30 November, 2015 - Minister for Education and Skills launches NEPS research into the efficacy of the Friends for Life programme when delivered in an Irish primary school context

An internationally acclaimed programme for building resilience and reducing anxiety in children and young people has been found to be effective when delivered by teachers in Irish Primary Schools according to the findings of research launched today by the Minister for Education and Skills, Ms Jan O’Sullivan, T.D.

In 2012-2013 psychologists from the National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS) trained and supported primary school teachers from 27 schools across Ireland to deliver a 10-week programme called Friends for Life. This programme teaches children that, although some worry is normal, it is important to notice and challenge worrying thoughts if they are not helpful or realistic.  In turn, this helps children have more confidence to have a go at things that they may feel worried about, one step at a time. All of the skills taught are appropriate to the SPHE curriculum, which is a compulsory part of the curriculum in Irish primary schools. Educational psychologists report that Friends for Life teaches these skills using a structured framework developed from Cognitive Behavioural Psychology which is known to be effective in the treatment of anxiety.

The research found positive outcomes for children in terms of improved wellbeing and resilience. After completing the programmes the children felt significantly better about themselves, had much greater confidence in their ability to use coping and problem solving skills to deal with challenges and had a greatly increased sense of connectedness with their teachers and peers in school. 

The research also found positive outcomes for children in terms of reduced levels of anxiety in particular about social situations, separating from parents/carers and coping with the typical childhood fears. Vulnerable children showed significantly lower levels of anxiety after completing the programme compared to before the programme.

Developing resilience is an important part of the preventative work that NEPS psychologists do.  This research demonstrated that when NEPS psychologists work with teachers to deliver an evidence based programme, it can be an effective way of promoting positive mental health and developing resilience in children and young people.

The Minister highly commended the work of the Friends for Life research team in NEPS and paid special tribute to the 60 teachers, 709 pupils and their parents who supported the study and without whom this project could not have been completed.

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Note for Editors

Friends for Life programme and its Evaluation by NEPS  

  • What:The Friends for Life programme is a 10 session cognitive-behavioural based programme designed to reduce childhood anxiety and promote emotional resilience. It can be effectively delivered as an educational programme by teachers who are trained and supported by a psychologist.  It targets pupils of senior primary school age.

Friends for Lifehas been comprehensively evaluated over the past 19 years and is the only anxiety prevention/treatment programme endorsed by the World Health Organisation.

In Ireland the effectiveness of delivering Friends Programmes has been demonstrated in post-primary settings by an earlier study (NBSS/ NEPS/ SPHE Support Service 2012). 

This study examines the effectiveness of delivering the Friends for Life programme to pupils in senior classes in Irish Primary Schools (2014).

  • Why? Teachers are in a unique position to intervene early with preventive social and emotional learning programmes. This study was designed to replicate very positive international evaluations of the Friends for Life programme, facilitated by teachers, with children in Ireland aged 9-13 years.
  • Who? 27 primary schools from across Ireland took part in the study. The sample included DEIS, non-DEIS, urban, rural, mixed and single sex schools.  57 teachers and 709 children aged 9-13 years took part in the study.
  • Design & Methodology: The study examined universal classroom delivery of the programme. Schools were allocated to an intervention group or a wait-listed control group. Teachers were trained and supported to deliver the programme by Psychologists from the National Educational Psychological Service. The intervention teachers were trained in December 2013 and delivered the programme to the intervention group between January and April 2014. The Control teachers were trained in March 2014 and delivered the programme from April to June 2014. Qualitative and quantitative data was obtained from all participants their teachers and parents in January, March and June 2014. The study examined the effects of the programme on Anxiety, Self-concept, Coping Efficacy and School Connectedness (the latter three were used as markers of increased resilience).

Outcomes: 

  • Anxiety:Statistically significant reduction in children’s anxiety as rated by parents and in specific types of anxiety as rated by children. (17% of the sample had clinically elevated levels of anxiety before the programme which reduced to 6% of the sample following the study- this brings the figure after the programme to well below those prevalence rates found by RCSI and internationally)
  • Self-Concept: Statistically significant increase in self-concept following the programme, this is an important finding in the light of the GUI study which showed that self-concept tends to decrease in this age cohort. Self-concept also contributes to residence and ability to bounce back from adversity)
  • Coping Efficacy: Statistically significant increase in coping efficacy. (this indicates that following the programme the children are more confident in their ability to tackle adversity and challenges using problem solving skills. Self-efficacy generally predicts persistence in problem solving)
  • School Connectedness: Statistically significant increase in school connectedness. (School connectedness is an important factor in engagement in learning, social and emotional well-being and has been linked to better academic outcomes and reduction in the incidence of bullying)
  • Qualitative data indicated that the Friends for Life programme was very positively evaluated by children, parents and teachers. The programme was implemented successfully by teachers and resulted in positive outcomes for students including improved emotional wellbeing, greater coping skills and an enhanced sense of connectedness with school.

Conclusion:  The Friends for Life programme can be effectively delivered in an Irish Primary School context and lead to increased resilience and reduced anxiety amongst our primary school children.