A pilot scheme seeking to promote wellbeing in Jewish primary and secondary schools has seen increased interest in emotional and mental health awareness during the lockdown.
The three-year community wellbeing project, led by the Jewish Leadership Council (JLC), was rolled out across nine pilot schools in London and Manchester to address growing concerns over mental health.
The schools involved in the project launched 16 months ago – which include JFS, JCoSS, Yavneh College, the Jewish Community Academy Trust, and Broughton Jewish Primary School- each recruited a wellbeing practitioner to promote mental health and coordinate resources and activities tied to wellbeing.
Dr Mark Berelowitz, child and adolescent psychiatrist at the Royal Free Hospital, is leading clinical governance for the pilot project, being monitored by the Anna Freud Centre.
Organisations such as Norwood, Jami, Camp Simcha, Maccabi GB, Partnerships for Jewish Schools (PaJeS) and youth network Reshet are also involved in the pilot, with support from philanthropists and foundations.
Julia Alberga, the scheme’s project manager, told Jewish News on Tuesday: “Everybody is really recognising now the importance of wellbeing in their children’s lives alongside balancing their academic studies. It has become much more apparent since the pandemic because everybody is in lockdown. Hopefully that will become more important as we go back to school.”
To aid with the transition, the community wellbeing project team is working with Norwood and PaJeS to supply children in some primary school years with printable handbooks on their first day back, entitled Heads Up Kids Back 2 School.
Overall, the community wellbeing project, she said, is “experiencing interest across all schools to embed wellbeing into the curriculum, to address the wellbeing of staff and to explore the role of parents in this space, including assisting their own wellbeing at a very complex and demanding time.”
Nicky Cohen is one of the five practitioners in the scheme. The wellbeing specialist working at JFS considers her role to be a “preventative” one and leads assemblies and group talks on topics ranging from the transition to secondary school to bullying.
She runs a peer education project in which year 12 pupils are sent to help lead year 7 Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) sessions. “They get given all the information and I do all the training and they go in during PSHE lessons and they run those sessions for year 7 forms which is very nice because it’s peer-led. It’s a bit more interesting for the year 7 to hear it from the year 12,” she explained.
As part of her work, she also uploads inspiring messages, videos, images and memes inspired by the theme of mental health and emotional wellbeing to a dedicated Instagram account, @jfs_wellbeing, which has garnered more than 700 followers since September and is her “pride and joy”.
“This week we’re really focusing on Mental Health Awareness Week so I spent quite a bit of time at the end of last week drawing up a plan for Instagram posts. Today focused on random acts of kindness and encouraged students to get involved,” she explained.
Over recent weeks, Cohen has been delivering talks and sessions remotely. “Things during lockdown have looked very different to what they normally would but I think we’ve all been amazed by what we can actually achieve using a bit of technology,” she said.
Material is tailored each week to address challenges affecting pupils during the pandemic. “Last week we talked about how to stay motivated during lockdown, and especially now that it’s gone on for a while, and we know some of them have got a whole other half term to deal with being at home and having to do their work,” she said.
“Today we talked about what they want to take them with them out of lockdown and what they have discovered about themselves … or really love to do and would like to continue to do afterwards and how they will make sure that they have time to do that,” she added.
When the pilot was first launched, she said, “no one quite knew how it was going to go, but I think the collaboration between all of us led by Julia is brilliant.”
The wellbeing practitioners involved in the project meet once a week to pool ideas and share feedback, she said. “It’s certainly making really good progress and I actually think that lockdown in some ways has been a bit of a boost for this sort of work because people’s appreciation and understanding of the need for it has really gone up over the past few weeks because wellbeing is such an important part of everything that’s going on.”