Balm for troubled minds

4th June 2004 at 01:00
Emotional Health and Well-Being: a practical guide for schools By Helen Cowie, Chrissy Boardman, Judith Dawkins and Dawn Jennifer Paul Chapman Publishing pound;18.99

Young Minds in Our Schools: a guide for teachers and other working in schools By Peter Wilson YoungMinds pound;8.95. Go to www.youngminds. to download an order form or call 020 7336 8445 to ask for one

Kids Talking: learning relationships and culture with children By John Meyer Rowman and Littlefield pound;20.95

The authors of Emotional Health and Well-Being point out: "In any school of 1,000 pupils there are likely to be 50 pupils with a depressive illness, 100 who are suffering significant distress, 10-20 with obsessive compulsive disorder, 5-10 girls with an eating disorder."

Of the rest, a large number will have less serious problems which nonetheless affect their well-being.

The extent to which any of these inner difficulties become outward problems is significantly altered by the way the children are treated by their schools, and just one story in this book illustrates the point. "In a small Roman Catholic secondary school, the pupils were expected to sit for an hour and a half for a weekly Mass. One boy in Year 7 with mild ADHD found this the most difficult part of the week."

How many well-balanced adults, you feel, faced with a 90-minute service might exhibit the symptoms of "mild ADHD"? At the same time, the authors remind us, we all function best when we're just a bit anxious. The complication for schools is that a level of stress that is motivating for one child may be disabling for another. As they say: "Conscientious girls are more at risk than 'laid-back' boys."

The book lays claim to practicality, so it gives many brief case studies and examples of good practice culled from real schools. What's striking about so many of these is the way they home in on issues too easily forgotten in a busy school: unpleasant toilet and locker areas, lunchtime arrangements that expose vulnerable children to bullying, telephone systems that frustrate hard-pressed staff.

The big issues are here, too, of course: bereavement; bullying; eating disorders; substance abuse; self-harm. In each case the authors define the problem, illustrate it with research where appropriate and go on to describe a range of tested remedial strategies, usually in impressive detail. Typical is the book's five-page account of "circle time", including a secondary school case study, a list of resources and a "how to do it" box. The "confronting conflict" programme run by the youth organisation Leap is given similarly full and fair treatment, as are numerous others.

It's this close level of engagement that makes the book an impressive and useful handbook of advice and resources. More than that, because it presents so much evidence, it's able to show, rather than just tell, how schools can improve life for their pupils and teachers.

It's tempting to describe Peter Wilson's 83-page Young Minds in Our Schools as the low-fat version of Emotional Health and Well-Being, because, similarly, it starts from the knowledge that, "some pupils in schools - not an insignificant minority - find it hard to learn and make the most of their abilities. It is important that schools understandI and find ways of helping these pupils."

Read on and, although you find much that echoes the bigger volume, the voice is different and the message is delivered straight to the teacher.

It's strong, for example, on the way children, by their behaviour in class, are effectively telling the teacher stories about their lives.

"To illustrate something of this impact," Peter Wilson writes, "we can imagine various examples in which children are in effect saying kinds of hellos."

There follow four arresting examples: the child whose behaviour translates to a description of abuse at the hands of his father; the one who has been neglected and undernourished; the one whose father puts her down; and - of course - the one who is loved and supported. Another strength of the book is its full list of resources and organisations.

Both the previous books acknowledge that the roots of failure or success lie in early development. Kids Talking, because it's about children in pre-school, offers valuable insights into how the things young children say give messages about their lives and their needs. Properly handled and built upon, these messages can be used to help children make good and healthy relationships with each other and with adults. It's an engaging book, about lively young children being treated with love and understanding.

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