The Delhi government initiated the Happiness curriculum in schools across Delhi in 2018. As part of the new programme, students will have a weekly “happiness period” of 45 minutes, with each class beginning with a five-minute meditation session. As per the education minister Manish Sisodia, the aim of the whole scheme is to put the emphasis on children’s mental well-being, in the hope it can spark a change that will “one day spread across the country and the world as well." An initiative such as this is much needed in our country where the term mental health is confused with mental illness, or a mental disorder, and while they are related, mental health is more than the absence of a mental illness. It can be defined as:

Mental health refers to a state of well-being in which a person can realise their own abilities, engage in learning, cope with the normal stresses of life, and is able to make a contribution to their community[1]. Mental health is a combination of both positive feelings and positive functioning[2].

Given the high levels of stress and anxiety in children starting from a young age, it is important to develop a comprehensive approach to support well-being and mental health within a school or early childhood setting.

The World Health organization has set out models for mental health promotion in schools. The figure below highlights actions that maximise mental health and well-being of whole communities and individuals by improving social, physical, and economic environments- strengthening the understanding and the skills of individuals to support their efforts to achieve and maintain mental health. [3]

The World Health Organization’s four-level,whole-school approach to school change

How can schools and early childhood education promote positive mental health?

Schools and early education settings have a key role in promoting mental health in all children and young people, and to assist those who may be at risk of developing mental illness. Certain key areas that schools need to focus on are :

1) Provide a safe, inclusive environment:  Create an environment which:

  • values children for who they are
  • are safe and inclusive
  • have programs in place for physical and mental well being of staff
  • encourage supportive and respectful relations between children, educators and families
  • create opportunities for children's voices to be heard and respected
  • have strategies to promote positive and responsible behaviour
  • to prevent and respond to bullying, discrimination and harassment, including online.

2) Social and emotional learning: Schools need to create learning and and teaching strategies that support children and young people to develop:

  • social awareness : develop care and concern for others; team play and inclusivity
  • self-awareness: self regulation coping strategies, recognising and managing emotions, make responsible decisions , handle conflicts easily
  • build trusting adult relationships, establish positive and respectful relationships between educators, families and other children

3) Family and community awareness : Its critical to establish processes to :

  • recognize primary role of families in children's learning and development
  • run regular programs to build connections with families and communities
  • run counselling sessions for parents
  • identify children at risk of developing mental illness and engage families for early interventions

4) Building capacity to promote emotional wellness : Schools need to invest in providing appropriate knowledge, skills and attitudes to their staff to promote mental health. Certain professional practices can be put in place such as:

  • establishing communities of practice and networks
  • connecting with mental health professionals
  • building partnerships with community service organisations
  • establishing and maintaining referral pathways

In this article we focused on how schools can evolve strategies for emotional and mental wellness. But this responsibility extends to parents and students as well. In the next article we will provide inputs on how parents and children can contribute to create a healthy ecosystem for the children to thrive in.

References:

  1. Adapted from World Health Organisation, Strengthening Mental Health Promotion, Fact Sheet No. 220, Geneva, World Health Organisation, 2001.
  2. Keyes, CLM. (2002) The mental health continuum: from languishing to flourishing in life. J Health Soc Res 43:207-22
  3. MindMatters, a whole-school approach promotion mental health and well-being