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East Asia Child Science Exchange Program: Practice and Research on Mental Health Education for Young Children in China: Introduction of Zippy's Friends in Shanghai


Introduction and development of Zippy's Friends

Shanghai was the first city in mainland China to introduce a mental health education program for children called "Zippy's Friends." This program was developed and organized by Partnership for Children, an international independent charity. Financial support was provided by HSBC bank, and the Institute of Early Childhood Education at East China Normal University and the Hong Kong Institute of Education undertook this innovative program. During the past three years, Zippy's Friends has been operating in 150 kindergartens in four areas across Shanghai city, with nearly 300 teachers receiving training and more than 12,000 children participating in the program. We estimate that the number of kindergartens that run the program will reach over 400 in the coming two years: by then, 800 teachers will have received training and about 40,000 children will have enrolled in the program.

About Zippy's Friends

Zippy's Friends is a program designed to help children learn how to cope with their emotions and improve their communication skills. Classes are currently running in 16 countries including Brazil, Canada, Denmark, England, China, Iceland, India, Lithuania, USA, Norway, and Poland, all showing successful results.

The program is based on the principle that learning coping skills for dealing with difficulties can help children better manage problems and tough challenges they may face in their life when they become mature. Sound mental health and the development of communication skills will determine a child's future: therefore, it is very important to help and support them in acquiring better coping skills in different situations, which is a key component in promoting good mental health of children.

Richard Lazarus, one of the most influential psychologists and best known for his theory of emotion centered on the concept of "Cognitive Appraisal," argues that coping refers to "changing cognitive and behavioral efforts in order to manage specific demands that are appraised as exceeding the resources (strategies and abilities to solve problems) of the person."

The Zippy's Friends program is designed for children between the ages of five and seven. Under the theme of coping, the program focuses on how to change or improve their behavior when they face difficulties. For example, children are encouraged to seek help or advice from friends, to shift emotional gears, to improve interpersonal relations with others, etc., and as a consequence, they will learn in a positive manner how to resolve the conflict or problem they encounter.

Figure 1.

Zippy's Friends: emotional education for children
Objectives: To encourage children...

  • To learn skills to deal with problems encountered in the course of daily life
  • To develop their abilities to solve problems in different situations
  • To improve their abilities to recognize and communicate their feelings
  • To learn how to put positive thinking into action
  • To learn how to think on their own
  • To learn how to cooperate and work with classmates

Characteristics of Zippy's Friends

Then, what is the difference between Zippy's Friends and other similar educational programs? Listed below are three characteristics that are unique to Zippy's Friends.

  1. It has been designed to help all children, not just those who have particular problems or difficulties. It promotes their abilities to deal with emotion and feelings as well as social communication skills.
  2. It does not teach children that "this is right" and "that is wrong." Teachers do not suggest children specific solutions. Instead, teachers encourage children to generate their own solutions and strategies, and discuss whether such solutions are appropriate.
  3. It does not encourage competitiveness. Instead, children are encouraged to work together, helping each other. They are not graded on class performance. No child comes out at the top or bottom of the class.

Zippy's Friends adopts the curriculum of educational institutions. It usually runs for 24 weeks, with one session each week. One series is composed of six stories. Zippy is a stick insect and his friends are a group of young children. The stories are designed to explore topics familiar to children; friendship, communication, feeling lonely, bullying, dealing with change and loss, and making a new start. Each story is illustrated with colorful pictures.

The 24 sessions are divided into six modules, with an independent theme for each module. For example, the theme of Module One is "Feelings" with four sessions of feeling sad and happy, feeling angry or annoyed, feeling jealous, and feeling nervous. The themes of modules two through six are "Communication," "Making and breaking relationships," "Conflict resolution," "Dealing with change and loss," and "Coping with a new environment," respectively (see Figure 2).

Materials are prepared for each module, including stories, module goals, procedures, etc., accompanied by photographs and teacher's guidebooks. In each session, children first listen to the teacher read the story aloud, and then take part in activities such as drawing, discussion and playing games. The aim of these activities is to help the children to recognize and understand their feelings and behavior (see Figure 3).

Figure 2.

Three main sections of curriculum
First section: (modules 1&2)
Understand feelings

Second section: (modules 3&4)
Build friendships

Third section: (modules 5&6)
Adapt to changes

Figure 3.

Objectives of curriculum

  • Support children to learn how to deal with problems and situations encountered in their daily life.
  • Help children understand their own feelings as well as others', learn how to express feelings and control emotions.
  • Help children develop abilities to build good relationship with others, to help others, and to seek for help from others.

Zippy's Friends in Practice

The role of teachers is critically important in implementing the Zippy's Friends program. Teachers first attend a training course to gain understanding of the philosophy and theoretical basis of Zippy's Friends, its concept of coping, its structure, and to learn the rationale behind its activities. Teachers become sufficiently familiar with each of the six modules, and then conduct various activities in the program. They cooperate closely with parents, working together to solve problems children face every day in school and life.

Zippy's Friends is a program which takes place at educational institutions, but parents also need to stay closely involved. Parents can be good partners with schools helping their educational activities. It is important that education is carried out based on a shared responsibility between parents and schools. Rather than focusing only on their child's academic progress, parents should also pay more attention to the child's mental health. To make the program more effective, parents need to work together with teachers, assisting them in implementing the program, and join in games and activities with their child (see Figures 4 & 5).

