All posts by soniamain

Early years and participation trainer/ consultant/nurture consultant. Writer about wellbeing in children and adults.

Coping in January

I find January quite hard, it often feels like a long and grey month. Currently, I am feeling a greater sense of heaviness for the next few weeks. It is not helped by the uncertainty about schools returning, I currently have 3 plans in place for my work this term and I have no idea which one I will be going with tomorrow, of course, this is the same for teachers and parents across most of the country. Uncertainty and last-minute changes can lead many people to feel on edge, being more snappy, finding it difficult to be motivated.

With all of these thoughts I have been thinking about what will help me in January, it needs to be small actions, I have learned over the years that January is a time when I need to be more gentle with myself and now even more so. I have written myself a list to remind me of things I can do that will help me feel ok. They are small reminders of actions that help to make me smile, help me to relax, and help to nurture myself. We will all have different things that help us, writing a list may sound daft, but I know that sometimes when it becomes grey and dreary I can start to catastrophise and forget what helps me, a list helps to remind me. I probably won’t do everything on the list, but it reminds me of things I enjoy, things that bring me moments of joy

This is my list:

Have flowers in the house each week

Daily walks ( find new places to walk)

Wild swim when I can

Sunrise walks if I can’t swim in the pool

Meet friends for take away coffee and walk

Read

Plan the garden for the spring

Look for the Tawny Owls

Watch a new film each week

Watch a new box set

Listen to podcasts

Bake a cake

Make soap

Make marmalade

Exhaustion in education settings

It is finally the end of term 2. I thought term 5 & 6 last academic year was the hardest I have seen, but no this term I think has been the most challenging. I am tired, but I know this is nothing compared to the utter exhaustion the teachers, ta’s and senior leaders in schools are feeling. It has been such a strange term and it has impacted me in ways I did not expect. As well as being a nurture consultant with young children, I am also a writer and a trainer, but this term I have not felt able to write. That might be partly because at the end of the last term I finished one of my biggest writing projects, a new book for Routledge, but I think it was also due to trying to manage the constant change, I did not have the capacity to think about writing or training.

This week I have been writing reports for the children I support, it has given me some headspace to think and reflect. As I write that, I know that is a total luxury, and if I am honest I am feeling a bit guilty about that. One of my reflections has been how this term has felt like I have been standing on shifting sands. Every time I planned something, things changed, the rules changed, the children were there, then they were not there, it reached the point where daily I dreaded seeing an email or having a phone call telling me about another change. I have realised during this strange year that I really don’t like change! I like routine, I like to know what my plans are and I like to have notice about any changes. That is very similar to the children I support, they don’t like change and they like to be prepared for changes. If nothing else I think this term has given me a deeper understanding and appreciation of how the children I work with often feel.

As I said at the beginning of this piece of writing, I am tired, but I know this is nothing compared to what I am seeing in education staff. In previous blogs, I have written that I was concerned for education staff, but ending this year, I have never seen so much exhaustion and brokenness on such a large scale. I can’t express how worried I am for the staff who work in our education settings. They are doing the most incredible job. During terms 5 and 6, it is thanks to many education settings that families had food to eat, there were so many food deliveries to families organised by them as well as all the education they organised. In terms 1 and 2 this academic year, many staff have been worried about their health, and yet they have been working incredibly hard to provide an education for the children. Despite all of this the government and the tabloid press seem to think it is ok to criticise, to accuse teachers of slacking. I have often felt that the government and the press have no idea about what it is like to work in a school, and these last few months have proved that.

My hope is that the education staff can stop and rest over these next few weeks, but I know that won’t actually happen. Education settings are still responsible for the track and trace until Christmas eve, they will still be planning and preparing for next year and our colleagues in the senior schools will now be changing their plans for the beginning of the new term, as well as figuring out how to roll out testing on a massive scale.

Now is a time when those education staffs need to be held up, supported, encouraged, and helped.

