All posts by soniamain

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

Being authentic about wellbeing

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This week I have been guest lecturing in Weston Super Mare on an early years degree course on the subject of staff wellbeing. This was a fantastic opportunity to speak to people at the beginning of their career. I have spent the last 5 years writing and reflecting on wellbeing for children and staff. Through my nurture work with four-year-olds and their staff I have been able to see how crucial it is to embed good wellbeing practice into our lives. I am really fortunate to work with a team who value and support one another in putting this into our daily lives, as a team it is crucial that we are authentic in living this ourselves, we can’t offer ideas to offers if we don’t root this in our own lives.

I have recently been reflecting on what it means to authentically live this out. There are so many ideas and books out there about what you need to do to improve your wellbeing, so many voices shouting loudly about how you just need to change … or start…. then all will be well. The problem is making longterm change is not easy, it can be easy to start something, be excited about it, shout loudly about it, but then get bored, and move onto the next thing, try the next super new idea and then start shouting about that.

The joy of talking to students at the start of their career is they have the chance to embed some life-affirming, good practices now. If they can put in place some good habits, good wellbeing practice now, then these have a great chance of sticking with them. I have been reflecting a lot recently on what good wellbeing practice looks like, I think an essential element is about habit forming, doing something that is good for you regularly, that becomes part of your daily, weekly rhythm. There are a few routines, rhythms that are vital for me, swimming on a Monday-Friday, this is a mindful, contemplative time, walking around the community meadow on a Sunday morning and meeting a friend for a morning coffee most weekends. There is nothing radical in these rhythm’s, but over the last 7 years they have become an embedded part of my life, they are life affirming and life enhancing.

I have written a book for early years staff about embedding wellbeing, it’s aimed at early years staff but the ideas, practices and research are relevant for anyone.

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The labels we use

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Over this last week, I have had the chance to stop and rest. At the beginning of the week I had a strong urge to find some wildness, I felt that I needed to physically let go of what was in my head and what I was carrying in my body. I wanted to stand on a cliffside with the wind blowing around, to feel a sense of letting go and breathing deeply. I was able to go to Zennor in Cornwall for two days and walk to Zennor point, on the cliff top, with the wind whipping around me, there was silence, and awesome beauty. Standing on the cliff I felt I was able to let go and breathe deeply. There is something about this process that helps me to begin to rethink and begin to question. I was aware that I had labelled last term as being hellish.  Having time to stop and let go enabled me to question if this was really true, if it was the whole picture. One of the questions I have had is around the labels I use for children, situations and myself and how easy it can be for those to shadow my view.

I like to think I enter into work with a new child with an open mind, we are given information about the family and the child, I meet and observe new children and use those observations to inform my thoughts and plans. However, I am aware that it can be easy to allow the views of previous settings and parents to shadow my view. It can be so easy to see a situation within a deficit model, to label and fear the worst for a situation and allow that to impact my expectations and views. I have noticed this term that I was beginning to carry the views of a deficit model around in my head, viewing and labeling situations in a negative way, rather than seeing the positives or being open-hearted and minded about a situation.

I have a few children I am working with this term who will be making significant changes and transitions during the coming term. One role I have is to send information on that will support new practitioners/ carers working with the child. I have recently been writing this for one child. Looking back I realised that at the start of September I had low expectations, I anticipated the term to be hugely challenging with this one child and setting, but that hasn’t happened. Instead, I have seen progress made by the child, I have watched the child’s ability to engage with joy and an unexpected tenderness. I have also been moved by the commitment and openness from the setting, and the dedication to make this term the best they can for the child. It has been wonderful to see and reflect on. It’s unusual for me to reflect on a child and the progress made this early on in the year, as we don’t usually write a mid-year report until December. However, writing and reflecting now has helped me to see how the expectations I initially had were totally wrong. It also helped me to see where something went really well, this exercise has encouraged me to go back over all the other children and list the positives, the things that have gone well, the moments that were good from the last term. This has been a good exercise to do, to help me re-label the last term and see it through different lenses.

Hope

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I have been reading Brene Brown’s new book Daring to Lead, there is a question in her book about the values we hold, that underpin our lives. There is an exercise that asks the reader to pick two values from a list of around 100, that’s quite a challenging exercise. One of the words I chose was hope. This is our last week of the autumn term, it has felt like a very long term, this term has been marked by unexpected closures, continual change, and the overwhelming feeling that I am holding a slippery eel that I can’t quite keep a grasp of!. There have been moments this term when I have asked what the hell am I doing here! and other moments of pure joy, moments of beauty in the midst of what sometimes feels like chaos. Reading Brene’s writing about values really resonated with me this week. I have often said to do the nurture work I have to hold onto hope. Hope that we are making a difference, hope that things can change, hope that we can bring some joy and love and safety into children’s lives.

