Emotions pivotal to children’s learning capacity, forum told

Trauma, anxiety and depression cited as key drivers in retarding academic progress


If a child is repeatedly failing academically the most likely reason is a mental health difficulty, a conference has heard.

Dr Tony Bates, founder and chief executive of the youth mental health organisation Jigsaw, said emotions were central to the capacity to learn and if a young person was experiencing trauma, anxiety or depression they were less able to.

“If a child is not learning in school it is frustrating for everyone”.

He was speaking at a conference hosted by Jigsaw on Tuesday, to promote a model, supported by the organisation, and now rolled out in five secondary schools in Co Meath. The Listening School project aims to “embed wellbeing” in the school culture, by empowering students to speak and be heard.

These schools’ approach emerged from community reaction to a cluster of eight young people’s suicides in the county, in 2006.

None of the teenagers had been linked in with HSE or mental health services. It was felt a strategy was needed within the schools that would be “preventative” and “vaccinate young people” against mental health difficulties.

“School-based mental health support is not about our most vulnerable young people. It is about strengthening the resilience and well-being of all young people. It is about prevention as well as intervention,” said Dr Bates.

‘Peer mentors’

In one of the schools, St Peter’s College, Dunboyne, staff worked with the HSE and the National Educational Psychological Service (Neps), to develop a programme where selected students were trained as “peer mentors”, to listen to and watch out for their fellow students. And to notice when they may be feeling isolated, anxious or stressed.

The mentors meet their tutor every morning to discuss and report any concerns they have.

Principal of St Oliver’s School in Oldcastle, Brendan Corcoran, said the peer mentoring programme was introduced among first-years and extended later.

It was like an “early warning system for what is going on with your students”, he said. “You have a significant amount of information about the important things happening with the students.” When necessary the school can call on Neps or other services.

The model also recognises that disruptive behaviour is as much a welfare issue as a disciplinary matter and aims to work with students who are acting out, rather than punishing them.

Minister for Children Katherine Zappone said she would publish the findings of a consultation with young people in the coming weeks. Its findings were “stark”.

“Worries over body image are compounded by social and mainstream media, the pressure to conform is greater than ever before while exam stress, peer pressure and bullying are named as barriers to a healthy lifestyle.”

If you or someone you know needs someone to talk to, contact the Samaritans on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org