Empathy, leadership, confidence: the Irish schools teaching more than the 3Rs

As back to school time rolls around, some teachers are gearing up to do more than teach the curriculum in the traditional way

"What we're trying to do all the time is put the power back with the kids themselves, and upskill them all the time," says Maeve Corish, principal of Donabate Portrane Educate Together in Dublin. It's a slightly daunting idea when you're talking about a primary school of 500 students, but the programmes Corish and her teaching staff have introduced in recent years have seen them named one of 12 Changemaker schools by Ashoka Ireland, an international network of social entrepreneurs.

The school’s positive mental health and peer mediation programmes saw them nominated for the initiative, which looks for schools which give children a more well-rounded social and emotional education.

“[Our programmes] are all around making the world a better place, which probably sounds very blue sky thinking, but it is about trying to develop in the children skills of empathy and teamwork and creativity and leadership. All of these programmes play into that,” says Corish.

The positive mental health programme was researched and devised by a teacher, Colm Byrne, who couldn't find a programme directed at pre-teens and younger children. The need for such a programme became obvious after the economic downturn, when increasing numbers of pupils were reflecting difficulties at home around finance and redundancies. The school started to notice young students were suffering from anxiety, and in response Byrne's Positive Mental Health month became a staple every January for all pupils.


“With children, the emphasis is really on positive mental health,” she says. “We try, at an early age, to get in and give them the skills to look after their mental health and give them that language.

“Very importantly, it covers how to deal with negative emotions because that’s something that we don’t always talk to kids about: what they should do when they’re feeling sad or jealous or angry. We started instilling in kids from a very young age that it’s okay not to feel okay,” she says.

As part of their peer mediation programme, sixth class children are trained in mediation, and younger children with any form of conflict arrange a formal mediation meeting, rather than going straight to teachers.

“The kids love it because it means no one gets into any trouble because it means there are no punishments, no sanctions; it’s about finding win-win solutions. The kids really value it because it empowers them, because it gives them a stronger voice in the school,” Corish says.

A similar empowerment programme is run in Eglish National School in Ballinasloe, Co Galway. There, children who bring problems to teachers are encouraged to ask themselves 'What can I do?' first.

"If there's nothing you can do, maybe all you can do is go and tell a teacher, but what we've noticed is they're actually able to solve a lot more of the disputes that happen on the yard, things they traditionally would have automatically have run to the teacher about," says Siobhan Fitzgerald, the principal of the school.

“If you just put the power back in their hands – not that we’re turning our backs on them, we’re just not jumping in – you’re empowering the children to be able to make changes in their own lives and to see change in a positive and natural light.”

In addition, pupils are also empowered through the school’s ‘Let’s Stand’ public-speaking programme, which came about when staff realised that the pupils’ oral language skills weren’t to standard.

Fitzgerald is a member of Toastmasters, a public speaking programme for adults, and decided to develop a similar programme for the students.

It is a small school with only 45 students, a high proportion of whom are members of the Travelling community. Through the programme they have seen knock-on benefits in reading and writing skills, as well as improved confidence, with each student having had the opportunity to speak 80 times in front of a group by the time they leave school.

“Where we see the real opportunity and the real benefit for our students is that they’re great talkers. They love talking but it’s taking that as a strength and building on it while they want to talk so much, giving them the skills of public speaking so we can maybe get them that one step ahead for when they go to secondary school,” says Fitzgerald.

Located in the council estate of Moyross on the outskirts of Limerick city, Corpus Christi Primary School took a similar route of fostering the Changemaker school values, particularly leadership and empathy, through its students' interests.

Horses in Moyross were the norm, but were often viewed quite negatively in the community. However, through the school’s ‘Urban Cowboys’ scheme, students have been taught to work with the animals. Some former pupils have even used the experience to forge careers in the equine industry.

“Rather than looking at the horses as a problem that needed to be solved, we saw them as the solution to a problem . . . The kids go out and get involved in cleaning out the stables, grooming the horses, riding the horses, but they’d also get the therapy element because the instructor is a trained therapist as well,” says Tiernan O’Neill, the school’s principal.