Figure 4.
Figure 4.

Figure 5.
Figure 5.

Research Study on the effectiveness of Zippy's Friends

During the course of the Zippy's Friends program, we conducted a research study on its effectiveness in terms of quantitative and qualitative aspects.

(1) Quantitative research

From the perspective of education in emotional cognition or emotional expression, we examined the assessment data before and after the implementation of the program. For children, sadness and anger are quite easy to recognize. Jealousy and feelings of guilt are the most difficult emotions, while anxiety and nervousness can be placed in the middle range, somewhere between the easy and the difficult feelings.

When looking into the cognitive status of young children and their emotions in relation to each item, their ability and intention to express feelings were apparently low before the program, but after the program, they had strengthened these skills, both in their ability and intention to communicate their feelings towards others. Nonetheless, the way of expressing emotions was not developed to exactly the same level of emotional cognition. This result suggests that in the process of mental health education, it is not enough to only focus on emotional cognitive development of children: we should consider how to teach children skills to express their feelings as well. That is to say, it is essential to encourage children to purge negative emotions by appropriately expressing and communicating their feelings.

The research data shows the fact that there were many children who answered "I have no idea how to cope with my bad temper," but after they participated in the program, more children answered "I got some ideas" or "I thoroughly understood." This also indicates that a child can learn techniques to independently return to a better mood. Therefore, through mental health education, it is possible to help children develop skills to control their bad temper in situations occurring in daily life.

The research data, processed before and after the program, also suggested that there were clear differences and improvements in terms of the development of children's social communication skills as well as other coping strategies.

(2) Qualitative research

During the program, we collected episodes of the actual experiences of children, kindergarten teachers, and parents who had experienced the program. Their episodes prove that the Zippy's Friends program has provided them with specific solutions on how to improve and maintain the sound mental health of children. In addition, these episodes also imply that children face a myriad of challenging problems and conflicts in their daily life, and that a program of mental health education is crucial in assisting these children in acquiring skills to cope with such difficulties. Through these episodes, we have realized how important it is to keep interaction channels open among teachers, parents, and between teachers and parents through the medium of the Zippy's Friends website. Good communication plays a key role in ensuring that the program is effective in practice.

Importance of Mental Health Education

Nowadays, many teachers and parents recognize the importance of children's mental health, but they continue to focus their attention only on preventing mental dysfunction/problems. In fact, given the low ratio of children with obvious mental or behavioral problems in infancy, it is likely that mental health education for young children is considered not as important as other areas of education, even though its significance is well understood. However, the outcome of our qualitative research shows that the effect of the Zippy's Friends program could produce great benefits not only in the field of children's mental health, but also in a variety of practical activities in kindergartens, assisting teachers' educational initiatives and approaches, and thereby promoting their efficiency. This ripple effect will not be as obvious in other educational fields. In this context, it could be said that mental health education should not be considered a complementary part of early childhood education, but rather a key component. Emotional education is no longer an ancillary function of the school curriculum, nor an extra burden on teachers who combine this practice with the other elements of the school curriculum. If emotional education is reasonably designed and effectively implemented, it may play a core role in the entire education program, creating a ripple effect into other educational fields so as to assist their process and development*1.

The role of emotions in mental health is critical, thus the effect of emotional education on the entire curriculum would mean a positive effect of mental health education on the entire educational program. That is to say, mental health education for young children is a key part of child education, and its importance in contributing to the development of children is equal to that of education programsin other different fields.

*1 Hyson, M. (2004). The emotional development of young children: building an emotion-centered curriculum (2nd ed.). New York: Teachers College. P.22

Evaluation of Zippy's Friends

Studying the effects of the Zippy's Friends program has provided some other results. One of these is that teachers and parents, before implementing the program, had some misgivings about the need for such a program. Nevertheless, after seeing its effect on children in bringing about improvements to their mental/emotional health, they came to realize how important mental health education is for the sound development of children.

Researchers and policy makers for child education often insist on the importance of protecting and nurturing children's mental health, but do not provide the practical guidelines to help teachers on how to make a start and what to do in practicing child mental health education, hence they remain unable to experience the effectiveness of such education or have a sense of accomplishment.

The same can be said for parents. Generally, they have no opportunity to witness the effect of child mental health education or to understand its necessity; hence they are unable to understand deeply how important mental health is for their child or have any interest in or pay attention to such a topic. These facts substantially contribute to the current low status of child mental health education in Japan, leaving it virtually disregarded.

However, the Zippy's Friends program has reaffirmed recognition by teachers and parents of the importance of child mental health education. By introducing the concept of Zippy's Friends directly into the activities of kindergartens, they became interested in mental health education and aware of its need. The following comment from a kindergarten teacher who experienced the program underscores what we have achieved: "I have never discussed so much mental issues with my colleagues before I joined the program. Now we are well aware of what they are. Zippy's Friends proved fruitful, and it gave me a sense of accomplishment. I love this program, and I feel more motivated to work on mental health education. I knew that this was important for children, but had no idea how to start it, so I finally gave up, until the program Zippy's Friends was introduced to me."

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