Verbal works through storytelling and the language arts to support positive mental health, resilience and cross-community dialogue in areas of high-level sectarianism, community conflict, deprivation and marginalisation. Projects delivered in primary schools across Northern Ireland aim to promote positive wellbeing, where recent cuts have left children without vital mental health support. In developing their schools programme, Verbal worked with the Education Authority and Public Health Agency, as well as carrying out detailed consultations with teachers and schools.
School-based programmes aim to improve mental health and wellbeing, but also support children with managing emotions, developing resilience, and in transitioning to secondary school. The programmes use Verbal’s shared reading model, which combines reading literature aloud with targeted discussions. Verbal’s Psychology Team create curriculums which detail the themes that each lesson should target, teach about and discuss. The Literature Team then selects literature which aligns with these themes. The stories act as an “intermediary object” between the person and their problems, offering a less direct but appropriate way of discussing their emotions and experiences in a safe and inclusive environment. Storytelling programmes encourage a whole-school approach, equipping teachers, classroom assistants and support staff with sustainable resources that they can integrate into their daily school life. They are inexpensive and utilise technology already present in the classroom.
Programmes are evaluated using validated measures, and showed improvements in mental health and wellbeing, resilience, and ability to manage emotions. Children particularly improved in their ability to recognise and regulate their emotions, and to empathise with others. The transitions programme, which provides children transitioning to secondary school with resources for managing apprehension and anxiety while also encouraging help-seeking behaviour, was particularly beneficial for children from deprived areas. For example, increases in mental wellbeing were 66% higher for children in the most deprived area compared to the least deprived.
Children enjoyed taking part in programmes and would leave comments on end-of-programme feedback forms such as "The stories were really good and I think you should come back again" and “I wish you never left”. Children liked that “we could have a little laugh and could join in” and “felt listened to” during classroom discussions.
Verbal is currently embedding the programmes across Northern Ireland with endorsement from the Education Authority, and working to expand the programme to support children with an autism spectrum disorder.