Happiness lessons for all

Schoolchildren will take self-esteem classes to raise standards and cut crime. US guru called in to pioneer radical scheme that could enter the school curriculum
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The Independent Online

Lessons in happiness are to be introduced for 11-year-olds in state schools to combat a huge rise in depression, self-harm and anti-social behaviour among young people.

Special behavioural techniques imported from the US will be used from September next year in an attempt to make children more resilient in the face of the pressures of 21st century living.

Professor Martin Seligman, from the University of Pennsylvania, one of the most influential psychologists of his generation, has been drafted in to train British teachers so that they can deliver classes to nearly 2,000 secondary school pupils.

Lessons using cognitive behavioural therapy techniques will include role play designed to help children build up their self-esteem, challenge negative ways of thinking and express their thoughts clearly. Trials have shown that the techniques can boost class performance and exam results.

They will also be shown special breathing exercises to keep them calm when their parents are arguing and avoid blaming themselves for situations that are beyond their control, for example, the fact their parents may be divorcing.

The anti-depression classes, due be introduced in South Tyneside, Manchester and one rural location, have been approved by Lord Layard, the Government's "happiness" tsar.

The Department for Education is expected to evaluate the programme. If it proves as successful as it has been in the US, happiness classes could become part of the regular school timetable. The move comes as experts warn that record numbers of young people are on the verge of mental breakdown as a result of family break-up, exam pressures and growing inability to cope with the pressures of modern life.

Figures show that at least 10 per cent - three children in every average-sized class of 30 in the country - are experiencing symptoms of severe depression, including suicidal thoughts, prolonged bouts of despair and the urge to cry on a daily basis. Twenty-five years ago the average age people fell ill with depression was 30. Today this has fallen dramatically with 14 the age at which mental illness first strikes.

David Cameron, the Conservative leader, will tomorrow highlight the need for professionals to pay attention to the emotional development of young people in an attempt to turn them away from offending. In a speech to the Police Foundation, he will say that children are not "feral" and instead need "love" to restore their health and happiness.

Wellington College in Berkshire this year became the first private school to pioneer positive-thinking teaching for 13-year-olds. But this new initiative is the first time such a comprehensive programme, which can also be used by parents, has been used in the state sector.

Mental health charities say that teachers are placing too much focus on disruptive pupils and ignoring the needs of those who do not cause trouble but suffer emotional distress.

Lee Miller, a spokesman for Young Minds, said: "Historically schools have been focused on children who misbehave because they will disrupt the whole class."