All posts by soniamain

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

Awe and wonder around us

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This weekend my husband and I went to watch the wonder of Starling murmurations on the Somerset Levels, we live quite near the area and it’s something we have started to do each year over the last few years. It’s an amazing spectacle to watch, so awe-inspiring, the movement and fluidity of the birds, in synchronisation with one another is incredible. It is a natural wonder.

This term I am delivering lots of staff wellbeing training, over the coming months I will be delivering this 8 times. In many ways, it’s no surprise that January and February are the months that schools and nurseries are wanting support in this area. For some people January and February can be quite bleak and tough, the lack of sunshine and often endless rain in the UK doesn’t help that. Each time I deliver wellbeing training I talk about being outside, I encourage the participants to get out, to spend time in nature, enjoy the outdoors, to engage with the awe and wonder that surrounds us. This can feel hard to do in the winter months, but it’s worth making the effort. There is growing evidenceshowing how engaging with nature boosts our mental and emotional wellbeing.

Watching the murmuration yesterday evening we were alongside many other people, of all ages, but particularly families with young and older children. It was a joy to share this delightful moment alongside strangers. You would often hear gasps of wonder from across the ages at the sight they were watching, there was something magical that we were all sharing. A reminder of how precious our earth is, how wonderful nature is. I did not doubt that our hour spent out in the dusk, watching birds was a huge boost for everyone’s wellbeing.

A year of outdoor swimming

 

I spend much of my working life talking and training on wellbeing, both for adults and children. Several years ago I realised that outdoor swimming was an essential part of supporting my wellbeing. At the beginning of 2019, I decided I wanted to do more outdoor swimming. I love swimming and I swim every early morning Monday-Friday in my local pool, that time is precious and an important part of my routine, also it has given me a lovely swimming community to be part of. However, outdoor swimming brings a different joy, the joy of being in nature, the amazing feel of cold water on my skin. It’s hard to explain but it is wonderful.

At the start of 2019 I wrote a list of outdoor places I hoped to swim, it was a mix of lidos, and sea swims, and rivers. I hoped that I would be able to swim outdoors at least once a month from around April/ May. I decided to keep a list of all the outdoor swims so that I could see over the year the different places I had swum. I managed to swim outdoors every month from February-December, some of these were cooler lidos but mostly they were rivers, sea, lakes, ponds and tidal pools. I have swum outdoors 43 times this year.

Swimming outdoors is about pure pleasure for me, it’s not about the distance or the length of time in the water, it’s about the joy of the experience. I feel so alive when I swim outside and it makes me feel so happy. Swimming outside has also become something that I do with my husband, our children have now left home ( mostly!) when our youngest left for uni in 2018 I knew we needed to find something that we could do together, a way of reconnecting. Outdoor swimming has become that thing.

In my wellbeing training, the final point I put to the group is an encouragement for people to discover what makes them happy, the thing that makes them smile when they think about it and brings them joy. So much of our lives can be busy and hard, often taken up with meeting the needs of others, putting in place something that brings us joy is a good start for wellbeing.

I am currently writing my list of ideas for outdoors swims in 2020, starting on January 1st!.

Say hello to….

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This has been a week of sitting with dark days and heavy feelings, both in work and with family. Several of the children I work with are finding the run-up to Christmas incredibly challenging and our niece has Sepsis.

This week I have found myself needing to sit with the feelings of darkness. I don’t have an easy answer or solution to help the children and their staff. I don’t have any answer or solutions as comfort for my sister in law or niece.

Recently I have been reading a book by Padraig O Tauma he uses the phrase Say hello, to acknowledge the feelings and emotions and situations we are in. He uses this phrase to recognise throughout the day what you are experiencing. I know this idea of noticing how you feel is an integral part of mindful practice, the phrase say hello to, I found helpful. It feels quite a gentle phrase and it’s a helpful way to acknowledge what is happening right now.

