Building Strong Children

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men [women]” Frederick Douglass

Last week the BBC and other media outlets led with the headlines ‘Mental health care: The system is broken’. Consequently Theresa May pledged to do more including training at secondary school, training for employees and organisations and the appointment of a mental health campaigner. But while this is a welcome message, it’s starting from the wrong end of the problem.

Don’t get me wrong, health care and understanding of mental health is imperative. As a teenager this is the side of the profession I wanted to pursue, but once I started my degree course I realized I wouldn’t cope. Clinical psychologists, psychiatrists and counsellors carry an incredible burden, being constantly bombarded by the demons that other people suffer has a huge impact on their own mental wellbeing. These people deserve more government support. But I digress; my point is that mental ‘ill health’ is only half of the story.

I swung to the other end of the spectrum in my own career: helping people who are mentally well to improve their performance. But having profiled hundreds of ‘successful’ people I’ve seen that these ‘high functioning’ individuals still struggle with a multitude of their own demons and misunderstandings. Ultimately we are all lacking knowledge when it comes to how we behave. Take for example the number of times we misunderstand people we have known for years. Or how we need reassurance that one failure won’t mean we will fail at everything we attempt for the rest of our lives. Quite simply everyday behaviour is not as easy as it sounds, if it was we wouldn’t have world wars, obesity epidemics, crazy election choices and so on and so forth.

If we taught the fundamentals of behaviour from early in life we could not only help equip people to live more happy and successful lives, we could also mitigate so many issues in the world AND inoculate against mental ill health, rather than trying cope with it once it arises (which is the main thrust of the current government objectives). I passionately believe that this is a priority that reaches beyond the current crisis, that we should be looking to prevent the outbreak of disease (i.e. mental health problems) as much as we should look at how to treat the disease once it has taken hold.

So what can we do? A couple of years ago I came across a scheme that takes a joined up, evidence based (i.e. robust research has proven that it works) approach to teaching behaviour. KiVa is a Finnish scheme designed primarily to address bullying but because of it’s joined up approach it does more than just this. Bullying in and of itself contributes significantly to mental ill health. Research shows that children who have been bullied grow up to be adults six times more likely to develop a psychiatric disorder (Wolke & Copeland, 2013) and children who have bullied are also at a higher risk of depression and suicide. So anything that works in addressing bullying as an issue has a positive impact on preventing mental ill health further down the line.

This particular scheme came about because the Finnish government was seeing little impact from the variety of anti-bullying schemes they had supported in schools. So they enlisted the help of a Psychology Professor who had studied bullying for 20 years to look at the problem holistically. Professor Salmivalli recognized that to really combat the problems a joined up approach was needed, behaviour after all never takes place in isolation of other factors. Salmivalli leveraged her knowledge of how people learn together with how bullying occurs at an interconnected level, to address the problem. The scheme she created teaches children, teachers and parents how and why bullying occurs and is delivered in a way that includes different learning styles that embed skills over time.

The results of KiVa in Finland have been astounding with evidence showing a 98% improvement in the victims’ situation and bullying stopping in 86% of incidents. It’s also shown measurable impacts on emotional understanding, resilience and other ‘pro-social’ skills, helping children understand group dynamics in a way that equips them for life.

 I am not suggesting this one scheme, or any scheme for that matter is a panacea to make bullying disappear, protect against mental health or make global issues evaporate. I will however confidently state that schemes such as these, properly researched, joined up approaches, will not only help to minimise the impacts of mental ill health but also create a more positive and effective society.

 KiVa has been trialed in 70 schools in Wales by Professor Hutchings showing the same positive impacts. In one of my mad hatter moments I decided to launch a ‘not for profit organization’ to support the roll out of schemes like this in schools (and moving forward other similar schemes in society). Looking to other countries to borrow and leverage research rather than trying to reinvent the wheel. If the government aren’t doing it then I will. The first intervention we support will be KiVa. Professor Judy Hutchings and her research assistant Suzy Clarkson have agreed to come and train schools in the South East of England ready to launch the first few initiatives in September 2017.

 If you are interested in a school you know of taking part (Primary Key Stage 2 only at present) then please do get in contact. If you want to get involved or point us toward corporate funding of any kind please do let me know.

Let’s make the world a better place!


References and Links: 

Copeland, W.E., Wolke, D., Angold. A, Costello E. J. (2013). Adult psychiatric outcomes of bullying and being bullied by peers in childhood and adolescence. JAMA Psychiatry. Apr; 70, 4.