I care about how you feel

23rd November 2007 at 00:00
A world-first scheme to boost whole-community confidence is being piloted. Emma Seith reports.Hundreds of children, teenagers, parents and childcare professionals in Edinburgh - including teachers - are to be given confidence-building classes, thanks to a pound;1 million grant from Lottery funds.

Over the next five years, in the first scheme of its kind, Edinburgh City Council will pilot a series of programmes in 10 primaries to ensure that young people and those working with or caring for them have a positive outlook, are able to understand their own feelings and empathise with others.

At any one time, about 10 per cent of Scottish youngsters under 19 - around 125,000 young people - suffer from mental health problems which are so substantial that they have difficulties with their thoughts, their feelings, their behaviour, their learning and their relationships.

The aim of the project, Growing Confidence, was to create stronger, more understanding communities to act as a safety net for people when life gets tough, Patricia Santelices, its manager, said: "When young people have good social and emotional skills, are involved with their family, school and communities, and have strong relationships with significant adults, they become protected."

In August, work started in the 10 primaries. In the second year of the project, parents will be targeted and, in the third, teenagers. Ultimately, the scheme aims to reach 3,375 primary children, 235 staff, 675 parents and carers, and 135 teenagers.

Elizabeth Morris, principal of the School of Emotional Literacy, said: "This project is unique in the UK and in the world. If you take a whole-community approach, you give children and young people the best possible chance in life."

Training is under way for the staff in the schools and beyond - social workers, youth workers and police - to increase their understanding of emotional well-being concepts.

Ann Moore, headteacher of Preston Street Primary, one of the schools involved, said: "If staff are not good at dealing with emotions or managing relationships, they're not going to be able to model that for the children."

Pupils in the pilot primaries have also made a start on improving their emotional literacy, using the Creating Confident Kids resource. It was designed by Scottish teachers with the help of Dr Morris and is based on England's SEAL (social and emotional aspects of learning) project which aims to "help children develop skills such as understanding another's point of view, working in a group, sticking at things when they get difficult, resolving conflict and managing worries".

From January, children in the pilot primaries will also have access to Seasons for Growth, an Australian programme that helps people deal with change or loss. In addition, community education projects in the catchment areas of these schools, funded up to pound;1,500 per year, will take place. Plans for the other strands of the programme are less concrete. Exactly how the confidence of parents and teenagers would be boosted was a work in progress, Ms Santelices said.

Already, 400 children have filled in an animated online questionnaire to ascertain how they are feeling before the interventions start, responding to statements such as: "I laugh at other people when they get into trouble or get hurt". Staff will also complete questionnaires.

Schemes like this have their critics, however. Some, like Carol Craig, chief executive of the Glasgow-based Centre for Confidence and Wellbeing, believe developing emotional literacy in pupils could make them too inward-looking and self-obsessed. She fears they may become too dependent on professionals to sort out their emotions.

Ms Santelices and Ms Moore were quick to dismiss such concerns. "The programme is not just about me, me, me," Ms Moore said. "It is about how they feel, and also how they see other people - can they empathise? How do they manage relationships? We are arming our children for the challenges they will face."

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