A Head Start On Happiness
Independent School Parent|Summer 2017

Elizabeth Ivens looks at how Prep Schools are leading the way in creating a blueprint for emotional health for young children…

Elizabeth Ivens

HAPPINESS lessons for children as young as eight will be on the agenda for some maintained schools from this month, in the wake of stark warnings about the state of our children’s mental health.

The lessons will form part of one of three trials currently being planned by the Government to tackle the issue. The idea may have been borrowed from the independent sector – happiness lessons were pioneered at Wellington College by its then Head Anthony Seldon – but it is the emphasis on the young age of children being targeted that has hit the headlines.

The tip of the iceberg

Sadly, the crisis in mental health care for teenagers has become increasingly well-known and talked about, but many are unaware that the latest NHS statistics show a huge rise in very young children needing help – 65,000 children under 11 – with more than one in six of these five and under.

These may well be the tip of the iceberg, as many children who need help never become an official statistic. And with experts agreeing that more than half of mental health disorders manifest themselves first in childhood, this is clearly a crucial time to tackle early signs.

While the Government’s “Preventive” mental health programmes – targeting wellbeing for children between Year Four and Year Eight – are to be trialled in 100 primary schools and 50 secondaries, many independent schools have long worked on the assumption that prevention is better than cure. 

Instilling social and emotional learning

Increasing numbers of Prep Schools have been embracing a holistic approach from as early as age four, and Dragon School in Oxford, has been working for nearly two decades on incorporating what it calls “social and emotional learning” into the very fabric of its education.

As with other schools, educating pupils, staff and parents, and giving them the tools to cope, are both seen as key to developing lifelong emotional health for young children.

Mary Taylor, Deputy Head of Social and Emotional Learning at The Dragon, warns: “There is huge pressure on children today – this strange pursuit of perfection and grades – and in turn parental anxiety is very high. It can be overwhelming for parents.” From Reception, The Dragon offers a group programme for parents to explain the school’s ethos of a ‘“whole cultural community’ with emotional learning built into everything we do” and says Taylor, “we run the programme for 10 parents at a time, and it is always over-subscribed.”

Creating a blueprint for the emotional health of their pupils is increasingly becoming one of the number one priorities of Prep Schools.

A holistic approach

Many are working commendably hard on holistic approaches from a young age, recognising how crucial pastoral care is, not just as an add-on to the academic side of school life, but as an integral part of school life.

Simple pastoral initiatives are promoted, peer group and mentoring are helpful, as are liaisons and partnerships with specialist organisations. Structures within schools for pupils to seek help are clarified and explained to pupils, staff and parents.

One innovative approach is at Bedales Prep School, Dunhurst, in Hampshire, where all Year Eight pupils have been trained to be peer listeners.

“This has been very successful as pupils often feel more comfortable talking to other pupils initially,” said Nick Robinson, Deputy Head of Pastoral at Dunhurst.

Activities like mindfulness and meditation are also being explored more by Prep Schools, and many have counsellors available for children to talk to.

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