Horses as a therapeutic and educational tool

Image from Corpus Christi

Image from Corpus Christi

By Tiernan O’Neill, Principal of Corpus Christi National School

Corpus Christi Primary School is situated in the parish of Moyross in Limerick City. Moyross is an area that is synonymous with social exclusion and educational underachievement and is currently in the midst of a state funded regeneration process. Many of the children in our care come from homes where intensive supports are required to bridge the gaps that decades of disadvantage and disenfranchisement have created. 

In our efforts to help the children break free from the shackles of educational underachievement we are constantly striving to develop programmes that will support us in this process. One such programme is our equine assisted therapy programme. The “Urban Cowboy” phenomenon is an all prevailing presence in local authority housing estates in the city and the local authority spend up to €600,000 every year impounding wandering horses in these estates. This horse culture has for generations been a part of the social geography of the area. It is our firm belief in the school that rather than looking at the horse situation as a problem that needed to be solved, horses could actually be a solution to a problem for us.

Image from Corpus Christi

Image from Corpus Christi

Fortunately, strong links with the Local Garda Youth Diversion Project and the Irish Horse Welfare Trust have enabled us to develop an equine assisted therapy programme, which consists of weekly sessions in an equestrian centre. During these sessions a trained equine therapist works with a number of parents and their children through the medium of the horse. This has provided us with a tremendous platform to develop empathy and support the emotional and social development of the children in our school. 

The benefits of using the horse as a therapeutic tool in this process stems far beyond the obvious cultural attachment and delves into the horses finely attuned senses that monitor human interactions and regulate their reactions accordingly. The instinctual reactions of horses provide feedback to individuals about their behaviour and social actions known as mirroring. A fascinating process to observe when a parent and child have a tempestuous relationship!

It is truly humbling to see the moments of realisation when participants receive positive or negative feedback about their behaviour from the horse’s reaction. This insight and the environment which we attempt to create to allow the participants to reflect on these interactions is a key part of the transformative process. The chaotic nature of the lives of so many of the children has also lead to the development of a whole school mindfulness programme. The central tenets of mindfulness are brought to life through the equine programme as the children and parents become aware of their breathing, movements and demeanour and how it impacts their ability to work effectively with the horse. 

Image from Corpus Christi

Image from Corpus Christi

Caregiving activities are also a key component of the therapy process. It is amazing to see young people who would point blank refuse to clean bedrooms for their parents become so amenable to cleaning up droppings and dirt in the stables, so as to ensure the horses wellbeing. Various research articles outline how the role of nurturer is often taken on by children with their pets. This demonstration of care is closely linked to the child’s sense of empathy. On a weekly basis our equine programme has undoubtedly provided us with an amazing mechanism to develop the children’s empathy. 

Using the horse as both a therapeutic and educational tool has also supported the creation of a learning environment that encourages children to explore the full range of their abilities. Skills and traits are being developed that will enable these children to make a positive contribution to society and with the necessary support bring about real change in their community. A tangible example of the programme’s success is the number of children who completed the first programme 8 years ago, who as adults have secured employment in the equine industry. It truly has been a “changemaking” journey for these participants. By also involving parents in the programme we are hoping to fundamentally alter the social capital in one of the most marginalised capitals in the state. 

It was Pam Browne that said “A horse is the projection of people’s dreams about themselves – strong, powerful and beautiful – they have the capability of giving us escape from our mundane existence.” It is my expressed hope that as we work with Ashoka and our fellow Changemaker Schools that programmes like this can create a platform to ensure that our children’s dreams are reached and that education leads to opportunity. 

Helping students find their voice

Image from Eglish N.S.

Image from Eglish N.S.

By Siobhán Fitzgerald, Principal of Eglish National School

Approximately 70% of our students come from the Travelling community and 30% of our students have been assessed as having a special education need. Very proud of the demographic make-up of our school, we actively foster and create a safe, supportive environment in which all of our students feel cherished, stimulated and proud to be the best version of themselves. For us, it's about mutual respect.

We see a huge opportunity, through nurturing all our students’ self-worth and self-confidence, to challenge any existing prejudices in society and move beyond them. We aim to empower our students to be ‘Changemakers’, role models for their brothers, sisters, cousins and neighbours. Through encouraging creativity, we help every child find their passion and interest and develop it. This year our students wrote, produced and acted in their own Irish play. By making and selling their own crafts at our annual ‘Bring and Buy’ Sale, entrepreneurial skills are developed.
We celebrate diversity in all its forms, always reinforcing that ‘We are all more alike than different.’ 

