• By Kevin Mount
  • Posted on Tuesday 07th October, 2008

Running the marathon from Craigavon to the cutting-edge

The Together 4 ALL Programme for Schools which is harnessing the energies of teachers, parent representatives, researchers and community members to improve the behavior and mutual respect of children in the Craigavon district of Northern Ireland was launched with a celebration at the Lough Neagh Discovery Centre, County Antrim, last week.Together 4 All’s chief executive Nuala Magee explained why the work was happening. “We conducted an epidemiological study involving over 2,500 children and an extensive community consultation involving over 700 parents and professionals. These highlighted problems with children’s behavior and emotional well-being, as well a need to reduce bullying.”The resulting program is being implemented in the community of Craigavon, 20 miles south-west of Belfast. With a population of 37,000, it is in many respects a microcosm of Northern Ireland. There are areas of deprivation but also pockets of relative affluence, and it comprises two rural and two urban districts. Substantial Catholic and Protestant communities live alongside small but growing minority ethnic groups from Asian, Eastern European and Irish Traveller backgrounds.“It was a fantastic opportunity to put Craigavon on the world map in terms of cutting-edge research,” Nuala Magee said. It was a unique project for Northern Ireland and she was confident it would achieve its goal of improving the behavior and mutual respect and understanding of children in the community.At the heart of the T4A program is a school-based a curriculum based on the highly effective PATHS program for social and emotional learning developed by the Prevention Research Center (PRC) at Penn State University in the US. Children in six primary schools between the ages of four and 11 will receive the equivalent of a one hour lesson each week during school time, delivered by teachers using a manual that covers topics such as recognizing feelings, handling conflict and celebrating diversity. Their progress will be compared with that of children in seven schools who who do not receive the program. Their turn will come in two years time.Professor Daniel Perkins from the PRC expressed his excitement about the work but urged schools to implement the program with care. “People tend to implement very well in the first few years,” he said. “They follow the curriculum and get excited about it. They engage their students. But then they start to mess with things they are less comfortable with, and lose critical bits that children need to learn. The danger with losing bits is that you actually lose the program.”His colleagues from Penn State explained the underlying principles of the program and some of its key features. “Children learn social emotional competence in the same way they learn cognitive skills – through teacher-led instruction, constant reinforcement and a supportive class environment” said Elaine Berrena. Her colleague Christa Turksma stressed the role of school leaders in making the program work. “We know the lessons are much more effective when principals take an interest and teachers don’t feel they are doing it by themselves.”This week both women will spend three days training local teachers on how to teach the lessons. They have already trained three “prevention coordinators” – all teachers seconded from local schools – who will support the delivery of the program in schools. A fourth coordinator is shortly to be appointed to help parents support their children’s learning.The program has been adapted for the Northern Ireland context by a team including Lynn Brown, a teacher seconded from Lurgan Model school, and Norman Richardson, Professor of Education at Stranmillis teacher training college in Belfast, and a service designer from the Social Research Unit at Dartington.In the midst of the celebrations there is awareness that this is only the beginning of the road. But there is a strong commitment to continue Together 4 All’s trademark efforts to marry prevention science with community engagement in the pursuit of better outcomes for Craigavon’s children. As Danny Perkins reminded everyone, “It’s not a sprint; it’s a marathon.”• For more about Together for All in Ireland see Lurgan comes together for Together 4 All and What prevention science can offer all Ireland's childrenPaths prc

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