In a healthy frame of mind

28th January 2005 at 00:00
In West Dunbartonshire, pupils are learning to tackle stress through self-awareness and relaxation, writes Douglas Blane

When Clydebank High decided to host a healthy living project, the headteacher sent a letter to parents asking them to encourage their children to take part. At the same time he offered an apology in advance, saying: "I suspect that we might be inundated with names."

His suspicions were well founded, says Sandra Robertson, the school's health co-ordinator and principal teacher of pastoral care. "We got loads of volunteers, far too many."

In the end, about 150 pupils, drawn from the first and third years, took part in the 3Cs ("cool, calm, chilled") project, organised by West Dunbartonshire Healthy Living Initiative.

The three-year project, which is delivered in 10 to 12 week blocks to particular groups of children aged 12 to 18, in schools and in the community, aims to improve understanding of stress and promote emotional intelligence through group work and one-to-one counselling sessions.

Stress, emotional awareness, coping strategies, relaxation and communication skills are explored in pleasing surroundings as far removed as possible from a classroom environment.

"This was where the sessions were held," says Ms Robertson, opening the door on an airy lounge with soft chairs, low tables and flip charts.

Colourful posters impart words of emotional wisdom: "You can make a difference", "Have you got the full story?" and "Stop. Listen. Think."

"It's nice, isn't it?" says Ms Robertson.

"The kids really enjoyed it. If they hadn't, they would very quickly have put the word around and we wouldn't have had everyone so keen to go.

"There was always a buzz in class when it was time for the turnaround. It was 'Who is in the group this time?' " The 3Cs is a structured programme that normally starts by exploring the nature of stress, moves on through relaxation and the merits of assertiveness versus aggression, and ends in reflection and celebration of what has been achieved. On the way it takes in meditation, hand massage, simple stress-buster techniques, do-in (a mix of breathing exercises, stretches and self-shiatsu) and Chinese whispers.

The first-and third-year pupils took part a year ago as part of their personal and social education. The basic programme was modified for the older ones to focus on relieving exam stress, which the pupils had identified as their biggest concern.

"Their exams were starting in the second term," says Ms Robertson. "As acting depute head, I talked to the kids, the senior management team, the pastoral care teachers and discussed with the 3Cs people what we were going to do. They had told us it would take a lot of groundwork to prepare for the project, and it did, but it was worth it."

Questionnaires completed afterwards by the participating pupils indicated an almost uniformly positive response. "Only one boy and one girl came to me saying they wanted to withdraw," says Ms Robertson.

More importantly, lasting effects on the children have been evident to their teachers, she says. "When they came back from the sessions their self-esteem was better. They were far more confident in themselves, very positive about what they were doing, where they were going.

"They had obviously learned that if they wanted to do something they had to take the bull by the horns and they were going to cope with it.

"They came back feeling better about themselves and feeling they could cope with the stresses and strains of exams."

Particularly noticeable were the effects on pupils with behaviour difficulties -who were "absolute stars", loved the course and wanted to repeat it - and the quiet pupils in every class, who work hard, never cause a problem and often go unnoticed for long periods. "They were given the added boost of being recognised as having a lot of worth," says Ms Robertson.

"I still teach social education to quite a few of the kids who went on the course and I can see a difference in them. They can handle themselves and they have a very positive self-image."

Although the group work courses ended last spring, one aspect of 3Cs that is continuing at Clydebank High, at least for a while, is one-to-one counselling arranged on a self-referral basis.

"Counselling is something we have always felt the need of in school," says Ms Robertson.

"It has been a wonderful success. The counsellor is a very caring lady, very down to earth. Currently she sees just six kids, but those kids are all important.

"They have responded very well. They trust her and don't feel threatened in any way. They have found it a positive experience."

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