Through self-evaluation, oral language was identified as most in need of attention. With one third of students assessed as having a speech and language difficulty, another big dilemma was the apparent reticence of students from the Travelling community to share information about their backgrounds. We were concerned also about how much time many students seemed to spend passively on technology in their free time, to the apparent detriment of their communication skills. Here lay the challenge and here lay the opportunity.  

Image from Eglish N.S.

Image from Eglish N.S.

We are a small school with a big vision, a vision of all our children communicating clearly and confidently, expressing coherently their thoughts, feelings, hopes and dreams, listening empathically to one another, developing keen skills of evaluation. We believe in using technology as the tremendous tool that it is to enhance presentations but at the same time, not being mastered by technology. 
Using the ‘LET’s Stand’ (Listen, Evaluate, Talk, Stand) programme we encourage, enable and empower students to stand and present in front of an audience a minimum of 10 times a year, every year of their primary school education. Each child speaks on topics relevant to their lives, all the while developing, step-by-step specific public speaking skills. Peer and teacher feedback and evaluation is positive and specific. We get excited about topics that excite our students. 

‘LET’s Stand’ targets the development of children’s oral language, confidence and public speaking skills at a time when they themselves most want to talk. This also feeds into the development of positive mental health practices. History boasts plenty of examples of great orators who have changed the world by standing up and speaking out. We are creating confident, communicatively competent orators for the future. Positive, powerful and passionate advocates for themselves and their communities.

Image from Eglish N.S.

Image from Eglish N.S.

Encouraging our students to talk has been easy because they want to be heard. Creating the safe, supportive environment in which this can happen is slightly more difficult. By spending time initially on clearly outlining and explaining the simple, respectful rules for ‘Listening’, ‘Evaluating’ and ‘Speaking’, the rest more easily falls into place. Discrete oral language time can be used for student presentations while many projects are easily linked to other curriculum subjects. Assigning preparation of oral projects for homework is a great way of getting the parents and extended family involved, promoting further increased communication and sharing of stories and culture at home. It’s homework that is not confined to being completed around the table.

Our staff conscientiously model the skills we aim to develop in our students. We actively listen to them. Working as a team, individual members of staff take the lead in their preferred areas of interest and create real opportunities for students to do the same. We realise that not simply teaching, we are moulding the young minds of rural Ireland, cultivating confident, clearly communicating leaders who can and will change the world for the good of us all. 

Yardtime at GETNS: A change for the better

By John Farrell, Principal at Galway Educate Together National School. 

It niggled at me for over twenty years of teaching. The little voice whispering in the back of my mind, “The yard….the yard…what about the yard?” The voice would say, “Why do we work so hard every day to have happy, positive, supportive classrooms but when the bell rings it’s ‘Off you go now kids, and remember, play nicely!’?” 

Maybe it’s because most children play nicely most of the time that adults think the yard is just another one of life’s classrooms. “It toughened us up. It didn’t do us any harm. We can’t wrap them in cotton wool. Sure they’ll get over it, eventually.”

But will they?

What about that boy walking the kerb alone, looking at his feet? Or the girl on the bench glancing wishfully at the others skipping and chanting and laughing? Or the goalie in the soccer game – his team are winning – why does he look so sad? See the girl that’s “it” in the tag game? She’s so red in the face. She hasn’t caught anyone and everyone knows she won’t, including her. There’s ages left before the bell rings and her ordeal finishes, for today.

Ask any teacher and they’ll tell you the yard is where the big behaviour problems are. It’s the part of the school day when children get into trouble for doing things they would never dream of doing in class. Teachers will tell you the huge amount of time they spend sorting out the problems after yard. We had a name for it in our school – “Post Yard Trauma.” Children were upset for getting in trouble, being excluded, fighting with their friends and so on. What was meant to be a fun time for all was, for a significant number of children, anything but.

It was a troubling constant of school life and despite periodic attempts to change we were becoming resigned to living with it. Yard is yard we thought, we can only do our best.

Then the flyer came in the post!

In October 2013, Galway Education Centre offered training in something called Playworks. Playworks was founded in 1996 in the U.S.A. by Jill Vialet and now runs programmes in over 20 US states. Their aim is to create a place for every kid on the playground to feel included, be active, and build valuable social and emotional skills. 

