Many children in South Africa are born into harsh conditions such as poverty, domestic violence and poor-quality schooling, leaving them with a difficult start in life. With more than two million orphaned and vulnerable children in South Africa, immediate intervention and action is needed to provide them with healthy coping mechanisms.
Newly formed nongovernmental organisation Wise (Wellbeing in Schools & Education) aims to address this need by offering educators and caregivers in underprivileged schools and communities practical and empowering training. The wellness-based programme provides materials that teach children essential life skills such as emotional intelligence, nonviolent communication, forgiveness, gratitude and mindfulness. In doing so, Wise helps to empower children to become expressive, confident and happy.
Mindfulness is becoming common practice in international schools with studies reporting reduced stress in children and enhanced mental performance. More than 5 000 teachers in the United Kingdom have been trained in teaching mindfulness, and in 2017 a mindfulness curriculum was rolled out in many United States schools.
With the unique set of problems that South African children face, both at school and at home, it makes sense that schools can also benefit from a mindfulness approach. Too often we see vulnerable children in difficult circumstances resort to negative coping behaviours such as violence, bullying, alcohol and drug abuse, and even suicide.
“The suicide rate for South African children aged 10 to 14 has more than doubled in the past 15 years, and yet we continue to place importance on teaching maths and English in schools, when children would surely benefit from resources that can equip them with self-esteem, self-sufficiency and self-love that can contribute to their overall wellbeing,” says Carol Surya, a psychologist and co-founder of Wise.
Surya, who has been involved in stress-management training for more than 20 years and is the author of two parenting books (Great Kids and Parent Magic), partnered with Biodanza facilitator, sculptor and entrepreneur Carmen Clews in 2017 to develop the pilot study and training programme for Wise in the Western Cape.
Over a period of 12 years Clews and Surya had been independently developing materials for children’s wellbeing (Surya’s Inner Magic self-esteem children’s game and Clews’s books, The Magic Mat and its Little Secret and Planting Seeds for Life), when they saw the opportunity to combine their skills and materials to introduce a holistic training programme aimed at parents, educators and caregivers.
“Unfortunately, there is a desperate shortage of professionals, resources and wellness materials to assist children — especially those who have been neglected or otherwise marginalised. Our unique tools are professionally designed to develop wholehearted children and communities,” says Surya.
The Wise philosophy is based on the principle of unlocking children’s potential “inner magic”, and the two women believe it’s the responsibility of adults and caregivers to provide children with the best chance to thrive.
In recognising the role adults play in teaching children how to deal with overwhelming feelings or managing difficulties, Surya and Clews realised that too few adults are themselves healthy or well adjusted.
When they first visited schools, Clews and Surya noticed the aggressive way in which children were communicating and a high incidence of bullying. They also witnessed the high levels of stress among educators — who also struggle with many daily problems — which in some cases leads them to lash out at children.
This is counterproductive to the positive and important learning work that needs to be taking place in a classroom. Research shows that children who are stressed can’t learn well. The classroom needs to be a safe space for children, especially for those who don’t feel safe at home.
The Wise programme has been developed to aid teachers and caregivers to deal with their stress first so that they are better able to help children to cope with their problems, learn how to manage their feelings and realise their own potential.
“Having experienced how hard it is for adults to make significant and sustainable changes in their own lives, I was careful in designing the Wise personal wellbeing programme to support the caregivers through a powerful process of personal change,” says Surya.
The response to the pilot study has been overwhelmingly positive. Delegates completed both the staff personal wellbeing programme, which includes in-depth experiential training, homework and follow-up over eight weeks, as well as the children’s wellbeing programme, to learn about practical tools to use with children, such as the InnerMagic self-esteem board game and the Magic Mat book.
These educators reported significant reductions in their own stress levels, alongside noticing a positive difference in children’s behaviour. They reported decreased absenteeism of both children and teachers, reduced high-risk behaviour by children and fewer incidents of aggression in the classroom.
With such positive results, and once parents are also included in the Wise programme, decreases in domestic violence and even child abuse rates are likely.
Expressive, confident children believe in themselves and speak out about their feelings, making them far less likely to fall victim to abuse.
“The Wise programme has influenced my understanding of children, helping me to help them deal with issues they can’t deal with. I have empathy and understanding toward them,” said one of the participants.
The Wise training programme has been implemented with educators from a few previously disadvantaged schools along the Garden Route and in the Cape Flats, and nongovernmental organisations such as Knysna Families South Africa, Knysna Drug and Alcohol Centre, the department of health and Sinemethemba Child and Youth Centre.
Depending on the funds raised, Clews and Surya aim to roll out the programme nationally.
Candice Burgess wrote this article on behalf of Wise