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Children's Mental Health: Role of Schools

Schools have a proactive role to play in the psychological well-being of children. Against the backdrop of the shooting earlier this year of a student by two of his classmates in Gurgaon, this article analyses critically the educational policies that have been adopted to reduce the mental ill-health of children.

COMMENTARYEconomic & Political Weekly EPW may 17, 200819Children’s Mental Health: Role of SchoolsNamita RanganathanSchools have a proactive role to play in the psychological well-being of children. Against the backdrop of the shooting earlier this year of a student by two of his classmates in Gurgaon, this article analyses critically the educational policies that have been adopted to reduce the mental ill-health of children.The episode in the Euro International School in Gurgaon earlier this year when one student was shot dead by his classmates, followed in quick succes-sion by a similar incident in Satna, shocked the nation. Parliament has expressed its concern about the examination stress leading to several suicide attempts by children, particularly those giving the class X andXII board examinations. A resolution was moved by the principals of the National Progressive Schools Conference to rethink the necessity for class X board examina-tions. All these incidents became matters of national debate. Meanwhile, the reported increase in sexual experimentation among school children and their vulnerability to psycho-logical trauma and abuse at the hands of insensitive teachers, which media regu-larly highlights, continue to evoke public concern. Individually and collectively, all of them draw urgent attention to the need to examine the status of children’s mental health. They are indeed matters which merit an analysis and concern.The seriousness of the concern ema-nates not only from trying to understand, as has been the focus of public analysis as to why such phenomena are occurring, but more significantly, in trying to know what schools are doing, or can do, to deal with them. Public debate and academic analysis, so far, have taken two broad views. The first view attributes violence, aggression and suicidal behaviour, or any other form of misconduct to some psycho-logical disorder or illness which the child may be afflicted with. The other view emphasises the child’s vulnerability and “at risk” propensity to systemic pressures and societal factors like poor parenting styles, shrinking family sizes, urban pres-sures, life stressors, invasion of technology, excessive engagement with television, con-sumerist attitudes in family life, growing up in somewhat narcissistic family cultures and other such factors. Proactive RoleIrrespective of which view one subscribes to, the fact remains that schools cannot take a backseat. They have to play a pro-active role in ensuring children’s psycho-logical well-being. This in itself is not a new assertion to make, as has been visible in the state’s policies on education in the last 50 years. From the Kothari Commis-sion (1964-66) to the National Curriculum Framework (2005), issues relating to chil-dren’s mental health and the significance of the role of the school have been articu-lated. As a consequence, educational and vocational guidance, career counselling programmes, sex education, value educa-tion, adolescence education, aids aware-ness programmes, yoga education and life skills education became pressing matters of engagement for schools, at different points of time. It is indeed a justifiable expectation from a list as exhaustive as this which seems to address all the psychological needs of children that their Namita Ranganathan (tcanamita@rediffmail.com) teaches at the department of education, University of Delhi.
