MOST of us will know when we are mentally and physically well, but sometimes we need a little support to keep well. And, thanks to the efforts of a local school, its staff and pupils have just completed a week of events to help maintain and improve their wellbeing, both in the classroom and throughout their lives. All Children’s Integrated Primary School’s third annual Wellbeing Week was an eclectic mix of activities, based around the key themes of connecting, staying active, taking notice, learning, and giving – or, to put it simply, think of it as ‘five-aday’ for wellbeing. Focusing on these steps, each child and staff member participated in a range of activities which promote wellness, including mindfulness and yoga, art workshops with the school’s art therapist Nora O’Baoill, sport sessions, wellness walks, with the week rounded off with doing something nice for others, through random acts of kindness, and then everyone enjoying a movie and ice-cream.
With the key aim of helping maintain and improve everyone at the Newcastle school’s wellbeing, event planner and P4 teacher, Mrs Paula McConville, said this year’s event was, just like in previous years, a huge success. Noting that some of the activities allowed the children “to check in with their thoughts and feelings,” and relax, Mrs McConville said the benefits are wideranging, and that they go beyond the school setting, almost subconsciously, and used in daily life. With the wellbeing of its pupils at the forefront of the school’s ethos, Mrs McConville explained that once normality resumed after the pandemic, that All Children’s “post-Covid curriculum” centred on the children “ensuring their return to normal school life was supported and straightforward.” She said: “We endeavour to provide a school culture where everyone feels valued, respected, and included. At present during the school year, we also work with mental health charity Hope4Life who work with our P7s using comics to teach about dealing with trauma, grief and separation; a Roots of Empathy project running in P5 and in recent years we have also worked with Barnardos teaching our P6s about resilience.”
Outlining how a report, published by the NI Assembly in 2017, indicated that within the province mental illness has become a major public health issue and is the single largest cause of ill health and disability, Mrs McConville said Northern Ireland “has higher levels of mental ill health than any other region in the UK and it is believed that one in five adults and around 45,000 children will experience a mental health problem at any one time.” Mental ill health is common among staff working in the education profession too, she noted. “Staff wellbeing has been prioritised by the EA (Education Authority) who have provided training. I attended a one-week course which focused on how to create a positive and nurturing school culture that emphasises the importance of emotional wellbeing for all members of staff,” she continued. And, as a ‘wellbeing champion’ she promotes a positive culture and support for colleagues. “The school has even established a staff wellbeing team who meet regularly and have developed a range of new initiatives such as ‘Wellbeing Wednesdays’ when pupils have extra time to enjoy a longer lunch break once a month; thought and worry boxes for staff and pupils and, of course, our Wellbeing Week,” she added. Her colleague, principal Mr Jon Beattie, said the school was “delighted” to be able to run the week-long event again, adding that it is not a standalone activity, “but rather brings home the importance for all of us of looking after our mental health.”
Reflecting on the week’s many successes, he said the activities were “great fun” and he and his colleagues “hope that everyone learned some new skills and insight about why good mental health is so important.” Mr Beattie said an important part of the Northern Ireland Curriculum is an area called Personal Development and Mutual Understanding (PDMU) – the Personal Development element is underpinned by teaching children how to develop emotional resilience and how to foster strong relationships with friends and family which is the bedrock of good mental health. “At All Children’s this work is also coupled with a preventative curriculum which helps our children learn about staying safe in our society. We have worked with the NSPCC over many years and all our pupils take over 60 workshops during their time here to ensure they know how to look after themselves,” he continued. “Of course, we recognise that for many of our children they will face difficulties at different times during their lives including when they are young and we have been very fortunate to have an art therapist, Nora O’Baoill, working in the school, one day a week for almost three years to provide specialist counselling for those children that need it. For our older children they can self-refer themselves to this provision. “We hope that our PDMU curriculum, Staying Safe work with the NSPCC, Wellbeing Week activities and access to art therapy will ensure that all our children can grow up to be happy and excited about the world around them. We really believe that happy children will be better learners,” he concluded.