The blurb described many of the yard issues and then four words leapt out at me “We can change this.” I immediately applied and thankfully our school was selected to have two Playworks trainers spend a week in the school introducing the programme to the staff and pupils. 

What a week that was! 

The trainers, David and Tara, arrived with not much more than some chalk, a stack of cones, a few balls and a seemingly endless store of fun, active, inclusive games. They had some nifty strategies for keeping children involved as well as bundles of the wonderful warm enthusiasm that Americans are so well known for. Within a couple of days you could see the difference. Teachers were reporting that Post Yard Trauma had practically disappeared. Children were coming back into class more ready to learn. Those children normally on the fringes were playing and laughing with their classmates. The atmosphere was changing before our eyes and not just in the yard but in the classrooms and throughout the school community.

The underlying principles of fun, positivity and inclusion create the atmosphere. With Playworks the yard goes from a chaotic free-for-all environment to one that is semi-structured. Simple “core games” run in the same place in the same way every day. The games are quick so there’s no hanging around waiting. Rules are basic and infringements are met with redirection rather than punishment and exclusion. Conflict is sorted by the simple game of Rock, Paper, Scissors. “Put-downs” or negative interactions are replaced with “High Fives” and positive ones. Junior Coaches (student volunteers) run the games, not as referees but rather as facilitators that keep the games focussed on the underlying principles. Adults in the yard go from passive supervisors to active role models, joining in the games, building rapport with the children and supporting the Junior Coaches. Many of the strategies can be used in classrooms throughout the school day, thereby supporting and growing the culture.

There were plenty of tough days, however. When David and Tara left we struggled to keep the momentum going. They had shown us the promised land but it was only a glimpse. Implementing the structure and organisation, the planning and development, the training and support required for Playworks to last was a big challenge for us. With the immense effort of a member of staff (Thank you Michelle!) and the goodwill of all the rest of the team we kept it going through that school year. In the summer of 2014 another Playworks trainer came from the US to give a summer in-service course for teachers and several of our staff attended. During the 2014/15 school year we dedicated a number of our staff meetings to figuring how to make it work for us. We defined roles, made staff teams and played the games together. Day by day the aspiration was becoming the reality.

By June 2015 we were confident enough to invite over 30 principals and teachers from all over Ireland to come and have a look at our yard. The feedback from those attending was incredible and several went away fired up to begin changing their own school yards. In November 2015 we ran an introduction course over three nights called “Yardtime @ GETNS” and 25 teachers attended. As most of these schools are in the Galway area we are now building a local network to give support to each other. In February 2016 we were invited to give an introduction to schools in Carlow and were amazed to see another 30 teachers from all over the Southeast out on a Saturday, geared up and enthused about transforming their yards. This term we plan to run a “Thank You Junior Coaches!” day where we invite all the schools who’ve made a start to bring the Junior Coaches together for a day of fun, friendship and figuring out how to make our yards even better. Our plan is to continue developing our own school programme while sharing our experience and offering our support to other interested schools. 

The possibilities for a Playworks yard are endless. More than anything it is a journey towards developing better human relationships through fun and play. To begin the only requirement is a willingness to look at your school and ask “What about the yard?”

Go to to see a short video on some of the elements of Yardtime @GETNS. 

At l’école des Bosquets, you are never too young to change the world.

Image from Ashoka

Image from Ashoka

By Ashoka France

At l’école des Bosquets, children are “builders of the possible”. A school where there is no age to change the world, where you learn physics through the creation of a weather station and grammar by defending a bill for the environment. 

“Mr. Viar, you are going to go a long way in education”. Philippe Viard, nowadays director of the primary school in the village of Epiais-Rhus, remembers these words pronounced by an inspector during his first week of teaching, more than 20 years ago. That week had nevertheless got off to a bad start. The young teacher, former director of a recreation centre and judo trainer, had inherited an almost empty classroom. No cabinets or shelves for the books. So, on the first day of class, he brought some planks, nails and hammers, and challenged the students of CM1 to build their classroom furniture themselves. The initiative, strongly criticised by some parents, led to the inspection, which today seems to be the founding anecdote of his teaching career. The message he wanted to send to his students that day was clear: faced with challenges, we must act and develop solutions. 