COMMENTARYmay 17, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly20mental health problems should have reduced considerably. However, reality belies this. It is thus important to analyse where the incongruence is and find out what went wrong.Programme ImplementationTo begin with, because of its concern with immediacy of programme implementation and large-scale outreach, the government has been engaging experts to develop standardised packages and modules for universal application. It has also resorted to using adaptations of successful pro-grammes tried out in other countries, irrespective of whether they are culturally consonant with the Indian socio-cultural context. Teachers and counsellors have been trained to “deliver” these pro-grammes and complete the targets assigned to them. Understanding Children’s World: It is important to highlight at this juncture, some of the basic problems with an approach of this kind. Foremost among them is the fact that the themes which are incorporated into the programmes are decided by adults based on how they understand “children’s world” and not on the “actual experiences” which children have. They also tend to homogenise children’s needs and experiences, failing to provide spaces for individual differences, children’s own uniqueness and subjective constructions of reality. Furthermore, they treat children as objects to be taught, instructed, shaped, moulded and condi-tioned and consider schools to be mono-liths, both of which are contradictory to the essence of mental health. In reality, going by the classification of the human lifespan observed in developmental psychology, children in schools represent six distinct life stages: early, middle and late childhood and early, middle and late adolescence.Narrow Psychological Interpretation: Secondly, the approach rests on the assumption that a series of programme interventions, given periodically to children, can address the full spectrum of their psychological needs and can serve to in-oculate them against stress and psycho-logical vulnerability for all times to come. Such an assumption reflects a narrow behaviouristic interpretation of what children’s psychological well-being is all about. It reduces mental health to a product to be created from time to time, failing to recognise that mental health is actuallya continuous ongoing process which needs regular attention. It must be remembered that children’s needs do not come in fits and starts and their develop-ment of self is also not a matter of only occasional concern.Overemphasis on Illness: The problem does not end here. What really ails mental health education in schools is its overem-phasis on illness and disease and their prevention and cure. In reality it is impor-tant to understand that schools are not clinical psychiatric settings, where there will be an abundance of children with anxiety, depression, violent tendencies, sexual perversity, suicidal tendencies, and the like. This is not to undermine the pos-sibility that there may be some children who manifest these and need special help. However, by and large, most children in school are healthy and normal and face only occasional transient problems and difficulties. This necessitates that the ap-proach to mental health be promotional and conservative and not just curative and preventive, as it presently is. Developmental Challenges: The promo-tional approach actually subsumes pre-vention and conservation since it assumes that children can be facilitated to deal with and negotiate the developmental challenges and life stressors which they encounter, by anticipating them in ad-vance. It also suggests that children can be provided experiences in a manner that help them maintain a generalised sense of well-being and cope constructively with difficulties, when they arise. For instance, separation anxiety at kindergarten, pubertal trauma during the late primary years, sexuality leanings during adoles-cence and the travails of stream and career choices during late adolescence to name a few, are illustrative examples of developmental challenges that can be anticipated. This approach does not wait for the child to suffer trauma, anxiety, or, feel conflict-ridden, or, wait for teachers to identify cases before treatment begins. Rather, it prevents the occurence of these and enables the child to accept the devel-opmental challenges as part of the normal process of growth and development. It perceives the child as a repository of potential, with a voice and agency, capable of dealing with her/his life situations, as opposed to being an inert entity or hapless victim of environmental forces, to be handled and treated.Conceptual ShiftIt is this conceptual shift which is neces-sary if mental health education in schools has to be made effective and sustainable. Of primary importance in this regard is recognising the futility of setting up men-tal health clinics in schools, as is being planned by some state governments, for they will only end up reinforcing the dis-ease-based approach. They will subject children to living with indelible labels of different psychological disorders and compel teachers to look for symptomatic manifestations in children, in their quest to identify cases. It may be reiterated here that there is no attempt to under-mine the importance for schools to identify the few such children that are likely to need help, but more to empha-sise that when the clinicalapproach becomes the most dominant and in many cases, all pervasive, it colours the nature of mental health activities accordingly. Forinstance, in the clinical approach, diagnosis and treatment become the prime concerns and school counsellors or clini-cal psychologists become the specialists for their implementation. The point to be emphasised here is, why such an approach for all children?Teachers as Councillors: A much more viable and sustainable alternative to this would be to empower teachers to acknowl-edge and celebrate the fact that whether they like it or not, they are inadvertently counsellors and helping professionals. When children face anguish, unhappiness, interpersonal difficulties and educational problems, they come to their teachers, who, through a variety of counselling techniques like active listening, para-phrasing, cathartic ventilation, behaviour management, classroom dynamics and
