All posts by soniamain

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

How do we measure success?

 

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Over the weekend I have been writing end of year reports for my nurture children. This is a time to look back and reflect on the changes over the year. Alongside this, I have had conversations with various friends about success, and how as individuals we measure success.

At the end of the reception year school’s and the Education Department decides the success of the child’s first year in school is based on whether they have met the Early Learning Goals. For the children we work with the success criteria is different, we ask ourselves the question what progress have we seen in their emotional, social and mental health over the year. I love writing end of year reports, remembering how tricky things were in September and seeing the change in that little one’s life over the year. We use an assessment tool throughout the year called Thrive; this is helpful to track change. However, it is also useful to notice and remember the small changes over the year e.g a child who would hit others time and time again in September, and looking back you realise that hasn’t happened in months. The child who could never sit through a story now chooses to have stories read to them. These are small but significant, we can so easily overlook or forget these changes, but these are signs of success.

My husband is an artist, he creates such beautiful hand carved letter cutting pieces of art. He and I are both self-employed, throughout the years we have both struggled with the idea of how do we know if we are successful in our self-employed businesses. There is so much emphasis on success being linked to making lots money, in the world of art success being linked to selling artwork, in the world of writing success being linked to the number of books you sell or as a trainer how many people buy you in for training. However, we have both learnt solely using these measures can quickly lead to you feeling that you have failed. Each year I now set myself some small aims for what success might look like. I have a list for my nurture children, a list for training and consultancy and a list for my writing. The emphasis on my list is about making progress. In the same way that I look over the year to see what progress my nurture children have made, I look to see what progress I have made. That might be linked to new learning I have acquired, whether I have been able to embed a new practice. Also asking have I given myself time to be creative and space to dream of new ideas. My list always has a link to having a good work, life, play, balance. Changing the emphasis to progress rather than success or failure has really helped me to remodel and change the script in my own head. A useful question can be how can I be more fully human and what would that look like.

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The need to support colleagues

 

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When you are working with vulnerable children, there are some weeks which are truly challenging. I have just come to the end of one of those weeks, to be honest for a whole assortment of reasons it is one I would be happy to not repeat again. What has made this week bearable has been the emotional support from my amazing colleagues and manager.

I have been reflecting a lot on how we can support colleagues and what that can look like. Having the support from colleagues and managers can make such a difference. When you are working with vulnerable children, who are telling you in a multitude of ways they are hurting and sad, this can have a huge impact on staff. It can lead staff to question themselves, it can feed into their own vulnerabilities, it can leave staff feeling hugely stressed and sometimes traumatised. It is essential that colleagues and managers recognise this and support the staff.

I think there are a few things colleagues can do, these include:

Enable the member of staff to get 5 minutes break, offer to take the child/ class and encourage them to get a drink and take some time to breathe. Tell them it is ok that they finding this hard.

Check in with staff at the end of the day and a few days later. Ask how they are, ask how they are feeling.

Remind staff to take time out at the end of the day/ on the weekend to take care of themselves, this might be spending time in the garden, going for a walk or a run, reading a book, anything which enables them to slow down, breathe and be kind to themselves.

Give time and space to talk through what has happened, this is where supervision is so important. If you can’t provide this as a school/ nursery/ team then signpost to where they can go. Some organisations have a free telephone helpline to talk things through, others bring in outside supervisors. Supervision is crucial.

What made a difference for me this week was the support of colleagues and particularly the fantastic support of my manager. Also after one particularly challenging morning I  spent time in a stream, standing, breathing, being still, enjoying the sounds and feel of the water, that made such a difference to my wellbeing.

Small steps to wellbeing

 

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Over the last few weeks, I have had many conversations with friends and colleagues about adult wellbeing. Within early years it has been high on the agenda again with a report form Preschool learning alliance showing that 1 in 4 people in the sector is considering leaving due to high stress.

Through conversations over these last few weeks, I have been reminded how hearing about wellbeing and knowing about the need for good wellbeing can sometimes feel very overwhelming if we are in a place of high stress and despair. I am beginning to wonder if actually, all the talk of having high stress and the need to have good wellbeing can sometimes lead us to feel inadequate and more stressed. I have heard speakers and read many articles where we are being told that we need to look after our mental health, we need to talk about feeling stressed, however sometimes all the ideas and solutions can also feel overwhelming,

Over the last few weeks, I spoke at Preschool learning alliance conference and on a podcast for Early Years TV with Kathy Brodie ( this will be out in a few months). My main reflection on both of these is that is ok to take small steps to well-being. Sometimes we can feel too overwhelmed to try the many different ideas, but if we can put one thing in place each day, this is making a small step towards improving things. I often encourage people to do each day one thing which makes them feel happy, this might be going for walk, reading a book, sitting in the garden for 5 minutes with a cup of tea. It will be different for everyone, but finding one thing each day which makes you happy, which helps you to smile, this won’t solve all your wellbeing issues but it is taking a small step towards a change.

For me swimming and wild swimming makes me smile, it helps me to feel alive and joyful and makes me feel really happy.

You can find more ideas for staff wellbeing in my book Promoting Emotional wellbeing for early years staff

Be kind to yourself this bank holiday weekend.

