A short time ago we celebrated Pesach with our families. As we do every year, we read of the four sons – the wise, the wicked, the innocent and the son who doesn’t know how to ask. They reflect the differing facets of our children. We’re all confident our kids are the wise ones, though on occasion they can appear wicked and, at times, innocent. However, as any parent could attest over lockdown, our children all seem to be blessed with the gift of the gab. So where are the children who don’t know how to ask and why have they been included in our seder?
At the first Partnerships for Jewish Schools (PaJeS) annual headteachers’ conference more than five years ago, we asked school leaders to tell us the critical areas schools needed to address. One item that came to the fore was the mental health and well-being of students and, as a result of the conference, PaJeS, in partnership with Place2Be, become one of the first UK organisations to run training in this area for pastoral leaders.
Today, mental health and well-being is a key element of any educational planning and, even before Covid, schools were struggling to deal with an explosion of mental health issues. Today, things are even more challenging, and experts nationally are reporting a significant increase in cases of anxiety and depression, especially among teenagers.
When a child trips in the playground, every school knows how to respond. There are times when we help the child to stand and let him run away, there are instances where we send him to the office for a plaster, and there are occasions where we send him to hospital for an X-ray. What is critical is that the school knows the best course of action.
The same is true with issues of mental health and well-being. There are times when the child must show resilience and stand on their own two feet. There are instances when the child needs school-based support. Then there are occasions when the child’s needs are more complex and external support should be utilised. However, with mental health and well-being, it is harder to identify the problem and be certain of the best way forward. When a child falls, they know they are hurt and cry for help but, too often with internal turmoil, the child doesn’t know how to interpret the pain or how to ask for help.
The Haggadah holds within it timeless messages. Perhaps the most poignant, especially at this time, is that the fourth son really does exist. There are times when our children are too troubled to speak and not knowledgeable enough to ask for help. As the Haggadah explains, the solution is that we must teach them how to express their concerns.
This is a difficult challenge for educators, and PaJeS has been working to assist schools through a number of initiatives, including the Mental Health and Wellbeing Project and Heads Up Kids, which educate children about the importance of well-being.
PaJeS is particularly excited to be partnering with ORT UK, which aims to send 7000 copies of Esther Marshall’s book, Sophie Says It’s Okay Not To Be Okay, to children in Reception to Year 3 in Jewish schools. As an education charity, with more than 200,000 beneficiaries across the globe, ORT UK understands the importance of looking after children’s mental health to ensure they thrive in school and beyond.
Through these initiatives, and by parents and teachers working together, we must encourage our vulnerable children to speak while creating a safe and nurturing environment. This will enable them to move from darkness to light.