Say YES to programme for schools to help pupils manage their emotions

Earlier this year, Cape Town was identified as the 13th most violent city in the world in the latest Mexican Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice report. Amid the mountainous and oceanic scenery, communities in the mother city, such as Bonteheuwel and Khayelitsha, are plagued by violence, gangsterism and drug abuse. This year, a programme was started to assist youth in these poor and troubled communities to develop life skills such as remaining calm in conflict situations; to enhance human values such as respect; and to assist the young people to improve their focus and concentration in the classroom.

The YES! For Schools programme (Y4S) is an international mindfulness-based intervention that was piloted in several South African schools this year, offering pupils healthy tools to manage their emotions and stress.

While mindfulness research and practice are new to South Africa, research elsewhere has shown that mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) are an effective tool for young people to cope with modern-day stress.

Globally, MBIs have been shown to improve psychological well-being, personal growth, emotional awareness, focus and better management of negative emotions.

The implementation of MBIs, such as the Y4S programme, in South African schools may assist youth in dealing more effectively with challenges posed by multiple hardships associated with poverty and a violent society.

A recent South African study – the first local study of MBIs for either adults or children – has explored the impact of the YES! For Schools’ teachings, with promising results overall.

The programme has been facilitated by the Art of Living Foundation, an international humanitarian NPO for thousands of pupils across the US since 2004.

YES! For Schools involves the teaching of breathing techniques and interactive awareness processes. The daily sessions are incorporated into the school routine to help pupils form healthy, new habits.

Ideally, on completion of the programme, the breathing techniques will be a daily practice that is integrated into their school routine.

In Cape Town, Y4S has been piloted in two schools in Bonteheuwel and Khayelitsha, and the recent study of the programme’s impact involved the 12-13-year-old pupils in the participating schools.

The three main themes that emerged in the discussions with the pupils were that, as a result of Y4S, they experienced a better quality of relationships, they implemented the breathing techniques into a daily practice, and their self-development benefited.

Lance, a Grade 7 pupil at Klipfontein Primary School, explained: “Before the Y4S programme, I used to like making fun of other people, laughing at them and bullying them, but after the Y4S programme, I was ‘button proof’ and didn’t want to bully anymore. I respected my friends and they respected me.”

Lance, like a number of other pupils, indicated that they bullied and fought with their peers and siblings before Y4S, but stopped this behaviour after completing the programme.

In addition, through the programme’s teachings about human values, the pupils have internalised a desire to treat others with respect, kindness and consideration.

In the words of Jeffery: “Y4S’s breathing techniques also changed the quality of my relationships with my teachers and my peers in class. I respect everyone Y4S has improved my life – in the way I see my mother, family, my parents and I respect them”

The programme has also made the pupils aware of the difference between friends who are a bad or good influence, which is important in establishing healthy friendships.

Hence, participating in Y4S was found to be instrumental in bettering the quality of relationships the pupils have with their peers, family members and teachers.

The most valued and implemented component of the Y4S was the use of the daily breathing techniques. Pupils identified two main areas of improvement in their daily functioning due to the breathing techniques: enhanced focus, both in the classroom and at home when doing their homework, and improvements in regulating their emotions.

The perceived increase in levels of focus was the most-noticeable impact of the breathing techniques on pupils, and they spoke of being more productive, improving their grades and passing previously failed subjects. Pupils reported that the breathing techniques had been pivotal in calming them down when angry. In line with improvements in emotional regulation, they reported an increase in more positive emotions and a decrease in negative emotions by practising the breathing exercises. The positive emotions included feeling happy, loved, stronger and relaxed.

John explained that the breathing techniques helped him “remain calm and respect my parents, elders it helped be more calm here at school and at home”.

He says now, when his soccer mates swear and fight, he will step away from the confrontation “and do my breathing”.

Article written by Sandrika Chetty – an honours psychology graduate from UCT. Her study of the YES! For Schools programme was the first of its kind in South Africa, and was undertaken for her thesis.

In this piece, pseudonyms were used for the pupils who were quoted. For information on the programme, see




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