Towards emotional and mental security of children in schools

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by Dr. Ira Saxena
Child Psychologist and Author

As the child steps out of the cushy shelter of home, advancing his evolution process and moves into the wider space of school, the pupil looks for a sanctuary, an extension of warmth of the family domain. Both physical and mental shelter is required for an all-round development of the personality. Here’s how book therapy can be used in schools for helping children under stress.

Emotions are feelings – love, confidence, deprivation, fear etc. A uniform balance of emotions integrated in behavior and thinking sparks adequate growth of the child, wherein the school years provide a wholesome platform for healthy maturation to adulthood. Emotional security is the measure of the stability of an individual’s emotional state. Emotional insecurity, on the other hand, or simply insecurity, is a feeling of general unease or nervousness that may be triggered by perceiving of oneself to be vulnerable or inferior in some way, or a sense of vulnerability or instability which threatens one’s self-image or ego.

The concept is directly related to that of psychological resilience concerning the effects which setbacks, traumas or difficult situations have on an individual. The notion of emotional security of an individual is to be distinguished from that of emotional safety or security provided by a non-threatening, supportive environment. However, resilience concerns over-all coping, also with reference to the individual’s socioeconomic situation, individual attributes and support system, whereas the emotional security specifically characterizes the emotional impact. In this sense, emotional security can be understood as part of resilience. A person who is susceptible to bouts of depression being triggered by minor setbacks is said to be less “emotionally secure”.

Traumas which a child can undergo

The ‘difficult times’, traumatic situations are by and large,
– due to natural calamities
– manufactured disasters or man-made disasters
– psycho-social problems

There is no human control on natural calamities like floods, earthquakes, tornadoes, landslides, lightning strike that set off widespread unforeseen catastrophe resulting in loss of lives, displacement and distress.

On the other hand, the disasters manufactured by man always cause greater injury, both physical and psychological to the entire social fabric. The dimension of suffering is powerful; the anguish is so deep and concentrated it throbs unimaginably through the psyche of humanity for a long time. Wars, armed conflicts and terror attacks, in this range, have enduring emotional impact, extensive psychological fear furthering a defeatist attitude and hopelessness. The repair of the damage on a social scale is as long range as the lasting sense of despair.

Then there are tough, gruelling troubles in the process of maturation which shatters the self, lowers self-esteem of the child, obstructing the overall healthy personality development. Many of these occur in social discourse through relationships, familial discord and a large number of problems are faced in schools through peer interaction. These difficult and highly individualized situations reveal in behavioural discrepancies and maladjustment. Children afflicted by these psychological inconsistencies suffer silently till they drop resilience and become victims of dejection and depression. A wide spectrum of such situations is,

Self under threat

Trauma is suppression, in which feelings are involuntarily rejected, blocking release of the energies. This mechanism seems to be part of the instinctive defences. The motivation of behaviour is restoring the self-image intact for self as well as others. This is the whole purpose of existence which involves guarding against threats, emotional responses and reactions to turbulence in the social environment or, to put it simply, protecting mental and emotional wellbeing. These are Ego defences, such as identification, projection, rationalization, displacement, denial, transference etc. applied by human beings to restore the Ego intact or secure the Self.

Self is the centre of personality and Ego; the centre of consciousness is its corresponding mental feature. The awareness of self or self-consciousness is the general expression and evaluation of self is denoted by self-esteem. A child’s identity describes the individual’s comprehension of himself as a discrete entity separate from others. Self-esteem, the basic motivation expresses itself in the need for respect from others and the need for self-respect or the inner self esteem. Respect from others entails recognition, acceptance, status, and appreciation, and was believed to be more fragile and easily lost than inner self-esteem.
Trauma arises because the pain involved in the event has not been faced and experienced so that it could clear. Instead, we retain it in the mind, constantly thinking about the event. Ironically, our thoughts become the shield from our feelings. Even though we constantly think about the event, we still do not integrate the feelings, which continue to haunt us. There is no way to clear traumatic feelings except by ending resistance to them and experiencing them, as was not done when the event occurred.

