Programme director Claire Finka writes about how the Sheffield-based Juniper programme helps children find a way to cope with stress.
Many children experience frighteningly high levels of stress and difficulty. In a recent workshop, I asked the Year 6 children taking part to write down a current worry. My expectation was that they would focus on SATs tests and the upcoming move to secondary school. In fact, very few of them mentioned these topics and some said things like:
‘My sister ran away and I can’t stop thinking about it because she beat my mum up and she still has not come back.’ ‘Someone is going to hurt my family or me.’ ‘I’m worried about my dad breaking up with his girlfriend and not having any where to live.’
‘I keep rowing with my mum’s boyfriend.’
For the past eight years, The Peace Foundation Network (PFN) has been running a programme to help young people deal with whatever issues they are facing and so to develop their emotional health. Called the Juniper programme, it is mostly delivered within socially and economically deprived areas in the north of England.
The programme focuses on peace with one’s self, peace with others and peace with the environment. It offers young people some practical techniques to help them deal with stress in their lives in and out of school. The standard programme runs for one hour a week for six weeks. Pupils attend in small groups of up to eight participants. Key aspects are:
- relaxation and visualisation techniques
- problem-solving using affirmations
- a CD and pack of affirmation cards to support practice at home.
Besides supporting children with issues at home, the programme is particularly relevant to developing inclusive practices in school and overcoming barriers to learning and participation experienced by vulnerable young people.
The immediate benefits from this programme have been positively evaluated. However, several teachers have wondered whether it was having a longer term impact. This article summarises the findings of a study at Firth Park, a secondary school in Sheffield, which asked students what difference the programme had made to them two to four years after they had taken part.
Data was gathered from 293 questionnaires returned by pupils in Years 7, 8 and 10 who had participated in the programme at primary school. This was followed up by interviews with 19 pupils who had responded positively.
Making a difference
Over one-third of all students had found the programme useful in their lives, and eight out of 10 had used the techniques after the course when facing stressful situations:
- 39% of Year 7 students agreed that the peace group had been helpful to them in their life
- 35% of Year 8 students agreed that the peace group had been helpful to them in their life
- 19% of Year 10 students with only primary experience reported benefit
- 42% of Year 10 students who had had a refresher at secondary school reported benefit.
The peace project has value for young people:
- prone to angry outbursts in stressful home situations, who benefit from the use of calming techniques that improve relationships at home and school
- of a more anxious temperament, who may be well supported at home but who find exams and course work stressful, and who find that the techniques taught give them self-confidence, as well as the ability to relax and have a good night’s sleep.
Students had very full and positive memories of the Peace Group intervention at primary school. This suggests the validity and relevance of such an intensive and practically based form of intervention. At the same time it was striking how powerful an effect even a short introduction had on two students who first met the programme in Year 9.
A whole-school approach at primary level resulted in a greater percentage of pupils reporting benefit.
How it helped
The major causes of stress for the majority of students were located outside school. However, many students recounted how stress at home had affected their school life, leading to arguments and fights with peers or not being able to concentrate on learning.
Students commented on how helpful the techniques taught on the programme were for dealing with:
- SATs and other exams
- arguments with peers
- increasing concentration in class.
One Year 8 student gave a particularly eloquent account of how the programme had helped her:
‘In peace group I learned how to calm down my anger and attitude because it was a big problem for me. I used to get wound up very easily. In addition to this, I am more calm and I get on more with my family. I know when to calm down and stop being argumentative. My mum and dad have observed massive change in me as I am more at peace. I listen to my CD more or less every day and so does my sister. I have noticed that I am less argumentative and not as loud. I set myself a target every day and it helped me and improved my behaviour a lot. Before the peace group started, my grades was a 5C and effort B but now my grades are 5A and 6C and effort A because I listen more and understand. When I’m mad I say I am at peace and I calm down.
Some students who returned questionnaires had not taken part in a primary programme but had come across the peace project at secondary school.
Dek’s only peace project engagement was for 10 minutes in Year 9. He was in learning support when he ‘gate-crashed’ a group being run for parents. From that experience, Dek remembers feeling relaxed and enjoying the quiet. Now, when he feels a bit stressed ‘I just listen to music and lay down and close my eyes. At home in my bedroom, probably two or three times a week, for 15 to 20 minutes. He describes how he uses these techniques when course work makes him feel stressed and advises others who have worrying thoughts to ‘just put them on the side for a bit, and then when you’re relaxing, put them on the side.’
Natalie, Year 10, is another example of a small input for a big effect. Natalie had suffered a series of bereavements and had only had one peace project lesson in Year 9 the previous year. She said the skills she learned were very helpful ‘to get your troubles out and make friends’. Natalie now lives with a girl friend to give her support. She describes how ‘when we are upset we just turn the lights off, put soft music on and put candles on and just lay down’. ‘She’s going through it. It’s still hurting her, but since I’ve been there doing stuff like that – it calms her down and I think it is helping her.’
However ‘it’s got me closer to my family – Cos it’s got me more relaxed. I used to take all my problems out on my family.’
Stories from the Peace Programme
John (Year 8)
John said the peace group has helped him stop being a bully. ‘It made me change my personality. I used to go round bullying people but now I don’t.’ However, he gets stressed and angry quite often, ‘arguing with my mum, falling out with my friends.’ Now he goes to his bedroom. ‘I lay down and listen to some music and that. Then I get back up and feel a lot better.’ He does this about twice a week.
Ahmed (Year 8)
Ahmed reported that he found the techniques very helpful in Year 6. ‘I did sort of try and relax, do what they told me and stuff. And it did work because it helped me do my SATs. I was that nervous and stressed.’ Ahmed gets very angry at school sometimes, but is learning to manage it better. ‘A couple of weeks ago, there was this boy who sweared at me but I didn’t swear at him or hit him, I just left it. I want to go and hit him but you don’t do that. You just breathe and calm down.’
David (Year 8)
David found the techniques helped him with sleeping and confidence. ‘I used to take an hour or two to get to sleep. Now I just go to sleep in 20 minutes or so. I think of a nice place in my head and then I’m asleep. It means I get a lot more rest.’ David has lent the Peace CD to his mother, who has similar difficulties.
Vanessa (Year 8)
Vanessa was very distressed two years ago because of the level of domestic violence at home. She now lives with her aunt and cousin in the week, and sees her mum and sister on occasional weekends. She says the Peace Project has helped her with her anger. ’I use the breathing. I do it often. I do it with my sister and brother. I do it when I get mad with my cousin. Like last week, when I was trying to do my homework and she was annoying me. It’s fun all the things they say. I’m improving because of them cards.’
Helen (Year 8) Helen had stopped using the techniques, but picked them up again when her father started being violent to her and her mother. ‘When my dad punched my mum, I felt anxious. I felt it was my fault. When I get tense, I just go up to my room and think about my special place and it helps me feel all right.’ She says her mum sometimes comes in and asks ‘What’s
wrong?’ Helen says ‘I’m just doing summat what I learnt from Year 6. You need to chill out mum.’
Peace Foundation Network
The Peace Foundation Network exists to promote Peace Education as a means of bringing the world to a state of peace by giving people the tools to live at peace with themselves, their community and environment.
The Peace Foundation Network offers regular training courses for staff and for pupils in the Sheffield area and training days in other parts of the world on demand. A DVD illustrating their work and resources to support it are also available.
Peace Foundation Network (UK) 16 Sanctuary Fields North Anston Sheffield S25 4DD
T: 0114 2308821