Teaching your child the art of happiness
In recent years, the media has been full of stories about the increase in mental health problems in children and young people. Children of primary school age are worrying about exam pressure, Childline has seen a record number of calls from children having suicidal thoughts, and more kids than ever are being referred to mental health services.
In the wake of this huge increase in emotional problems, experts are petitioning for children to be taught mental wellbeing skills as part of their formal education. But could putting ‘happiness’ on the curriculum make a real difference?
Why happiness in schools matters
It’s difficult to unpick the reasons for the current epidemic of mental health problems in children, but Andy Cope, a qualified teacher and author of books including the Spy Dog series and Be Brilliant Every Day and The Art of being a Brilliant Primary School Teacher (£10.99, Capstone), thinks the pace of modern life is partly responsible.
‘The world has sped up since we were kids, and we all have busy agendas – children included,’ explains Andy, who’s completing a PhD in positive psychology. ‘You can see, when the school holidays come around, that it’s not just teachers who are exhausted; the kids are too. And it’s not just physical exhaustion; life is emotionally gruelling.’
The pressure to succeed at school also plays a part, says Andy, with primary schools more focused on results than ever before. ‘The school system puts pressure on teachers to deliver good SATs results, which then filters down to the children,’ he says. ‘All headteachers acknowledge the importance of looking after the whole child, but when the curriculum is making them focus on academic success, it leaves little time for promoting wellbeing and happiness.’
The irony is that a happy child is more likely to perform well at school. Research has shown that mental and emotional problems affect children’s academic achievement. In contrast, children who are happy tend to gain higher grades, and, in turn, those with higher grades tend to be happier later in life.
‘The difficulty is that the school system isn’t geared up to celebrate what kids are good at,’ Andy explains. ‘They’re taught that if they get good SATs results they’ll be happy, but actually, if they feel happy in the first place, they’re more likely to get good SATs results.’
What’s happening in schools?
Currently, there’s no statutory requirement for schools to teach children mental wellbeing skills; in fact, even PSHE lessons are optional in primary schools. But nevertheless, it’s something that an increasing number of primary schools are embracing.
The Mindfulness in Schools Project (MiSP) offers a programme of six to 12 sessions in mindfulness: a form of meditation for mental wellbeing that involves paying close attention to the present moment rather than being distracted by negative thoughts. These ‘paws.b’ sessions are delivered in PSHE lessons for seven- to 11-year-olds, and early results have shown that after the course, children have more positive attitudes towards learning and better results.
Meanwhile, Action for Happiness and the National Children’s Bureau are planning to launch an Action for Happiness in Schools campaign, creating a movement of schools that put happiness and wellbeing at the heart of their ethos. And experts ranging from former education secretary Liz Truss and Anthony Seldon, the former headmaster of prestigious Wellington College, have spoken about the importance of teaching wellbeing in schools.
The prospect of happiness or mindfulness being part of the curriculum may be distant, but it’s clear that schools are beginning to realise its value and integrate it into their teaching.
What do ‘happiness lessons’ look like?
Because there’s no compulsory basis for happiness education in schools, there’s no formal guidance on how it should be delivered. However, there are plenty of resources that schools can use.
paws.b, for example, includes PowerPoint presentations, videos, short meditations, discussion and homework tasks that teach children to use the skills they’ve learnt in every area of life. Pupils are taught ways to steady themselves when they’re stressed, how to respond rather than react to situations, how their thoughts impact their body and emotions, and mindfulness techniques to use in daily life.
Andy Cope runs workshops called The Art of Being Brilliant for Schools, where the key is to get children to embrace the importance of happiness. Children in Year 5 and Year 6 embark on a three-day workshop that includes elements of positive psychology, mindfulness and resilience training. ‘We base it around choosing to be positive, and children come up with their own plan for putting it into action,’ Andy says.
The results have been remarkable. ‘One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to do a good deed for someone else, so we’ve had kids going into town and doing random acts of kindness for people, and washing teachers’ cars at lunchtime,’ Andy explains. ‘The best thing is that children completely take it on board, and then deliver what they’ve been taught to the rest of the school. We’ve even had children taking happiness lessons out into other schools in their area.’
Ten ways to raise a happier child
Whether or not your child’s school is teaching happiness, there’s a lot you can do to help them be happier on a day-to-day basis. These include:
- Keeping a gratitude journal. ‘Every day – even if it’s been a rubbish day – your child can write down 10 things that they’re grateful for but usually take for granted. This stops them focusing on the negative,’ Andy says.
- Laughing. It sounds obvious, but it releases feel-good hormones and reduces stress hormones. Sit down together and watch a funny DVD or look up silly videos on YouTube.
- Performing random acts of kindness, such as making someone a cup of tea (unprompted), helping with the washing-up or reading their younger sibling a story.
- Writing a letter to themselves. ‘Get them to imagine they’re 30 years old and writing to their childhood self. What advice would they give themselves?’ asks Andy.
- Encouraging a growth mindset. ‘Praise children for hard work and perseverance rather than results, rewarding the effort rather than the outcome,’ Andy says.
- Exercising. There’s a strong link between physical activity and mental wellbeing, so walking or cycling to school, playing football in the garden after school or taking up dance or tennis lessons could boost your child’s emotional health.
- Celebrating their strengths. ‘At school, if a child is rubbish at maths, they’re just given more maths, which makes them feel worse. So at home, focus on praising the things they’re good at and doing more of them,’ suggests Andy.
- Reading together. ‘You can’t underestimate the impact of sitting on your child’s bed and reading them a bedtime story – even if they’re perfectly capable of reading by themselves,’ Andy says.
- Being more sociable. ‘Instead of walking around with your heads down, smile at everyone within 10 feet and make eye contact and say “hello” to everyone within five feet.’
- Hugging. ‘Most hugs only last 2.1 seconds, but to get the maximum love-surge, they need to last seven seconds or longer, so introducing the seven-second hug is a really easy way of making your child feel special,’ Andy explains.
Above all, try to keep the importance of happiness at the front of your mind: easier said than done when you're worrying about homework, SATs and the 11+. 'No new parent looks down at the baby in their arms and wishes for them to master algebra or be able to read Macbeth at 11 years old,' Andy adds. 'All we want at that moment is for them to be happy, and that's something we all need to remember as our children get older.'