In my role as a nurture consultant, I support the children and the staff. My job is as much about supporting staff as it is working directly with children. Sometimes I can have ideas and suggestions for ways forward, how we might support the child in the class. However, this week I mostly found myself not having any new suggestions, at one point in one school I sat and listened, we sat with hard descriptions and the hard feelings we were seeing and feeling. I didn’t have any words, I just acknowledged it was very tough. I am aware as I write this that doesn’t sound very advisory or consultant like! but that is how it is. Sometimes the best we can do and be is to sit with dark feelings. To turn up, to say hello to the feeling of uncertainty or fear or anger or despair. That is ok. The turning up is what matters.

Story of hope and imagining change

 

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This last week I have had a few conversations with colleagues ad friends about the stories that children carry with them, or stories that we hear from family members and other professionals about the child. With the children that we see, these are often negative stories, a story about how the child will be violent, challenging, can become easily overwhelmed. The challenge when we hear these stories is that we can make a judgment before we have even met the child. Sometimes these stores can be so huge, that we struggle to see the child in the story.

I don’t think this is unique to education, I have friends who work in other agencies with children and young people, and they also say sometimes it is hard to see the child within the story. The problem when we take on big, negative stories is that our expectations, our hopes, and plans can become narrow for the child.

It feels like we need to hold the stories lightly, to be aware of what has gone before, but also to have hope for the future and imagine what may become possible. I am aware that as a nurture worker myself and my colleague’s role is to have hope for the child, when we start a piece of work we need to believe that there will be change, we need to help everyone see the story can be different.

Changing the story is important for the adults but especially for the child, as a nurture team we mainly work with 4 yr olds, some of those 4 yr olds arrive at school already having a story about themselves, that they are naughty, or they are bad. These are words we would never use, but they are words that the child has taken on. Words are powerful. When the words over you and around you and about you are negative, that is hard to break away from.

As a team we use Thrive assessment tool, this talks about telling a new story about the child, a story about their unique abilities, a story of hope and imagining something different.

Photo- carving by my husband Iain cotton

Using children’s books to help children understand their world

 

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I am a huge fan of books, particularly children’s books. I have my own mini library that I use with children and in training. Any training I deliver I always have a huge pile of books and resources with me to recommend, I see it as a vital addition to my training.

I love the storytelling in books, and how they can develop children’s imagination, curiosity, an interest in things outside of their experience. We know that reading to children develops their language skills, I read to both my babies on the day they were born, the first story I read both of them was Guess how much I love you by Sam Mcbratney. My babies have grown into wonderful women with a passion for books and a love of language. I like to think that grew from being read to throughout their childhood.

In my work with children who have social, emotional and mental health needs I use books to help children understand things that may be difficult for them. I use stories about strong feelings, books about emotions; these help us to talk about their feelings and emotions, doing this with the aid of a book helps the children to see it’s not just them. I also use books with children to help them see themselves represented in a book, books about 2 dads or 2 mums, books about mental illness, books with pictures of children like them, books about going to the hospital, new babies arriving. I have also written two children’s books about mental illness, so books are definitely something I passionately believe in!

But the one area that has been tricky to share in a book is poverty, how we do talk to children about living in poverty?. I have been interested in this for a long time, I used to work for The Children’s Society and led on some of the research with young children around their experiences of poverty for the Good Childhood Inquiry. This is one subject where there has been a lack of books for children, until recently. Kate Milner has just written a book for young children called It’s a no money day, it’s a story about a girl and her mum, they wake up and only have 1 piece of bread in the house, and no money, it’s a story about going to the food bank, the things they can do together that doesn’t cost any money. This book is beautifully and sensitively told. We shouldn’t need this book, but we do. Current figures say we have 4 million children living in poverty in the UK, with this set to rise to five million in 2020 ( The Children’s Society). Many of us working in education, children centers, nurseries and as childminders will be working with children who are living in poverty, maybe some of us are also living in poverty. Poverty is such a hard thing to talk about, many people find it shameful. This book doesn’t solve the answers, but it does help children to understand it’s not just them, it also reminds practitioners who find this hard, to think about how it can be for some of our families. This is a book we should all add to our resources.

