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Why children’s mental health and wellbeing is so important and what Pestalozzi World does to make sure we are looking after our children as best we can

Written by Dr Jo Nair PhD – Director of Alumni Relations and Educational Liaison.
For Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week 2022 (organised by Place2 Be)

At Pestalozzi World, our emphasis is on giving the children the loving, nurturing environment and skillset they need to ensure their good mental health.  This involves helping them develop the resilience required to handle whatever life brings their way without threat to their wellbeing.

As an organisation providing residential care to children through their teenage years (ages 11-18) except during school holidays, it is particularly important that Pestalozzi World ensures the mental health and wellbeing of the children it cares for.

To achieve this the Pestalozzi World residential villages offer:

  • A Pestalozzi village ethos which puts love, enjoyment, trust in each other, compassion and care for others at the centre of everything
  • A period of orientation for the children when they first arrive, helping them adapt from their rural homes to living with many other children, often in a city environment.  Intensive in-house education is also provided to ensure that the children can make the transition from their government primary schools to academically high-achieving private secondary schools without mental stress
  • A safe and beautiful physical environment with spaces for children to relax in and play sports.  A clean environment, with well-maintained and decorated buildings and grounds full of shrubs and flowers.  The children help keep the physical environment looking good, giving them pride in their surroundings
  • Houses to live in with no more than 24 children per house, each house supervised by a Housemother who treats the children as she would her own.  Children eat as a family and are encouraged to sit and chat informally with their housemother.  The housemother makes herself available to them whatever their needs, 24 hours a day
  • A Pastoral Officer and a Matron who oversee the wellbeing of the children, working with the Housemothers to monitor their physical and mental health and providing them with both informal and formal group and individual counselling.  They also work with the staff to ensure that their mental health is nurtured, believing that staff wellbeing is vital for the wellbeing of the children in their care.
  • Encouragement to and opportunities for alumni of the Pestalozzi programme to come back as staff members or as volunteers.  Having been through the same programme, our graduates are best placed to help ensure the wellbeing of the children
  • Policies, which are child centred; these include, but are not confined to, the Child Safeguarding Policy, the Staff Code of Conduct, the Children’s Code of Conduct and the Disciplinary Policy.  The latter avoids punishment, preferring to offer counselling.  If punishment is necessary, it is always relevant and the reason for it always explained to the children, helping lead to the trust needed for good mental health.  Workshops for both staff and children ensure their engagement in the policies, while both staff and children are encouraged to question the policies, giving them the chance to be involved in how the Pestalozzi villages operate
  • Democratically elected student councils, and suggestion boxes.  If the children’s suggestions cannot be put into action, reasonable explanations as to why not are given.  Having their voices heard promotes the mental health of the children
  • Workshops for children on areas supportive of their mental wellbeing, especially on Adolescence, and Sexual Health and Reproduction
  • A programme of extra-curricular activities to promote the all-round wellbeing of the children.  At Pestalozzi World, we recognise that intellectual, physical, social and mental wellbeing all contribute to good mental health:
    • Intellectual wellbeing is promoted through activities including educational excursions, quizzes, debates and public speaking, book clubs, careers advice and an emphasis on peer learning.  These supplement the academic education provided in school
    • Physical wellbeing is nurtured through opportunities for sports as well as provision of hands-on programmes of skills activities such as art and craft, carpentry, computer and mobile phone repair, bicycle repair, drama, dance and music, organic gardening, sewing and opportunities to develop small scale, entrepreneurial craft-based businesses.  A well-balanced, nutritional diet and supervised meals also help ensure the physical wellbeing of the children
    • Social wellbeing is promoted by opportunities for children to help others.  Children volunteer in organisations such as old people’s homes, community schools and clinics.  It is promoted through leisure activities – each birthday is celebrated in-house, and the children celebrate all the local festivals and important days.  These events also help ensure the children feel continuity with and pride in their backgrounds
    • In addition, the children’s mental health is supported through a programme of values-based teaching and learning activities, available at www.jhpestalozzi.org.  These provide a Pestalozzi extra-curricular programme of activities which are: holistic, child-centred, active, connected to nature, supportive of cooperative behaviour, community-oriented and relevant to the all-round current and future wellbeing of the children

How Pestalozzi World has helped ensure the mental health of the children through the COVID pandemic

The pandemic led to a range of challenges for the Pestalozzi World Villages.  These included enabling children in lockdown in their rural homes to access online school learning, looking after children living through the lockdown in the Pestalozzi residential villages while enabling them to access online school learning, and supporting children in making the transition back to actually going into their schools when they re-opened. 

Often the situation changed rapidly and with little warning so that schools would re-open only to change policy and shut a week later; or children would be allowed to travel from their homes to the Pestalozzi villages only for another lockdown to be imposed.  Add to this the mental stress caused by the threat of getting ill and by family and friends becoming seriously ill and sometimes passing away, and the threat to the mental health of our children becomes extreme.

The response of the Pestalozzi residential villages to this difficult situation has been and continues to be impressive.  The following are some examples of the response made:

  • Provision of money for the internet and for devices for the children in locations with internet, whereby the children could access the online learning provided by their schools.  For those without internet, reassurances were given that Pestalozzi World would support them to catch up once a normal situation resumed
  • Once children returned to the residential villages, the priority was to provide faster WiFi and enough devices to ensure that the children could access their online classes without the mental stress of poor connectivity and of vying for a device
  • Additional measures were taken to ensure the children stayed healthy, with their temperatures taken daily and workshops on hygiene.  Any staff or children testing positive were isolated from the rest.  The majority were asymptomatic and no one has been seriously ill
  • Individually or group tailored extra tuition has been provided to help the children catch up with gaps in their learning resulting from the pandemic
  • In addition to the usual counselling provision, mental health workshops were run for the children, providing opportunities for them to learn resilience and to share problems

The following are some of the particularly impressive further responses of the many made by the individual Pestalozzi villages:

  • With children based in their own homes through much of the lockdown, the Indian Pestalozzi Village divided the children into two categories of WhatsApp groups led by staff to support: 1) their online learning provided by the schools; 2) their mental wellbeing, with at minimum weekly contact made with each child.  The village parcelled up and delivered textbooks to the children, especially to those who had no internet access and so could not access their online classes
  • With children based in the Pestalozzi Village through much of the lockdown, the Nepalese Pestalozzi Village alumni staff as well as alumni volunteers took care of the children.  The alumni went into isolation with the children, staying with them not only in term time but also during holidays, when both children and alumni would normally be with their families celebrating festivals.  The alumni played with the children, helped them with extra tuition and homework, added to their activities with for example yoga, cookery and chess clubs, celebrated with them and generally acted as older siblings towards them
  • Once children returned to the Zambian Pestalozzi Village, the staff their introduced yoga and breathing exercises to promote the physical health of the children. The children helped cheer up their peers when they were self-isolating by, for example, cooking special treats for them.  Staff supported children in the compassionate loving kindness they demonstrated when they decided to collect funds to cover the funeral costs of a couple of parents of children who died during the pandemic

Overall, the Pestalozzi villages’ responses to the pandemic show that the mental health and wellbeing promoting ethos of the villages is sufficiently embedded to ensure our children’s mental health and wellbeing not only in normal times but also in times of crisis.

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