Building an Essential Curriculum
The Mental Health of Children and Young People (MHCYP) survey found that one in six children aged 5-16 had a probable mental health disorder in 2020. Earlier data showed that only a quarter of these children had contact with a mental health specialist, and one quarter had no support at all.
The consequences of not addressing early mental health issues extend to adulthood, limiting opportunities. As it currently stands, education is not geared towards equipping children with the skills and tools they need to live happy, healthy lives. There needs to be a fundamental shift in understanding about the role schools can play in the long-term health and wellbeing of our future generations. When young people feel connected to their schools (and their families) this can protect against the risk of:
- Disordered eating
- Susceptibility to injury
- Substance abuse, and
- Emotional distress.
This is why Bounce Forward is passionate about supporting schools to build a curriculum that equips children and young people with the essential tools to develop emotional resilience and psychological fitness; preparing them for life, not just exams.
What does a positive emotional resilience curriculum look like?
There are four core elements that Bounce Forward teaches young people in their lessons:
- How to deal better with education and life pressures so they bounce forward in and beyond school
- The mental resilience skills to think flexibly and realistically to adapt and respond to challenges and make the most of opportunities
- The emotionally intelligent capacity for empathy, compassion and hope
- How to be proactive agents for change about the things they care about, and that matter most for humanity.
This article focuses on two of these four areas, exploring how each can be taught as part of an emotional resilience curriculum.
Optimistic thinking is not the same as positive thinking. Learned optimism is the ability to focus on the positive whilst not ignoring the negative. The idea is that if there is a choice (and there often is) it is more productive and helpful to pay attention to the positive that can be found amongst the negative. To teach optimism, first we have to understand the link between thoughts, feelings and behaviour. This is possible using a well-established and simple cognitive behavioural model that helps break down situations into facts, beliefs and consequences.
The theory suggests that when things happen, we interpret them, deciding what has caused the situation, or the implications of the situation. It is our interpretation or beliefs in that moment that influence our emotion and our behaviour. Imagine three people in the same situation – stuck in a traffic jam.
Person one thinks “some idiot has been driving too fast”, feels angry and beeps their horn. Person two thinks “there is nothing I can do about it”, feels calm and takes the opportunity to listen to their favourite tune. Person three thinks “I am going to be late to pick up the children from school”, feels anxious and clutches their head in their hands.
One situation, three different responses (emotions and behaviour) because each person’s beliefs about the situation were different.
This simple understanding offers choices: If I don’t like how I am feeling and behaving, then I can reframe my thinking. It leads to a sophisticated understanding of self as patterns emerge: In these types of situations I can react in an unhelpful/helpful way. It supports the ability to clearly explain what is going on for me: This happened, the facts were x, y, z. I believed ……. to be true and I felt ……. and responded by doing ……….
This foundational learning has been proven to see sustained long-term positive outcomes.
But please donʼt make the assumption that the goal is for young people to feel happy all of the time. Almost by contrast, the goal is to help young people explore alternatives, look for evidence for what they believe to be true, challenge their viewpoint and develop the psychological muscle to overcome setbacks and make the most of opportunities.
This is achieved by teaching skills and providing the opportunity to practise and master the skills.
Compassion comes when we are faced with another personʼs suffering and we want to do something to relieve that suffering. Learning how to be compassionate starts with understanding emotions, the range of emotions we can feel and what happens in our bodies and minds when we experience certain emotions. This understanding offers the opportunity to first understand our own emotions and then to build empathy, the ability to take the perspective of and feel the emotions of another person. It is this understanding that drives us to be compassionate because we can understand what someone else is going through.
By supporting young people to recognise the differences between positive and negative emotions and the associated levels of energy that are spent (or wasted) with strong emotions, they can develop strategies that help them manage their emotions and therefore their energy, and themselves, more effectively.
Positive emotions can often take a back seat, while we pay attention to negative emotions, but they really are important. When we feel good, (happy, content, relaxed, at ease, receptive), we are better equipped to problem solve and think creatively in the moment, which in turn builds personal resilience such as social connections, and physical and psychological resources. So, supporting young people to recognise their positive emotions is not a ʻnice to haveʼ part of teaching; it is essential to equip them to deal with adversity.
Optimism and compassion can be viewed as ʻsoftʼ, ʻnice to havesʼ but there is nothing soft about them, they are essential and a part of core learning we should be teaching in school to all of our children, especially those who face learning challenges. Building a curriculum and teaching it in a scientific way will help all our young people to not only survive, but thrive.
Lucy Bailey is Chief Executive Officer and Founder of Bounce Forward. She is proud of her beginnings as a youth worker and her 17 years of experience of working in, developing, reforming and managing childrenʼs services. Over the last 12 years Lucy has focused on education and has been instrumental in embedding resilience curricula in schools and services across the UK. Her passion is to drive a movement to influence UK policy around education to form a positive system of change. Lucy directed the Healthy Minds research project, has an MSc in Practice Based Research, a BSc in Social Policy and Criminology, and a Post-Graduate Certificate in Education.
Professional Prompt Questions
- To what extent do you see yourself as responsible for your studentsʼ emotional health?
- In what ways might staff in schools role-model compassion?
- What tools can you give children to deal with adversity?