Stories of Change

Championing the Mental Health of Children

By November 27, 2020 No Comments

The Covid-19 crisis changed the nature of education. Teachers were compelled to go back to the drawing board and re-evaluate the traditional forms of pedagogy while children were experiencing a new world laden with restrictions. Moreover, children from low-income households needed to cope with tense environments resulting from their parents losing jobs. Amidst the adjustments in education and house-bound limitations, the mental health and well-being of children were being severely affected.  

To combat this underlying crisis, Apni Shala, a non-profit based out of Mumbai has designed a Social Emotional Learning (SEL) program for children studying in municipal schools in Mumbai. Founded in 2013, Apni Shala has worked with over 9000 students so far through SEL programmes. Currently, they work with 18 municipal schools and an NGO partner to deliver their SEL program online. In addition to that, they also working with several non-profits to organise online SEL workshops to respond to a variety of mental wellbeing needs of children and community groups. 

We had a delightful conversation with Rohit Kumar, CEO of Apni Shala about the growing importance of their work, effects of the pandemic and building a community of Mental Health Ambassadors. 

Excerpts from our conversation

Q: When the Covid-19 lockdown took effect, how did Apni Shala help children cope?

R: Mental health is a big concern for a lot of people, particularly communities that are facing systemic poverty. Many of the parents lost their jobs. Many of them were worried where the next meal would come from. There was a lot of uncertainty. The father would displace his anger on the mother who in turn, displaced her anger on the child. Problems in communities started compounding and we realised that we had to respond to this by eliminating the triggers. 

So, like many other NGOs on-ground, we started by providing ration. Next, we provided phone-based support to simply lend a listening ear to the parents. Then, we adapted our existing curriculum to move online and address the needs of the kids.

We reached out to 5th and 6th-grade students who have access to one of the three- Zoom, WhatsApp, or phone calls. The focus remained the same – emotional resilience and responding to what’s around them in an emotionally healthy manner. We have a weekly 30-40-minute session which is followed by sending art-based homework and other material via WhatsApp. All the 18 schools that we worked with offline have continued with us online.

Q: How did you overcome the barrier of access to technology to provide continued support?

R: Access to technology is a multi-fold problem. One, we have to look at the physical access for devices for children and communities, as well as the teams that are working with them. With that, we also have to look at access from competency, acquaintance, and socialization with tech.

For students and communities

In partnership with the school teachers, principals and parents, Apni Shala team created four categories of access groups:

  • Students who will have a device with internet for asynchronous engagement (Zoom, Google meet, etc)
  • Students who will have a device with internet, but only for an asynchronous engagement WhatsApp)
  • Students who will have a device with but no internet – For them we developed a conference call design
  • Students who are not traceable or in contact – at this point we are not able to support them

For Apni Shala team

While the Apni Shala team has focused on building our tech competency for our internal processes (Google drives, MIS processes, etc), working with children online, especially for social and emotional work, was altogether a new experience. For this, we operated with scaffolding. Before we could launch the online School SEL Programme in July to our partner schools, we worked in April to June to develop shorter workshops that the team could facilitate online. Team’s commitment to mental health and openness to learning (one of the Apni Shala values) helped navigate this.

Q: What does an SEL session entail?

R: SEL sessions are built with the intention to build skills in children to become aware and manage their emotions and develop stronger resilience and social skills. Each session is a healthy outlet and medium of expression that helps the kids get through the week. 

The session starts with an energiser or ice breaker; a well-being check-in; review of the previous session; the main activity surrounding the session topic; ended by a home task for the week.

The topics revolve around expressing empathy, emotional resilience, gratitude, understanding community and community-based support. All our work is based on narrative therapy practices where the idea is to externalise the problem. For instance, we have a session on ‘Emotional Jugaad’ which is about managing emotions. During this session, a student once expressed, that when anger “came to them”, they had a glass of water. Another said that they went for a walk. This way, the students understand what the emotion is, the multiple ways of coping, and that emotions are not permanent.

Q: What is the Mental Health Ambassador campaign about?

R: The next 4 months are crucial for the children. They may even have to start with their end of year exams which may be online. The stress of not being able to keep up with the classmates; the blame and shame experienced by the parents because they can’t get computers or other devices necessary for their children to give the exams are results of systemic problems. However, a child is too young to understand this. The SEL Programme helps them cope and effectively deal with moments of shame, guilt, and the distress of not being able to engage in their own education.

We also understand that a parents’ emotional well-being needs to be in place, otherwise, their frustrations spill onto the kids. So, we started with parent meetings online where we provided support. This program has really found its footing and we hope that it continues as long as the children need it. And we can’t do this alone. 

Be a Mental Health Ambassador campaign is an invitation to anyone who believes ALL children must have opportunities to thrive, especially during such distressing times. 

Q: How can one support Apni Shala’s work?

R: By becoming a Mental Health Ambassador! We want to continue building awareness about the mental well-being of children living in poverty.
 
As a Mental Health Ambassador, you can:

  • Contribute as less as INR 175 to ensure month-long mental health support for a child. Alternatively, you can support a class of 30 students for INR 5200
  • Help us spread the word – tell your family, friends, colleagues the importance of supporting the mental well-being of children
  • Volunteer your time or expertise in helping us grow and refine our program
  • Make introductions to funders, donors, and other supporters who can further our work 

All images were taken pre-covid

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