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How workshops helped develop mental health in schools after the pandemic

The two-year break from schooling due to the COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging for parents, teachers and, most of all, children. Stuck indoors without interaction with other children, no outdoor games and physical activity, those fortunate to have smart phones and Internet connectivity soon tired of Zoom classes. ‘Say No to discrimination’ and ‘Project Empathy,’ put together by educationist and founder of Project Empathy, Vibha Lakhera, have been nurturing emotional well-being and addressing mental health issues of students in Delhi, Assam, Nagaland, Manipur, Meghalaya and Kashmir

Many of the workshops have been supported by the Assam Rifles and the Indian Army in remote regions of the Northeast and Kashmir.  Each workshop, spread over three days, works with teachers first to explain the concept of empathy and how it could draw out the latent qualities of caring and nurturing that exists in every human being.  The concept is then shared with children in interactive sessions of storytelling, art work, interaction and role plays. With their confidence boosted, children open up and share their problems as well as their dreams.

Towards April-end, the workshop was held in the Army Goodwill School (AGS) in Boniyar, Kashmir, with 30 teachers and 137 students. The school is in Baramullah District, between Baramullah and Uri, close to the LOC (Line of Control). Exposed to shelling and terrorism, the children literally live on the margins. About 95 per cent of the students and teachers at the school are Muslim and most of them speak Pahari, the local language of Boniyar Tehsil. Many of them also speak other languages like Hindi, Urdu, Gojri, Kashmiri and Punjabi. The children are taught in English in the school and the workshop was conducted in Hindi and English. To reinforce empathy among the students, more workshops are planned in the school over the coming six months and a big event in October.

Discrimination and empathy are two ends of the same spectrum, says Vibha Lakhera. The Army was keen on building the capacity of local youth, whether in Kashmir or the Northeast. Vibha’s project helped her understand what was happening in their lives and to reach out to them. The first day went in orienting teachers to the concept of empathy and its long term benefits for human development. They were told how ‘creating collective compassionate memories’ for students would have a lifelong impact on student behaviour and give them a healthy emotional foundation.

Eye-catching cut-outs highlight what Project Empathy is all about.

With the pandemic, migration and job loss became part of the economic slowdown, and mental health issues have acquired a new urgency. The teachers were introduced to reaching out to children through empathy as being different from sympathy. A new awareness was created on the importance of curiosity and imagination in young minds practicing empathy. The school principal termed the workshop as ‘the need of the hour’.

The second day was devoted to the students, introducing them to empathy both conceptually and through practical demonstration with role play and stories.  Neatly dressed in their blue uniforms, a large number of girls covering their heads with white scarves, there was uncertainty, apprehension and even some nervousness in the air. However, as Vibha in her gentle, soothing voice narrated the story of Rahim, the naughty school boy from Mumbai, the children got absorbed in this antics and school life in the big city of Bollywood who they had all heard of but not visited.

Rahim loved teasing his younger brother at home, much to his mother’s annoyance. In school, too, he was constantly thinking of ways to tease his friends and other children. One day, Anjali, a schoolmate slipped on the playground and fell. All the children began laughing and Anjali began to cry. Rahim walked up to her and asked what had happened. She said she had slipped on the water and fallen and her leg was hurting.

Rahim also had two inner voices, Inva and Binva, who were constantly chattering in his head. Binva was white in colour. It was like a white handkerchief waving gently and urging him to be positive, to do good deeds.  Inva was red colour, louder and pushing him to tease and to get the most fun out of a situation.  On seeing Anjali, helpless and crying, Inva kept goading Rahim, “Let’s have some fun. She is a sissy…only a girl.” Binva, however, gently whispered, “You know your name means compassion. Live up to it”.

However, red Inva was louder and Rahim went up to Anjali and said “I once fell from a tree and broke my hand but I did not cry. Did you slip deliberately so that you can skip school tomorrow?” All the children laughed louder and Anjali, hurting emotionally as well as physically, sobbed. Happy with his joke, Rahim walked away. To make the story more dramatic and absorbing, as associate of Vibha, Apala, kept waving a white and red handkerchief as Binva and Inva chattered in Rahim’s mind.

A few days later, class teacher Shivani had to give roles to students for the school play. Rahim got a lead role but Manjunath, sitting in a corner, was looking dejected. Rahim went up to him and found out that like the previous year, this year too Manjunath had got a minor role. The white and red Binva and Inva too began chattering in Rahim’s head. This time Rahim listened to Binva and went up to Manjunath and said, “I can understand your pain. Don’t lose heart.  Little things lead to big achievements.  Let us go and play on the swings and you can tell me about your puppy.” That day Binva was looking brighter and whiter and Rahim was feeling happier and lighter. He had lived up to the meaning of his name and in the process had shown empathy for Manjunath.

The children were then asked if they too had heard their inner voices, their Inwa and Binwa; the colours they visualised them in; the kind of help they wanted when in trouble and how they could help others who were troubled. Based on the story of Rahim, the children then enacted a skit to show the difference between empathy and sympathy.

Rizwan, a student of class 7, was the only child in the group of 137 who knew the meaning of empathy. He had read about it but since he did not understand the word, he looked it up in the dictionary. Sympathy is when you feel sorry for someone who is troubled but don’t act. Empathy is shown when you feel sorry for someone and help them is the lesson learnt by storytelling and enacting the skit.

Following the discussion, Rimshi, a Class 8 student fought her nervousness and volunteered to share her pandemic experience. Her hands were shaking but when Vibha put a hand on her shoulder she picked up courage and spoke. Mohan spoke about the Inwa/ Binwa fight within him to complete his homework. Most of the time, he admitted, Binva won and he felt happy when the teacher appreciated his work. Sibat and Zuphi of Class 6 shared how they long for help when they have a problem.

Other children too said they feel motivated when their feelings are understood and there is someone to help with their problems.  Shoaib Yasin of Class 6 spoke of how he helped his grandfather with gardening during the pandemic.  Manan, however, confessed that the online classes during the pandemic had made him lazy. Raizin Mushtaq of Class 7 spoke about his love for space and his dream to go to Mars and the moon.  He learnt about the solar system from the net and exercised daily so that he can survive in outer space should his dream come true.

On the third day of the workshop, children planted an apple tree which they called the Tree of Compassion.  Through this activity, children are steered to extending empathy towards the plant world and a dialogue begins around climate change.  A tree has also been placed in the school library in Boniyar and children will decorate it with leaves on which they write down their good deed of the day – their actual demonstration of empathy. New values and resilience are being built in the education of children.

May 2022

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