled with suicidal thoughts and depression and who felt isolated and unsupported. In a poll of 1,000 11 to 16 year olds, 70 per cent said they had felt anxious, frightened or unsafe and 11 per cent described themselves as ‘unhappy’ overall.
Earlier this year the prime minister herself recognised that more must be done to support wellbeing and mental health initiatives in our schools and to end any lingering stigma. Now, the government has gone further and unveiled plans to trial ‘happiness lessons’ for eight-year-olds in an attempt to combat anxiety. At which point some parents may be tempted to ask: ‘Happiness lessons for eight-year-olds? Isn’t that a bit much?’
There is always a danger that adults overreact and project their own concerns onto children. Fleeting anxiety that can trouble youngsters for a nanosecond can easily be misinterpreted by grown-ups and labelled as something that it is not. Yet it would also be a mistake to ignore the rising concerns about mental health and children’s wellbeing, still less to dismiss today’s youngsters as ‘generation snowflake’.
Children are no less robust than we were as kids. But they do have to cope with pressures that we never faced. The exam treadmill is arguably more unrelenting than it has ever been, with some schools putting enormous pressure on students to succeed. And then there is technology. Parents never had to handle as children the constant diversions, intrusions and addictions that smart phones and tablets afflict youngsters’ lives with today. Schools have to take those pressures into account and where possible ameliorate them by, for instance, severely restricting the use of mobile phones as we have done in our schools.
So are happiness lessons for eight-year-olds the answer? Frankly, they are not. I don’t doubt the good intentions behind the initiative but no school can bolt on a ten-point wellbeing plan and expect their pupils to be happy and stress-free as a result.
Encouraging children to think of disturbing thoughts as ‘buses that will move away’ or giving them questionnaires about bullying and friendship is not enough. A supportive, healthy environment has to be intrinsic to the ethos of a school. It cannot be delivered by a government project.
There is a danger that by isolating wellbeing as something to be taught in distinct lessons we are tempted to view it as an add-on, a faddish notion that can be dismissed when the media’s attention flits to the next gimmick. And it isn’t. Wellbeing and good mental health have to be fundamental to the daily practice of a school.
When I talk to our children, all of them appreciate a school community that is as comforting as it is stretching, one in which the older pupils look out for the younger ones, where they feel safe and where they can talk to their teachers if they have problems. One that feels like a family. If a school has all that, then frankly a ‘wellbeing plan’ becomes unnecessary.
As for learning to ‘live in the moment’, which mindfulness experts advocate, if a curriculum actively encourages its children to become absorbed in their environment, to put on their wellies, say, and experience the outdoors, what else are they doing but ‘living in the moment’? We make use of the outdoors, from woodlands to beaches to city streets. I appreciate that not all schools have the luxury of countryside outside their gate, but every school has access to the outdoors and can use it to enrich children’s learning and wellbeing.
Having a mindfulness programme isn’t going to make children mindful if their attention is constantly distracted by mobile phones. Teaching them to ‘live in the moment’ is no substitute for a curriculum that harnesses their natural sense of wonder. Children learn to cope with stress and anxiety if they have proper pastoral support, teachers they can talk to and schools that don’t treat them as exam fodder.
Yes, mindfulness does have a role to play. But techniques on how to manage stress and anxiety must be part of an overall, school-wide culture of support and wellbeing. They must be embedded right across the curriculum, not just bolt-on lessons. The best, most supportive schools know this. No government initiative, however well meaning, can deliver it.
Danuta Tomasz is assistant director of education, Europe for Cognita, which has some 70 schools in the UK and abroad.