Sound Mind Sound Body: STC Goes Where Others Fear To Tread

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It was in 2014 that a private Christian boy’s school in Colombo took the plunge, and decided to introduce Sound Mind Sound Body to its students. It is a programme that teaches children, amongst other things, to be respectful of the other, staying safe from sexual predators, breaking down gender stereotyping, anti-bullying, the effects of drugs, protecting the environment, and sexual and reproductive rights.

While the education department is still grappling with how best to teach some of these topics to students, and duck allegations of corrupting young minds by those who insist such teachings go against cultural norms, S Thomas’ College, (STC) Mt.Lavinia has designed its curriculum, keeping all those considerations in mind.

With the recent backlash health and education professionals faced with the introduction of the Hathe Ape Potha, Counterpoint decided to check in with STC on how they overcame the challenges and how their programme ‘ Sound Mind Sound Body” has been fairing.

In a chat with Counterpoint, the programme’s Coordinator, Rev. Rohan Mendis and one of the teacher/counsellors Navneth Mendis, explained the pros and cons encountered in imparting this information to their students. Sound Mind Sound Body runs from kindergarten to grade 10, and is also taught in grades 12 and 13. It is not taught in grades where students face public examinations, keeping in mind their work-load. Though introduced initially to the lower grades, with time, the school had realised that it was a programme students of all classes should be exposed to.

The brainchild of Professor Indra de Soysa, who was the then Warden of STC, the decision to introduce the programme came following a case or two of bullying and ragging that had taken place in the school a few years ago. Those incidents had prompted the school to introduce a 24/7 hotline students could call for help. As well, the prevalence of sexual abuse, especially amongst boys around the country had been another reason STC believed it was time for a programme such as Sound Mind Sound Body.

Says Rev. Mendis, ‘a group of past students from the ’94 batch came forward to fund the programme, and we had external resource persons draw up the curriculum.’ The programme draft was reviewed and approved by a group appointed by the head of the Anglican Church in Sri Lanka, Rt. Revd. Dhiloraj Ranjit Canagasabey.

The subject matter has been drawn up in accordance with UNESCO guidelines, the teachings of the church and other living religions and in a culturally appropriate manner, explained Navneth Mendis.

Responding to a question on how sexual orientation is broached, he stated that it is discussed as and when it is brought up.’ We do not advocate it, to ensure we are working within the church’s teachings, but we certainly do not ignore it either. We discuss it in terms of being respectful of the other and not judging another’s choice.’

Our diagram shows the various topics that are taught through this programme. While Counterpoint has grouped it section- wise for ease, each of the topics is introduced in a grade and age appropriate manner by the school.

Says Navneth, topics such as sexually transmitted infections and AIDS are taught in Grade 12, while the subject of pornography and its effect is introduced at Grade 9. “We believe that prevention is the better way to go, and that can be achieved, if imparted to students at an earlier age. A study has shown that children as young as 9, have already formed their opinions on sex, and by 13, nearly 90% of children have been exposed to some form of information on these matters. Unless, they are taught how to protect themselves from sexual abuse and to empathise with others of different cultures, religions or sexual orientation, they will accept any violations as a given. “ A child who witnesses domestic violence and gender stereotyping at home will never know that it is not the norm, unless they are taught early in life that it is not so,’ Navneth added. Students are also taught to stay safe when online, one of the newest threats that children encounter in today’s ‘on-line world.’

While activity sheets were used to discuss the various topics until recently, the school now uses text books for each of the grades. However, information is not imparted through text books alone; a variety of methods such as songs, activities, videos as well as motivational talks via YouTube are used. In the case of the latter, the talks are carefully filtered to ensure only age appropriate and information that falls within the school’s accepted curriculum is made available to students.

The school has six staff members, three full time and others part time, teaching this subject. Especially hired for the programme, all of them have a background in psychology while some are counsellors as well. Having separate staff to teach the programme means that is does not interfere with the work of the regular teachers.

It has, however not been an easy ride. Nor is it now. The school encountered and continues to encounter resistance to the programme, from parents, teachers and even students, especially in the higher grades. But, it has been a winnable situation because right from the start, the Wardens of the school, past and present as well as the church hierarchy have been fully behind it.

“We have the full commitment of the current Warden, the Rev. Marc Billimoria’ says Navneth, adding that, ‘unless there is commitment at the top, a programme such as this would not be successful.’ It is important that there is buy-in by both parents and staff. “There have been instances of parents not only objecting to it to the school authorities, but even complaining to the Bishop,’ said Rev. Mendis. Then, there are staff members too who may not be comfortable with the topic, though the bigger issue is because “Sound Mind Sound Body” is not exam oriented but focuses more on providing students with necessary life skills to face the rougher side of life, some staff and older students adopt a lackadaisical attitude towards it. ‘A teacher might ask to use the period set aside for this subject to catch up with the science syllabus, for example, because they may think this is not important’, says Rev. Mendis.

What about getting around cultural or religious taboos? “We address that too. Depending on their religious or cultural values, there are questions from the students,’ says Navneth. This is mainly from students of the higher classes, who feel uncomfortable that their sisters or mothers may see the text books. But, at the same time, he says, many look forward to the discussions, often raising questions on various issues. “We would, at times, ask the students, which topic they would like to discuss’ he says and go with the flow. Up to grade 7 or so, they are fully engaged and content with the activity based programme. When handled as a transformative learning experience, students of the higher classes are more receptive’ he added.

Teaching the topic has its challenges they explained, as the discussions could be about multiple sexual partners, choosing between being sexually active or abstaining, transgender or other behaviours, drug abuse etc. Therefore, the curriculum is constantly reviewed, for clarity of purpose and to ensure the course is shaped to reflect world trends, student feedback and that cultural and religious values are not ignored. ‘When the Easter attack took place, we used the opportunity to discuss cultural inclusiveness and stereotyping of individuals and communities’, explained Navneth.

STC also believes that simply imparting this information to its students is not sufficient. It must also walk the talk. Therefore, it is mandatory that all teachers, staff and coaches sign the school’s Child Protection Policy. There is also a zero tolerance policy on ragging and bullying. Complaints of any such misconduct are entertained, but they cannot be anonymous and must contain at least the basic details. That is to ensure that complaints could be followed up promptly and effectively.

Other schools have inquired after the programme, and a few have introduced it in part, in some classes, Counterpoint learns. However, S. Thomas’ College is the only school that has taken the bull by the horns, even as most other schools, and indeed the education department dithers over addressing the crucial issue of preventing all forms of child abuse, and inculcating in their students, the principles and values that go to make a “Sound Mind Sound Body.”