A Kitchen in Meath

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… where the seeds of BeWell-DoWell were planted.

There we were. The two of us in Aoife’s new kitchen as the evening light faded. It was not a new kitchen but new to Aoife. Armed with posters and markers we were determined to try to figure out what was happening. We met in teacher training college in 2001 and quickly became good friends. When we got together, one thing was guaranteed – deep-belly laughter. Roll on fifteen years and we weren’t even smiling. Chance had brought us together as colleagues in the same school. Our conversations kept leading back to the same topic. What was happening to our students? Something had changed in the preceding decade and it wasn’t for the better.

Aoife had taught in a school in inner-city Dublin. Her students attended a DEIS school (designated disadvantaged). Seána’s school is in a middle class small coastal town in North County Dublin. Both very different cohorts of children but the challenges with which they were presenting were too similar not to investigate further.

Since 2003 we had witnessed an alarming increase in anxiety among our students. Their ability to cope with the daily stresses and little disappointments of life was diminishing. More and more often at parent-teacher meetings we heard students being described as “anxious children”. The levels of visible stress was increasing and it was upsetting to witness. We felt helpless and knew we had to do something. But what? Mental health education was not mentioned during our teacher training. We had many in-service days about literacy and numeracy but when it came to responding to our student’s social and emotional needs, there was little or nothing.

Back to the kitchen table. We brainstormed what we perceived as being the most pertinent changes in our students. Many hours of conversations had led us to the point where we concluded that these children were in dire need of social and emotional support from the caregivers in their lives. We couldn’t control what happened at home but as teachers, we were in an ideal place to try to help them in whatever limited way we could. Something had to be better than nothing.
When we reflected on this, the rise in anxiety levels was not really that surprising. Think of the change of pace in all our lives since 2003. Our students are digital natives. They were born into an instantaneous world. Most of the adults in their lives are always ‘on’, trying to keep all the plates spinning in a world that glorifies busy. Something has to give and for many it is a toll on their mental health.

We quickly realised that we ourselves were not immune to the factors creating the increased stress and diminished resilience levels in our students but we had thirty years in a world that was given the opportunity to switch off and disconnect. We had both experienced challenges to our mental health. Life became more complicated and we didn’t have the tools to cope with it either. We knew we had to act for both them and us. Our journey began in that kitchen in Meath. We didn’t know what was ahead of us but we were propelled forward by a desire to stop the bleeding and try to figure out the source of the wound later. What we were witnessing was pain. Our first action was to begin to prioritise social and emotional learning in our own classrooms. The more we read and practiced in our own rooms, the more we realised that before anything, there has to be a human, authentic connection with all its honesty and vulnerability. I see you as you are and you are enough. The response from our students was nothing short of phenomenal.

We started looking for social and emotional programmes suitable for primary school children. At that point they didn’t exist. We wanted a programme that started at the very beginning and taught children about their brains, developed language around emotions and strategies to deal with tricky feelings and savour the great ones. In essence we wanted to develop a mental health and well-being education programme that we wished we had been taught in school. Not only that but we also wanted parents and teachers to learn it too. When it comes to mental health, the value of everyone speaking and understanding the same language is golden.

We still have the posters from that evening. The one thing we kept coming back to was the word change, after all it’s the one thing we are all guaranteed in life. It’s also one area that so many of our students are struggling with. Fast forward four years later having researched, trialled and lived our programme and its content, it’s the first place we start with adults and children alike – learning to cope with change. What started off in a kitchen is now on-line, live and ready to plant seeds regarding mental health education to anyone who is ready. Are you?