World Friendship Day falls on 30 July every year. The day marks the importance of friendship and solidarity in overcoming the many challenges that we can face in our lives. School is one of the places that we build important bonds and friendships which can often last lifetimes. Every year, promoting friendship comes through as a strong theme in our Mission Possible Awards, which celebrate and acknowledge the work schools across Ireland do to enhance mental health awareness and tackle stigma.
St Kilian’s Junior School in Tallaght, Dublin took first place in our 2018 Mission Possible Awards. Here, its Deputy Principal and Wellbeing Coordinator, shares with us some of the imaginative and impactful friendship initiatives that are making a difference in the school.
St Kilian’s is a Junior School, based in Tallaght in Dublin, which caters for both girls and boys aging from four to eight. Over the past number of years, wellbeing has been at the core of our programme.
Several years ago, our local Men’s Shed designed and constructed a beautiful Buddy Bench in the school yard. At the beginning of each academic year, class teachers teach the rules of the Buddy Bench. If a child has no one to play with at yard time, they sit on the bench and other children come to them, asking them if they want to play. Then, every month at assembly, the children who are observed inviting children off the bench to play receive Buddy Awards from our school principal. The concept promotes a happy playtime for all children.
Also, at the end of the school year, NINA, a local suicide prevention organisation, presents Buddy Bears to ten of the kindest children in the school, one per class. Buddy Bear himself comes to present the awards, and it is a lovely occasion for all the children. In June this year, the local newspaper featured the awards.
Meanwhile, in our Junior Infant yard, we have a Friendship Stop where children can wait for someone to play with. This alerts other children to the fact that there are children who are very shy or have poor language skills, who often need a friend at yard time but might not have the skills to ask. It is a lovely positive mental health initiative, and playtime is always an inclusive time for everyone.
Our school celebrates Friendship Week in February every year with a week full of wonderful strategies to promote friendship and positive mental health. We have a beautiful tree lasered from wood in our school hall which is called our Tree of Thankfulness. All children receive a leaf-shaped tag on which they draw and write about being a good friend. The tags are strung with wool and hung on the tree.
This year, each class engaged in an art lesson which included the names of every child in that class. The children drew themselves on a page shaped like a jigsaw piece, and the teacher assembled them all together to demonstrate how we all fit together and are better together. The displays were colourful and cheerful inside every classroom.
On each morning of Friendship Week, all children also pick a name from the friendship box in their classroom: these boxes contain all names of children in the class. The children do something kind for their classmates they pick out on that particular day. This is a great way to ensure that all children – including the quieter and more shy children – also experience kindness from the others and are made to feel important.
In recent years, we have become aware of a huge increase in levels of anxiety in the children we are teaching. During Friendship Week, all teachers engage in lessons about red thoughts (negative thoughts) and green thoughts (happy thoughts). The lessons help children to identify both kinds of thoughts, and give them the skills to turn their negative red thoughts into positive green thoughts. Feedback from both parents and children was so encouraging during Friendship Week itself that these lessons continue throughout the school year.
All the initiatives we introduce in relation to friendship help to build confidence and self-esteem in young children. Children who are included and respected are happy children, and the skills they learn around friendship and inclusion stay with them as they grow up through the school. Positive mental health initiatives will continue to be a big priority at St Kilian’s Junior School.