Áilín Quinlan hears about a programme helping school children to develop effective strategies to deal with worry, stress, and change.
LIKE thousands of other sixth-class pupils at this time of year, Gary Finn is a bit apprehensive about the looming transition to second-level education.
However, unlike many other children his age, this West Cork schoolboy has learned special meditation and breathing techniques at school which, he says, help him manage anxiety and stress.
Last year, along with the rest of the fifth-class pupils at Scoil na mBuachaillí in Clonakilty, Gary,12, participated in Friends For Life, a school-based positive mental health programme which helps students develop effective strategies to deal with worry, stress, and change.
Run once a week at Scoil na mBuachaillí over much of the school year for the past five years, the initiative is based around the principles of cognitive behavioural therapy, teaching children the skills required to think positively, reduce anxiety, and develop resilience. The programme also nurtures social skills and empathy in pupils.
Since 2016 when it was formally rolled out in schools across Ireland — (it had been provided to some schools on a pilot basis since 2009) training in different versions aimed at specific age-groups has been provided to 4,548 primary, 1,247 post-primary and 89 special school teachers nationally.
“The Friends programmes help students to develop resilience by teaching them effective strategies to cope with, problem solve, and manage all kinds of emotional distress, including worry, stress, change, and anxiety,” says a spokesman for the Department of Education, adding that skills learned help students now and in later life.
Gary found the strategies helped him cope with the stress of his recent Christmas tests: “I find that it helps me to think positively about myself and everyone around me,” he says.
Every Wednesday at 2pm, Scoil na mBuachaillí learning support and reading recovery teacher Orla O’Keeffe, and her colleague Elaine Connolly, split fifth class into two groups.
The hour-long lesson begins when the teacher passes a soft ball around. As each child receives the ball, he speaks about something that made him feel good that week.
“They talk about something that makes them feel good in the past week, such as taking the family dog for a walk or enjoying a trip to their cousins’ house,” says Ms O’Keeffe.
Children are encouraged to talk about something involving interactions with people or with pets rather than time spent on tech devices, she added.
The word ‘Friends’ in the programme title is an acronym with each letter standing for one element of the programme, she explains.
F, for example, is for Feelings, while R is for Relax (see panel). “We deal with each of these issues over the course of the year. In the ‘Feelings’ lessons, for example, we look at what happens to our body when we feel happy, excited, worried or sad. It’s about being able to recognise those feelings physically in our bodies and in other people too so that we can be aware of how someone else is feeling.”
The ‘Relax’ lessons deal with strategies such as meditation, breathing exercises, and includes simple back massage. The programme also helps nurture good social skills, Ms O’Keeffe says. “The boys work together on different activities and talk more to one another than they would normally do in class. They also learn to take turns and to see each other’s point of view. They realise they’re not alone in how they feel, that other people can have the same feelings.
“This creates a bond or connection within the group and teaches them to empathise with one another.”
Fifth-class student Shourya Malik, 11, and classmate Ciarán Daly, are among those currently participating in the programme:
“I love it!” Shourya says.
“You talk about things you wouldn’t really speak about in school. If you’re having a hard time with something in school, you can say it in the Friends class because no one will judge you and everyone is talking about their own hard things as well.
“It teaches you a bit about people too — it helps you understand what your friends are going through and it helps you and your friends to cope with stuff.”
Ms O’Keeffe believes the programme offers fundamental benefits to students: “It gives them an awareness of themselves and others and develops empathy and resilience,” she says.
In the ‘I Can Do It’ section, for example, students learn how to manage ‘Red’ or negative thoughts.
“We talk about negative thoughts coming into your head — for example ‘I’m going to come last in the race.’ We discuss how to challenge these thoughts with questions.”
“I think this definitely gets through to them and they become more aware of how they think about things.
“Green thoughts are positive thoughts, for example: ‘I will improve if I try my best’ or ‘I can do this.’ “
Ciarán Daly, 11, finds the relaxation strategies particularly helpful. “We practice meditation and switching your mind off and relaxing and clearing your head,” he says.
“When you get older there will be harder things than school, like a job.
“I think this will stick with me and I’ll always be able to do small meditations to clear my mind. It’s really nice to go and talk to your friends about problems and stuff; about what is going on.
“When you talk about something hard, it gets easier to cope with. I find Friends good that way — when you know you’re not the only one to have a difficult thing to cope with, it’s easier to cope with it!”
The children develop useful problem-solving or coping strategies, says Ms O’Keeffe.
“We talk about how to break a problem down into small steps and gradually resolve it. An example would be a pupil’s fear of presenting a project in front of the class.
Ms O’Keeffe and her colleague believe the programme contributes to the very positive atmosphere in the senior half of the school.
“I think it’s a lovely programme. There are no right or wrong answers, everyone can contribute and everything everyone says is valid. It’s not all about immediate results.”