Severe traumatic conditions, prolonged terror, constant fears and complete withdrawal from social interaction triggers instability resulting in Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Hypersensitivity, hyper vigilance, extreme irritability, unexplained fears, angry outbursts, loss of memory, obsession, low self-esteem and lack of confidence some of the major symptoms of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). All this generally leads to extreme depression which is very difficult to get out of requiring psychiatric assistance.

So, it is important to ask these questions:
What shatters the child’s self-esteem?
What drives a youngster into withdrawal?
What causes the child to shun school?
What provokes irrational fear?
What drives a child to retaliate with aggression?
What is the consequence of widespread terror?
What pushes a child into depression and no-communication mode?

Bullying

In school situation, bullying is the most prevalent trauma and most troublesome too. Bullying occurs when a student is repeatedly harmed, psychologically and/or physically, by another student or a group of students. Bullies are typically physically, psychologically, or socially stronger than the children they bully. Both boys and girls engage in bullying behaviour, but some differences are evident. Boys, for example, typically engage in direct, overt bullying behaviours, including physical assaults or verbal taunts and threats. Girls often use more indirect, discrete means to bully others, such as intentionally leaving someone out of activities or spreading rumours. The chronic victims of bullying report physical and mental health problems may develop depression or low self-esteem, forced into bringing weapons to school, and may contemplate suicide more often than their non-bullied peers. Bullying can create a climate of fear and anxiety, not only for the direct victims, but for the bystanders as well. In reality the future for bullies is also troubling. Along with a higher likelihood of underachievement in academic settings, bullies are more likely to become abusive and engage in criminal activities as they grow.

Helping students cope with stress…

Besides the applications of a variety of measures employed by the teachers in school to reduce stress, such as sand-play, games, dramatics etc, simple reading of stories and literature suitable for children of different ages also help them a lot. A grieving child who reads (or is read to) a story about another child who has lost a parent will naturally feel less alone in the world and would unconsciously imbibe the contents for emotional strength to face threatening difficulties.

Book therapy is a technique for structuring interaction between a facilitator, a mother or a teacher and the participant based on mutual sharing of literature. It is more than just the casual recommendation of a certain book to an individual—it is a deliberate course of action that requires careful planning. Primarily, the benefit of book therapy passes through three stages:
Identification–the youngster identifies with a book character and events in the story, either real or fictitious. Sometimes it is best to have a character of similar age to the youngster who faces similar circumstances.

Catharsis– the youngster becomes emotionally involved in the story and is able to release pent-up emotions under safe conditions, usually expressed in art work, storytelling and other activities.

Insight– after catharsis, the youngster (with the help of the teacher or facilitator), becomes aware that his/her problems have been identified and resolved in the light of possible solutions to the book characters. Further analysis of the resolution by the facilitator supplements the healing.

The notion of book therapy

The simple process of Book Therapy tends to dilute the impact of traumatic situations and psycho-social difficulties faced by children in school situation by diverting the consciousness of suffering and reviving faith and hope for future. At its most basic, book therapy consists of the selection of reading material, which has relevance to the child’s life situation.
The purpose is to assist a youngster in overcoming the emotional turmoil related to a real-life problem by having him/her read picture books/stories/literature on that topic. This story can then serve as a springboard for discussion and possible resolution of that dilemma. Thus, the adult provides guidance in the resolution of personal crisis through the use of directed readings and follow-up activities such as the creative use of art, crafts even dramatics.

The idea of book therapy seems to have grown naturally from the human inclination to identify with others through their expressions in literature and art. It is an expressive therapy that uses individual’s relationship with books, poetry – the written word. The concept pre-supposes the potential of literature/stories wrapping a protective shroud of words and imagery around the reader, skilfully transporting the reader away from distress and anguish of reality into the reality of the plot and characters showing a way through conflict situations.

It spreads a balm of tranquility, much needed by the oft-traumatized vulnerable sections of the society – women and children. Reading can be therapeutic that enables children to think, comprehend and coming to grips with their situation.

