‘SMILE and the whole world smiles with you’... that could well be the motto of St Als secondary school where the 300 pupils are encouraged to pursue wellbeing and positive mental health.
The St Als Smile Committee, initiated this year by the school’s art teacher, Lisa Robinson, and 12 pupils who applied to be on the committee, is all about balance.
While academic excellence may drive many of the girls, Lisa points out that “wellbeing needs to be there before the girls can actually learn for their exams. We see the two as being hand-in-hand.” she said.
Lisa came up with the idea of a smile committee from having heard about similar initiatives in schools in her native Dublin.
“I was planning on just doing it for Transition Year pupils. But I felt that if we wanted to grow mental health throughout the school, we should include all the years. So we have girls from the senior cycle and the junior cycle on the committee.”
St Als has always had “a strong culture of minding the girls.” she says.
“It’s important that the girls feel supported.”
The new logo for the school is a sunflower on a badge. And pupils and teachers are making an effort to smile.
On a more serious note, Lisa says there are girls on the ground who are aware of issues that teachers might not necessarily see.
Lisa said: “The girls can come to us and say that someone is quite down. It could be everyday issues like exam stress. Also, we don’t know what’s going on at home. We just have to make sure that we have a positive learning environment in the school. It’s important that the girls take responsibility for that.
“I don’t really do much. I facilitate the meetings which happen every second week during break time in the art room. The girls on the committee do all the work, coming up with different ideas.
“For example, when the girls were doing their pre-exams recently, the committee came up with the idea of placing nice cards on each desk with a picture of a little apple on them and a message saying ‘good luck in your pres.’
“Also, they provided motivational quotes to put a smile on the girls’ faces before they started their exams. The quotes, put on the desks, said things like ‘mistakes are proof that you are trying’ and ‘stop being afraid of what could go wrong and start being positive about what could go right’.”
The girls also practise laughter yoga in the library on the first Monday of the month.
“They do laughing exercises, stretches, make funny faces and just laugh. Laughing reduces stress by 28%. If the girls find the exercises helpful, they might do them at home also.”
So, is everyone at St Als going around with a big smile on their faces?
“I think we’re all more aware of the fact that mental health is important.
“We talk about anti-bullying and how it’s OK to not be OK.
“It’s OK to be happy as well. We try to focus on the positive side of mental health.”
The issues affecting adolescent girls are myriad.
“They’re more body conscious. They’re on social media and while that can be a fantastic learning tool, you can never switch off.
“The girls are not allowed use their phones in school unless a supervising teacher gives them permission.
“Technology is a part of life and it’s the way things are going.
“We have to be sensible about it and realise that it’s a very important part of learning. But we make sure the girls are aware of the negative aspects of social media.”
Reflecting on the recent Valentine’s Day, Lisa was keen to stress that it’s not necessarily a day that is only for romantic couples.
“It can also be about the love between you and your friends and your family.”
Love heart sweets were handed out to all the pupils on Valentine’s Day, making sure that everyone felt included, no matter how fleetingly.
“We want school to be a place where the girls feel cared for and feel safe. They’re there for six years so it’s important to enjoy the experience.
“The stresses the girls are going through are different to mine when I was at school ten years ago. It’s important for us educators to be aware of that.”
Lisa says the smile committee is pupil-led and it aims to provide a space where the girls can discuss how they’re feeling.
“Having a positive mental attitude and outlook will help with learning. We’re equipping the pupils for life so that they can go out into the world with this kind of attitude.
“School isn’t just about how you succeed academically. It’s also about how you feel about yourself and how you treat others.”
Future plans for the girls at St Als include watching a funny movie after classes. School has never sounded so enticing!