 

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For those who work in schools or term time early years settings, we are part way through term 5. I always think of term 5 as being an easier term, with my nurture work the children are usually in a good place, they are more settled; often by now the school and children have reached a point of understanding one another. The children often feel safer and happier. But this term hasn’t quite been the usual pattern for a whole variety of reasons. This term I and some of the staff I work with are counting down the days to the next break. For this reason, the bank holiday Monday is a joy!. Don’t get me wrong, I love my job, I wouldn’t change it for any other, it brings me so much delight and hope and satisfaction, but this term I am feeling tired.

The question I often write about and put to others is what can you do that will make you happy? and the extra day that the bank holiday brings us is a perfect time to think about this. It doesn’t have to be big, expensive things. Early this morning I walked around the community meadow, I often do this on a Sunday morning, but this morning I walked barefoot, through the morning dew. By walking barefoot it forces you to slow down, it connects you with the earth, you notice more, you become mindful. The coldness of the morning dew was at first a slight shock, but it soon became really enjoyable. By the end of the walk I felt so happy, the endorphins had really kicked in, in the way I feel when I swim, particularly when I swim outside.

I know from experience putting in place small things that make you feel good, that bring you joy, these really help us to look after our wellbeing.

For more ideas on looking after you well-being look at my book Promoting emotional wellbeing in early years staff.

Sitting with sadness and sorrow

 

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This last week has been a roller coaster of highs and lows. I have been reflecting the last few days on the need to sit with sadness and sorrow and how hard that can sometimes be. This week my parents have both been ill, with my dad having a heart operation which didn’t go to plan. I have also been working with children who have been deeply sad. Sometimes in life, you can’t fix things, I can’t fix my dad’s heart or my mum’s depression and sometimes I can not make it ok for the children I work with.

There are times when all I can do is sit with the pain and the sadness, there are times when there are no words to be said, there is no easy fix, we just need to sit and be. Being present, being there in body and mind.

But I can find that really hard, I am certainly a person who will suggest, offer ideas, in my work I spend my time offering thoughts and ideas to staff to support the children. I don’t fix things but I journey with the children and staff and find a way through. However sometimes there are no suggestions to make, sometimes you need to just be, to hold someone and let them cry, to show them you are there, at that moment, with them.

Sitting with sadness and sorrow can be tiring and hard. I have been very mindful of that, and very intentional to care for myself, my main way has been spending lots of time outside this week; walking in woods, walking alongside water, noticing flowers and birds.

Participation art and children

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A few weeks back I wrote about an art project I worked on with my husband Iain Cotton. The project was a letting cutting piece for St Michaels primary Winterbourne. I worked with Iain on the participation of the children in the school. We got every child in the school to design a letter. Iain then cut these letters into a large stone.

 

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The stone is now finished and in place on the school grounds, most of the carving took place in Iain’s workshop and then he finished the last line on site, so the children could watch him carve. He also painted the letters on site. The response from the children and the school has been wonderful, children have recognised their letters and excitedly told Iain which one was theirs, they have shown so much joy and delight that their letter is on the stone.

This was a wonderful project to be involved in, each child in the school had a part in this art piece. It was so inspiring to see how every child was able to create and design their own letter. The younger children took such delight in playfully making letters with plasticine. Plasticine enabled them to manipulate and design a letter in a way they would have found hard with writing. The older children were able to be very imaginative and creative with their drawn designs.

At a time when creativity is having less of a place in education, it was wonderful to work with a school on a creative project and to leave a lasting legacy with the school. Who knows some of the children we worked with may one day become artists, letter cutters or designers, but hopefully we left them all with a very positive memory about their involvement in an art project.

 

Finding what brings you joy

 

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In my nurture work, it’s the start of a new term, after a badly needed Easter break. The nurture consultant role can be an emotionally challenging job and one in which you need to be fully present to the children and staff. Holidays are a vital time to take some time to replenish. Over the last two weeks, I decided to spend a lot of my time reading. The books I have read have all been around wild swimming, perseverance, finding silence and the joy of nature ( Find a way, one untamed and courageous life:Diana Nyad, The Salt Path, Raynor Winn, The Moth snowstorm: Nature and joy -Michael McCarthy and Silence in the age of noise- Erling Kagge).

At the start of the holiday, I was feeling fraught, stressed and edgy, I was aware I was catastrophising more than I usually do. The term hadn’t been particularly challenging but I was feeling less able to deal with the usual challenges. Looking back on my choice of books I can see how my body and soul were craving to read and experience things that I know are good for me. I have spent two years writing about wellbeing for children and adults. I know the things that help my wellbeing, but looking back over the last term I can see I hadn’t been doing them enough.

Going into this new term I am planning ways I can incorporate more time outside and exploring nature with the children, using mindful and listening walks with them. I have been thinking again about how I best experience silence, which I know I need every day; being outside, gardening and swimming are the best ways for me. For this I am thinking about how I can increase these opportunities, I am hoping to do some gardening each week; I already swim ever Monday-Friday, but I am also thinking of ways I can fit in open-air swimming into some weekends and end of the days. In the holidays I did my first open air swim of the year in the Cornish sea, I felt so alive and full of joy, it reminded me of how good I feel when I am combining two loves, swimming and being outside.