Features

Buddy Benches building friendships
Colm Fitzpatrick examines a project aimed at improving children’s mental health
Five happy schoolchildren share the Buddy Bench in Castletown and, below, the Buddy Bench in Churchill.

Although schools are all too often associated with academic and sporting achievement, a new school-based Irish initiative is beginning to place mental wellbeing and health on the radar.

Buddy Bench Ireland is a child-led positive mental health programme in a schooling environment that promotes emotional resilience and mental wellbeing, through supporting the core competencies of empathy, creativity, self-awareness and communication. As part of the programme a colourful Buddy Bench is placed in the schoolyard as a visual tool and as a safe space, where children are encouraged to de-stress, speak openly about how their feeling and make new friends. 

Buddy Bench Ireland reflects other international models such as the first American Buddy Bench which was created after a boy named Christian saw a special bench in Germany that children would sit on to indicate that they wanted someone to play with, so that their peers would invite them to play. Christian realised that this would be a great solution to alleviate the isolation among classmates in his own school, and so Roundtown Elementary in Pennsylvania implemented the Buddy Bench in 2013, which is now a successful global movement. 

The Irish version was founded by Sam Synott and Judith Ashton, who realised that early intervention into mental wellbeing was vital to preventing childhood issues from spiralling out of control. Together, they were convinced that the mental health of Ireland’s population could be vastly improved if children were taught how to talk about their emotions at a very young age. 

Pertinent

This was particularly pertinent for Sam who discovered the full extent and impact of the issues children face after her marriage broke down when her daughter was just six years old. With the help of Barnardos, Sam’s daughter was enrolled in a 12-week programme, where she learned how to cope with her parents’ split, and how to communicate effectively with her mother, friends and those around her. 

Speaking about the effect of the split on her daughter, Sam says “I couldn’t communicate with her and she couldn’t communicate with me. Why does a child need to go through a loss to gain these coping skills?”  

This personal situation was an impetus for Sam, with Judith, to introduce the Buddy Bench programme into Irish schools.

The multiple award winning organisation has devised programmes for schools which promote emotional resilience and introduces children and young people to a shared vocabulary for expressing emotions, through visual tools, learning and role play. 

It aims to help children to cope with ordinary everyday problems that are sometimes overlooked in the adult world such as homework stress, as well as issues which cannot be controlled like natural disasters.  

“Our children embrace the programme,” Sam explains, “we can’t solve the problems, we can help, we can plant the seed in the child. But we have to reach behind the child to the parents. Parents usually push for schools to get the programme. Parents are the driving force.

“One of the most positive pieces of feedback we’ve received is that because we’re new faces, and new voices, children pay much more attention to us.”

Research has shown that anxiety is the most common form of psychological disorder, affecting up to 20% of children and teenagers. If left unattended, anxiety significantly interferes with a child’s development and can cause detrimental problems in later life, such as social isolation, underachievement, depression and even suicide. 

The Buddy Bench Aware Programme offers four age-appropriate programmes to combat these mental health problems, which include workshops and workbooks that the children can engage with. 

The programme itself is making a huge impact on children’s well-being and the team is always redevising new ways to better the model.

“We listen to the child,” Sam says, “and we listen to their needs. We go back to the drawing board constantly.”

Sam explains that one of her aims was to change the “culture” in schools, so that the environment was one of empathy and friendship, which is now becoming a reality in many schools throughout Ireland.  

To date Buddy Bench Ireland has delivered their programme to over 100 schools and reached around 22,000 children, and it is extending the programmes daily both to the North and South of Ireland. 

Although the programme is changing lives, Sam believes that Buddy Bench Ireland is not quite a “success” yet because plenty more children still need to be exposed to initiatives that cater to their mental health.

“There are five million children that we need to reach out to and we’ve only reached 22,000,” she says.

Buddy Bench Ireland will continue to improve the mental wellbeing of children with their aim being to deliver the Buddy Bench Aware programmes to 2,020 schools by the year 2020. Until then, their motto will be passionately expressed until ears all across Ireland have heard it: “Look Up, Look Around and Look Out for Each Other.”

 

For more information on Buddy Bench Ireland, visit: http://www.buddybench.ie/