The long term

In Bath, we are entering week 8 of this first term back. If I am honest I didn’t think we would get to this week, I genuinely thought the schools would have been locked down or there would have been a 2 week half term as a circuit breaker, I know I’m not the only person in education who was hoping for the 2 week half term!.

My role is in reception classes, and all the reception classes I am in feel pretty normal, and this is down to some very dedicated staff making it feel ok for children. I know senior leaders, teachers, and teaching assistants are working so hard to make this ok. The transition into school is always hard, and we are seeing children who are finding the transition trickier after having 6 months at home. But at this point in the school year, I am not so worried by the children, but I am concerned about how much the staff are carrying and how tired many of them are.

As an outside person going into schools, I can see the job in a school is harder. There is more planning, more cleaning, lots of logistical thinking around keeping the children in their bubbles, barely any time to take a lunch break as the staff are often monitoring the lunchtime for their class, virtual school meeting’s, virtual parents evening alongside the hope that they and the children in their class won’t get Covid. This is a lot of additional thinking and worry.

If I am honest I am quite concerned about term 2, the term which is always nuts!, planning for Christmas often starts straight into the new term. To survive the term 2 education staff need to be well organised. Alongside the additional things they try to fit in with all the teaching they need to do and targets they need to reach; they also have the children’s rising excitement and for others the distress because it is all changing and they don’t like change. This alongside minimal lunch breaks, extra cleaning, extra planning re Covid, trying to keep everyone safe, that is a huge burden.

What is the answer? I don’t have one, but I do know that anyone who is living with or is friends with a teacher or teaching assistant, be kind to them this half term, be extra kind. They may need lots of rest and relaxation, but I know many will be using the half term to prepare for term 2, but they also need a break from work and schools and thinking and planning.

how to thrive through the autumn months

Schools have been back in England for 4 weeks, there are another 4 weeks until half term. Personally, I have loved being back in schools, working directly with children and staff, I have been reminded how much I love my job as a nurture consultant. If you were to quickly look into a reception classroom it would feel and look pretty normal to any other year, apart from hand sanitiser and lots of handwashing symbols on the visual timetables. However, behind that is a staff team who are working extremely hard to make this a success. As the weeks have gone by I have noticed how much the staff are holding, the extra worry, the extra organising, and planning. This is heavy and understandable that staff are feeling tired, and yet there are still 4 weeks to go.

This week I have begun to wonder with staff what will help them to nurture themselves. As a nurture consultant, my job isn’t just about nurturing the children, it’s as much about helping staff to feel nurtured too. But I am aware that I cant just talk about it and advise, I need to live that too.

At the end of this week, a question I have been thinking about for myself is how can I thrive through these Autumn months, I love autumn, the colours the change in temperature, having a fire in our stove, all of those things bring me joy. However, I am aware that this autumn feels heavy, in our family life there is a lot of heaviness and then add COVID, the hurt we hear about through black lives matter, climate crisis, Brexit, this all feels huge and can be overwhelming. My gut feeling is I need to put in place things that will help me to thrive, I need to plan for this. I started this weekend, yesterday I went on a mini day trip to the coast with my husband, we swam in the sea, I floated on my back in the sunshine. The rays of the sun warming me while the water held me, that felt so nourishing and I was able to switch off, just enjoy the sun and the moment. I have a list of ideas that will help me to thrive, these are a mix of sunrise walks, being in the woods, collecting sweet chestnuts, places to swim, chutneys and jams to make, and books to read. These are all simple things, but I know I need to be intentionally proactive in embedding them.

Hope for the new term

With the start of the new term, I am feeling fizzy inside!, it’s not a dread, thankfully I love my job, however, it’s the fizz of expectation with the slight nervousness and unknown of what lies ahead. I am aware that over the last week this feeling has been growing. I usually experience this a little on the return to school. But this year it is a stronger feeling than normal, as we are not in normal times. I haven’t met the new children I will support, I am not totally sure what the new school set up’s will be like, and I am slightly anxious about how children who have been out of a setting for 6 months will feel about starting school.

