When Treacy Cooney was chatting with her eight-year-old son recently, he announced he was feeling sad. Other children at his school were playing in their own groups and he felt left out.
Cooney remembered hearing about an idea called a "buddy bench" and approached the organisation and her son's primary school, Castlemartyr National School in east Cork.
The idea is if a child is worried about feeling left out or excluded, they can sit on the bench. When another child sees them, they can involve them in their games.
Jane Flannery, the school principal, says the idea works particularly well for children aged six to nine.
“It’s great for promoting friendship and empathy,” she says. “It’s about cultivating the idea of seeing things from another person’s point of view. The more we can deliver that message, the better.”
In a sense, the buddy bench is more than just a simple piece of furniture. It is part of a wider programme aimed at boosting empathy and self-awareness among children, as well as giving children the tools to combat bullying and promote positive mental health.
Buddy Bench, the Kilkenny-based group behind the programme, is delivering interactive workshops with children in schools where benches are being installed. There are role-plays, puppets and children learn songs that encourage them to look out for each other.
"The children explore the clues other children give away on the outside about how they feel on the inside," says Sam Sheppard, a parent and co-founder of Buddy Bench.
The response to the initiative has been overwhelming, she says. It has provided workshops and benches in more than 300 schools on the island of Ireland, reaching up to 50,000 children.
As well as helping children recognise other people’s feelings, the programme also helps teach children to recognise and respond to their own feelings.
The idea, says Sheppard, is that if you can identify your feelings, you can respond to them in a more appropriate way.
“Children can feel how positive qualities such as kindness and compassion feel in their bodies,” she says.
“We explore what exclusion feels like in our bodies – lonely, scared, unworthy, sad. And then we talk about how inclusion makes us feel accepted, warm, safe, valued. We teach kids to notice how others are feeling on the inside by the clues they give on the outside.”
The programmes, says Sheppard, have been adjusted to suit children’s ages. They have also been changed over time to keep up with developments.
For example, online bullying has become a major theme, especially for older children, as well as issues such as anxiety and dealing with panic attacks.
While the programme is well-meaning, is there any evidence that it is working in boosting children’s capacity to deal with adversity?
Sheppard says researchers at Maynooth University have been assessing the programme and are in the middle of a major two-year evaluation.
An initial study found that about 40 per of children questioned were using the benches, while 90 per cent said if they saw someone else sitting on them they would talk to them.
“Everything has to be evidence-based nowadays,” says Sheppard.”We see ourselves as Ireland’s first evidence-based positive mental health initiative for children.”