Analysis: one way to help children's emotional wellbeing is by increasing their sense of belonging or connection to their school

By Penny Quinn and Sinead McGilloway, Maynooth University

This year's World Children's Day marks the 30th anniversary of the United Nations adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) which seeks to ensure that children throughout the world grow into happy, healthy adults. The theme of this year’s World Children’s Day is "being your best self". Fundamental to this aspiration is positive mental health and wellbeing, which research suggests is key to enabling our children to lead emotionally, academically, socially and economically fulfilling lives.

While Ireland currently ranks at only 22nd out of 41 countries worldwide in terms of our children’s health and wellbeing, there is an increasing emphasis on child well-being in policy development and implementation in Ireland, especially within the education sector. For example, the most recent wellbeing policy statement from the Department of Education and Skills highlights the important role of schools and teachers in promoting health and wellbeing, including positive mental health. This is further reflected in the 300 hours of wellbeing instruction which are now an intrinsic part of the new Junior Cycle programme (which will increase to 400 hours by 2020).

Furthermore, the Irish Primary Principals' Network (IPPN) has been eliciting and tracking feedback from school principals on their pupils’ mental health over the last decade. They describe a "disturbing trend" in relation to the emotional wellbeing of primary school children. Clearly, emotional wellbeing in children can be linked to many factors, both within and outside the school environment, but schools can, and do, play an important role especially in the context of a "whole-school" approach. 

With the Buddy Bench, children can have a safe space during school playtimes that facilitates building new friendships and reduces incidents of playtime isolation

Recent research based on 9 to 13 year-olds who took part in the Growing Up in Ireland study found that the children's experience of primary school (including classroom climate) was crucial to how they viewed themselves. This was not only as learners, but in terms of their health and wellbeing, self-image and their longer term engagement with their schools and teachers.

According to a 2017 report by the OECD, one in four students do not feel a sense of belonging or connection to their school. Positive teacher-pupil relationships and children’s social and emotional competencies are among the factors that foster such connectedness.

A study undertaken by a team of researchers in the United States, involved a review of worldwide country-level data on the effects of social determinants on health in young people aged 10 to 24 years. Structural factors aside, the findings indicate that the nature of the school environment and the sense of connectedness felt by students toward their schools, were important proximal determinants of wellbeing into young adulthood. This study highlights the importance, not only of having safe and supportive families, but also safe and supportive schools and peer groups in enabling young people to reach their full potential and enjoy optimal health in the transition to adulthood.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Ray D'Arcy Show, what is the Buddy Bench?

Given the current emphasis on child mental health and wellbeing in Ireland and the increasing responsibilities of teachers/schools in this regard, it seems appropriate and timely that additional supports are carefully considered for delivery and implementation in Irish schools. The Centre for Mental Health and Community Research at Maynooth University is currently investigating a new programme which has been delivered to over 42,000 children in 275 Irish primary schools throughout Ireland to date.

The Buddy Bench Aware Programme is a programme which is being pioneered by a social enterprise called Life Matters/Buddy Bench Ireland which aims to help foster and support children's sense of connectedness and belonging to their school, whilst reducing playtime exclusion and loneliness. The key concepts of friendship, empathy and kindness are encouraged by means of a facilitated workshop, child-friendly materials and a school Buddy Bench (supplied by the Men's Sheds organisation). The simple idea behind the Buddy Bench is that children can have a safe space during school playtimes that facilitates building new friendships and reduces incidents of playtime isolation.

Happy and "connected" school environments are crucial in supporting both children's academic development and helping to enhance their well-being

Our early findings from this research indicate that children, teachers and parents alike had positive views and experiences of the programme. Over 80% of the children reported liking having a Buddy Bench in their school, while 40% have sat on it at some stage. The children indicated that the Buddy Bench had helped them in making friends and helping others. 85% of teachers also said that they would be likely (to a greater or lesser degree) to recommend the programme to other schools. Further findings will be available at the end of 2020.

In collaboration with parents and guardians, schools and teachers can play an important role in delivering and supporting programmes to promote all aspects of positive mental health and well-being in schools. Increasingly, we are seeing that happy and "connected" school environments are crucial in supporting both children's academic development and helping to enhance their well-being. By developing strong and positive relationships with each other and with their teachers, and learning about fundamental human values such as friendship, empathy and kindness, children can be enabled to become good citizens - and their "best selves" - into the future.

Penny Quinn is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Mental Health and Community Research at the Department of Psychology, and Social Sciences Institute at Maynooth University. She is an Irish Research Council awardee. Professor Sinead McGilloway is Founder Director of the Centre for Mental Health and Community Research at the Department of Psychology, and Social Sciences Institute at Maynooth University


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