I am hugely aware that I feel unsure, and this includes slight nagging doubts and questions about will I remember what to do, what happens if a child becomes dis-regulated on my first day in a school, will I remember how to respond. The logical part of my brain kicks in and tells myself this is my work world, I know how to respond, as my 21 yr old daughter this morning reminded me I will automatically say ‘ Wow I can see you are so cross and angry, your face is red and I can see you want to hit, but we don’t hit people’ and then apparently I will play with mud or playdough! ( according to her this sums up my job well!). And I expect she is right.

But if I am feeling fizzy and slightly nervous, then I am pretty certain teachers, headteachers, parents, nursery workers, children and young people across the country are also feeling that slight anxiety, worry, fizziness. We are in different times, this is not just a normal new return, which can be hard for many in ordinary times. This is different, as well as the usual concerns there are of course many anxieties around COVID, safety, and protection, for some they have been away from school or nursery for 6 months, that all complicates our feelings and anxieties.

Knowing that I am feeling like this, I am trying to pay attention to my breathing, spend more time outside noticing and enjoying nature, barefoot walking, and wild swimming, all ways to be extra nurturing to myself.

My hope for the new term is that wellbeing will be high on the agenda, that headteachers and managers will be supporting their own wellbeing and from there they are then able to support their staff wellbeing who are then able to support the children’s wellbeing. Wellbeing needs to underpin this return, it can’t be an add on, it needs to be an embedded approach. But also parents and partners of staff who work in education need to focus on their loved ones’ wellbeing in these next days and weeks. Provide food, hugs (where allowed), chocolate!, a listening ear. This needs to be a joint effort, a joint support package.

Focus on children’s wellbeing

The last two weeks I have had the joy of working on a playscheme, the team I worked with included artists, sports coaches, forest school leader, playworkers, and nurture workers. We represented 6 organisations and we worked with 2 bubbles of children, with 42 children altogether, from 28 families and 9 schools, funded by St Johns foundation. The children were aged 4-11. Our ethos was based on high-quality early years practice, following children’s interests underpinned by a nurture approach. The whole play scheme was delivered outside on a school site, in their forest school area.

Before it began I was slightly nervous about how it would be, sometimes playschemes can be manic, especially if there is a team of adults who think the way forward to is to hype children. This play scheme was intentionally well planned with calm adults and a nurturing basis. The team leader and I have a long background in the early years and we wanted a playscheme that would nurture children and offer them open-ended opportunities in the way many early years settings offer. The aim was also to offer sports, art, play in an outdoor provision to support the children’s mental health and wellbeing. We knew that this could work across the ages of 4-11 and it did.

For many of these children lockdown has been a tricky experience, quite a few of the children had not been socialising with people outside their family, some of the children lived in flats with a limited outdoor provision, for many of the children lockdown had been a stressful experience and has negatively impacted their social, emotional and mental health. The children were identified and nominated by their schools. My role was to support the emotional wellbeing of the staff and children, we intentionally had a high ratio of adult to child, enabling us to offer the safety and emotional regulation that the children needed.

Part of the reason the playscheme worked so well, better than any of us imagined or hoped for, was the multidisciplinary team. Children were able to choose the things they wanted to do and the staff was able to facilitate and support this, one little boy discovered he is really good at hockey, he told us he hates sports but he tried hockey and loved it, another child discovered she loves making things with clay, other children experienced a campfire for the first time, the children together with the play workers made a wooden treehouse and took pride in what they had made. One boy on the last day wanted to chop down a tree, this was made possible with the support of staff, as there was a tree on the site that needed removing. Throughout the playscheme the children found space to be with others, to chat about how they were feeling, to express themselves through art and sport and play.

