Taking care of students' well-being
A symposium seeks to help schools create a culture of pupil support
While second-level schools and third-level institutions offer counselling and support services for students, there are few if any resources for mental health and emotional well-being at primary level.
Today, the Irish Primary Principals' Network (IPPN) is holding a symposium to explore the importance of emotional well-being for pupils and staff in both primary and post-primary schools.
Since 2008, IPPN member surveys have been highlighting increasing levels of child emotional ill-health, encompassing issues such as depression, neglect, obesity, bullying, anxiety and both physical and sexual abuse.
One of the speakers at today's event is Dr Rosaleen McElvaney, clinical psychologist, author and lecturer in psychotherapy in Dublin City University. She says early intervention is key to preventing the development of emotional well-being difficulties.
"The most effective way to deal with mental health difficulties is to access children as young as possible, to get them help at an early stage of developing a problem and at an early stage in life."
A 2010 report by Dr Aleisha Clarke and Professor Margaret Barry, researchers in the Department of Health Promotion and Public Health at NUI Galway. found that without intervention, children with emotional and behavioural problems may be less amenable to intervention after eight years of age, which can result in an escalation of antisocial behaviour, problems at school and eventual dropout.
Dr McElvaney mentions anxiety and low mood as the most prevalent difficulties children present with at primary school age, and notes that issues like parental marriage breakdown, bereavement, friendships and bullying are the "classic areas" of mild to moderate psychological difficulty for children.
In order to promote emotional well-being in schools, she says training is needed for teachers, who are well placed to identify possible difficulties in their students at an early stage.
"Parents see their own children with their friends, but the teacher has the benefit of being able to see a diverse range of children, and can notice when something is wrong.
"When parents come to me worrying about their child, I'll always ask, 'What did the teacher think?' The teacher might see that something is off, but they might not know what to do about it or be able to identify whether this is the early signs of something more serious developing."
A survey conducted by IPPN earlier this year found that 82pc of primary school principals reported feeling "insufficiently trained" or "not trained at all" to identify mental health issues in children.
Former Cork hurler and well-being ambassador Conor Cusack, who will be delivering a keynote speech today, describes these findings as "very concerning". He adds that "it's just as important to talk about what's going on for our teachers and principals, because if these people aren't in a well enough place themselves then they're not going to be able to respond to the challenges that they're facing."
He has spoken about his own experience with depression. Although he first became aware of his difficulties while at school, he says he was never encouraged to talk about what he was dealing with.
"I was aware that there was something that was not right inside me, but there was absolutely zero talk about anything to do with emotional well-being, panic attacks or depression back then."
He says it is important that young people are allowed the space to develop their emotional understanding and literacy, and to be able to verbalise what's going on for them.
Margaret Grogan, Regional Director for the National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS), believes the teacher plays a crucial role in the emotional well-being of his or her students, and says that the aim of the symposium is to ease principals' and teachers' fears about emotional difficulties and to empower them to create a culture of positive well-being in their schools.
"Teachers often don't realise how powerful they are. They completely shape the culture in their classroom. There's this idea that emotional well-being is somehow outside of teachers' abilities, but while they aren't responsible for dealing with severe mental health difficulties - that's for a professional - they do have an important role to create a caring, nurturing, supportive environment."
There are a number of primary schools around the country taking steps to support their students' well-being by offering counselling, yoga or mindfulness breaks. But, many schools don't have these resources.
"It seems to me that schools are left to develop these ideas themselves, as opposed to there being a national policy about it," says Dr McElvaney.
"What we'd like to see is some kind of a national policy so that no matter where you are in the country or what school you're at, the child would have access to these supports.
"The child's social skills and emotional well-being should be as much a part of their education as learning to read and write."
The nurture room
At Queen of Angels primary school in Sandydord, Co Dublin, teachers assess the social and emotional needs of the children to decide which pupils would benefit most from their nurture room.
"We noticed that children were bringing heavy hearts and worries to school with them over the last few years, given all the societal issues and the downturn of the economy," says principal Susan Gibney. "There were many cases of people being laid off work, there were suicides in our community linked to many of our children, and everyone was affected by what happened in Carrickmines, especially our teachers. Thomas Connors and his brothers came to our school and they taught them."
In the nurture room, pupils make breakfast and eat together while discussing any worries. During the day, they play social skills games, and have anger management sessions. Says principal Gibney: "If our children come to school and they're not in a good place because of whatever has affected them, they're not going to be able to learn.
"Their parents may have two or three jobs where they just don't have the time to engage in activities like that with them. We're supplying that extra nurturing."
The school also has a cookery room, an outdoor classroom, a sensory room to help calm children who may be feeling upset, and two gardens.