Familiarity with existing literature

The simple process involves understanding the circumstance of the children or the child, selecting the right kind of books which is subject appropriate and suitable for the age and reading level of the child and encourage and assist reading. It sounds simple; in reality it involves many complex issues and requires will and expertise to handle the situation. First it is important to comprehend what goes on behind the circumstance of the child, the psychological process of problem solving and efficient study of the plot and resulting emotional catharsis. The process may be accompanied with accessories of book therapy such as, storytelling, discussions, child art, role-playing etc.

In a school situation, the facilitator to use reading as a tool would, in all probability, be the teacher. In order to apply books for the purpose of strengthening emotional security it is essential to know about current literature, categorise them suitably for different ages, maintain notes about the essential elements of different stories. Literature, I strongly believe has uncanny power to influence the reader leaving its impression, very often, on the child’s mind for life. Personal notes on each fiction present a very subjective stamp of the impact of selected books, particularly in absence of research in this direction, deficit educational programmes in this field and lack of availability of booklist. A regular introduction of latest publications, direct interaction with the creators of books constantly endeavours to fill in the gap.

Teachers are closest to the youngsters, understand their difficulties and temper therefore they can be the best facilitators of book therapy. There is evidence that reading story books to a child on one to one basis has wide ranging impact on the development of a child’s personality influencing class performance and verbal skills. The practice of storytelling/story reading in a group results in better adjustment, sharing of problems and healthy interaction among children.

It is not required for a teacher to become a therapist but they can use the concept of book therapy to its maximum gain with a little insight, compassion and awareness of existing literature.

While book therapy encompasses practically most activities with children in school, like reading, word building, writing skills, public speaking, dramatics, storytelling, writing skills, visual presentations etc. it offers a world of information in the practice of teaching.

Functions & advantages of book therapy

– Builds a bridge of understanding between a teacher and pupil
– Encourages Reading
– Stimulates imagination and creativity
– Teaches reasoning and problem solving
– Restores emotional well-being
– Motivates Resiliency
– Develops self-assessment and self-reliance
– Overcomes negative behaviors
– Applies a healing touch to deep seated distress
– Inspires positive thinking and hope
– Assists in character building
– Provides all the advantages of knowledge sharing
– Impacts healthy all-round development

Handling resiliency

Many characteristics of the naturally resilient children are innate, there are others who can bounce-back with a slight push from the solutions the characters live in the books. The resilient child recognizes a stressful event, often responds emotionally, recoils temporarily, then bounces back and returns to a prior emotional state, figuring out in his own way what he can do to manage the difficult situation. There is a possibility of the child turning fragile, cease to mature along the developmental timeline and become depressed. The protagonists in the story plots offer resolution to conflict situations derived by the reader to apply in their personal circumstance in order to:

– Build emotional strength
– Develop problem solving skills
– Develop internal locus of control
– Inspire optimism

Book therapy is all about reinforcement of human values. It involves character building, since the process underlies strengthening of desirable human values. The course of action silently stresses upon inculcating trustworthiness, honesty, tolerance, respect, sense of fair play, responsibility, empathy and nationhood through conflict resolution and release of emotional burden with the progression of the plot. Hope and optimism absorbed through the plots reflect in positive thinking just as the lives of great people and patriotism shine in a pro-active perspective towards life. In children’s books, the conflict resolution presents socially approved formulae for behaviour exacting dignified standards of behaviour. The characters, the situations in the plot lead to emotional catharsis or unblocking of the emotions amounting to attitudinal change. The spirit soars with literary texts, feels elevated with the flow of words like the impact of a prayer, and aspires for ideals in the drama thrusting an emotional response for the benefit of humankind.

Dr. Ira Saxena, Child Psychologist and Author, began her career as a lecturer in Psychology. Reading English and Hindi literature has always been a passion with her and she indulged in painting landscapes in oil, as a hobby. Her writing which started with articles in college magazines and local papers took a professional turn as she began to writing stories for children. She is one of the founding members of the Association of Writers and Illustrators for Children (AWIC) which is the Indian Section of IBBY. She has been actively involved, now for the last twenty five years, in various programmes of AWIC, first as a Treasurer and then as the Secretary, organising seminars, exhibitions, developing and editing books. Currently she is spearheading the Book Therapy Project aimed to heal children traumatised by disasters and psycho-social problems through the use of appropriate literature.