Swimming to deal with stress

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Life can be stressful, but sometimes when we work with vulnerable people we take on their stress. An important question to ask is whether the stress you’re feeling is your own or someones else stress. I first heard this idea from Louise Bomber in her book Inside I’m hurting, an excellent book about working with children with attachment difficulties, she talks about how easy it is for staff to take on the stress and trauma of the child they are working with and encourages us to ask the question is this my stress or someone else’s.

Over the last few days, I have been feeling increasingly agitated, at first, I thought it was down to the persistent rain and the grey sky, but over the weekend I have realised it’s the stress and worry I have taken on from a school and 2 children. It’s not my stress, but it feels like mine, it has been impacting my sleep, leaving my jaw feeling tight and causing me to feel doubt about what I am doing. This morning I realised this isn’t my stress, these are not my feelings, I have taken these on from somewhere else. Having that moment of realisation was really helpful but I also knew I needed to act on it.

We all have different strategies to deal with the impact of stress on our body, but I know for me the main way is to swim and if possible outside in cold water. Over the last 6 months, I have been cold water swimming regularly and it has helped me feel so good. Particularly as the water gets cooler, the shock to skin, the way it makes your heart race, cold water swimming forces you to be in the moment, to be mindful, to forget what is on your mind, to forget any tightness in your body, and once you have started swimming and began to adjust to the cold you feel so alive and so happy ( that’s my experience). This afternoon I went to a new spot to swim, Clevedon marine lake ( a tidal pool) It was a fantastic swim, it was cold, but not too cold yet ( around 13 degrees), it was seawater, which I love, but in a tidal pool, I really enjoyed the feeling of being in the safety of a pool but in seawater. The endorphins kicked in and I felt fantastic when I got out, eating whiskey cake and a warm drink afterward also really added to the after experience!. I now feel ready to go into the new week, I feel calmer, happier, more relaxed and prepared for the new week.

Recognising feelings and emotions

 

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This week it is world mental health day on Thursday 10th October, a day when many organisations, nurseries, and schools will be focusing on promoting positive mental health and wellbeing. Raising awareness is so important, however, one day a year or one wellbeing week a year in a nursery or school is not enough to embed practice. One area that I have been thinking a lot about recently is how we enable children to have a wide emotional vocabulary and understanding. If we can help children from a young age to understand the feelings they have, to be able to interpret what is going on in their bodies, then we are setting them for a good foundation of emotional wellbeing.  

Along with this is helping children to understand we all have a wide range of emotions and that is ok, we don’t have to be happy all the time. Over the last few years I have worked with a few children who have a fixed smile on their face, at first it is easy to think they are happy, but once you spend time with them, you realise it is a smile that comes out of a place of feeling uneasy, unsure, a bit scared, and they don’t know how to express these feelings. We need to help children to understand it is ok that they are not happy all the time, they can be sad or angry or jealous or scared, these feelings are normal. The problem is when we think happiness is a state we should aim to be in all the time, this can set us up to feel like a failure. As adults we need to model and show children that we all have wide range of feelings and emotions and to be able to name them, part of this is by regular acknowledging how we feel and noticing how the children are feeling- ‘ Lily I can see you are feeling tired and a bit sad today, that’s ok, would it help to spend some time sitting quietly together and looking at a book?’ or children I am feeling a bit worried this morning, I have lost my keys, I keep looking for them, do you think you could help me find them. A rich emotional vocabulary needs to be what we constantly hear in our early year’s settings.

If we can help children to have an emotional understanding and vocabulary from a young age, we are equipping them with a tool for life. I often come across adults who have a really limited emotional vocabulary, they find it so hard to express appropriately how they feel, or they feel guilty about not always feeling happy with their life. This is an unnecessary burden to carry through life, as early years workers we can help to change this. 

I am being interviewed about emotional literacies by Kathy Brodie on her Early Years summit if you want to hear this and many fantastic interviews a link is here

There is a growing range of resources we can use to help children understand feelings and emotions and to support mental wellbeing. A few books I have written are:

Mummy’s Got Bipolar 

Can I tell you about Bipolar disorder- ( for children aged 7 plus)

Promoting Young Children’s Emotional Health and Wellbeing: A Practical Guide for Professionals and Parents