All posts by soniamain

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

Sensory mindful walking

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The last few days I have been intentionally walking around the community meadow slowly, mindfully, with the idea of really noticing how spring is developing. The meadow is a space I regularly walk around, sometimes it is a space where I walk to wake myself up, other times to work through problems in my head. However the last few days I have been wanting to be more mindful, intentional and notice the changes that are happening. Yesterday I spent around 20 minutes listening to all the bird song, there was such a range of birds, starlings, great tits, sparrows, magpies, robin, and a wren. Often I am aware of lots of bird song, but I haven’t always noticed the wide range of birds in the meadow.

Over the last few weeks, I have been thinking about how busy and noisy a lot of our schools and early years settings are. With lots of background noises, often a bombardment of visual things around the classroom, often busy schedules and timetables. There is little time to slow down, notice, find some stillness. I do believe that our busy, noisy lives are contributing to our children’s and our own mental illness.
With this in mind during this next week I am going to be doing some sensory spring walks with the children I work with, walks where we listen, smell, feel, notice, where we have un-rushed time to see and discover what is around us, where we can get in touch with our senses and our environment. These mindful walks are a good way to introduce some slowness and quietness to children.

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The danger of wellbeing becoming a tick box exercise

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During this last week, I delivered a wellbeing session to primary school staff. One difficulty we have at the moment is that wellbeing has become such a buzz word, we now have a market place with numerous books ( one of them being mine!) podcasts, magazines, training ( again I do that), and in many ways this is a good thing, it is getting wellbeing and mental health talked about, it is being taken seriously. However, there is a danger that this can also sometimes cause people to switch off, or to become cynical, a friend told me recently she had gone on some obligatory wellbeing training at work and it was so patronising, telling her to do yoga, eat fruit and exercise, she said it also felt like a tick box exercise, enabling her workplace to say they have covered wellbeing. She felt nothing had been discussed on how they can deal with the stresses in the workplace or the pressure they are under at work.
As a writer and a trainer I think this is quite challenging, in my training sessions I explore small changes people can take individually that can help themselves, and I think this is useful and can be valuable. I also look at changes managers can make to support their staff. But working in education I am also very aware that we are in danger of paying lip service to the idea of wellbeing, I know of many schools who now hold a wellbeing day or week, where they try mindfulness, offer staff and children free yoga sessions, have fruit in the staff room, have books about mindfulness and wellbeing for people to look at, do fun activities with the children such as doing activities outside or art projects for the week. Then the next week they go back to endless Sats preparation tests, pressure on the staff to meet unrealistic targets, expecting 4 yr olds to sit and fill in worksheets etc etc. I guess what I am saying is we do need to promote wellbeing and we do need to support our staff and one another and we do need to take care of ourselves, but we also need to look at the wider system. We need to embed wellbeing practice and not have it as a one off, we also need to question what is happening to our education system that so many teachers and early years workers and head teachers are leaving. Sometimes it is time to speak out, to challenge, to write to our MP’s and the education secretary, to get behind organisations such as more than a score, campaigning for the government to not go ahead with testing for 4 yr olds. Also to challenge our multi academy trusts, headteachers and governors to not just put on wellbeing events as a one-off but to think about ways they can embed wellbeing into the ongoing practice of the school.

I know that individually we can not change the Sats testing, or the pressure headteachers have of meeting unrealistic targets that have been set for them. However, if lots of people speak out, and say they want something different for their children and the staff in their schools, if school communities start to work together to explore how they can make small changes to improve wellbeing for everyone, if wellbeing was on the agenda as a positive difference, not just a tick box, then I believe we can begin to see some changes.

The photo above is from a murmuration of starlings, I watched these last night and was struck by the beauty and power when large groupings work together. For wellbeing to change in education we need to pull together and speak out.

Spring term

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My half term has been full of gardening, reading, and writing, a great mix for me. I wrote for a few hours each morning to move the new book on and then spent the rest of the time reading for fun and gardening. We all need to work out what rest and relaxation look like for ourselves, I find gardening helps me to totally switch off from everything else that is going on. I have a large and unruly garden, my garden is quite wild ( my argument is the birds and animals love it), I am hopeless at growing things in straight lines, it never looks neat and ordered. But my garden brings me huge joy.

This last week has been a week of preparing the garden and greenhouse for a new season of growth, I have been clearing away brambles, cutting back dead raspberry canes, clearing away weeds and cleaning the greenhouse; then last night burning all the dead brambles and twigs. Now I have cleared away the old I can start beginning to plan and think about what I will plant, how my vegetable plot will look this year, what flowers I want to grow from seed and begin planting new seeds.

