The ‘School Mental Health' programme introduced in three city schools by a team of psychologists involves parents, teachers and children

“A happy child, a happy school,” declares Sangeetha Madhu. The six other women psychologists seated in a small room inside Chennai Institute of Learning and Development (CHILD) agree. The team works precisely towards this goal – offering emotional literacy, targeting one school in every area. Tucked inside this calm residential locality in C.I.T.Colony, this space is where much of the work of this group happens, although it is not easy to find the seven together.

For close to a year now, CHILD has been working with various city schools conducting workshops for students, parents and teachers. The team was put together one-by-one by Ms. Madhu and Aruna Balachandra, who retired as Reader, Department of Psychology, Justice Basheer Ahmed Sayeed Women's College, to initiate the ‘School Mental Health' programme.

The idea is to go to the schools and speak to students about various issues concerning them, rather than responding after students encounter difficult situations.

Interestingly, the others — Jyothi Ravichandran, R.K.Shivani, Devi Shah, Ashrita and Nisha John — all in their mid-20s or early 30s, have either been a student, colleague, junior at college or have drawn inspiration from the two seniors to join them.

As part of a pilot project, the programme was introduced in schools in three localities — Mylapore, Kodambakkam, Velachery. It involves conducting a psychometric test for students of classes VI to X, counselling the identified students, getting assessment from parents and teachers, etc.

For instance, ‘Sishu' helps parents of pre-teens understand children's strengths and weaknesses, ‘Sikshana' helps parents of adolescents deal with teen years and ‘Sishya' equips teachers to deal with students using psychological principles.

Different schools have different needs, some of them opt for suicide prevention programmes, while others ask for anti-bullying campaigns or sex education modules. “Today, there is awareness about counselling. Parents come on their own, they want to know if everything is fine with their child,” says Ms. Balachandra, who does assessment for adults. Here, they deal with two sets of parents — those who are confident that there is no problem with their child and the others who think the child has a huge problem. “Both extremes are an issue,” says Ms. Madhu, adding that getting the support of parents and schools is always a challenge.

Understanding the child

When a school sent a note to parents about conducting a psychometric test, they received replies such as ‘I am not interested', ‘Is it free of cost?', ‘Why does the test not cover academic skills?' The test covers the personality, emotional intelligence and multiple intelligences of the child, and feedback is shared to parents.

“In the last one week, five schools called us. Something so drastic had to happen for schools to call us,” asks Ms. Madhu, referring to the recent incident where a student stabbed his teacher in class. The “trouble makers” are the main focus at programme in schools — these are children who are rebellious, prone to physical aggression and are the ones who answer back.

While for teachers, the workshops are about dealing with issues in class, the team's larger purpose is to identify the most vulnerable group – class VI to VIII.

“From class IX-XI, it is better to address parents as much of the damage is already done,” says Ms. Madhu, clinical psychologist and director of CHILD.

And the biggest benefit in having such sessions, according to Jyoti, is the dynamic that exists between the student-teacher and child-parents coming out.

“Otherwise it is a blame game that keeps going on. ,” she says, before leaving to oversee arrangement for a programme. On Wednesday, the programme completes one year at the school in Mylapore.

Identifying the problem

Being largely run by a young team does have its merits and demerits. As Nisha John, 25, says, “It is sometimes the school or parent that sends a child to the centre. Being young helps when you are to interact with the child as it breaks the barrier.” But, with adults it can be difficult to get them to listen to us. Ashrita, who quit her job as a school counsellor, feels working with a school, has its own restrictions, too. “I can't enforce anything when some problems have their root at the home,” says Ashrita. Ms. Shah agrees: “Parents come with a lot of inhibitions and it is not like we are giving them a prescription.” “It is non-judgemental therapy. We use assessment because it is a scientific approach to finding a problem. You can use this as a strong base for a therapy,” adds Ashrita. CHILD wants to reach out to more schools including Chennai Schools, but says much depends on the follow-up conducted by the school.

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