Why happiness lessons are the cure for those teenage ills

Teaching 11-year-olds social skills makes children better able to cope with modern life
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The Independent Online

On South Tyneside, where the first optimism programme will take place next year in secondary schools, nearly a third of teenagers say they have experienced depression.

Even in an area with one of the country's highest teenage pregnancy rates, high levels of drug abuse, family break-up and children in care, the statistic shocks. Yet the situation in South Tyneside is far from unique. An estimated 10 per cent of children in any school experience serious depression, such as going through prolonged bouts of despair and even harbouring suicidal thoughts.

Instead of being able to enjoy care-free childhoods, young people have to cope with the devastating effects of divorce, exposure to drugs and bullying. The emotional cost is high.

Education experts believe that young people are most vulnerable to negative emotions and at risk of developing depression at the age of 11, when they move from primary school to secondary education.

Kim Bromley-Derry, the director of children's services for South Tyneside, believes that teaching pupils how to be more resilient will not only push up GCSE results but also help to combat anti-social behaviour and other social problems.

"Ministers have put a lot of effort into primary school education, but when you get to secondary school there is a dip in performance and this is the obvious place where something is lacking," he says.

From this September, every 11-year-old in the area will be put through a special "anti-depression" programme. This includes lessons in building up self-esteem, special sessions on helping children to cope with warring parents, and even relaxation and negotiation techniques.

Wellbeing classes are already part of the curriculum in some fee-paying schools. Wellington College was the first in the country to announce that its pupils would be instructed in positive thinking from September.

Dr Nick Baylis, the psychologist who heads Cambridge University's Wellbeing Institute, has been brought in by Anthony Seldon, the headmaster of the Berkshire college, to turn its 13-year-olds into well-adjusted and contented members of society. He plans to publish a text book for teachers based on his wellbeing classes so that others can benefit from his methods.

Child welfare experts warn that schools focus all their attention on disruptive children, because of the national obsession with anti-social behaviour, and neglect the needs of those pupils who may not be disruptive but are still struggling to cope with emotional issues.

Lee Miller, from the charity Young Minds, says that it is the children "staring out of the window" who are often most at risk of depression.

For parents such as Kerry Kilsby-White, any teaching that makes children less negative and hostile in the playground is worthwhile. Her 12-year-old daughter Mollie was the victim of bullying by a girl at her school in Richmond, Surrey, and is being taught at home. She believes that teaching social skills could have prevented the attacks.

"I feel that Mollie's bully is a victim as well, because you don't give birth to a bully," she says. "These children don't have any social skills towards one another. These youngsters are so negative in their outlook. They need to be taught life skills."