Moving into the spring term I am aware I feel very hopeful, it may be the sun has really cheered me up, having a week in the garden has certainly been a tonic for my emotional and physical wellbeing, but also the spring term is often one which is more settled, the children I work with and the schools have generally reached a rhythm and routine that works, it is often a term when we begin to see progress, new growth, and development. I am aware that spring brings me hope, the hope of warmer days, the hope of growth in my work and in my garden, the hope of positive change ahead.

Connecting

 

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This last week has been children’s mental health week, there have been many good postings and information about the importance of supporting children’s mental health, knowing the signs to look for etc. Within the nurture role, all of our work is about promoting, supporting and enhancing children’s mental health and wellbeing. We are now halfway through the academic year, I have been reviewing and thinking about the children, families, and staff I work with and reflecting on the distance we have traveled, thinking about what has worked and not worked. This last week I have been particularly thinking about connections, how as a nurture consultant I connect with those I work with and how important connections are to mental health.

Building trust and a connection with the children, staff, and families is vital for the nurture work. I have learned that the work is only able to develop when a connection and trust is made with everyone involved.. This takes time, I ask a lot of the staff I work with, I need them to trust that the work I am doing will make a difference, I need them to carry out my ideas and suggestions when I am not there, I need them to be open to trying something and it not always working straight away, I ask them to be open to having an ongoing dialogue about what we can all do differently. They need to feel that I have listened to them, that I see and hear how hard and frustrating their job can be. In my experience building a trusting connection with staff takes time, it can not be rushed. With some schools, it can take a few years before I feel I have really connected and built a strong trusting relationship with the staff.

My connection with the children needs to be around understanding them, seeing the world through their eyes, listening to them, knowing what brings them joy and what terrifies them. I think one of the essentials in supporting a child’s mental health is for them to have adults around them who they can trust, who help them to feel that they are loved and they belong and who are interested in them. If I have a child who loves dinosaurs or trains or ponies or whatever their interest,  then we will make sure those occur in our nurture play, my aim is for the children I work with to feel that they are safe with me, that I am delighted to see them and that I know them.

Some of our work is also with parents and carers, although we don’t spend a huge amount of our time with parents and carers, the times we do meet are crucial. So many parents and carers can feel worn down, fed up with professionals, mistrusting, anxious and worried. I think connecting with parents and carers can be the hardest part of the role, partly because I see them a lot less. I am aware that it is so easy as a professional to be seen as the expert, particularly to parents, and this can be really intimidating. I work really hard to be approachable and make it clear I don’t have all the answers. I try to be honest with the parents I work with, I will often tell them, if it is appropriate ,that I am a parent and I know how parenting is the hardest job. To connect with parents I need them to know I am not judging them and I need them to feel that they have been listened to and understood.

We all need to feel that we have been heard and listened to by someone, I believe this is such a fundamental part of helping our mental health.

 

I have written two books looking at children’s and staff mental health and wellbeing they are published with Jessica Kingsley Publishers and are also available on Amazon

 

I am

 

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One reason I love my nurture role with 4 year olds is having a year to help a little one to believe they are amazing, to know there are adults who love seeing them and spending time with them, to help them know they are special and unique and wonderful. If we can help a 4 year know that, I believe this is giving them such a good start to life, a strong foundation to believing good things about themselves. We all know that is too easy to grow up with negative ideas about ourselves, negative thoughts, that our internal script can be one of I cant do….

Over the last five years, I have been really challenged in thinking about my own internal script, reading Brene Brown and Kristin Neff has hugely helped this. In the last few days, I have been giving this some more thought, a few days ago my friend Will wrote a piece about an exercise he did where he wrote 100 I am statements. Will and I both work in similar fields, we both work with children who have social, emotional and mental health difficulties, we are both self-employed and over the years we have weekly checked in with another. We have been friends for over 20 years and we have an honest relationship with one another where we can ask the other challenging questions. This last year has been a really tough one for Will and from this experience, he is reflecting a lot on the messages he lives under, the stories he tells himself. This week he wrote about an exercise he did call 100 I am statements. he wanted to challenge his thinking and believes. He describes this exercise as:
100 statements of I AM. Let me tell you that although this is not an easy task it has incredible power to change and shift your thinking about yourself. The list should include things that you would like to define your life. These are statements that you would want to shape your inner dialogue, and simply by changing the words that define your concept of self and choosing the words that you opt to place into your thoughts you take back control of how you see yourself.
The idea of doing 100 seemed huge, but I liked the idea of the challenge, so I gave it a go. it’s a really powerful exercise to do, in my experience, I just did it without over thinking it, this worked for me as it felt authentic. A number of my statements began with I am a woman who…. , this was interesting as when I read back over it I realised how important it is to me, that I identified as a woman who is capable and able to live life fully, a woman who can be creative and imaginative and able to lead as well as being nurturing and supportive. There is so much talk about self-care and supporting our own wellbeing at the moment, I am part of that, I have written a book on wellbeing for early years staff. However, writing these statements reminded me that no matter how much yoga, exercise, mindfulness, good sleep, good eating you do, if your inner messages are negative, if your self-script is one of I can’t rather than positives I am, then this will eat away at your wellbeing, this will impact your mental health. 100 statements is a lot, but it felt like the right amount of challenge. On reflecting on my list I realised how much I have changed over the last 5 years, I don’t think I could have written that list 5 years ago. I recognised that all the statements I had on my list were ones I believed not just ones I aspired to be. I realise that is largely thanks to reading Brene Brown, Kristin Neff and going on Ian and Gail Adams retreats.

