Understanding ourselves

This unit is aimed at first-year students in the early months of their post-primary education. The activities aim to create a safe respectful classroom atmosphere where students can recognise their own strengths, achievements and intelligence as well as those of their peers.

Understanding Ourselves Unit of learning (PDF, 1.67 KB, 30 pages)

By participating in these activities, students will develop the skills of:

  •  self-awareness
  •  self-acceptance
  •  self-compassion

These skills form the basis of learning in social, personal, education and health education. Taking part in these activities helps students explore their feelings and experiences of acceptance and belonging.

Combined with activities at a whole-school level it will increase their sense of connection and belonging to each other and their school.

Learning Outcomes

Who am I:
1.1 Appreciate the importance of building their own self-esteem and that of others.
1.2 Welcome individual difference based on appreciating their own uniqueness.
1.5 Identify short, medium and long term personal goals and ways to achieve them.

Minding myself and others:
2.3 Describe what promotes a sense of belonging in school, at home and in the wider community. 
Consider their own role in creating an inclusive community.

Learning Activities

The activities presented here are a guideline only. Every classroom is different and teachers are best placed to decide on what will be most effective in their classroom.

Activity 1: Starting out

Students actively participate in developing ground rules for their SPHE class. 

Confidentiality and its limits are explained as well as relevant school policies and support structures within the school.

Students are introduced to mindfulness, using a short, mindful breathing exercise.

Read about Activity 1

Activity 2: Who am I

Students are introduced to the skill of reflecting on questions that will give them some clues about what they value in their lives.

The activity closes with a short guided visualisation on appreciating their uniqueness.

Read about Activity 2

Activity 3: My achievements so far  

Students reflect on their achievements so far in life, such as learning to walk, talk, and read.

They reflect on other achievements and on the character strengths they drew on while working towards their achievements.

Read more about Activity 3

Character strengths (PowerPoint, 474 KB, 1 page)

Activity 4: I am unique

Students create their own personal profile of intelligence and with reference to Professor Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligence.

They also learn about the intelligence profiles of other students in their class.

Read about Activity 4

Activity 5: Goal Setting

Students learn the skill of setting SMART goals (specific, meaningful, achievable, rewarding, time-bound). They are invited to set three goals for themselves

Working towards meaningful goals leads to increased happiness, satisfaction and wellbeing.

It provides a sense of personal control and self-direction while the goals are being worked on, and it creates a profound sense of wellbeing if they are achieved.

Read about Activity 5

Setting Smart Goals (PowerPoint, 325 KB, 1 page)

Activity 6 Belonging and connection 

Students reflect on the feeling of belonging, connection, and the factors that factors contribute to or nurture their sense of connection and belonging.

They also explore what they can do to contribute to others’ sense of belonging and connection.

A sense of acceptance of ourselves and others fuels connection, and therefore activity 6 closes with an exercise on self-acceptance.

Read about Activity 6

Whole School Activities

Encouraging the growth mindset

Research shows there is a relationship between achievement and mindset. Student’s beliefs about intelligence and learning impact on their:motivation, academic behaviour, responses to challenges or setbacks and academic achievement.

 A growth mindset is a belief that achievement is possible with practice and effort. For example, I can't do it yet. If I keep trying I could do it. As a whole-staff, discuss how growth mindset language can be used in all classes. 

Use this TED Talk to help start the discussion: The power of believing that you can improve (Carol Dweck).

Positive staff-student relationships

Improving the social environment of post-primary schools, to meet the adolescents need to feel that they are cared for, is linked to improved health, wellbeing and academic achievement. As a whole-staff, discuss what the school is currently doing well in relation to staff-student relationships and where improvements could be made.

The DES Wellbeing Promotion Process questionnaires will help the school community to reflect on relationships within the school and are a useful starting point for discussion.

Background Information 

These information sources and recommended reading/listening list can help teachers learn more about the activities in this unit. It may also help them develop further activities on a particular topic.

Adolescent Development

There is a growing body of literature on adolescent development and the importance of this phase of life for long term health and wellbeing.

Find out more on the WHO website.

Social and Emotional Learning

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which children and adults:

  •  understand and manage emotions
  •  set and achieve positive goals
  •  feel and show empathy for others
  •  establish and maintain positive relationships
  •  make responsible decisions

Blackmore, S.J., Inventing ourselves: The secret life of the teenage brain, UK Penguin, 2018.
Siegel D., Brainstorm: The power and purpose of the teenage brain, Tarcher Parigee, 2018.

TED Talk: The mysterious workings of the adolescent brain (Sarah Jane Blakemore)
TED talk: The power of passion and perseverance (Angela Lee Duckworth)

Character Strengths

Character strengths are the positive parts of your personality that impact how you think, feel and behave. 

Scientists have identified 24 character strengths that you have the capacity to express.

More information about character strengths.

Belonging and connection

Feelings of connection and belonging to a school has been shown to have a positive impact on health and educational outcomes.

Young people who feel connected to their school are less likely to report emotional distress, disruptive behaviour, violence and suicide attempts. They are also less likely to engage in a range of risky behaviours such as smoking, alcohol use, drug use and early sex.

There is strong evidence that improving the social environment of post-primary schools, to meet the adolescents need to feel that they are cared for, is linked to improved health, w</ellbeing and academic achievement.

See the Wellbeing Policy Statement and Framework for Practice.


  • Blum R.W.,(2005), A case for school connectedness, Educational Leadership, 62 (7),16-20.
  • Blum, R.W. Libbey, H.P. Bishop, J.H., & Bishop M., (2004), School connectedness - strengthening health and education outcomes for teenagers, Journal of School Health, 74 (7),231-235.
  • Goodenow, C. and Grady, KE. (1993), The relationship of school belonging and friends' values to academic motivation among urban adolescent students, The Journal of Experimental Education, v62 n1 pg 60-7.
  • Resnick M.D., Bearman, P.S., Blum, R.W., Bauman, K.E., Harris, K.M., Jones, J.Shew, M., (1997). Protecting adolescents from harm: Findings from the national longitudinal study on adolescent health., Jama, 278(10),823-832.
  • Symth, E. (2015), Learning in focus: Wellbeing and school experiences among 9-13-year-olds: Insights from the growing up in Ireland study, Dublin: Economic and Social Research Institute/National Council for Curriculum and Assessment.
  • Viner R.M., Ozer, E.M., Denny,S., Marmot, R. Resnik, M. Fatusi,. A., & Currie, C., (2012), Adolescence and the social determinants of health: The Lancet, 379(9826), 1641-1652.
  • Weare K., (2015), What works in promoting social and environmental well being and responding to mental health problems in schools, Advice for schools and framework document, Partnership for wellbeing and mental health in schools, London.

Recommended reading list

  • Dweck C.S., Mindset: the new psychology of success. New York, NY Random, (2006).
  • Gaffney M., Flourishing: how to achieve a deeper sense of wellbeing, meaning and purpose even in the face of adversity, Dublin, Penguin (2011).
  • Gardner H., Frames of mind: the theories of multiple intelligence, New York, Basic Books.
  • Gilbert P., The compassionate mind. Hachette UK (2009).
  • Kabel-Zinn J., Mindfulness for beginners, United States, Sounds true.
  • Seligman M., Flourish - a visionary new understanding of happiness and wellbeing, Australia, Penguin Random House (2012).