The mental health of children is a rising area of concern and one which schools are trying to combat. Emma Jane Kirby reports from south London about a scheme that involves teaching primary schoolchildren about mental health through fun games and workbooks.
The children are half out of their chairs, hands straining in the air, knees jiggling with excitement as they beg to be picked.
The smiling lady at the front of the class repeats her question.
“Can I see your thoughts? Can I smell them or touch them?” she asks.
Dr Anna Redfern is clearly a gifted communicator as well as a clinical psychologist. It is not everyone who can persuade a class of eight- and nine-year-olds to talk about their innermost feelings in front of each other.
Yet here are the children of Class 4S at the Oliver Goldsmith Primary School, Peckham, south-east London, openly admitting that they have days when they feel down or angry or just very sad.
“No-one can see our thoughts,” says a little girl confidently. “And that’s why we need to talk about them.”
Dr Redfern and her colleague Dr Debbie Plant are delivering a new programme called
Cues-Ed, funded by the South London and Maudsley Trust.
The programme teaches children to recognise the signs when things aren’t right, and some behavioural techniques to help them manage low mood.
“We all have feelings,” says Dr Redfern.
“And we will all have difficulties in our lives which will make us feel and think things that are very challenging.
“And rather than being fearful about talking about these things, we want children to have the language that allows them to get the right help and to say, ‘Actually this is how I am feeling, these are the things I am thinking and I need some extra support.'”
For one exercise, children separate helpful and unhelpful thoughts written on pieces of paper.
In today’s lesson the children are looking at the difference between helpful and unhelpful thoughts.
Specially designed cartoon characters help the children relate to how different situations might make them feel – all the children sympathise when one of the cartoon characters is feeling left out and imagines that his friends are laughing at him.
‘We should be worried’
The whole programme is carefully couched in fun and child-friendly terms. Adult words such as “depression” are never used.
“Do you ever have one of those really bad days when everything seems to be against you,” asks Dr Redfern with a big smile. “Like when you go downstairs for breakfast and there are no more Coco Pops, there’s only Weetabix?”
The class groans in horror, and the children start chatting to each other about their own bad days.
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