Category Archives: early years

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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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.

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!.

Transitions

 

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Schools in England and Wales are back this week. A new start for teachers, support staff, and children. Transitions are essential for new starts, the whole process of buying new school shoes, school uniform. For four years old, having conversations about school, trying on their new uniform, walking past the school and looking through the fence during the holidays. For children going into year seven trying out the journey before school starts, conversations about how they will do lunchtimes, whether they take lunch with them or have lunch there, the agreements over what food it is ok to have for lunch and what is not. For staff, preparing new resources, planning, these are all part of the transition preparation.

There are so many transition preparations that we do, that we can often forget about the significance of them. The first term for me in my nurture role is all about transitions. I have worked with staff and met the new children at the end of the last term, I am hopeful that the schools have put in place my recommendations for the individual children. There is a danger in this current climate that we can be inclined to rush transitions. I know many schools who are now choosing to have their four-year-olds start in school, full time from day one. I know some in Oftsed recommend this, and many parents would prefer this. Personally, I think the staggered start is better for children and teachers. I am often told again and again that children are in the nursery for so many hours now, the staggered start does not make sense anymore. However, a nursery is very different, even with reception classes following the EYFS, a nursery is not the same as school. Starting school is stressful, often the buildings are big, they are often noisy, there are different rules, there are more children in the class and fewer adults to support you. I believe children need time to adapt and staff needs time to get to know the children. We want children to start school from a positive place, we want children to feel supported and safe in school, we need them to have a good wellbeing, this is essential. I believe by staggering the start, even if it is by a week of half days and then a week of half-day and lunches and then third-week full time, this slower start helps children to get used to the changes, it helps children to become familiar with the changes. Of course, for parents, this can be really hard to manage with their time, and I do understand that, but I still believe for children’s good wellbeing, a staggered start is better.

In my family we have a big transition this year, our youngest is going to University in a few weeks, we will have moved over the last few years from a household of four going back to being two. This year our daughter has had a gap year, we have talked a lot about transitions, for her and for us and this has been good. This summer my husband and I have been away for quite a few weekends, partly work, partly seeing friends, partly time away together, to remind ourselves of the importance of quality time together. I am so aware it is easy to let changes happen without really planning or thinking about it, so I have tried to be very intentional and aware and to prepare ourselves for the next transition.

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.