It all starts in the classroom: Prioritise mental health in school to create a secure future for children

Including mental health literacy into the curriculum can help create awareness and with de-stigmatisation. It can also be indispensable in the early prevention, identification, and intervention efforts for a wide range of mental health concerns

Updated: Sep 24, 2021 05:50:47 PM UTC
Early childhood experiences shape the architecture of one’s mind. Image: Shutterstock

In a couple of decades, the world is going to be unrecognisable to most of us alive today. Imagine a future where everything is automated and integrated with artificial intelligence or with new forms of intelligent technology that doesn’t even exist today. Human effort could become obsolete for physical and lower-order cognitive tasks. People would instead focus on high-level skills such as problem solving and critical creative thinking. They would need to adapt to high-stress environments and have high resilience and other soft skills to be productive in the face of exponential challenges. Even in their personal lives, they would be hyperconnected socially to the point that geographies and physical realities would be replaced by thriving virtual worlds replete with digital economies, societies, and cultures. Even the simple essence of being human, connecting with people and having relationships, would require a higher order of social skills, leadership, and interpersonal abilities.

The soft-skills revolution
The big question that keeps educators such as me thinking is: Is our approach to education today on a path where it equips our children for the future? Does our current focus on grades and knowledge acquisition or application adequately prepare the human mind and spirit for challenges of the future? Would we be able to be our best human selves without those soft skills that teach us how to be happy, resilient, inspired, infinitely curious and creative?

In a Deloitte report on ‘Soft Skills for Business Success’, it is estimated that by 2030, two-thirds of all occupations would be based on soft skills. These include self-care, self-management, leadership and social influence, stress tolerance, flexibility and self-management, effective communication, endurance, tolerance, and collaboration. All these skills have a common foundation in emotional intelligence and an understanding of mental wellness. Therefore, I believe that the shift toward prioritising soft skills starts with the integration of mental health and emotional intelligence into the educational frameworks that exist today.

Early childhood and mental health foundations
Early childhood experiences shape the architecture of one’s mind. Between their learned experiences and their genetic predispositions to various mental health concerns, a child would have already developed a blueprint for future behaviours by the time they enter adolescence. This will influence how they will respond to positive and negative experiences, stress, and setbacks. The precursors of their insecurities, coping mechanisms, anxieties or triggers would have already been laid into their personalities. So any training in soft skills or mind skills as I like to call it, should start right from early childhood. If we can educate children about their minds and give them the right tools to understand and shape their behaviour and personality, we can set them up for a lifetime of mental wellbeing. This is where the integration of mental health into mainstream educational curricula comes into play.

The four pillars of mental health in the curriculum
Mental health, like all skills, is learnt at a progressional pace. The learner first grows from self-awareness to self-management, to being able to manage the self in its relationships with others, and finally towards holistic mental health awareness. Lessons in self-awareness would help learners understand their own identity and selfhood. The mindfulness techniques that children learn will contribute to their ability to be productive, regulate stress and emotions and promote general wellness of mind and body. By learning to process and manage their own behaviours and emotions, they develop their emotional intelligence. They learn to develop resilience, to turn setbacks into lessons for future growth, and to cope with big life changes.

When they learn about managing relationships with others, it helps them develop social intelligence. These go on to enable them to communicate better, reduce their anxiety and stress, defuse conflicts, improve relationships, and empathise with others. These are skills that would be invaluable in interpersonal relationships at the workplace. Including mental health literacy into the curriculum can help create awareness and de-stigmatisation. It can also be indispensable in the early prevention, identification, and intervention efforts for a wide range of mental health concerns.

Prioritising the development of mind-skills in school will lay the groundwork to prioritise in the workplace and society. It involves the creation of an ecosystem in the school that involves teachers, counsellors, students, and parents. Eventually, I believe that this prioritisation could also lead to a greater focus on strengthening mental health infrastructure across the board.

One envisions a future where it is a fundamental and accessible right for every individual to nurture their mental wellness and to use it as a strength that will enrich our experience of what it means to be human in the decades to come.

Beyond crisis – Mental health in the future
Today, we’re already in a mental health crisis due to frequent economic disruptions, the Covid-19 pandemic, and other global events. The WHO reports that 1 in 4 people deal with a mental health concern. We are increasingly becoming a global community of people who’re depressed, anxious, suffer from burnouts and lonely because we cannot express how we feel, understand our own mindscapes, or don’t have the skills to understand others. The time is now to place mental health at the vanguard of our efforts to prepare the next generations for a future where they have the mental strength and life skills needed to find their big answers, to pursue their happiness and to live to their fullest potential. And it all starts in the classroom.

The author is founder and chairperson, Aditya Birla Education Trust.

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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