Think differently and act concretely

The most important thing for all the teachers at l’école des Bosquets, is that the child discovers and embraces his potential, whatever its nature. “Succeeding at school does not mean succeeding in life. At l’école des Bosquets, we teach the children to think differently, to trust their potential as actors in society” explains the director. To do so, we must diversify teaching and give it meaning. 

During the COP21, it was decided that the theme of the year 2015-2016 would be the climate. In November, students wrote to all the Heads of States that would be present at the international conference. By involving their parents, their text was translated into 35 languages over one weekend and sent to all national delegations. In January, the class of CE2-CM1-CM2, which participates in the Children’s Parliament, wrote a legal text proposal to encourage healthy and environmentally friendly food practices. “It is a remarkable source of learning” explains the director of the school, “during the preparation phases, the students worked in groups, developed arguments, screened some short films, and then voted on the subject that they cared about the most. They worked on public speaking, grammar, conjugation, discovered the notion of science and economy”. 

Well-rounded and independent students

Thus, every year, the teachers, students and parents choose a theme linked to the environment, and develop a myriad of projects: musical comedies on the theme of water, used battery collections, a vegetable patch, creation of a weather station… “We start from real-life situations, from which we learn things that make sense. The students take the lead in projects, work in teams and are proud of their achievements” tells the teacher.  

He describes a classroom environment where, from kindergarten to primary school, all initiatives are valued. Spontaneously, the children follow their interests: they write poems, texts, play music, propose projects. Everyone’s potential is recognised and the children naturally want to work together and help each other. “It’s a school where the children are happy, well-rounded, independent and aware of their position as students. They know why they are here and they want to not only learn but also act” explains the school director. 

Twenty years later, l’école des Bosquets still impresses those who visit it. However, it seems that little is done to encourage such practices. L’école des Bosquets and all those that are similar need to receive greater recognition from the Ministry of National Education, in order to set in motion a movement and finally succeed to shake up habits and invent tomorrow’s education. 

Cooperation with local communities

By Oktawia Gorzeńska, Principal of Gimnazjum nr 1 w Gdyni

Cooperation of schools with local communities is key to effective learning and exemplary prosocial mindset of students, as well as of the whole school community. The quicker educational leaders believe in the power of this cooperation, the better for schools and all interested parties. Local community can not only support the learning process in a real and interactive way (e.g. through events, workshops, location-based games) but above all work together towards social change by listening closely to its people, setting goals, planning and putting things in motion.

At Gimnazjum nr 1 w Gdyniwe, we create conditions favourable to the development of all sides – students, staff and parents. We create an inspirational environment, supportive, challenging, demonstrating active participation and cooperation with local community, including school leavers. Above all we invest in relationships, creating them on various levels: student—student, student—teacher, teacher—teacher, parent—teacher, parent—parent, school—local community. We do this by organising formal meetings, such as tutor—parents meeting, with everyone sitting in a circle to evoke the spirit of dialogue and partnership. We run classes where the importance of learning through cooperation is stressed. There are also informal meetings, such as workshops, special days or whole weeks, sleepovers at school, trips, city games, and participation in cultural events run by the local community or the city. 

Another important aspect is creating space for encouraging initiatives and implementation of individual projects. For this purpose, we’ve created a box of inspiration, a rope of ideas and Hyde Park wall, to help students put forward their ideas. Every idea is discussed thoroughly and, if approved, it is implemented. Teachers can exchange their ideas in a social media group, after school meetings and at the knowledge café, where they work in groups on plans and recommendations for a year to come. Parents can share their ideas with tutors and senior members of staff during formal meetings, duties and workshops, where they cooperate with students and school staff. All these elements contribute to the feeling of communal responsibility for school, take a close look at the needs of the community, learning the art of dialogue, compromise, decision making, as well as learning from its own mistakes. Thanks to this, school is close to real life. 

School is even closer to real life through cooperation with wider community—district council, companies, associations and local people. Local associations and organisations whose job it is to work towards wellbeing of its community, become partners in many enterprises, geared towards social change and perfecting of social competences. Some time ago our students became school guides during Gdynia Festival Open House, where they created the route of the visit and guided tours themselves. They really felt like the hosts of our school, sharing their passion with others. 

Soon we are going to start two major projects of cooperation with the local community. It will involve allotments and companies from Gdansk (we will be implementing an innovative method called “hatchers” created by University of Turku, introduced to our school by University of Gdansk). This project will focus on the elderly owners of the allotment plots, who no longer have strength to perform all gardening activities. Volunteer students do that work for them and, at the same time, learn something about gardening. Another great benefit will be the dialogue between generations. 

