Students say their self-confidence increased after exposure to 14 sessions aimed at building resilience.
The UK celebrates Mental Health Awareness Week this month and the theme chosen for this year - ‘stress,’ is something which people from around the world can relate to. Often thought of as a fairly ‘grown-up’ term, the ways in which children and young people experience and respond to stress are frequently neglected. As someone who has been working in mental health in Kenya for the past 15 years, I’d like to tell you about one of the pioneering ways our organisation, BasicNeeds Kenya, is helping to increase the emotional resilience of children in schools across the country.
"Programmes are designed to simultaneously increase children’s capacities to cope and thrive in response to difficult life experiences."
BasicNeeds Kenya was established in 2005 with the aim of improving the lives of people with mental, neurological and substance use disorders, their carers and families. So far we have reached over 90,000 people. However, in the course of our work we realised that the mental health of children, adolescents and young people is often overlooked. It is this critical gap that the personal resilience programme ‘Youth First Kenya’ seeks to address.
Youth First Kenya takes its initiative from a highly successful project developed by Corstone USA and Corstone India, which started working in schools in India to upstream mental wellness and resilience among adolescents and young people. The programmes are designed to simultaneously increase children’s capacities to cope and thrive in response to difficult life experiences and indirectly to improve their social, emotional and education outcomes.
The Youth First Kenya programme is being piloted in Kajiado and Tharaka Nithi counties in Kenya and BasicNeeds Kenya has responsibility for those in Tharaka Nithi.
The project is anchored within the county education programme, and is school-based and teacher-led. It comprises 14 emotional resilience sessions and nine more general health and wellbeing sessions which are run during a 45-60 minute class each week. In Kenya, the project is being implemented in 10 primary schools by 20 teachers and being delivered to 276 pupils.
What do the children learn?
The emotional resilience classes are centred around the core principles of Positive Psychology, Attitudinal Healing and restorative practices. While ‘traditional’ psychology focusses on alleviating suffering, Positive Psychology aims to uncover and enhance character strengths and positive thoughts and behaviours. This helps with the development of the children’s social-emotional learning and encourages healthy relationships.
Attitudinal Healing offers a way to let go of fearful attitudes and embrace a positive mind-set towards situations and relationships. This is encouraged by helping students to talk about their thoughts, feelings and attitudes about people and events, and what causes them distress.
The concept of restorative practices advocate that people are happier, more cooperative and productive, when those in positions of power do things with them, rather than to or for them. In schools, the establishment of restorative practice groups provide opportunities for students to share their feelings, build relationships and problem-solve collaboratively.
The programme is empowering for both teachers and children as it uses interactive learner-centered approaches, which is lots of fun for the pupils and encourages them to bring out the best in themselves. Each set of schools is currently on their 10th session and so far the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.
Students have said that their self-confidence has increased and so has their overall interest for learning in general. A heartening sign of this is that absenteeism has greatly reduced, with almost all schools reporting that not one pupil has missed a session since they started.
Teachers have also told us that the resilience sessions have improved their relations with the pupils and they feel better able to cope with difficult situations, not only with the children at school, but also in their own lives. Importantly, they feel more optimistic about the emotional coping skills of the children and their futures in general.
Our aspiration is to see the project scaled up to more schools over time, and if possible throughout the whole country. The importance of teaching children how to respond resiliently to life’s twists and turns cannot be overstated. These are foundation-building skills that have the potential to stay with them and positively impact the rest of their lives.
Based on the feedback received so far, we believe the Youth First Kenya programme can be truly life changing for all those who take part and will hopefully become a core part of all curriculums worldwide in the future.
Joyce Kingori is Chief Executive at BasicNeeds Kenya
Image: Pupils write their group guidelines during session 1 of the Youth First curriculum. Copyright, BasicNeeds.