A Derry principal has introduced a pioneering new subject and a raft of other measures to address emotional well-being amid a “crisis” in the education system.
Katrina Crilly, who took over as principal at Oakgrove Integrated College in 2017, said she could not stand by and see children across the education sector being systematically failed due to a funding crisis, pressure on statutory services and lack of services for children impacted by trauma and other issues.
As a result, Mrs. Crilly, with the backing of, and input from, staff and a range of other bodies, has spearheaded a raft of new projects which have seen Oakgrove become the first post-primary in NI to introduce a fully staffed Nurture Room, and a new timetabled subject, Mental and Emotional Education (MEE), among other groundbreaking initiatives. “What we are doing here is creating a model,” Mrs. Crilly said. “The reason why we are creating a model is because our systems are in crisis. I, like many of my colleagues, am frustrated and gravely concerned as to why we have so many young people in our schools who are struggling emotionally, socially, and ultimately academically, but yet no one is helping us to solve this growing problem”.
She added that “stressed brains don’t learn and that is regardless of academic ability”. “We are an all ability school with some very academically able students who are quite simply struggling and no other school is any different.
“We are finding more and more of our children are being referred through Special Education Needs (SEN) route as having social emotional behavioural difficulties but that route is also under funded and under resourced with endless cuts and restraints on support for schools. Another route is Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) and that is crippling as we speak, with waiting lists increasing. The other system we have is Educated Other Than At School (EOTAS) but they have no space. So we as schools are seeing all of these services open to us are in their own crisis. They are hard-working professionals but they are underfunded, understaffed and their demand is going through the roof. And who do we have in the middle of all of this? A young child whose future depends on our ability to provide an education, but schools are now expected to provide not only an education but all the other support systems as well, and it simply isn’t not good enough, so we need to create our own model.
“If we can do this and this proves to be successful then we will reduce the demand on these services and impact on waiting lists. It may not impact on children diagnosed with specific mental health conditions or learning difficulties but it may help us deal with the crisis we have of children suffering from anxiety and inability to cope with the increasing demands of teenage life”.
The Nurture Room at Oakgrove Integrated College came out of scenarios whereby pupils wanted to be in school but for a variety of circumstances just couldn’t cope with the school structures at a specific time.
Fully trained staff member Aislinn Breslin runs the Room and children are referred through the pastoral system for various reasons such as bereavement, isolation, anxiety and stress. “The only criteria we have is we don’t bring a child to the Nurture Room when children are already involved with external agencies because sometimes there can be too many services”, Mrs Crilly said. She also points out that the Nurture Room is not a ‘Sin Bin’ or detention. It has been so successful at Oakgrove that other schools have expressed an interest in developing their own nurture service. But Oakgrove has already gone further. “I thought, while it is great we have the Nurture Room, what about the whole school dimension?” Mrs. Crilly said. “So our phrase was: We are not a school with a nurture room, we are a nurturing room.”
Tying in with this process, two staff members in the summer of 2018 had undergone a ‘Hopeful Minds’ programme, based on a US programme which centres on being able to teach ‘Hope’, delivered by Marie Dunne. The staff were so enthused by it that the project was rolled out to other staff and delivered to all our Year 8s, Year 9s, and Year 10s over 12 weeks.
Then Mrs. Crilly decided to take this a step further again, creating an entirely new subject to be timetabled for all new Year 8s coming into the school. The result was MEE, ‘Mental and Emotional Education’. “There is only three of us in the team, Aislinn and Judith Calvin, the learning support teacher, and myself. We looked at the Dutch, Spanish, French education systems, looking at how they delivered personal development. The classroom setting isn’t the same, there isn’t any exercise books or taking down notes. What we have is our reflective journal, with the brain and heart - you can’t teach the mind until you reach the heart. We have realised until we connect emotionally with children we are always going to be having children underachieving at GCSE.”
Mrs Crilly stressed MEE was not a ‘bolt on’ to the curriculum but was rather embedded in current Year 8 timetables. “Development of the Year 9 curriculum is near completion as I intend to make this a three year subject, hopefully with a qualification at the end if Year 10.”
MEE includes a Feelings Wheel, with discussions around words such as ‘depression’, ‘mental and emotional communication’, and the children set their own targets. “Many children get stuck academically, emotionally and they don’t know what to do. And they just sit there until somebody comes along with the answer. They don’t have the strategies - Metacognition, thinking about thinking. So we designed our own Learning Pit. It starts off at the top with, Let’s give it a go, then - this is not as easy as I thought - I’m confused - I don’t know the answer - I’m stuck - why am I doing this? - How can I look at this differently? - Who can I ask for help? - Find the answer - Get out the other side’. All staff and Year 8s have cards with this in their pocket.
“The idea is you are reprogramming, and at Christmas the children are going to deliver a workshop to their parents on what they have learned.
“In the MEE programme we talk about Upstairs Brain, where you do your thinking, rationalising and problem solving, and your Downstairs Brain where all your emotion comes from. For some children it’s like there is a baby gate and they can’t get upstairs so they spend their entire time ruminating downstairs. You need to open the gate and help them to get upstairs and look down and come up with solutions.
“We are hoping at the end of this year we will publish a paper and we are looking to create a new model to be rolled out system wide.”