For years I have been been a huge advocate of following children’s interests and enabling children to discover new things and opportunities by offering open-ended provocations. This play scheme reminded me again of how powerful it can be when children have adults around them who can follow the child’s interests, who can come alongside them with interest and curiosity and co adventure with them. We hoped at the beginning that the playscheme would offer respite to the children from the ongoing challenges of COVID, we hoped that it would give them the freedom to play and socialise. It certainly did this, but for many of the children, it also gave them new opportunities, helped them to see themselves in new ways and discover new things about what they can do and enjoy. As we all reflected at the end, this playscheme also hugely benefitted the staff, there was a lot of laughter and delight at being with the children, it gave us a renewed sense of purpose and reconnected us to work we all love and are passionate about.

My final reflection on the time was how crucial these 2 weeks were for the children’s wellbeing, on the return to school my concern is that many schools will go back to how it was before lockdown. During lockdown many children have not had the chance to be with friends, socialise, play, be active and be creative. This needs to be addressed, I would love to see every school putting on a playscheme for all their children on the return, how radical and positive that would be. I know I am dreaming big here, and I know many will tell me it is out of the question. But, there does need to be an emphasis on children’s wellbeing when they return, and using the arts, play, sport and emotional support is an excellent way to assist that.

The organisations involved were:

Brighter Futures

Bath area ply project

Forest of imagination

Twerton infant school

Get sported

St Johns foundation

End of term

I have had the chance to stop for two weeks, my term ended a couple of weeks ago. The last few weeks of the term felt manic, with a mix of very different endings both in my family and with work and preparing new starts for next term. There were times in term 6 that I strongly felt the sense of reduction and depletion that COVID has brought too many. For most of the lockdown, I and our team found creative ways through, to continue to support children and staff, if I’m honest other than missing my daily swims, COVID lockdown was not that hard for me. But as the term ended I became quite overwhelmed by the difference, I wasn’t able to do endings I would normally do, with the schools, with the children or with our team. I think the final zoom meetings with children and the team meeting felt particularly sad and wrong. I know that endings are important and it felt so frustrating to not be able to do them in the way I normally would.

It’s also made me reflect on how much I take for granted simple parts of my job such as seeing children. In term 6 I would normally visit the new children I will be supporting in September, I would visit them in the nursery at least once, sometimes twice. I would meet them, observe them, introduce myself, and maybe discover one thing about them. This year that has not been possible, instead I have read notes, so many notes, I have spoken to nursery workers, health visitors, children center staff, social workers, parents. But, I have realised none of those conversations make up for seeing the child. I have always been an advocate of observations. The first early year’s qualification I took when I was 16-18 was the NNEB. In this course, we were taught how to do observations. This was an essential element of the training. I was taught that you never make a view about a child until you have watched, observed, noticed. Thirty years on and I particularly realised this year how much that early teaching has influenced my practice and how underprepared I feel for the new term without the observations.

The last couple of weeks have also made me realise I haven’t been with a child, in person, for 19 weeks. I have been working with children since I was sixteen, 19 weeks is the longest time I have had a break from directly being with children. But this is about to change, the organisation I work with are co-running a playscheme for 2 weeks with 3 other local charities, offering some play, fun, art, sport, food and emotional regulation and support ( my role in the scheme!) aimed at some of the more vulnerable children in our area. I’m looking forward to it, 2 weeks with children. It will be an interesting challenge with the new regulations we need to put in place, but I think it will be wonderful to be back working directly with children once again.

Other news from my last week is my latest book , Supporting young children through change and everyday transitions published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers is now available to buy and it has been nominated by Teach early years under their CPD, category which was a wonderful surprise.

How do we support children through transition during COVID 19

lily, summer & mum039

This is a question I and the team I work with have been giving a lot of thought to. I also delivered some training for Wandsworth this week looking at how we can make this work during COVID times.