“Mental health is a huge issue in the country and we have found the equine-assisted therapy is a fantastic way to enable some kids to process things because some of these kids would have particular issues and problems and it has definitely given them a vent and a forum to process the issues they have.”

Similarly, the Little Angels Special School in Letterkenny, Co Donegal looked at its pupils to see how best it could enhance their learning experience. Catering for almost 100 pupils with moderate to severe and profound learning disabilities and many with autism, most of who are non-verbal, they follow a specialised curriculum as set by the Department of Education.

When many students, particularly those with autism, showed an affinity for technology, Angela Keane, their principal, integrated a variety of technologies into the classroom. Using iPads, eye-gaze devices and communication apps, the technology allows many of the students become active learners.

“We have a phrase in our school that says technology makes things easier for most of society but for people with special needs, it makes things possible,” she says.

In addition, many students have sensory issues, get easily stressed and can have behavioural issues as a result. To tackle this, the school began yoga and mindfulness programmes, and added sensory rooms to each classroom. As well as practising some form of relaxation every afternoon to help calm the pupils after the day’s activities, they have also trained students to make use of the sensory rooms if they feel stressed.

“When they are beginning to feel themselves getting stressed, they’ll just get up from their table and walk into this room and switch on whatever lights or mood music they like and they can just chill out. When they’re ready, they’re able to come back into class again. It’s teaching them to self-regulate because unless they have this very specific training, they’re just going to get more frustrated. It’s very rewarding when you see children able to do that for themselves.”

While the Little Angels School works with children with very specific needs, Keane says a lot of the relaxation teachings they use apply across the board.

“We often say as a staff, if we had that at school, it would make such a difference to us. I think it’s absolutely vital. Life is becoming more stressful for everybody and kids in school find things hard, but if these programmes were part and parcel of the curriculum it would make a huge difference to everybody, to their parents as well,” she says.

O’Neill echoes her sentiments: “With children, you’re always pushing an open door. They may seem reluctant but as an example, the mindfulness: we’ve run it in the whole school and it’s amazing to see how children as young as four can engage with and understand the programme. It’s teaching them how to respond to situations rather than react. I think as adults we can learn an awful lot from it,” he says.

He sees the benefit of the programmes in his school in teaching empathy and leadership, and allowing children a forum to speak about their issues. He has also seen improvements in general academic standards as a direct result of the new initiatives. However, resourcing is a constant struggle.

“The reality is you have kids coming to school and they are coming from difficult situations, but the kids are almost expected to park these issues at the gate and come in and engage with their English and maths programmes and it’s not realistic.

“Over the years, mostly through fundraising, we’ve engaged therapists, we’re brought in the woodwork programme and the mindfulness programme because we feel the reality is the kids can’t access or engage with a curriculum unless you deal with the emotional and behavioural issues as well,” he says.

This is something each of the teachers names as one of the main challenges of bringing in new initiatives, along with getting teachers and parents on board. With teachers already overloaded with the traditional curriculum, adding things on isn’t an option. Instead, these initiatives all fit in alongside the curriculum, often as a different approach to English or SPHE or religion.

“The staff weren’t all on board immediately, because with anything new, there’s some apprehension,” says Fitzgerald.

“They thought, what if an inspector comes from the department? It wasn’t that we weren’t doing what we were meant to be doing; we were covering the curriculum and doing exactly as the department would expect us to, but we were doing it in our own way.

“What we were doing uniquely was listening to the students, trying to identify where they were at and then tailoring the curriculum to them, rather than tailoring them to the curriculum,” says Fitzgerald.

While the Changemaker network allows schools easy access to other schools’ ideas, Corish warns to avoid overload. “It’s important to make absolutely sure that you’re picking something that’s really suitable for your school and you’re going with it and you’re not overloading it and going with every idea that’s there.”

With the key qualities of empathy, creativity, leadership and teamwork at the core of all these schools, Serena Mizzoni, director of Ashoka Ireland, wants children to leave school feeling like active members of their community and able to take initiative. In the bigger picture, it's about creating a new idea of what education can be, that begins on the ground in schools.

“With any child, they should graduate feeling they were given an educational experience that allowed them to reach their full potential, which is something I don’t think a lot of people would say about school. It’s a big shift,” she says.