Among 10 to 19-year-olds, one in seven is affected. The figures are stark yet mental health in childhood remains something of a taboo. Right? Well, not everyone thinks so.
At the British International School of Stockholm (BISS), teachers have created a timetable and environment that emphasises wellbeing as well as learning, and mental as well as physical health.
How? An innovative project in which older students guide younger children through an introduction to understanding mental health is one key element. Dedicated mindfulness classes are another.
While 54 nationalities are represented at the school – for children aged three to 18 – teachers and students say this approach helps cement the feeling of a close-knit community that’s easy to settle into.
Stronger together: students lead the way
Supporting children through the ups and downs of their school years is never going to be easy. The trials and tribulations of forming friendships, exam stress and puberty are nothing new. Today, social media and cyberbullying further complicate things.
For international families, there’s still one more hurdle to negotiate – being new not just to a school but to a country and culture.
“Some people form very close friendships and then at the end of the year, your friend may leave,” says Jason, 12, originally from China. “So, it will be helpful to build up your mental strength.”
His Year 7 classmate Kyle, half-Swiss, half-Italian but born in Singapore, adds: “Not all students who come to the school are fluent in English, so that’s another challenge in making friends.”
These are some of the reasons why they were delighted to take part in the Peer Education Project (PEP). The PEP is an evidence-based mental health programme for UK and international British secondary schools, in which older students teach their younger peers.
Created by the UK-based Mental Health Foundation, it’s in its second year at BISS and is taught by volunteers in Years 10 and 12 to those in Year 7. Five 45-minute lessons cover topics such as maintaining good mental health, coping strategies, and recognising warning signs in others.
“It’s part of our PSHE curriculum [Personal, Social, Health and Emotional], which is embedded in our school,” says Lucy Lindgren, a history teacher and Secondary PSHE subject leader. “We think of the whole child and want to enrich the curriculum accordingly, rather than focus only on the academic side of things.”
Integration, conversations – and even fun!
This holistic outlook has helped BISS to achieve a Patron’s Accreditation from the Council of British International Schools (COBIS), with no fewer than 23 commendations. COBIS’s report recognises the value of the PEP and describes BISS as “a very caring school where the quality of relationships between staff and students is strong and positive”.
Riley, a 16-year-old American, was initially “apprehensive” about volunteering to teach the project while studying, but she’s now glad she did.
“When we planned lessons, everyone joined in to work as a team,” she says. “It was really helpful in terms of improving my presentational skills and building my confidence for the future. Two of the Year 12 students who volunteered were new to BISS and they also said it helped them to integrate and settle into the school quicker.”
Kyle and Jason were impressed by the atmosphere generated between students of different ages.“Everyone supported each other and nobody mocked anyone if you didn’t know something,” says Kyle. “I learned important things and my parents were also pleased that we were starting conversations about mental wellbeing at our age.”
What practical tips stick in his mind? Kyle says he’ll look out for changes in mood among friends and classmates, as well as potential signs like not eating well.
But given the heavy topic did the classes drag? Not at all! “There were a lot more interactive games than I expected, so it was fun,” says Jason.
A mindful path to emotional literacy
BISS caters for children from preschool age through to students taking IGCSEs and the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IBDP). Applications are open throughout the year.
From Year 1 to Year 10, children are also taught mindfulness as part of PSHE. The approach is tailored for each age group, starting with 20 minutes per week for the youngest, says project leader Lucy Handley. But what makes mindfulness worthwhile in a busy school?
“It’s a very simple concept that we, as adults, massively over-complicate,” she says. “It’s about teaching the skill of being present in the moment. With five-year-olds, we play simple games to do with noticing our bodies, our breathing.
“We build on that progressively through the years and it helps with emotional literacy. By the time they’re in secondary school, we’re having 45-minute long discussions that resonate with the children.”
Parents-kids-school: A triangle of communication
Handley began introducing mindfulness into classes while studying for a Master’s on the topic and soon saw children “interacting with each other differently”. After plenty of rewarding feedback, it became a designated subject at BISS five years ago.
Some students have taken mindfulness practices home, with parents saying this enables them to “talk about emotions more openly with their children”.
It’s a familiar sentiment for Lucy Lindgren and everyone involved in the PEP. “Today, children live both in the real world and online,” says Lindgren.
“The project gives them a trusted source of information about mental health, which is is vital with social media potentially giving them access to less trustworthy sources. It also really helps with the triangle of communication between parents, children and the school.”
And if all is well in that triangle, parents are sure to feel confident about how their child’s future is taking shape.