Pupils in Australia have been working on a podcast about mental health to help children and teachers around the world stay resilient

Did you know there are animals in your head? Four, in fact: an elephant, a guard dog, an owl and a sooty (a black-feathered bird a bit like a seagull). They constantly chat to each other. If one gets a bit over-excited – say, if the guard dog senses a threat and starts barking loudly – then the rest can’t communicate with each other, and that’s not good news. You might start to feel stressed or anxious or sad.

Welcome to the first lesson in mental health care – for five year olds. The animals, what they represent in the brain and what those parts of the brain are responsible for are the subject of a new podcast, teaching primary school-age children about their mental health and how to look after it.

The teachers of these lessons are pretty young, too: they’re 12. They’re pupils at Woollahra Public School in Sydney, Australia, who have been working with social enterprise Grow Your Mind to create the podcast that will, hopefully, offer any child or teacher, anywhere, the chance to learn how to stay resilient.

Little did they know that they’d soon face such a tough test of their newfound skills.

A recent review of existing studies into the impact of isolation and loneliness on the mental health of young people found that children and teenagers who have experienced loneliness during the coronavirus pandemic could be three times as likely to experience depression and anxiety.

“It’s been incredible watching these children have to call on flexibility and be comfortable with being uncomfortable as the new norm,” says Alice Peel, a primary school teacher and co-founder of Grow Your Mind, which also creates teaching materials and activities for schools to support learning about mental health.

Peel launched Grow Your Mind after becoming “quite obsessed” with finding creative ways to teach children about wellbeing that did not rely on a teacher being present. The idea behind the program was reclaiming the term mental health, Peel explains.

“We’ve all got it; it can be good, it can be bad, and we can learn to look after it from a really young age. We’re trying to lift the focus from happiness, which is one great feeling, to flourishing and to embracing all the emotions and learning the simple things you can do on a daily basis to protect and strengthen your mental health,” she says.

The animals analogy – the guard dog is the amygdala, in charge of fight or flight responses; the wise owl is the pre-frontal cortex, which regulates cognitive function; the elephant represents memory; and the sooty bird represents the ability to sort and organise information – has been helping even kindergarten students understand the basics of how their brains work.

The pupils at Woollahra have been learning about their mental health and how to look after it for a couple of years, thanks to the school’s structured wellbeing program based on the Grow Your Mind teaching resources.

“I used to hear a lot ‘the kids need to be more resilient’,” says Nicole Molloy, the school’s principal, who has been a teacher for 25 years. “We don’t say that they need to be able do this maths problem; we explicitly teach them how to complete the maths problem. So why shouldn’t we be doing that for mental health? Why shouldn’t we be giving children the building blocks for being more resilient or hopeful?

A selection of older children from years five and six are ‘wellbeing leaders’ for the school and meet with Molloy once a week to talk about student wellbeing. They’re also responsible for choosing books on the subject, which they read to classes of younger children to teach them about mental health. That helps to keep both the older and younger children very engaged with the topic, Molloy says.

“If you have to teach someone else a concept, your learning around that will deepen,” she explains. “They sometimes have a way of explaining concepts to the younger children or even to their peers, which resonates far more effectively than it does [coming from] us as teachers.”

Although there’s no data yet to quantify the impact this approach has had, Molloy says there are noticeable differences. Children now use the language and concepts they’ve learned about their mental health in everyday conversations; when resolving playground squabbles, a child might tell a teacher that “my guard dog got a bit out of control and I wasn’t able to stay calm”, she explains.

Teachers said that they felt the kids have more language to talk about their emotions

Throughout her career, Molloy says she has noticed both an increase in mental health problems and an increased awareness among teachers of issues that were always there. “When I started as a young teacher, this was never talked about,” she says. “We would say that a child isn’t doing what we want so they’re non-compliant, whereas now we’re becoming better at saying, ‘why is that child not engaging with their learning, what’s behind that?’ And as a result, ‘What can we do about that?’”

Taking a more “proactive, pre-emptive” approach hasn’t just benefited the children.

According to Molloy, the analogies used in the podcast and other teaching resources have helped her staff gain a better understanding of their own mental health along with the children they teach.

And the students appear to have coped well with the stress of the pandemic, too. “My teachers said that they felt the kids were very honest in how they were feeling, they have more language to talk about their emotions,” Molloy says.

Focusing on mental health doesn’t detract from their studies, either. In fact, Molloy argues, it enhances them. “I always say to parents at our school, yes we have a high focus on our academic learning, but that’s going to be really compromised if we don’t focus on the mental health, social and emotional wellbeing as well,” she says.