Project “hatchers” focuses on cooperation between students and companies, in this case restaurants, and their problem with food waste. Groups of students will learn methods and elements of coaching and mentoring, and investigate the problem with food waste in chosen restaurants. Based on their findings they will prepare a set of solutions for those companies, learning at the same time about legal capabilities in the city council and other institutions responsible for food waste management. Working on this project will teach them new competences, putting theory into practice as well as strong sense of making a difference.

Modern school should be looking for new solutions in order to create environment that is alert to its own needs and the needs of others. This environment should be reflexive, responsible, innovative, creative in problem solving and, above all, cooperating with local communities because they need their active residents to change it for the better.

Singing for change

How one school mobilised a whole community

Image from Tomorrow Trust

Image from Tomorrow Trust

By Roz Wilson

This article originally appeared on Virgin on 28 December 2015

To raise the £250,000 needed to develop a new playground, Millfields Community School in Hackney, London, knew they required a more ambitious approach than traditional fetes and bake sales. With 640 pupils, Millfields is one of the largest primary schools in the borough, yet it has the smallest outside space and their young changemakers are demanding a radical change.

At the heart of this Ashoka Changemaker School is the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Millfields is a beacon level 2 UNICEF Rights Respecting School, and through the process of achieving their award formed a long-standing association with UNICEF UK. The children at Millfields are from a large number of ethnic backgrounds, including many families of recently arrived immigrants. The school provides a welcoming environment for all the community and the children feel strongly that diversity is something to be celebrated. Millfields teaches its children that they have the power to make changes by engaging in projects and speaking up when they are confronted by injustice or inequality. 

Image from Millfields

Image from Millfields

It is for this reason that I thought it would be too self-indulgent to just raise money for a better playground. Such was the children’s compassion for the many suffering in Syria lacking even the most basic human rights, that we decided that the school would donate some of the money raised for the playground to the UNICEF Sing for Syria appeal.

In 2013, our close relationship with the local community made it possible to record, promote and release on iTunes an original Christmas song called C.H.R.I.S.T.M.A.S. The song was written by local retired teacher, Jonathan Hart, who donated the royalties to the school. Previously Education Director at UNICEF, Jonathon was delighted to be involved in the project when he discovered that the children wanted to support the UNICEF Sing for Syria appeal. 

Image from Millfields

Image from Millfields

As Head of Music, I collaborated with a parent-led group to organise the recording. We had our visiting music teachers playing the instrumentals, Jonathan Hart on the keyboard, and we recorded every single class of children singing. With the addition of some harmonies from the choir and some soloists, the single was ready for release on the December 9th 2013. Two parents produced two videos of this process – the first about the making of the single, and the second the final recording of the song.

The results of this single went far beyond what anyone first imagined: it reached No1 in the UK iTunes Children’s’ Chart in the week before Christmas and thanks to a company gifting their employees our single,  managed to be No 1 in New Zealand on Christmas day. The choir promoted the song on Radio 5 live and local radio stations. It was sang at the UNICEF UK annual carol concert in Westminster, as well as at Westfields Stratford and at the Hackney Town Hall. 

Perhaps the greatest success of this project is the effect it had on our children. Many of the parents and staff told us how much the recording of the single boosted their children’s self-esteem, increased their sense of pride in their school and strengthened their belief in their ability to make a change.

This article was written by Roz Wilson, Head of Music and PSHCE at Millfields Community School, an Ashoka Changemaker School. Ashoka Changemaker Schools are disrupting the education system and teaching skills from empathy to entrepreneurialism. 

Empowering teachers to empower young people

Living and thriving in a new world

Children at School 21, an Ashoka Changemaker School in London, UK.

Children at School 21, an Ashoka Changemaker School in London, UK.

By Ross Hall

This article originally appeared on Medium on 14 March 2016

Fuelled by explosions in population growth, urbanisation and technological advancement — our world today is defined by accelerating volatility, complexity and hyper-connectivity — forces which make our tangle of social, economic and environmental problems everyone’s problems — and increasingly difficult to solve.

