Category Archives: early years

Supporting children to flourish

 

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This is my last week of the school year in my nurture role. The last few weeks I have been writing the end of year reports for the children and reflecting on the year. The joy of writing the reports is the opportunity to notice and remember the distance traveled with the child and school. The stories we hear in term 6 when we pick up our new nursery children before we start work with them, can often lead us to a feeling of uncertainty and slight nervousness of the year ahead. We need to be able to put that to one side and have faith that we can make a difference and see change. Then we look back over their first year in school and realise that we have all survived and often thrived and they are a different child to the one we first heard about a year ago.
This last week one of our team was reflecting on our role as being the job of building up confidence in others and giving faith and hope in challenging situations to enable staff and children to flourish and fly. I love this statement, for me, it is filled with hope and opportunity. As I look back over the last year there have been moments of pain and sadness and sometimes despair, but there have been many more moments of delight and laughter and joy, of flourishing and thriving.
I started term 6 anticipating it to be challenging due to workload, my aim for the term was to thrive it rather than survive it, and I was going to do this by wild swimming each week. The term has ended up being far more stressful than I could have anticipated, it has been incredibly busy but there have also been some huge and emotional family stressors. Outdoor swimming has been my oasis and has given me moments of joy to hold onto, I have managed 7 outdoor swims over the term. The highlight came this week when I swam with my team at Vobster quarry, it was a wonderful way to end our year, swimming together in a beautiful, peaceful location. There was a vulnerability with one another with some of the team feeling very nervous about the swim, but there was also a huge sense of joy and a feeling of flourishing at the end.

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Seeing the world through a child’s eyes

 

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This last week my nurture work has focused on photo journeys with children. Each child took photos of things that made them happy in school. The point of this exercise is to enable the adults to see the world through the child’s eyes, it’s also to hear and see directly from the children what brings them joy, what is important to them. This information is then shared with their current staff and will be used to inform their new staff to help them gain a fuller understanding of the child, it can also be used in reviews and assessments as part of the child’s voice.

This is a piece of work I have done many times over the years, what I love about this activity is how there are always new things I learn about the child. By this point in the year, I and the teaching assistants have worked closely with the child, and by now we have a good understanding about the child’s needs and how to support them, however, there are still new things we often discover.

The common thread with all my children this year has been outdoors, this is not unusual but it is a reminder again of how important it is for children to spend a lot of time outside, having space to explore, be curious, to try new things. A lot of the children took photos of play equipment and talked about how they could now climb /balance on them etc, with each of them they had a sense of achievement with this, which clearly brought them some joy and pride. One child took photos of trees and flowers, actively looking for certain flowers to photograph and he talked about how the flowers make him very happy.

With all my children the start of the school year was an extremely frightening, overwhelming experience, there was little happiness or joy for them being in school. It is such a pleasure to see these children identifying with being happy, understanding what it means to be happy and being able to show us clearly what makes them happy in school.

There are lots more ideas on how to listen to children in my new book Listening to young children in early years settings. 

Listening to children and promoting their wellbeing

 

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For over 15 years I worked with a large children’s charity working with schools, nursery’s, social services health services in how they listen to children and involve them in decision making. Then five years ago I started to work as freelance nurture consultant with a small organisation in Bath called Brighter futures, my role is to support 4 yr olds who have had a challenging start in life and are finding the move into school overwhelming and whose wellbeing is low. Over the last few months as a team we have been reflecting on our work over the last 5 years, we have been thinking about the children we have supported, the changes we have seen and the common threads. Taking the opportunity to look back I have been reminded how listening to children in the nurture role has to underpin all that we do, if a child does not feel listened to from at least one adult, then they will not have good wellbeing.

The act of listening in my current role is not just about listening to the words that the child is saying, it is about listening to the behavior, to the facial expression, to their body language and the sounds they may make. A few years ago I worked with a child who growled, when she was overwhelmed. When she became agitated she would start to growl, quietly at first, almost under her breath and then as she became more distressed the noise would rise. She didn’t have the words to say I can’t cope, she needed adults around her who were able to listen to her sounds and recognise what was happening for her, to come along aside her and support her.

Children’s poor wellbeing is such a huge issue in the UK right now, three years ago I wrote a book about how we can support children’s wellbeing. I believe there are many reasons for our children having low wellbeing, the increasing stress of families, communities and of the country really does not help. I recently delivered some training where it was suggested to me that listening to children in this time of high stress and austerity was a luxury, I was told that staff did not have the time for this, there were too many things they were being expected to do and listening to children takes precious time that they did not have. Yes, listening to children does take time, you can’t rush it, however, if we ignore what a child is telling us, if we show them we are too busy and have too many other important things to do and think about, then we are paying a huge disservice to those children and we are contributing to their poor wellbeing.

This week I had a new book published with Jessica Kingsley publishers titled Listening to young children in early years settings, a practical guide. This book explores the links between listening to children and children’s wellbeing it is also has a lot of practical ideas and suggestions on how we can listen to children.

Lost words

 

Over the last few weeks, I have been thinking a lot about The Lost Words. In 2017 Robert Macfarlane wrote a book based on the lost words that had been left out of the children’s Oxford English dictionary. The words that had been left out were based around nature. The book was illustrated by Jackie Morris, I think it is one of the most beautiful books I have seen, and since it’s publication I have bought several copies for family members. Some of the words include conker, ivy, bramble, dandelion, otter, starling.

 

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The lost words book inspired an exhibition of letter cutters, curated by the lettering arts trust which opened a few weeks again in Snape Maltings, my husband is one of the artists who exhibited, he carved the word, Otter. We went to the opening of the show, this reminded me again how so many of our children are becoming disconnected with nature and the world around them.

 

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The last few weeks in my nurture work we have been exploring nature, looking for bugs, making nature pictures, finding beauty around us. These are sensory activities I regularly do with the children I work with, but the last few weeks I have been more intentional about naming all the things we find. Naming dandelions and forget me not, the blossom from the tree, naming the birds we see, sparrow, robin, blackbird. I want to make sure the children I work with know these names, by knowing names it helps us to connect, by connecting with nature we are more likely to want to take care of it.

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.

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.

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