Support in parenting teenagers

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Most of my work life has been with early years children, when I had my own children I was terrified at the idea of them becoming teenagers, I felt that all I heard was how awful teenage years were, so many people told me that our girls would be demanding, challenging and horrible. Our daughters are now 19 and 21, they have both left home, they are successfully adulting! and one is planning a wedding in 18 months time, we all survived and not only survived but had some wonderful moments along the way. I realise now people rarely seem to talk about the wonderful times of parenting teenagers. Thankfully when our girls were pre-teens and teenagers I worked in a team with colleagues who were fantastic at working with young people. I learned through their work and conversations that teens are not to be feared! and parenting does not always have to be a battle. I sometimes did pieces of work alongside colleagues with teenagers and saw that so many of the skills and tools that work with early years also work with teens, you just adapt them. This was so helpful for me to see.
I am not an expert on parenting teenagers or working with teenagers, we were so incredibly blessed that our girls found great friends and were not very challenging. However, I learned from my colleagues that in the teen years you need to be present, you need to listen, you need to be there, not just physically but importantly with your attention. This is the same with young children of course, but I think with teens this even more important.

I am a huge fan of turning to books for advise, ideas. There were a few I looked at when my girls were in the teenage years, but not that many that I found helpful. In the last few years, I discovered the book Brainstorm: the power and purpose of the teenage brain by Dan Siegel. I often recommend this book, and this week I have found myself recommending it several times to different friends and staff in schools who have teenage children. This is the book I wish I had read when my eldest was 11. This is the book I think every parent who has an 11 year transitioning to senior school should be given!. This book gives insight into how the teenage brain is working, the massive changes they are going through ( no it’s not all about hormones, it is about the changes in the brain). This book helps you understand what is happening, to be compassionate about these changes and helps you to reflect on your parenting style and how you can support them. But most of all this book is positive about teenagers.

I think we need to hear more stories about when it goes well with teenagers, we need to hear more about the joys of parenting a young person, of watching them develop and grow into independence and becoming an adult. Yes there are also some sad and hard stories and I am not denying the hard feelings with these, but there are also some good stories. Looking back I wish I heard more of people telling me that teenage years were not to be feared, I wish I heard more of parents telling me what a delight their teenage children were and I wish I heard more of the joy that teenagers can bring.

Supporting children’s emotional wellbeing and social skills through playing board games

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We are in week three of the new term, this term a big focus of my work is helping the children I support to grow in confidence and to be able to manage their strong feelings when things don’t go the way they want it to. This term I am loving board games!, they are becoming a key part of each session with children for the term. Board games were really popular when I was a child and when my children were little, but they seem to appear less often in family homes, I think one reason is they have been replaced with games on screens.

The reason I love using board games is they help to teach children so many skills, turn taking, waiting, listening to others, resilience when someone else wins or you come last, you notice other peoples reactions and faces and are able to extend the emotional language and understanding. Games are also great for extending children’s language and communication and with some games encouraging early counting skills; they also often bring lots of laughter and joy. My favorite games at the moment are Rocket Kerplunk ( a variation on the old Kerplunk), pop up pirate and lotto games.

It is not unusual for children across the ages to find it really hard to be with other children, to understand the social skills around waiting, turn-taking, listening and increasingly they have low resilience in being able to cope with things not going their way. May practitioners who carry out intervention work with children across the ages will use board games to support this. When a regulated and calm adult is scaffolding and supporting the board game play, this can be a safe space and a safe way for the child to work on these skills. I have also found that children and young people are happy to chat about their day, how they are feeling, what is going on for them when they are engaging in a game.

In this time of an increase in technology, many children are losing out on the chance to play board games. Often children are playing screen games on their own, the screen games do not teach the same social and emotional skills. My main encouragement to parents and staff who support children, is to play lots of these sort of games. I was encouraging parents before Christmas to buy the child a board game for Christmas. In the post-Christmas time now is the time to find board games in charity shops! with lots of families making space in their house or children have grown out of some of the younger games, now is that chance to buy a great variety for little money.