COMMENTARYEconomic & Political Weekly EPW may 17, 200821cognitive restructuring, help children to find solutions and feel better. What are these if not guidance, counselling and mental health services? Just because teachers are not trained the way counsel-lors are and are not acquainted with the jargon and techniques of counselling, does not mean that counselling children is not their concern.Many schools do not have counsellors or even substantive positions for them. Also, in schools where these positions exist, there is usually one counsellor to serve at times two thousand children – a ratio which belies the essence of counselling. Thus, counselling and guidance and in the process children’s mental health must become fundamental to a teacher’s role definition. Teacher education programmes, both through the pre-service and in-service modes can help in the preparation of this. An added benefit of this may also be that teachers will become more resilient to stress and burnout, which over the years tend to become very real threats to teachers’ well-being, if left unattended. Burnout in teachers is usually characterised by feelings of depersonalisation, emotional exhaustion and a poor sense of personal accomplishment. Teacher stress is usually a function of feeling overpressurised, overloaded and bored of one’s work. Thus“feeling useful for” and “wanted by children” may go a long way in safeguard-ing against the feelings of stress and burnout, apart from the fact that as mental health professionals, teachers would be more likely to deal sensitively with children and develop the qualities of empathy and positive regard for them.Integrated Approach: Another concep-tual shift in envisioning mental health in schools is moving to what may be termed as the integrated approach to mental health. This approach, as the name sug-gests does not give an “add on” value to mental health activities, but finds ways of addressing and incorporating them intothe existing school curriculum. For instance, every school, irrespective of whether it is a government school or public school, has within it, a subset of psychological institutions and mecha-nisms like the school assembly, house system, prefectorial system and a school ethos or climate, which if revisited and redefined, can go a long way in promoting children’s mental health. Each of them is imbued with possibilities for satiating children’s psychological needs, helping them develop a sense of self and unfolding their personalities – the core of mental health. Unfortunately, over the years most of these institutions have become self-defeating, in that they have acquired a form and meaning which stands in sharp contradiction to what they were intended for.Most school assemblies, for instance, have become ritualised in a set of mean-ingless repetitive practices which fail to infuse children with feelings of belonging-ness, or, a sense of institutional identity. Neither do they serve as platforms for experimentation, expression and consoli-dation of values, which is what they were intended for. Likewise, the house system which started in the residential public schools, to give personalised care and at-tention to students by house masters in smaller groups designated as houses, has lost its original psychologically-sound meaning in its contemporary form. It has become a platform almost only for conducting inter house competitions, losing sight of the immense possibilities of intra house activities, like mentoring and guiding children, providing child to child-care and talent identification in a relatively non-threatening environment, which it can engage in.Somewhat similar is the case with the prefectorial system which has become synonymous with power, regulation, mon-itoring and control which are once again in direct contradiction to its potential to promote participative democracy among students, give them a legitimate voice in school practices and policies and in the process engender the development of life skills in them. It also explains why we had to wait for the World Health Organi-sation to tell us that life skills education is very much part of a school’s mandate and also spell out the how and why of it. In the institution of class-teachership too, over the years, record-keeping, list making and routine classroom tidiness and decoration functions have taken precedence over the far more significant function of “surrogate parenting”which it was supposed to serve. Similar analyses can be presented for all other such insti-tutions and systems within schools. It mustbe emphasised here that wherever schools have in their wisdom retained the original spirit of the particular system, the benefits to children’s personality development and sense of well-being are quite clearly visible. Rethinking mental health in schools is thus not so much a matter of adhering to the recommendations of national policies, or, waiting to implement what is prescribed from the top, as has been the case so far. It is not only about dealing with specific problems like violence and aggression, as and when they occur. Theapproach has to be much more holistic and sustainable and anchor itself in providing more worthwhile and mean-ingful schooling experiences to all children. To achieve this it is imperative that every school perceives itself as a micro universe which can make a substantial difference to children’s lives. It would require that mental health be defined in more reali-sable and operational ways which include enabling teachers to have a more expan-sive role definition as mental health professionals, schools being more sensi-tive to children’s socio-emotional needs by providing for them and striving to maintain the psychological flavour of the systems and institutions which they embody. It would also require them to give legitimacy to children’s experiences and include the promotion of psycho-logical well-being as one of the signifi-cant aims of education. If examined carefully, all of these are no more than a set of attitudinal beliefs and practices that are very much within the realm of every school.EPW Blog The new EPW blog feature on the web site facilitates quick comments by readers on a selection of the week's articles. Four topical articles from the current issue are posted on the EPW blog every week. All visitors to the site are encouraged to offer their comments and engage in a debate.Please visit the blog section on our web site (www.epw.org.in).

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