Category Archives: early years

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.

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The need to support colleagues

 

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When you are working with vulnerable children, there are some weeks which are truly challenging. I have just come to the end of one of those weeks, to be honest for a whole assortment of reasons it is one I would be happy to not repeat again. What has made this week bearable has been the emotional support from my amazing colleagues and manager.

I have been reflecting a lot on how we can support colleagues and what that can look like. Having the support from colleagues and managers can make such a difference. When you are working with vulnerable children, who are telling you in a multitude of ways they are hurting and sad, this can have a huge impact on staff. It can lead staff to question themselves, it can feed into their own vulnerabilities, it can leave staff feeling hugely stressed and sometimes traumatised. It is essential that colleagues and managers recognise this and support the staff.

I think there are a few things colleagues can do, these include:

Enable the member of staff to get 5 minutes break, offer to take the child/ class and encourage them to get a drink and take some time to breathe. Tell them it is ok that they finding this hard.

Check in with staff at the end of the day and a few days later. Ask how they are, ask how they are feeling.

Remind staff to take time out at the end of the day/ on the weekend to take care of themselves, this might be spending time in the garden, going for a walk or a run, reading a book, anything which enables them to slow down, breathe and be kind to themselves.

Give time and space to talk through what has happened, this is where supervision is so important. If you can’t provide this as a school/ nursery/ team then signpost to where they can go. Some organisations have a free telephone helpline to talk things through, others bring in outside supervisors. Supervision is crucial.

What made a difference for me this week was the support of colleagues and particularly the fantastic support of my manager. Also after one particularly challenging morning I  spent time in a stream, standing, breathing, being still, enjoying the sounds and feel of the water, that made such a difference to my wellbeing.

Small steps to wellbeing

 

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Over the last few weeks, I have had many conversations with friends and colleagues about adult wellbeing. Within early years it has been high on the agenda again with a report form Preschool learning alliance showing that 1 in 4 people in the sector is considering leaving due to high stress.

Through conversations over these last few weeks, I have been reminded how hearing about wellbeing and knowing about the need for good wellbeing can sometimes feel very overwhelming if we are in a place of high stress and despair. I am beginning to wonder if actually, all the talk of having high stress and the need to have good wellbeing can sometimes lead us to feel inadequate and more stressed. I have heard speakers and read many articles where we are being told that we need to look after our mental health, we need to talk about feeling stressed, however sometimes all the ideas and solutions can also feel overwhelming,

Over the last few weeks, I spoke at Preschool learning alliance conference and on a podcast for Early Years TV with Kathy Brodie ( this will be out in a few months). My main reflection on both of these is that is ok to take small steps to well-being. Sometimes we can feel too overwhelmed to try the many different ideas, but if we can put one thing in place each day, this is making a small step towards improving things. I often encourage people to do each day one thing which makes them feel happy, this might be going for walk, reading a book, sitting in the garden for 5 minutes with a cup of tea. It will be different for everyone, but finding one thing each day which makes you happy, which helps you to smile, this won’t solve all your wellbeing issues but it is taking a small step towards a change.

For me swimming and wild swimming makes me smile, it helps me to feel alive and joyful and makes me feel really happy.

You can find more ideas for staff wellbeing in my book Promoting Emotional wellbeing for early years staff

Sitting with sadness and sorrow

 

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This last week has been a roller coaster of highs and lows. I have been reflecting the last few days on the need to sit with sadness and sorrow and how hard that can sometimes be. This week my parents have both been ill, with my dad having a heart operation which didn’t go to plan. I have also been working with children who have been deeply sad. Sometimes in life, you can’t fix things, I can’t fix my dad’s heart or my mum’s depression and sometimes I can not make it ok for the children I work with.

There are times when all I can do is sit with the pain and the sadness, there are times when there are no words to be said, there is no easy fix, we just need to sit and be. Being present, being there in body and mind.

But I can find that really hard, I am certainly a person who will suggest, offer ideas, in my work I spend my time offering thoughts and ideas to staff to support the children. I don’t fix things but I journey with the children and staff and find a way through. However sometimes there are no suggestions to make, sometimes you need to just be, to hold someone and let them cry, to show them you are there, at that moment, with them.

Sitting with sadness and sorrow can be tiring and hard. I have been very mindful of that, and very intentional to care for myself, my main way has been spending lots of time outside this week; walking in woods, walking alongside water, noticing flowers and birds.

Participation, art and children

 

In the past, I have collaborated with my husband Iain Cotton on various creative projects. Iain leading on the art and I lead on participation, drawing on both our skills and passions. Last week we had the opportunity to work together professionally, Iain has been commissioned to create a sculpture for Winterbourne Primary school. This was to be a project which involved the children.

We wanted this project to involve the children’s creative ideas, the aim of this project was to be creative, participative and inclusive. The idea was for Iain to carve words, chosen by the school, into a large sand stone boulder. It was very important to us both that all the children in the school would be involved in this project. We decided to get each child in the school to design a letter. There will be one letter for every child in the school.

The words that are being carved are:

 

St Michaels Church of England Primary School Winterbourne

Learn
Care
Enjoy

 

Enjoy the present
Educate for the future
Inspire with Love

Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.

We had many discussions about how we could involve the children in a meaningful way, this project was about inspiring the children to think about how letters are formed, about designing and creating. We wanted each child to design their own, unique letter. Iain will then carve each individual letter onto the stone. One of the challenges with this idea is, of course, the varying ability of the different ages. I knew that in reception and year one there are some children who would find it very difficult to write a letter, for this reason, we decided to use 2 materials, we used plasticine and coloured pens. I have used plasticine many times in participation projects, it is an excellent tool for children of all ages to use. It holds it’s shape well and works across the ages. With the children in reception and year one, we gave each child a letter which was in their name. This was important as they would be familiar with the letters in their name and were likely to be used to writing it. We knew for the children in the lower years it would be a challenge to design a letter, but our hope with using plasticine was that the children would be encouraged to be more playful with the material and this would come through in the letters they made.

