Category Archives: mental health

Wellbeing in outdoor spaces

 

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Today I ran a workshop for 90 children ( 3 separate groups) of year 4 &5 children (8-10-year-olds) at Wells Cathedral. It was part of the Bath and Wells Diocese education team  for  mental health awareness week. The theme for the day was wellbeing. The theme for my workshop was how outdoors helps our wellbeing. We were located in a walled garden, full of beautiful trees, plants, and some very old gravestones. My aim was to offer the children some space to enjoy being outside, a chance for them to slow down, notice and find moments of joy in the space. Research is repeatedly showing us how important the outdoors is for our wellbeing, we are also continually hearing that children are disconnected from the outdoors. I wanted to offer the children some time and space to connect with nature.

The session was incredibly simple and spacious, we first did some barefoot walking, we all engaged with bubble breathing and finally, I invited them to explore, discover and be curious about the space around them. I had books about flowers, birds and bugs and The Lost words book, I also had plain postcards and drawing materials which they could use if they wanted. The children were encouraged to engage with the space around them and they did. Some sat in front of a flower or a tree and drew it, others went on bug hunts, others spent time reading and looking at the ancient memorial stones. One child sat listening to bird song and was identifying the birds she could hear, other children made daisy chains and some experimented with dying the postcards with the flowers and leaves.

At the end of each session we talked about how they felt, some of the words they used to describe their feelings were peaceful, calm, joyful, so happy, full

The focus of all my work is on children’s wellbeing, I know how important the outdoors is to their wellbeing, I write about it, I train about it!. However, it was wonderful to see and hear the children today experiencing joy and calmness and engaging in the outdoors, there were moments when I was really moved by how they connected to nature.

So often we think we need to entertain children or teach them, but sometimes the best opportunity we can give them is the space to explore, be creative and enjoy the wonder of the world around them.

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Mental health awareness week and yr 6 SATS week

 

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This week is mental health awareness week, mental health is talked about a lot more now, which is no doubt a fantastic and vital thing. However, for me, there is also an irony with this week being mental health awareness week as it is also Sats week for year 6 children across England ( 10 and 11 year olds) and if there was evidence of a week when thousands of children, teachers, and parents will not have good mental health, it is during Sats week. The pressure around children passing these papers is huge, it has never been great, when my daughters were in school there was some pressure, but it appears to be increasing year on year. It is common now for children to take practice papers in schools from the September they start year 6, revision sessions being provided for children for months in advance, and parents being encouraged to buy revision material. The emphasis on the Sats in yr 6 has led to the  curriculum in year 6 becoming very narrow, with the focus on teaching to the Sats paper. There are a growing number of myths about Sats and the importance of them, a recent survey found that 1 in 4 children believed their Sats results would affect their job prospects- this is of course wrong. My major concern with the Sats testing is how this is causing huge pressure on our children and negatively impacting their mental health.
Over the last few months, I have heard an increasing number of parents reporting how stressed their children are about the Sats, how their children fear they will fail, that they are not good enough, worried that if they fail their Sats they will then fail in Yr 7 and will never get GCSEs. I am sure this is not the message that schools, teachers and head teachers want to pass onto children, however when we put a huge emphasis on children passing a test at the end of Yr 6, when we continue to get the children to take revision papers all year, this will inevitably cause some children to feel huge pressure and a fear of failing.

We repeatedly hear that in the UK we have a growing number of children suffering from mental illness. In the UK 10% of children aged 5-16 have a clinically diagnosable mental health problem (mental health UK website), these are the ones who have been diagnosed, there will be other children who have not been diagnosed. There needs to be change, we need to take this seriously and we need to act. We need to look at the wide range of causes that are impacting on children’s mental health. For me, one of the areas we need to look at is how we are testing children from a young age. With the issue of testing children, there are a growing number of head teachers, educators, and parents who are lobbying for change. The group of More than a score has lots of information about ways in which we can all lobby our MP’s, speak to our children’s school and to try and bring about some change. I would encourage you to have a look at their website.

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.

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.