Wednesday 13 December 2017

The school that rewrites the rules

Cooking, art and yoga are just some of the innovations these inner-city Dublin children are being taught on a journey to becoming model pupils

Alana Lennon, Hope Humphrey and Malissa Wilsonshow off work made during art therapy class. Photo: Ronan Lang
Alana Lennon, Hope Humphrey and Malissa Wilsonshow off work made during art therapy class. Photo: Ronan Lang

Amanda Phelan

Ask a group of girls at one inner-city primary school how they'd describe themselves, and the answer comes back as quick as Dublin wit. "We're gorgeous," they shriek, with a healthy self-esteem that would be the envy of many adults. But it wasn't always so.

These youngsters come from one of the most disadvantaged areas of the city, where generational challenges of unemployment, addiction and domestic violence are common. Absenteeism rates at the school were high, and behavioural problems common.

But a programme called Early Focus is helping to change all that.

"Much of classroom time was spent dealing with angry outbursts," says one teacher from the Mater Dei primary school. "I remember getting punched full-force in the stomach by a kid in the playground, and that kind of incident was common."

Now a serene atmosphere characterises this thriving school of around 230 pupils, tucked away among the columns of council flats behind the old Guinness brewery at James's Gate.

So what's the secret? Peek into a few classrooms during a typical school day and you soon find out.

One group of small enthusiasts is hooting with glee as they chase coloured scarves as part of their yoga class. Down the corridor, older students lie in the soothing confines of a multi-sensory room, tucked into beanbags as they enjoy an electronically guided imagination gym.

Or you might spot a red-cheeked mob from first class laughing and chattering as they return from a soil-to-plate lesson on good nutrition at the 36-acre Airfield Farm in Kilmacud on Dublin's southside.

Thriving

The children are thriving as a result of these initiatives.

"I'm lovely as I am," proclaims one seven-year-old who was once destined for a special-needs class but is now doing well in the mainstream system.

Melissa Hogan, a former teacher at the school who is now project manager of the Early Focus programme, says it's all about stress-management, and lists some of the ways it works.

"Within the Early Focus room therapeutic play, art work, talk and dialogue, cookery classes, imagination gym, primary movement, mindfulness and breath-work -- these all enhance children's ability to find a place of balance and calm within themselves," says the brown-eyed teacher from Tipperary, who seems to know every student at Mater Dei by name.

"This approach enables our children to participate more fully in their learning."

Ms Hogan admits the calm atmosphere at the school now is a long way from her experiences as a teacher there more than 10 years ago, when many of the kids were unsettled, and angry and violent outbursts were common.

However, the idea of teaching children mindfulness meditation, or the benefits of deep breathing and primary movement, might once have been dismissed as New Age mumbo-jumbo.

But because the Early Focus methods have been in place since 1997, there's plenty of empirical evidence to show they work.

The proof is in the numbers. For example, there's been a big increase in the proportion of pupils staying on for second-level education and they are better able to cope with educational and life challenges as a result of life skills taught as part of Early Focus.

So what does the project provide?

Yoga, mindfulness training (meditation), an artist in the classroom to encourage creativity, and a multi-sensory room are just some of the activities enjoyed by youngsters in this school where the meditative tones of a Tibetan gong occasionally replace the traditional jarring end-of-class bell.

"Early Focus offers therapeutic one-to-one and/or group activities for children experiencing difficulties coping in the classroom," says Melissa. The scheme was first set up by the Sisters of Charity in 1997 and funded until 2001, when the Department of Education took over the €80,000 annual cost.

But now funding is scarce, and the school staff and parents have to raise money from local businesses and other initiatives to keep the project going

A decision from the department on further funding is pending, and acting principal Noreen Flynn, a 30-year veteran of the school, says she's hopeful.

"The positive results of Early Focus are clear," says Ms Flynn, a straight-talking woman with a clear love for her school. "Not just for the kids, but for our whole community -- we get great support from the parents and local people."

Blueprint

Staff believe the therapeutic approach that helps kids cope with modern-day pressures might act as a blueprint for other schools and institutions around the country.

But it's really the kids themselves -- aged from four to 12 -- who are responsible for the serene nature at Mater Dei.

Not that they're unusually demure. Not a bit of it -- they're full of guts and goals and glory.

"I'd like to be an artist when I grow up -- or maybe a chef," says Hope, aged seven, who loves to tell stories.

Hope and her friends Melissa (eight) and Alana (seven), are some of the cheeky youngsters whose talent is bursting from the artwork that has pride of place in the school's gallery -- a long corridor where the pictures are displayed on a rotating basis.

Pupils at the school take it in turns to enjoy different elements of the Early Focus classes.

For example, in an upstairs classroom a small group from first class is enjoying a specially designed yoga session, complete with their own colourfully illustrated book of easy-to-follow poses.

"They love the exercises and the meditation at the end of the class," says Jean McDonald, a yoga teacher with more than 30 years' experience. The youngsters revel in the experience as they curl up at the end of the session, tucked "like a snail" inside their yoga mats.

"Yoga is my favourite," says Alison (6). "I like the stretching."

Down the corridor, another group is enjoying an imagination gym exercise, lying down in the €20,000 multi-sensory room that is a source of pride to Ms Hogan and her colleagues.

Here an enormous floor-to-ceiling lava-style lamp floats brightly coloured balls up and down in liquid. The students lie on beanbags as they are guided through a meditation designed to stimulate their imagination, and it leads them on a narrated walk through an enchanted forest. Images of deer and greenery are beamed on to the white brick wall.

"The children learn to collaborate with their imagination. It's very centring, and a lot of parents are reporting they enjoy doing it with their kids at home -- I wasn't expecting that, so it's a bonus," explains imagination guru Rosaleen Durkin, a former teacher.

The children clamour for a repeat. "Can we do this every day, miss," they plead.

The Early Focus headquarters is a cheerful room with artwork from the kids adorning the walls. Many contain colourful slogans from children who display a clear handle on themselves and the world around them -- in all its forms.

"I like myself because I make my mammy laugh," reads one. "When I am sad, I am all lonely inside me," says another.

Most of us can relate to that. But we might not put it as well.

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