Traditional approaches to addressing our problems — centralised decision-making — and rigid hierarchies in which a few command the many — are becoming increasingly obsolete. We can no longer afford to be compliant — or simply follow the rules — or do what we have always done. For humans to thrive together in the modern world, we need people to become self-empowered (to live for our collective wellbeing).[1]

A person who becomes self-empowered in this way uses her inner powers(her innate capacities) again and again to solve problems — to create opportunities — and to empower others. And with the most enlightened organisations now empowering their customers and staff through models of mass participation, decentralisation and do-it-yourself — she is in great demand.

Being and becoming self-empowered

But being self-empowered like this — being a changemaker — is not just about working life. It’s about the way you live your life — your attitude — your actions — and the decisions you make from moment to moment. Being self-empowered — changemaking — requires a sophisticated understanding of the world — an understanding that your wellbeing is inextricably entwined with everyone’s wellbeing. And it means taking responsibility — taking the lead — and collaborating with others to make life better for yourself and family and friends and community and humanity and the planet.

Being self-empowered is a way of being. It involves being empathic, thoughtful and creative — being curious, resilient and effective. Becoming self-empowered, then, is a process of finding, using and developing a complex array of changemaking powers.[2] Within the limits imposed by our genes, the extent to which we become self-empowered is determined to a very large extent by the experiences we have throughout childhood and adolescence.

Influencing the experience of growing up

But although they are essential to employment and economic development — to social and environmental wellbeing — and to personal and collective wellbeing — nurturing deep changemaking powers is rarely in our minds when we are influencing the experience of young people. Commercial and cultural influences often pull in opposite directions — and despite often good intentions, parenting is typically ill-informed and improvised.

And for most, the experience of school reflects limited conceptions of the human mind, the human being and human potential. It usually reveals a highly individualistic and narrowly economic orientation. And it reinforces compliance and outdated hierarchical power structures.

While many children and adolescents are benefitting hugely from experiences — inside and outside of school — that are explicitly intended to help them become self-empowered, it is a very small minority who benefit. And for those who do, their experiences are usually isolated and sporadic.

Building new learning ecosystems

If we want the new world to become our better world, then we need to give every young person access to coherent experiences — in and out of school. Experiences that are woven and scaffolded throughout their childhood and adolescence — and in which adults and young people are consciously helping each other become self-empowered.

In other words, we need to build new learning ecosystems — involving young people, parents, teachers, out-of-school educators, educational leaders, policy-makers, media people and cultural influencers working together. To support these learning ecosystems, we need self-empowering curricula, assessments and evaluations — new university admissions and employer hiring practices — mechanisms for stimulating innovation, applying research and sharing good practice — and the intelligent application of technology and money.

Empowering teachers and educators

Teachers and other out-of-school educators are instrumental to building these new learning ecosystems insofar as they can:

  1. help young people become self-empowered by way of their direct and immediate influence over the experience of young people
  2. influence the culture of their schools and organisations to self-empower young people and colleagues
  3. lead systems change beyond their schools and organisations — by influencing other educators, education leaders and parents.

But teachers and educators must be trained and supported if they are to take on — and succeed in — these demanding roles. They must be self-empowered to self-empower others — an idea that is in direct opposition to what many regard as a systematic dis-empowerment of teachers sweeping the world — and a major challenge where teacher shortages are chronic. Against this backdrop, we believe we need to:

  1. improve the status of teachers and teaching
  2. give teachers ownership of their own professional standards
  3. enable teachers to lead pedagogical innovation, spread good practice and collaborate
  4. reinvent initial teacher training and professional development
  5. equip teachers and educators to lead systems change

To make these changes, we need pioneering teachers and educators to come together as change leaders — to form collaborative teams — and to execute strategically-focused projects. And to lay the foundations upon which these strategic projects can have massive impact, we need to build a global community of education professionals who are fully committed to self-empowering educators — for self-empowering young people.


Ross Hall is directing Ashoka’s education strategy which aims to ensure that every young person has access to experiences that are explicitly designed to help them become self-empowered for the common good.

[1] Self-empowerment is used here as an umbrella term for a number of closely-related ideas including self-agency, self-determination, self-efficacy, self-authorship, and so on.

[2] Changemaking powers is used as an umbrella term to denote the things that are often called skills, competencies, capabilities, capacities, dispositions, strengths, qualities, etc.

Teaching with empathy is a breath of fresh air

Schools must meet pupils’ emotional as well as education needs.

