As millions of South African children head back to school, there’s a growing realisation that more needs to be done in the country to take whole child development into account by actively facilitating children’s social and emotional learning. With high rates of poverty, crime, domestic violence, gangsterism, mental illness, HIV/AIDS and abuse, South African society is one that is particularly stressed.
The non-profit organisation, WISE (Wellbeing in Schools & Education), was established in 2017 and provides children at under-resourced schools in highly stressed communities the chance to develop mindfulness, and learn healthy coping skills. WISE is now launching a Dance Assembly tool in Sentinel Primary School, Cape Town for the 2019 year ahead, with plans to expand into other schools where vulnerable children require emotional support. The pilot study reported reduced stress and aggression amongst learners and improved productivity in the classroom.
Just as we know that children who are hungry cannot perform well at school, so children in the grip of strong, negative emotions too have less brain power available to them for academic learning. Stressed children battle to concentrate which hinders their ability to learn optimally and achieve in the classroom. They are also more inclined towards physical and verbal aggression, as well as high-risk behaviours including self-harming, and even suicide.
“We continue to place importance on teaching Maths and English in schools, when it’s becoming evident from our research that children can benefit from mindfulness activities like Dance Assembly and yoga, that can equip them with self-esteem and self-care which ultimately contributes to overall well-being,” says psychologist, author and co-founder of WISE Carol Surya.
The South African educational system is geared towards academic learning and IQ, and in a vast number of schools, there is little focus on children also developing their emotional and social intelligence. All too often, school leaders and educators don’t know that this is important, or how to facilitate this learning. WISE’s wellness-based programme, which involves training educators and caregivers, provides unique materials and tools so that children have the opportunity to learn vital life skills that are currently outside the South African curriculum.
Studies show dance reduces stress in children
After a successful pilot in November, WISE is rolling out Dance Assembly in Sentinel Primary which will see the educators and Grade R – Grade 2 learners start every school day with a 10 to 15-minute moving morning assembly. For those who participated in the Dance Assembly pilot, this is a wish come true, with teachers requesting that it be part of the school routine and culture. Yolande Van Der Berg, a Sentinel Primary educator reported: “The children are calmer afterwards. It brings up emotions that they are not used to dealing with.”
Carmen Clews, artist , children’s book author and WISE co-founder, reported the positive transformation in the way the students interact after each dance session which is echoed by Sentinel Primary School Principal Claudene Overmeyer, who has seen great benefits since adopting Dance Assembly, “The children are lining up better, and are not pushing, fighting or shoving each other as much. They are definitely calmer in the morning and ready for class”.
The use of dance as a mechanism to reduce stress, stimulate mindfulness and cultivate mental and emotional well-being was a natural step for WISE co-founders Carol and Carmen, who are both also Biodanza facilitators. Clews says: “With regular morning dance practice at Sentinel Primary, we are already seeing a reduction in violence and bullying, kinder connections, better eye contact, more expressions of compassion and joy along with improvement in focus and concentration in the class.”
Clews’ confidence in the potential outcomes of the Dance Assembly is based on a wide range of long-standing evidence that has shown that physical activity impacts positively on psychological well-being. More recent studies of dance in particular mirror these findings. “Research has shown the potential of Biodanza to promote stress reduction and the enhancement of social skills,” she says. “For instance, the evidence-based programme ٭TANZPRO-Biodanza for children is a 10-session programme with elements of dance, movement, encounter and non-verbal communication. The current study of 10 children, aged between 4 and 6 years, recorded a significant reduction in cortisol and improvements in emotion recognition and concentration.”
Reaching more vulnerable children in 2019
The addition of Dance Assembly in 2019 is a strategy for WISE to deepen its impact in the schools in which they operate. Currently, WISE interventions such as kiddie’s yoga (The Magic Mat and its little secret), the Inner Magic self-esteem game, the Planting Seeds for life lesson planner and the Parent Magic book are being used in schools across the Western Cape.
Trevor Diglee, Principal of Merrydale Primary School in Mitchell’s Plain (a school that participates in the WISE programme) reports that “After the WISE activities, we notice the stress levels of the children are lower. We have a lot of gang violence in this area, and the kids live in constant fear, so it’s great to have tools to help them cope with their feelings.”
The challenge for the non-profit organisation in 2019 is to scale-up its services so that more vulnerable South African children can benefit from its mindfulness tools and develop healthy coping skills. “We will be taking our fundraising to new levels this year,” says Clews, “Our aim is to raise $ 125,000 so that we can bring Dance Assembly and our other WISE tools to 10,000 additional children.” Teacher training and volunteer programmes are also on the radar to help grow WISE’s reach.
WISE Donations can be made at https://www.givengain.com/cc/wise/