CORK schoolchildren are being educated about emotional intelligence and the benefits of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), thanks to Christopher Shum, the managing director of Motus Learning.
Christopher, who is half Irish and half Chinese, from Kilkenny and living in Cork, says that teaching children life skills “is beneficial for every child and not just for children with mental health issues”.
The 24-year-old attended the University of Limerick and went on to do his Masters in Neuropsychology in Edinburgh.
Motus Learning came about as a result of a stint in Sri Lanka in 2017 where he was working as a volunteer. It involved a placement at the National Institute of Mental Health there. He was also in Sri Lanka to teach children English.
Christopher says that in one school, the children, who were aged 16 to 17, were fluent in English.
“I decided that they didn’t need to learn English as a subject. With my interest in psychology, I started teaching the students about mental health.”
The volunteering company allowed Christopher and other teachers to talk to the children about emotions and mental health.
He said the teenage students really enjoyed learning about CBT.
“In Sri Lanka, there is no word for ‘depression’ in the Sinhala language. The people have a lot less than us but seem much happier than most westerners.”
After Sri Lanka, Christopher moved to London, where he worked one-on-one with a child who had a dual diagnosis of autism and ADHD.
“The school the boy was in was fantastic. They allowed me to do private lessons with him to get him ready for secondary school. I was essentially teaching the boy life skills and how to deal with his own mental health and emotions.”
Christopher also did a lesson with a class.
“The school loved what I was doing and asked me to come back. At that point, I was thinking that nobody else was doing this.”
Christopher devised a programme and now delivers it in schools around Ireland, with the biggest take-up in Cork. Among the schools to have taken part are: Greenmount National School, St Brendan’s The Glen Girl’s National School, Scoil Cholochair Mhuire, Carrigtwohill, St Joseph’s Girls’ National School, Clonakilty, Dromore National School, Ardfield National School, Capabue National School, Walterstown National School, Mallow Convent, Castletownroche National School and Ballingeary National School.
Christopher says he has the support of Dr Samantha Dockray of the School of Applied Psychology at UCC, whose particular interest is in people at periods of transition such as adolescence.
Motus Learning uses volunteers, mostly masters in psychology students. Christopher hopes to be able to hire employees in February.
What he and the other tutors impart to children is that “every emotion has a function. It shouldn’t be something you try to push away. It’s just something that happens from your brain. It’s better to understand it rather than neglect it.”
Christopher, who has worked in summer camps over the years, says that the benefit of his programme is that it’s mixed in with games and activities.
“The children have fun while they’re learning about emotional intelligence.”
In devising his programme, Christopher had consultations with a clinical psychologist , a CBT practitioner and University College London.
“Someone working in the education department there helped me to design the programme. We piloted it for over six months. Not only is it all research-backed, but the important thing is that it’s fun for the kids and the kids are remembering what we’re teaching them.
“We have also looked at the rate of emotional intelligence before and after the programme. We found it was significant after the programme. We’re collecting data on this and the research will be finished by April or May.”
Christopher says that the problem he faces is that what he’s doing at the moment doesn’t really exist.
“We always get asked whether it’s clinical psychology or educational psychology. It’s kind of neither. At the moment, we’re focusing on making sure the programme is right and that we’re getting it to as many children as possible.
“Part of the programme involves parent and teacher seminars. Parents often ask us why can’t we do it for younger children. The reason we picked 10 or 11 year olds is because some of the language we use is too difficult for younger children to articulate.”
The main premise driving Christopher’s programme is that how you think affects how you feel.
“You can think in helpful or unhelpful ways. It’s really important to correct your thinking, which is why we’re measuring meta-cognition. Ten, eleven and twelve years are the ages when children are beginning to develop how to think. They are aware at that age that they’re able to change how they think.”
As Christopher points out, the entire brain is fully developed from the age of 11 or 12 — except for the pre-frontal cortex.
“The pre-frontal cortex is responsible for organisation, decision-making and planning ahead. When that is not yet developed, we want to build a brain foundation, basically for the pre-frontal cortex, so that children can make good decisions from an early age as opposed to waiting for problems to happen and trying to deal with them afterwards.”
The transition into secondary school “is incredibly difficult so that’s why we try to target that age group. We’re trying to give students the tools to deal with difficult situations and emotions that they may face in secondary school. The question we always get asked is whether there has been a generational shift in mental health issues,” he added.
Also, why the rise in so-called snowflakes?
“The new type of parenting tells us that the world is a lot more dangerous than it is, which is leading to over-parenting and over-protection, creating the snowflake generation. Children are protected from every kind of problem and when they actually have to face one, they crumble.
“The second thing is that children are biologically pre-determined as adolescents to be impulsive because of their pre-frontal cortex not being fully developed. We’re trying to correct that. I have worked in an anger management programme for a year in the NHS. We worked on how to teach adults to be less impulsive and how not to react on an emotion and how to let time pass, stopping to think before acting.”
Working in this area with adults is not always successful as the cohort’s brains are fully developed, usually since the age of 25.
“It’s hard to rewire their brains. But with children, we can try to wire the brain correctly. We try to teach children to be more aware of how they think.”
It’s all part of educating children to take care of their mental health instead of reacting to problems that arise.