Sometimes holding onto hope can be really difficult. I am really aware that by the end of a term when I am tired and worn down, I need to actively choose hope but I also need to actively choose what I engage in and what I block out. I currently can not stand being around conversations of negativity, I will not engage in ranting on social media, I am often turning off the news because it is all so negative. I am trying really hard to find the hope and the lightness in the dark. I am actively choosing things which feel life enhancing rather than life-sapping. I know that currently, that is what I need to boost my wellbeing. This morning I took my usual early Sunday morning walk around the community meadow, the sun was rising behind the mist in the valley. It was beautiful and joyful and a reminder that there is hope.

Talking about mental illness with children

 

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Although mental health is high on the agenda, with many people including celebrities talking about their mental illness and an increasing awareness of mental illness in teens; I think as a society it can still be hard to talk to children about mental illness. I think there is still a worry that if we use the words depression and mental illness, that children will not understand or become fearful. Even with all the discussion and acknowledgment about mental illness, with new celebrities and sports stars coming out each day talking about their struggles, I still think there is a stigma. Sadly I think there is still pain and shame felt amongst families when they talk about the mental illness in their family. A friend of mine Will Taylor is an excellent child counselor, he has recently written about his own struggle with depression and how some people have told him they wouldn’t want to go a counselor who has had depression. To me, this suggests that some people still view mental illness as something that is shameful.

I firmly believe we need to talk to children from a young age about mental illness, we need to use the correct language and help them to understand what is happening, by doing this we break down the stigma. Obviously, we need to do this in an age appropriate way, in a way which helps the child to not be scared but to give them enough information to help them to understand what is going on. A common held misbelieve is that children will not notice, they will not be aware when a parent or loved one becomes depressed. However, we know that children pick up on the smallest of changes, they know when something is different. I grew up with a mum who has Bi-polar, I was a child in the 70’s when depression was never spoken about. I have memories of being 5 and recognising the warning signs that she was becoming ill, they were small, but I noticed. She would give us extra money to buy sweets, she would start baking lots, this was always the begining of a manic episode. These sound like tiny changes but I noticed. My Dad talked about my mum being ill, but it wasn’t until I was 14 in a school assembly that Mind was leading, and I heard the term mental illness and realised that was what my Mum had. Until then I had presumed she had cancer and that she would die. If we do not use the correct words with children, if we do not explain what is happening, then children will fill in the missing gaps, and often get it wrong. Our role as adults is to help children to understand that depression, anxiety, bi-polar, schizophrenia etc are all mental illness, they are not something to be afraid of, or to be ashamed of, we can talk about it.

I do appreciate that it can be really hard to find the words to help a child understand, for me that is where books and films can be so helpful. I have written two books and an animation for children of different ages to help them understand Bi-polar. But there are a growing number of good resources about depression. Below I have listed and linked some of the ones I really like. On Wednesday this week, it is mental health day, there will be lots of discussions all week about mental illness, and that is great, but I would like to encourage people to talk to children as well.

 

Mummy’s Got Bippolar– Sonia Mainstone-Cotton

Can I tell you about Bipolar Disorder– Sonia Mainstone-Cotton

Mummys’ Got Bipolar animation

Can I tell you about anxiety- Lucy Willets and Polly Waite

Why are you so sad: A child’s book about parental depression– Beth Andrews

I had a black dog – Matthew Johnstone

Pretend Friends: A story about schizophrenia and other illnesses can cause hallucinations- Alice Hoyle

The wise mouse- Virgina Ironside

The illustrated Mum- Jaqueline Wilson

 

 

Navigating through change

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Some people thrive on change, they become bored quickly and need variety, I have lots of variety in my work, which I love, but I am not massively keen on change! and I quite like a structure to work within. I usually start my school year with a list of children and schools to support, I know pretty much what the year ahead will look like. A key element of this is that I know how to support children and staff through the changes ahead. I have learned through the nurture work how vital it is support change, the children we work with find change challenging, but also some of the parents can find change really challenging and overwhelming as well. So far this school year very little has gone to plan and so far there have been far more changes than normal and more than I would like!.

I have been reflecting these last two weeks about how we support parents through change. We all know that some parents find the move to nursery or school a huge challenge, their baby is getting older, they need to trust other adults to take care of their precious one, and that is not always easy. Often schools and nursery will set up meetings before the start of the new year, in our role we meet with parents and explain what we do and listen to their stories about their child. These are important, but sometimes there are parents who need something extra, if I am honest I am not quite sure what that extra looks like, it’s a question I am asking myself this week. I wonder whether sometimes we forget how big a change this is for parents, and if they experience change as frightening, the transition of their child to school or nursery can be extremely frightening.

Over the last week I have been experiencing transition and change within my family as my youngest has moved to university. She had a gap year, so all year we have talked, prepared, thought about the changes this will bring. However it is still hard, so much has changed, it’s the little things you can’t quite prepare for. I watched Bakeoff with her each week, she would bake in the day, we would eat it while watching the program. It sounds so minor, but watching Bakeoff this week without her was horrible!. I have found myself returning to Kristin Neff words about self-compassion a lot this week, often saying to myself it’s ok to be sad, but it will be ok.

