Heart Start: Promoting wellbeing and mental health in school from the early years

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Children’s emotional awareness and regulation, self-esteem and self-efficacy, relationships and empathy are a key aspect of a quality and balanced education.

As we strive to improve children’s academic performance in preparation for the global economic challenges, we are becoming more aware that quality education cannot be restricted to cognitive tasks and academic achievement. As young children grow up, they need to develop the requisite social and emotional competences which help them to navigate successfully through the developmental tasks, situational challenges, and transitions they are set to face in their pathway from young children to adolescents and eventually to young adulthood.

They need to be able to know themselves, their strengths and how to make use of them, regulate their emotions such as frustration and anger, deal with loss and change, solve problems effectively and make good and responsible decisions. They need to believe they can bring about change in their own lives, remaining hopeful, determined and focused in the face of challenges, build and maintain healthy relationships, be understanding and empathic, and work collaboratively with others. They need to solve conflicts constructively, appreciate and respect difference and diversity, and take care of themselves, others and their environment. These competences are necessary for children to lead a healthy, happy and successful life both in childhood itself and as they grow into adulthood. Schoolchildren who are more socially and emotionally skilled achieve better grades in exams compared with less socially and emotionally literate peers. Happy individuals are also more productive and successful than unhappy ones.

The earlier we start supporting the healthy social and emotional development of young children, the more likely we are to be successful in promoting their mental health and wellbeing. Research has consistently underlined the role of early years and primary education in developing positive academic attitudes and achievement, preventing disengagement and early school-leaving, and promoting positive behaviour and wellbeing. The foundations for healthy cognitive, social and emotional development are laid in early childhood. This becomes highly relevant when we consider that one in five schoolchildren face mental health difficulties, and that half of such difficulties begin before the age of 14. Mental health difficulties in children and young people have been on the increase in the past decades; in some countries suicide is the major cause of death amongst young people.

The way forward: a whole-school approach
There is no magic solution, programme or intervention which works across cultures and contexts in the promotion of wellbeing and mental health in schools. International research and practice, however, clearly indicate that a whole-school approach is the most effective way forward to foster the wellbeing and mental health of schoolchildren. Such an approach includes the development of a caring and supportive school climate, partnership with parents and the community, and addressing social and emotional issues in the curriculum. More specifically it includes the following components:

  • Explicit teaching of social and emotional learning as a core competence in the curriculum, focusing on intrapersonal, resilience and interpersonal skills
  • Embedding social and emotional learning in the other content areas of the curriculum
  • Creating a caring and inclusive classroom community focused on healthy relationships and meaningful and influential student engagement in classroom activities
  • A whole-school climate conducive to mental health and wellbeing including
    • a shared focus and commitment towards inclusive and culturally responsive practices, diversity and the health and wellbeing of all members of the school community
    • supportive administration and staff collaboration and collegiality
    • active collaboration and participation by the parents and the local community
    • addressing the staff’s own social and emotional needs and mental health

Case study RESCUR Surfing the Waves

RESCUR Surfing the Waves is a resilience curriculum for early years and primary schools in Europe, seeking to promote the mental health and wellbeing of vulnerable and marginalised children at risk of social exclusion, bullying, discrimination, school failure, and early school-leaving. It takes a whole-school approach with a set curriculum on how to develop the skills necessary to overcome obstacles and continue thriving, such as building healthy relationships, developing a growth mindset, developing self-determination, making use of one’s strengths, and turning challenges such as conflict, rejection and transitions into opportunities for growth. Parents are actively involved with regular take-home activities and a guide on how to nurture the resilience and wellbeing of their young children. The whole school community is encouraged to embark on a resilience journey, with the classroom and schools serving as resilience-enhancing contexts. RESCUR Surfing the Waves is available in seven languages and may be accessed at www.rescur.eu.

Professor Carmel Cefai is Director of the Centre for Resilience and Socio-Emotional Health and Associate Professor for Psychology at the Faculty for Social Wellbeing at the University of Malta.

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