We have come so far in the last number of years in our understanding of our physical health, and it’s great that children learn at an early age about all the factors and elements that contribute to keeping our bodies healthy. They learn about healthy eating and about why our bodies need all the different food groups to nourish us and keep us strong. They learn about how our bodies work and why we need exercise to keep us fit and energetic. Most children get the opportunity to try out lots of different forms of sports and exercise before they settle on the one or two that they enjoy most.I wish the same thing could be said about children’s knowledge and understanding of their mental health, but we still have a lot of work to do to bring it to the same level as their understanding of their physical health. We need to start normalising the conversation on mental health and well-being with children from an early age, so that they can start absorbing and understanding as much as possible about how their minds work.
I believe that one powerful way of starting this conversation is by introducing children to the language of mental health early on. By giving them this language, we are providing them with tools to start becoming aware of, thinking about, monitoring and expressing all the various aspects of their mental well-being. We need to give them the language of what well-being looks like and feels like, and get into the habit of regularly discussing it and checking in on themselves. This also helps to build their self-efficacy; if they can learn how to monitor and express themselves, they can then start to make decisions about what actions they can take to enhance and support their own mental health.So what is the language of mental health and how can we start embedding it into the day -to- day lives of our children? I spent a long time thinking about how I could bring this language into the heart of my classroom. My starting point was this definition of well-being outlined by the World Health Organisation (2001):Mental Health is: A state of well-being in which the individual realises his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully and is able to make a contribution to his or her own community.This definition is also referred to in the Department of Education and Science – Guidelines for Mental Health Promotion- Well-Being in Primary Schools (2015). Having a clear definition of these signs of well-being gives a great reference point and focus for what we are trying to achieve.
I adapted this definition and expanded it to include other vital aspects of well-being for which there is a considerable amount of research and evidence, including gratitude and self-acceptance. I then made a large classroom display with lots of pictures using the following language:
What is Well-Being?
Well-being is feeling good and strong in my mind and body, enjoying life and having fun, getting along with and helping others, knowing and regularly using my strengths, regularly feeling grateful, coping with the normal problems and disappointments of life, feeling proud of myself for doing my best and accepting that I am okay just as I am.This is quite a detailed and comprehensive picture of well-being, yet the children understand it and relate to it really well. Having the display visible and discussing to it regularly and informally helps the children to absorb and understand the language and the concepts involved.
I introduced it after a class brainstorm on ‘What is Well-Being?’ and it was really interesting to see that that the children had very similar ideas and just needed support in clarifying and expressing them.Once children start to become aware of and understand what well-being looks and feels like to them personally, they are then in a position to self-monitor and evaluate their own mental health with reference to these signs. I devised a self- assessment checklist which we use regularly to check in on our mental health. The children assess themselves by drawing a smiley face, a neutral face or a sad face beside a range of well-being indicators. They then think of ways to try to improve on any indicators which they feel they want to work on.It’s fascinating and inspiring to see their level of engagement and commitment to this. They ask for suggestions from friends and family -another step towards normalising the mental health conversation.
I am always amazed at how insightful, pro-active and creative they are, it is really wonderful to witness their self- awareness growing. One child realised that he took most things in his life for granted so he decided to bring more gratitude into his life. Another one decided that her use of strengths needed improvement, so she decided to focus on that. Some children identified the need to improve on their ability to cope with disappointments and problems and decided to focus on using their tools of resilience. One child said that she realised that she wasn’t helping others as much she could, so she selected that to work on. They then regularly re-evaluate and set new targets for themselves.
They are well on their way to understanding their mental well-being to the same degree as their physical health, and to becoming active participants in creating and maintaining it.The Well-Being Self -Assessment Check Up is part of the Weaving Well-Being SPHE programme for primary schools.