I wonder if we need to learn to use emotion language more with parents, in my role we use it all the time with the children. Maybe we need to acknowledge more with parents that they may be feeling overwhelmed at this change in their lives, that it’s ok to find this hard, that it’s ok to be worried and a bit scared. I know that Penn Green do some fantastic support work with parents through transitions.  Dr. Terri Rose in her book Emotional readiness has some excellent examples of supporting parents and children through change. It’s something I am going to thinking about more over the next few weeks in relation to my role.

Making plans for your wellbeing

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At the start of last week, I spent a team day with my team. We did an exercise thinking about how we wanted to develop this year, how we wanted the team to develop and what we were going to do this year for our wellbeing. I spend lots of time thinking about wellbeing, it’s an essential part of my job, it’s what I write about!. But I really appreciated the act of taking time to stop, think and commit to paper and publicly say to my team, this is how I want to support my wellbeing. By sharing this with the team I felt that we were making ourselves accountable to one another. I love that I work for a manager who prioritises this at the start of the year, that as a team we were saying to one another this is important, as individuals we need to take care of ourselves but also as a team, we need to look out for one another.

My plan for the year to support my wellbeing is to find opportunities to swim outdoors. I have spent the summer engaging in lots of outdoor swimming and I have written about this on numerous occasions, but during this summer I realised just how important outdoor swimming is for me, I feel calmer, I feel alive and I often feel such joy. There was an article in the Guardian yesterday about cold water swimming helping with mental health and depression, I don’t suffer from depression, although anxiety is something I often have lurking in my head and chest. I have certainly found the outdoor swimming has become a very mindful practice and one which stills my mind and helps my anxiety.

As we enter a new work year ( school year in my case) I think it is really helpful to set out, write down our intentions for how we will support our wellbeing throughout the year. I know there will be times in the coming months when I will feel very stressed, and to have thought ahead about what will help is a good exercise. I am not sure yet how much outdoor swimming I will manage throughout the winter!, I have a colleague who swims weekly in a local river, throughout the year, I am planning on swimming with her sometimes, hoping that I can cope with the cold. But realistically I realise I may not manage it in December – February! and that’s’ ok, this is not an exercise about setting goals and then feeling guilty if I can’t achieve them, this is an exercise about thinking, recognising what helps in those times I feel very stressed. This weekend I started as I hope to continue, I swam in a beuatiful spot near to us, in a local river. It was cold, but I felt so wonderfully alive and joyful during and after the swim.

For more thoughts and ideas on supporting your wellbeing, I have a book called Promoting Emotional Wellbeing in Early Years Staff.

Building trust with staff and children

 

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The first week of the new term can often feel like a harsh shock to the system, for both the children and the staff. This week I have been visiting some of my new schools. I was reminded again that the role of a nurture worker is as much about supporting staff as it is supporting children.

Children who arrive at school feeling overwhelmed, frightened, confused, may show us those huge feelings in a strong way, e.g. kicking, biting, scratching. These feelings are overwhelming for the child, but they can be frightening, shocking and overwhelming to the adults too. I and my colleagues spend a lot of time explaining, interpreting the children’s behaviour to staff. We also spend a lot of time listening, being present, reassuring staff.

When you start in a new school, the emphasis is on building relationships, over the next year we are going to work very closely, I will be in each week, supporting, guiding, and leading staff in how to support the children. I need the staff to learn to trust me, I need to trust them, the child needs to learn to trust all of us. Sometimes, we encounter staff and schools who have had limited experience of children who have encountered a difficult start in life and can be really shocked at some of the behaviours they see. I need to remind myself this is ok, the staff will adapt. I need to quietly but firmly reassure them we can change this, we can support the child, we will enable the child to feel safe, secure, loved and that they belong and from this we will seee change. I have found myself repeating a phrase this week, ‘It will be ok, I know it is hard but we can do this, I am here to support you’. I know that will be a phrase I will repeat a lot; it’s not to deny the stress of working with a very scared and cross child, but it hopefully reassures that they are not on their own in this.

At the start of a new school year, I know I need to hang onto the knowledge and hope that change is possible and will happen. Sometimes I think the staff must think I am mad when at the beginning of the year I am saying, I am not worried, I know we will see change. I need to be the one holding onto that hope. This is the 5th year of this role, I have that knowledge and experience to carry me through the tricky first term, knowing that ahead of us, in a few months, all could be very different.

This morning I was walking in our community meadow, this is a practice I do each Sunday morning. At the bottom of the meadow is a view into the valley across the way. This morning the sun was shining down, it looks like a window. I was reminded of the words by Julian of Norwich, All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well. I expect I will be saying this a lot to myself over the next few weeks!.