Students practice yoga in Changemaker School, Francis Street CBS, in Dublin (Photo by Fiona Koch)

Students practice yoga in Changemaker School, Francis Street CBS, in Dublin (Photo by Fiona Koch)

By Fiona Collins

This article originally appeared in the Sunday Times on 29 March 2015

The words “just breathe” accompany the sound of a Tibetan bell being rung in Francis Street Christian Brothers’ School three times a day. During these moments, children and teachers put their hands to their stomachs and inhale deeply. This activity serves as a reminder to every student to live in the moment, to reflect on their bodies, to consider how they are feeling and how best to express this. The strategy is drawn from mindfulness practices and represents one of the many diverse initiatives run in the school as part of an empathy-based programme.

Francis Street CBS is an all-boys primary school located in the Liberties in Dublin. Established in 1818, it was a soup kitchen during the Famine and went on to educate 500 scholars a year, many from what was regarded as one of the worst tenements in 19th-century Europe. Today the boys in our school come from the Coombe, Pimlico, Meath Street and Thomas Street and they are offered an education rooted in self-respect, mutual understanding and building positive relationships.

When I took on the role of principal in 2006, I kept hearing the same concerns about children’s behaviour. Parents, teachers and children all frequently spoke of stress, anxiety, and mental health issues, and I sensed that no real learning could occur unless social and emotional needs were also met.

Art therapy was the first initiative we implemented, in order to help children with emotional difficulties. This has expanded into cognitive behaviour therapy and a wellness programme to give children the tools to manage their feelings. Every child in the school does yoga and “yogalates” — a mixture of yoga and pilates.

Students practice yoga in Changemaker School, Francis Street CBS, in Dublin (Photo by Fiona Koch)

Students practice yoga in Changemaker School, Francis Street CBS, in Dublin (Photo by Fiona Koch)

How to sustain motivation is a topic that comes up at every staff meeting. Our teachers believe learning must be based on what children already know and what they are interested in. Behaviour is managed in a restorative way.

When a situation of conflict arises, the children are encouraged to ask themselves questions: what happened? What were you thinking or feeling at the time? Who has been affected by this? What do you need to move on? What needs to happen now so that harm can be repaired? Designated student mediators belonging to a “peace club” carry question cards in their pockets during play time, and must consult them when dealing with a situation in the yard, rather than involving an adult.

Circles are a common theme in our school: peace circles, conflict-resolution circles, “circle time”. Lessons are taught in circular formation and are incorporated into the school day. In circles, everyone is equal and feels equally important.

I believe that empathy-based methodologies create the conditions for engaged selfunderstanding and learning, and that this approach can build healthy communities.

I like to be involved in the goings-on at my school by speaking to students and teachers on a daily basis. A few weeks ago, while talking to a student, I discovered something amazing: every single child in Francis Street CBS can play chess, and many students choose to play it during play time and “golden time” of their own accord. I knew that a teacher had introduced chess seven years ago to improve concentration in mathematics class, but I had not been aware that the game had taken hold among the student body to this degree.

Students engaging in a conflict resolution circle in Francis Street CBS (Photo by Fiona Koch)

Students engaging in a conflict resolution circle in Francis Street CBS (Photo by Fiona Koch)

On a basic level, chess has allowed the boys to improve their problem-solving, critical thinking and communication skills. However, it has also taught them to think and make good choices, thereby encouraging them to be responsible for their actions and giving them the ability to plan ahead: all values that are integral to the empathy based methodology programme delivered by the teachers.

The empathy-based curriculum has been established at our school for several years now, and we have recently received international recognition for this work. In 2014, Francis Street CBS was selected to become an Ashoka “changemaker” school — one of only five in Ireland. With more than 200 schools in Europe, Africa and the US, Ashoka schools form a global network of peer institutions that share a commitment to fostering empathy, creativity, teamwork and leadership among their students.

The ever-growing network aims to inspire schools both in the programme and beyond, to share the tools and ideas that put them at the forefront of innovative education.

I have just returned from an Ashoka European summit that brought together principals from the UK, France, Turkey, Spain, Sweden and Germany. Sharing insights and ideas with like-minded educators convinced me that the commitment to teaching empathy is a truly global one, and I feel hopeful and inspired for the future of our students.

Fiona Collins is the principal of inner-city primary school Francis Street C.B.S., a position she has held for ten years. Fiona has featured in the national press and television, and regularly lectures on Social Inclusion and Poverty in St. Patrick's College at Dublin City University – the largest teacher training college in Ireland. She holds a Masters in Education with a focus on Educational Disadvantage.