In ordinary times we would arrange visits to schools/ classes/ nurseries. In ordinary times children would be in school and nursery, however, as we know these are not ordinary times. Below are a few ideas we will be using and I have suggested to Wandsworth they could try.

Videos

During the lockdown, we have all become more competent at making videos. I have suggested to schools and nurseries that they could make a video of the new classroom, to show the children what it will look like, show them any of the key areas you think the children need to know e.g. outdoor space, dining hall, toilets, pegs, carpet time, creative area, toys. Another way to do this is to include the children you have currently in school/ nursery, ask them what they think the new children need to see.

Video of staff, one important part of the children’s transition is for them to meet staff, many settings do home visits and visits to the nursery or the school, allowing the staff and children to meet each other. This may not be possible this year. One suggestion is for the new staff to make a short video of themselves to send to the children, telling them their name, a few things they like to do, how they are looking forward to seeing the child, this will go a long way to help the child feel familiar and in touch. They can also then re-watch this film, helping with that familiarity.

Photos

For some of our children they may not have access to watching videos, as an alternative, you could make a small photo book of the important parts of the school, include photos of the teacher, Ta’s ( nursery staff if it’s a nursery transition), again you could involve the current children in this. Pull these together into a simple PDF document, if possible print them and send them to the children, encourage the parents to look at this over the weeks before they return.

Books and play

During normal times in the weeks running up to transition, settings will be reading stories to children about moving to school, having school uniforms for children to try on, they may be playing games about going to school. These things can still happen, encourage parents to buy the uniform, and let the children try it regularly. There may be an issue about cross-contamination with clothes in the nursery, to get around this have the uniform from the school hanging up or photos of children wearing the uniform, this is all about helping children to recognise, be familiar, with this change and what will be new. You can still read books to children, there are many books available which you could use. Suggest books to parents they could read to their children, if purchasing books is difficult for parents you could film a member of staff reading some of the books and email the video out to families.

Social story

Make a social story about going to school for the children to take home. The social story we use is a simple story about a girl called Lily who is going to school, through the story we ask questions to enable a conversation and discussion. An example of the questions in our story are below:

  • Lily is going to her new school, it is called Camerton primary, where are you going to school?
  •  Lily’s school jumper is blue, what colour will your school jumper be?.
  • Lily is going to school with her friend Megan, which friends are going to your new school?
  • Lily will be going to school on the bike with her Dad, how will you get to school?
  • Lily will be having school lunches at school, she likes eating jacket potato, what will you do at lunchtime?
  • Lily is looking forward to playing with the pirate boat in the classroom, what are you looking forward to at school?
  • Lily is a little bit worried about playtimes, the playground has a big climbing frame and she is a bit scared about that. Does anything worry you about school?

This is a simple tool to design and use, it enables staff or parents to have conversations with the child about the school they are going to and how they are feeling about it. We have a photo on each page of the story to make it more visually appealing. This is just an example that you could adapt.

These are just a few ideas, but hopefully will help you to think of other ways too that we can still support during this transition. 

At the end of July I have a new book being published withJessica Kingsley Publishers, the title is Supporting Young Children Through Change and Everyday Transitions: Practical Strategies for Practitioners and Parents. It has a chapter on the transition to school/nursery, a chapter on bereavement, and another on separation, along with other chapters covering other changes children experience. 

On the re-opening of early years and school.

 

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This week most schools and early years settings are re-opening. There are so many political arguments about this, which I am not going to enter into on this posting. However, I know staff have been working so hard over the last few weeks, to make this the best they can for the children to return. I know staff have been working incredibly hard at organising, preparing, planning, and changing plans as the government keeps changing the guidance. I know that many staff feel that they are having to compromise what they believe is the best practice in order to fit into the new guidance.

I am aware that in all the arguing and political debating we can easily forget that behind all this are many staff, some will be pleased to return, some will be unsure and others will be incredibly scared. Change is so hard, especially when change is happening and we don’t really know what the outcome will be, how long we will be working in this new way, and whether we will all be shut down again.