With the children in reception and year one, we worked with small groups, enabling us to give them more support and attention. We involved our youngest daughter on this project, she is on a gap year and we knew an extra adult would be very helpful. Iain started the day with an assembly, showing the children photos of his sculptures and letting cutting work and introducing the idea.

We found such a joyous enthusiasm from all the children. We worked with the whole school over two days. The children in the lower years mainly used plasticine, this worked really well as it enabled them to be imaginative and make clear letters.The children from year 3 upwards mostly used pens to design their letters, but for those who found that hard they were able to use the plasticine and found a freedom with that. The children from year 2 upwards began to experiment and design a bit more using plasticine and drawing. With children in year 3 and 4, they really enjoyed making pictures with the letters, we had dinosaurs, cats, a shark and a flamingo as part of the letters. With years 5 and 6 we were seeing a stronger graphic design, with bolder, stronger shapes. They had more of an understanding of translating their design into stone carvings.

The process of designing letters with the children was wonderful, it worked across the ages, enabling children of different abilities to be involved.

Next stage of the process is for Iain to translate this all into carvings!. The letters from the lower years are going to make up the sentences at the bottom of the stone and then will go up in year groups. With the older children’s letters being used at the top of the stone. By putting them together on the stone in year groups this will help each child to find their letter, but also gives a lovely image of the children’s work developing across the ages.

It has been a fantastic project to work on together, it reminded us both of the joy of bringing participative and creative practice together.

 

Once this art work has been finished and installed, I will ad an updated blog posting.

 

Talking about mental health

 

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Talking about mental health is hard, my mum has Bi-polar disorder. I spent years as a child and teenager feeling embarrassed that my mum was different, back then she spent several times a year in the hospital, hospitalisation is what they did then. I eventually found out the name for my mum’s illness, but that didn’t really help me, the name didn’t tell me how to support her or what support she needed, the name didn’t give me or my sister any support. So I learned, I read everything I could, I spoke to consultants, I spoke to Gp ’s, I spoke to mental health nurses, I spent my late teens and early 20’s finding out everything I could. I wanted to know if I would also develop Bi-polar, I wanted to know about the medication and what it did and how it affected her behavior, I wanted to know if my children would get Bi-polar.

Over the years I started to insist on naming what Mum had, I realised it was nothing to be shameful of and that families needed to be able to talk about it. The other reason to talk about it is that where there is a mental illness, families need support. They may not always need support; but when a parent is having a bad episode the schools need to know so that they can offer more emotional support to the child. If an adult is having a low time they need friends to support them.

We know that poor mental health effects so many people, in so many ways, and it is unbelievably hard for the person with the illness. But it also affects the family and the people supporting the person. Mental illness can put huge strains on the whole family.

I still think we need to get better at working out how to support families/ people where there is mental illness. We still need to get better at talking about it.

Over the last few years, I have written 2 children’s books, one for younger children- Mummy’s Got Bipolar and one for older children- Can I tell you about Bi-polar Disorder. The aim of the books is to help inform children and adults about Bi-polar. One of these books has also been turned into a free animation. Links are below:

 

Mummy’s Got Bipolar

Mummy’s Got Bipolar animation

Can I tell you about Bi-polar Disorder?

 

 

Be the love

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It is the last week of term, the last couple of weeks have felt quite challenging in my nurture role. A number of the children I work with have been finding life particularly hard, and they show this in ways that can be quite demanding for everyone. This weekend I have been visiting family, while away we visited Liverpool Anglican Cathedral. As we walked into the building the choir were practicing, the space was filled with beautiful music and then I saw the Tracy Emin art work above the door with the words ‘I felt you and I knew you loved me’. I arrived in that space feeling shattered, quite stressed, my mind buzzing with the week ahead. The mix of the words in the art work and the music stopped me, forced me to stop, breathe, notice. Those words felt very pertinent to me, I have been regularly telling staff that the children we work with need to know they are safe, they need to know they belong and they need to know they are loved, isn’t that what we all need?.

Tracy Emin described the reason for her work

“The Church has always been a place, for me, for contemplation. I wanted to make something for Liverpool Cathedral about love and the sharing of love. Love is a feeling which we internalise; a feeling very hard to explain. I thought it would be nice for people to sit in the Cathedral and have a moment to contemplate the feelings of love, it’s something we just don’t have enough time to think about and I hope this work creates this space in time.” Liverpool Echo, September 2008

The idea of loving the children we work with can be challenging to some. Dan Hughes developed a model for adoptive and foster parents called PLACE ( sometimes called Pace)

Playfulness
Love
Acceptance
Curiosity
Empathy

This model is also used by many people who work children, including the team I work with. Dr Jools Page has also developed a model called professional love, which looks at how early years practitioners develop a professional loving attachment with the children they work with. Both of these models are helpful to remind us how essential it is that the children we work with know they are loved and accepted, these are both underpinning needs for a child to have a good wellbeing.

When we are working with children who are overwhelmed, scared, unregulated, as adults we need to be the calm, loving, trustworthy person for them. By consistently using scripts and reminding the children- “I can see you are …., I am here for you” we are accepting them, loving them and empathising with them.

When we work in this way it can be emotionally challenging for ourselves, it can be exhausting. We need to ensure that we are loving ourselves, taking care of ourselves, some of the ways we can do this are by eating well, having time to rest and if possible getting time outside, there are more ideas on our wellbeing in my new book Promoting emotional wellbeing in early years staff.