Why we need to do more care for our students' emotional well-being
Since 2008, consultations we have carried out among our members, primary school principals and deputy principals, have highlighted increasing levels of child emotional ill-health, encompassing issues such as depression, neglect, obesity, bullying, anxiety and both physical and sexual abuse.
Between 2009 and 2015, there was a four-fold increase in the number of principals who believe children who are experiencing emotional well-being issues is one of the greatest child welfare challenges facing schools today.
Ireland has the fourth-highest rate of suicide and self-harm in Europe and our research shows that principals feel "insufficiently trained" or "not trained at all" to identify and effectively address the emotional well-being of students.
While it is recognised that the home and family are the primary source of nurturing and support for children, emotional well-being is everyone's business and involves the whole school community, parents/guardians and other relevant stakeholders.
It is worth noting that the Department of Education and Skills' Chief Inspector's report 2010-2012 stated that 94c of primary pupils felt safe in school. But what more can we do to create space where children feel safe to express their anxieties, feelings and emotions and where we can help them to develop the skills and resilience necessary to cope with the challenges they face in their daily lives?
It was a major topic for discussion at our annual conference this time last year. Arising from that, we held a symposium in November to explore the issue further, to challenge our own thinking and to develop a strategy, building on existing work in this area, to support schools in creating a culture of emotional well-being, and not only for pupils but the entire school community. Some 550 primary, and post primary leaders, teachers support staff and representatives of educational agencies and third level attended.
Among the speakers was Angela Lynch, the IPPN's principal advice manager, who reminded us that it is not about educators being mental health experts or about the school solving another societal problem. Rather, she told us it was about applying rules, regulations and procedures with respect, compassion and kindness for all, about having a culture that is welcoming and where we examine how behaviours affect us and others.
She encouraged educators and parents to get to know themselves more, know their emotions, strengths and beliefs as well as their vulnerabilities and dark places. We cannot give to our children what we do not have ourselves.
If emotional well-being is valued at a school then it can be prioritised in the process of School Self Evaluation and School Improvement Planning. Angela encouraged school leaders to start a conversation on emotional well-being with staff, students, boards of management and parents. While it may be challenging, it is worth remembering that 'a ship is safe in the harbour but that is not what ships are made for'.
She told us to be proactive, advising that if we do the things that we have always done, then we will get the results that we have always got.
Since the symposium, much work has been carried out in building on these discussions. We have met with the Ombudsman for Children and representatives of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals (NAPD), the National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS) and the Teaching Council to discuss how best to leverage the interest among educators in embedding a culture of emotional well-being across our school communities.
Work in this area and among this group will continue with the aim of developing an Action Plan for Emotional Wellbeing in Schools, at both primary and post primary level
Sean Cottrell is CEO of the Irish Primary Principals' Network