Working in the time of a crisis, at a time of change and uncertainty, and at a time when many feel fearful and anxious, this brings with it additional stresses on top of an already demanding job in normal times. These are not normal times.

I am writing this blog for my friends and colleagues who are returning this week, and for those of you I don’t know, I am writing to say I am thinking of you, I know this is going to feel hard and maybe scary and to say thank you. Thank you for doing this, thank you for being there for the children, thank you for making it the best you possibly can for the children, because I believe that is what you will do.

Please make sure you take extra time to care for yourself and if anyone is reading this who lives with or is friends with a teacher, TA or early years worker who is returning, be extra kind to them in these weeks, check in on them, buy them chocolate ( or something else they like!), they are going to need it.

May your week go well.

Below are some links which might be useful

Alistair Bryce Clegg  has an excellent blog post with thoughts on returning

I was asked by my local early year’s team to make some short videos for staff about the return to work, staff wellbeing, and children’s wellbeing. They are accessible to all. This is a link to them.

Wellbeing ideas for children on the return to school/ nursery

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Early years staff and reception teachers have been working extremely hard over the last few weeks preparing settings ready for children to return in June. I know for many this has been a hugely stressful experience, re thinking the spaces and resources children are able to access.  When children return we know their experiences will be massively varied, when they return we are all going to need to pay even more attention to their emotional and mental wellbeing. During this last week the team I work with have been pulling together wellbeing ideas for reception class staff to be able to use in the classroom, some simple ideas which can support children’s wellbeing, that can be done individually or with a socially distanced group and ideas where the resources won’t cause cross contamination. I hope these ideas might be helpful to others.

 

Bubble breathing – Give each child their own small pot of bubbles, tell the child you are going to do some bubble breathing to help them feel calm. Get the child to dip the wand into the bubble mixture, take a deep breath in and slowly blow out through the wand. Watch the bubbles float away, imagine the bubbles are taking away their worries and fears. You can buy a pot of 24 mini party bubbles from amazon for around £5.

Bee breathing Sit somewhere comfortable, place your hands over your ears, take a breath in, as you breathe out making a humming noise. Repeat a few times.

Barefoot walking Do this activity all together go outside on a grassy area, check the area for sharp things, etc. Get everyone to take shoes and socks off and walk on the grass, notice how it feels on your feet, notice how it makes you feel. Bare-foot walking is a slow and mindful activity.

Senses exercise You can do this outside or through an open window. Close your eyes and listen to what you can hear, listen to how many different noises you can hear. Open your eyes, notice the different colours you can see. Sniff the air, what can you smell.

Calming bottle – Get each child to fill an empty bottle with water, add some glitter. Get the child to shake the bottle, place their hand on their tummy and breathe in and out slowly as the glitter settles.

Make a happy book-Get each child to draw or stick pictures in the book of things that make them happy, when they are feeling sad or need to find some calm, they could look at this.

Play calming music – Find some music that you all find calming, lie down or sit and listen to it

Do some yoga – Do some Yoga together, cosmic kids on Youtube offers yoga and mindfulness sessions. https://www.youtube.com/user/CosmicKidsYoga

Playdough give each child their own pot of play dough to play, squeeze, explore, make a face.

Feather breathing – give each child their own feather, encourage them to take a mindful moment with the feather, notice its colour, texture, how it feels against the skin. Then ask children to take a breathe in and breathe out blowing onto the feather. Do this 3 or 4 times. You can then ask the children to let go of the feather on the out breathe and see if they can keep it in the air with their breathe.

Finger breathing Inhale as you trace up the thumb, exhale as you trace down the thumb, inhale tracing up the next finger, exhale down etc until you have traced all five fingers.

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Make a worry doll ( see bellow) and read the book Silly Billy by Anthony Browne, Worry dolls taken from Alistair Bryce -Clegg website

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Movement breaks

 

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