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Metro Matters: Why our schoolchildren need lessons in happiness

The challenges in the school system have gone beyond poor learning standards and bad academic results. Our students are facing a psychological crisis that is spinning out of control.

columns Updated: Feb 12, 2018 11:30 IST
Shivani Singh
Shivani Singh
Hindustan Times
Metro Matters,Shivani Singh,Delhi schools
A ‘happiness curriculum’ to be introduced from nursery to Class 8 could be an effective tool for teachers to pick up and address early warning signs among their students.(Arun Sharma / HT FILE)

As schools in the National Capital Region (NCR) continue to report some of the most extreme cases of violence, the Delhi government last week announced the launch of ‘happiness classes’ in its schools from April this year.

Still in the works, the classes are likely to be activity-based. A project officer told HT that teachers would be asked to create situations children could possibly face. Issues of peer and exam pressure, stressful expectations from family, bullying, self-harm and violence will be discussed and debated to find coping mechanisms.

Like any school reform project, the success of this programme too will depend on the teachers’ interpretation and communication skills. One hopes the government will back the teachers if they require any help — specialised training, for example — to deliver.

But even if it stretches their daily schedules, the teachers must go the extra mile. The challenges in the school system have gone beyond poor learning standards and bad academic results. Our students are facing a psychological crisis that is spinning out of control.

It is not unusual for internalised behaviour — such as anxiety, inhibition or depression — among students to go under the radar. But the recent incidents of extreme violence – of a student allegedly killing his junior to get an exam postponed, a group of boys purportedly beating their classmate to death for a wristband, a teenager reportedly killing his mother and sister because he was being constantly compared to his sibling – reflect an alarming pattern.

Could these cases have been prevented if the build-up of aggression among these children were detected in time, and if someone had been there to talk them out of the violent rage?

Students spend most of their active hours at school and nobody can know them better than teachers, if they care to. Parents can shape children at home but when it comes to picking up signals, teachers are always at a more advantageous position as they not only have the students for longer hours but also get to observe them in interactive groups.

Teachers don’t need any intelligence network or intimidating technologies, such as CCTV, to know their students well. They can do the job by simply taking interest in individual students and engaging with them personally. Not all teachers can be friends or confidants but they should at least appear approachable and interested. More importantly, they should know when to intervene and draw the line.

A ‘happiness curriculum’ to be introduced from nursery to Class 8 could be an effective tool for teachers to pick up and address early warning signs among their students. Since the problem is not plaguing only the government-run schools – in fact, most cases of violence reported recently were at private schools — it is important that the programme is universalised.

Promoting happiness in classrooms is not a new idea. Schools in Britain introduced such programmes in response to growing concerns about deteriorating mental health among the children. One such school in Wiltshire, which launched a happiness course in 2015, adopted one key idea each term – grit, growth mindset or resilience, for instance – and explored it through assemblies, tutor groups and one-on-one sessions, reported The Telegraph, UK.

Changes were noticeable within a year. “Whereas in the past the students would say, ‘I’m really stressed,’ now they’re able to say, ‘I need to talk about this,’ or, ‘I need to stop and breathe.’ The summer exam period has been much calmer than usual,” the school’s assistant head teacher told the newspaper.

Happiness classes can also be a good lesson on the value of social connections, something that is getting lost in the times of online social networking. In its 22-point criteria for building happy schools, UNESCO in 2016 rated ‘friendships and relationships in the school community’ as the most decisive factor.

Significantly, relationships — both with teachers and peers — are what predicted students’ happiness, found a recent study by Harvard University’s Research School International. It also claimed a significant correlation between happiness and better grades even during the early years in school, reported the conversation.com. As a student summed it up for the website: “I only do good work when I think happy thoughts.”

That makes Delhi’s ‘happiness class’ initiative potentially a win-win prescription.

First Published: Feb 12, 2018 11:29 IST