“IT is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”
Those words are attributed to the abolitionist leader and author Frederick Douglass, in dialogue with white-slave owners about the immorality of slavery.
The year was 1855 and while the subject matter was different (and now we aren’t restricting discussion to one gender), it is still a relevant thought when it comes to children’s wellbeing and the implication it has in their futures.
It’s a quote that pops into conversation with two Cork women, Sarah White and Julie Ahern, debating a topic for which they have huge passion.
“We teach, support and care for children. We teach them how to tie their shoe-laces, how to dress themselves. Why aren’t we teaching them how to look after their minds, how to care for their wellbeing?” they ask.
Sarah and Julie met in 2018 when they were working at the same crèche. Sarah, of Riverstick, has worked in a range of early years settings since 2005, while Julie, from Ballinhassig, has also clocked up a decade of work in the sector. In that space of time, they have noticed increased anxiety levels in children and wanted to do something about it. This year they became social entrepreneurs by founding Kind Minds, a mindfulness programme for children.
“Anxiety affects every aspect of life and limits your ability to learn. It reduces social connectedness and that can lead to more serious mental health issues like depression, OCD, panic attacks, PTSD, social anxiety… the list is endless”, explains Sarah.
“The children of Ireland are currently surviving a life-restricting pandemic alongside the silent epidemic that is anxiety. They deserve access to the skills to empower them to overcome the situation.”
Sarah is concerned about some of Ireland’s most recent unsavoury statistics: “The waiting list for mental health services has increased by 20% since 2020 and there are currently 3,000 children on waiting lists for these appointments. The CSO social impact study back in February indicated that almost 60% of people felt their mental health had been impacted by the pandemic. 75% of those were aged 18-34, but children weren’t surveyed so it’s important they have a voice and that they have a seat at the table in managing their own anxiety.”
Kind Minds aims to give children tools to do just that – as well as giving teachers and Early Years practitioners the tools to guide them.
“We saw the impact of anxiety on children as young as pre-schoolers”, says Julie.
“I had finished a dissertation as part of my degree in Early Years on how children’s wellbeing is supported. The research showed us that a lot of Early Years practitioners found the courses they were doing weren’t supporting them enough to be able to facilitate children’s well-being in their settings on a daily basis.
"In on our own lives, we had both been using different mindfulness-based techniques for our own anxieties and to help support ourselves, and we knew from research that these techniques are really effective for supporting children’s wellbeing.
“We started weaving these techniques into our daily routines with the children and saw huge, dramatic changes in their anxiety-based behaviours.”
Wanting to reach a wider pool of children and practitioners, the seed was planted for Kind Minds. Following through on their shared vision, they devised Kindness Crusaders workshops for children, as well as workshops for students in early childhood studies and workshops for Early Years practitioners. The latter workshops (delivered remotely) include techniques to promote self-care, as well as practical tools to support children’s well-being development.
The Kind Minds team also offer guidance on the development of a ‘Zen Den’, an area in a room which can be used by children to practice mindfulness, regain focus or reflect on events in a calm, non-judgemental manner.
Of the Zen Den, Sarah explains: “It allows them the time and space to choose an activity that’s mindfulness-based and will help them if they’re having a tricky time or they’re working through a big emotion or maybe having a conflict with another kid. They need time to regulate what they’re feeling and process it. It gives a concrete space for an abstract idea.”
The women say kids love the engaging, play-oriented aspect of the Kindness Crusaders programme.
“We would go into a setting and the first week we might work on breath and breathing techniques, helping the children understand the power of their own breath.
"Each week the children gain super powers, so we’d have Super Breath, Super Senses, Super Focus, Super Feeling, and work on different themes like that, and then giving them various skills that they can use with autonomy to manage their own anxiety as they move from co-regulation to self-regulation”, explains Julie.
“With deep breaths, they’re going to feel their system calming down almost immediately. That is a super-power we certainly didn’t have as children,” says Sarah, acknowledging that she was an anxious child, although unaware of it until she was an adult.
Julie outlines the importance of approaching mindfulness as early as possible.
“Part of our research showed us the importance of a healthy brain in the first three years of a child’s life; basically the first 1,000 days. It’s about getting in early and giving them the skills so it just becomes a reflex action that they’ll be able to regulate emotions themselves”, she says.
“It’s like playing sport or a musical instrument. Eventually it becomes automatic,” adds Sarah.
“Muscle memory is what you are trying to build and the younger the kids have the skills, the better.”
While Sarah and Julie had all the ideas, techniques and experience, they needed a bit of help to turn it all into a business. They got that from the Social Entrepreneurs Ireland (SEI) Ideas Academy, from which they have recently graduated following a three month programme. Now in its fifth year, SEI’s Ideas Academy provides training and support to those with early-stage solutions to social problems. This year’s call from SEI to ‘see the challenge, be the change’ drew 172 applications from across Ireland, from which 60 final projects were chosen.
Categories that received the most submissions included health and wellbeing, education and the environment. For the second year in a row, the programme was delivered remotely due to covid-19 restrictions.
“It was absolutely fantastic. It really gave us clarity and direction and a lot of tools we can use,” says Sarah.
With many different strands, Sarah particularly loved the peer learning aspect.
“It was a great opportunity to meet people who had fantastic ideas in similar areas. The group we were in for peer learning was the area of mental health and wellbeing. It was great to work with very like minds.”
So she would recommend the Ideas Academy to others?
“I absolutely would. They are so supportive if you have an idea that would make life easier or better, take your idea to them and they will help you and support you the whole way to put your idea into action,” she says.
Although graduated, their journey with SEI is not over yet as they have also applied to pitch for seed funding from a total pot of €50,000 to pilot their idea. Regardless of the outcome, Sarah and Julie are forging ahead with future plans.
They are currently putting together a support manual for practitioners and teachers which will run alongside their practitioner training. They have also written a children’s storybook, which complements the Kindness Crusader workshops but which is actually a guided meditation for children. They will soon be exploring options on how to get it published.
Social Entrepreneurs Ireland (SEI) is a not-for-profit organisation. The Ideas Academy is supported by Bank of America (lead corporate sponsor), Lifes2Good Foundation (sponsor of the Ideas Academy West), and Tomar Trust (supporter of the Ideas Academy South). SEI will launch its next call for applications in spring 2022. Visit socialentrepreneurs.ie.