It is half term this week, many reception children are exhausted and have often gone down with lots of bugs. Starting school is hard work for a four year old, and it is hard work for the staff who work with them. All the staff I am working with are happy for half term; this is a time to slow down.
I have noticed in this new school year increase in staff feeling more stressed. I have especially noticed an increase of pressure on teaching staff to be doing more ‘ formalised teaching.’ This is hard for early years staff who know that in the first few weeks it is essential to help the children to settle into school, get to know the children, help them to feel safe, secure and they belong. I am increasingly noticing the pressure we are now putting onto our reception age children and their staff. This year feels worse than the year before and that concerns me.
So for staff who feel under pressure, who are already feeling very stressed and anxious, this half term is a crucial week for them to do something for their wellbeing and their mental health. It is a week to be kind to themselves, to do some things that make them smile and feel happy. Earlier in the year, I did some research to find out what people do to help their mental wellbeing. The most popular answers are below:
Spend time with family
Cook and eat nice food
Walk the dog
Be in the woods
Half term for me is a chance to catch up on writing for training and writing my next book, but I know that I also need to be mindful about wellbeing, so when I return to the new term, I feel refreshed and ready to support the nurture children and staff. I plan each day to something that makes me feel good, yesterday I read the new Philip Pullman book, today I plan to go for a walk with my family, I know those small things will make a difference.
My next book Promoting Emotional Wellbeing for Staff will be out in December.
On Tuesday this week, it is world mental health day. We know that there is rising level of stress and anxiety in adults ( as well as children). In 2015 there were two survey’s with teachers and early years staff, they found that 79% of teachers were considering leaving the job due to stress (Espionza 2015) and 59% of early years staff were also considering leaving the job due to stress (Crown 2015). As a nurture consultant, I work in primary schools, I work with teachers and TA’s, and I have noticed a higher number of staff who are becoming more stressed and feel unsupported, and feel the pressure is growing too much. This concerns me; we know that if our wellbeing is in a poor place then we are unable to support and increase the wellbeing of the children we support. There is growing recognition within the education system about the importance of helping children’s wellbeing, but I believe there is still a lot of growth to be made in supporting staff wellbeing.
Earlier this year I was asked by Jessica Kingsley Publishers to write a follow-on to my book Promoting young children’s emotional health and wellbeing , they wanted a book focusing on staff wellbeing. During the time of writing this book I was aware how there are many aspects of job stress and anxiety which are out of our control to change. However being aware of what helps our wellbeing is a good step towards taking back some control, putting this into our daily or weekly routine can help us to take some steps towards improving our wellbeing.
I have learnt over the years that an important way to help my wellbeing is through having regular times of silence and stillness, I manage this in different ways, through swimming each week day morning, through spending time outside and practicing mindfulness. The best for me is swimming outside in the sea, but I don’t get to do that as often as I like from living in Bath!.
I think there is a real strength in thinking about what helps our wellbeing. It will be different for everyone, I am a morning person, I thrive on early mornings, so the early morning swim works perfectly for me, but for many, this would be deeply painful!. Although many things need changing in our education system, there is without a doubt far too much pressure being placed on teachers and early years staff, and this can leave us feeling very disempowered. However, if we can work out what helps our wellbeing and put some of that into practice, we can begin to move forward, and we can start taking steps towards improving our wellbeing and mental health.
We know that for years mental illness has been a taboo subject, this is beginning to change and shift, but it can still be an area we find it hard to talk to children and young people about, particularly young children. I grew up with a mum with Bipolar, I knew she was ill, both Mum and Dad spoke about her illness, but no one ever named it. As I got older I heard about cancer and so presumed my mum had cancer and that she was going to die, I filled in the gaps, I made up my own story to explain what was happening. That is what children do. I found out what my Mum’s illness was when I was 14 in a school assembly which the charity Mind was taking, they described manic depression ( as it was called then) and I had a light bulb moment, I suddenly realised that is my Mum.
I firmly believe we need to help children to understand about mental illness, we need to give them the words to explain the illness, and we need to help them feel safe and know they can ask questions. If we don’t talk about it, this is suggesting it is shameful, if we don’t acknowledge our feelings around it, this is unhealthy for everyone. Bipolar and mental illness is still a taboo subject with some of my extended maternal family, they still feel embarrassed and awkward. This is so sad and can leave a legacy of hurt and confusion.
Sometimes it can be hard to find the right words to explain a mental illness to children and young people, and we can be worried about using the wrong words. I want to reassure people it is better to be open and honest, it is better to discuss and explain rather than keeping quiet. Many excellent websites can help you to find the right words. Ones I would recommend in the UK are Mind and Mentalhealth.
Books and films are also an excellent resource to explain to children. I wrote a book last year called Mummy’s Got Bipolar this has just been turned into an animation which is a free resource on youtube, over the summer I also wrote a book for JKP called Can I tell you about Bipolar, this will be available in February 2018.
Image by Jon Birch in the book and animation
This week I have started writing the last chapter for my new book on the wellbeing of adults who work with children. The chapter’s focus is on mental wellbeing, so often when we are stressed, anxious and are wellbeing is low, we lose focus on how we look after our brain. An important aspect of looking after our mental wellbeing is through ongoing stimulation and learning. The learning doesn’t have to be about formal learning; it can be about learning new skills, and mental stimulation can be through creative and cultural engagements. However, this needs to be an intentional act, an area that we actively think about and choose to partake in. When we are deeply tired, this can feel very hard, but maybe that is the time when we most need to engage and help our mental wellbeing,
Yesterday I posed a question to early years practitioners about how they improve their mental wellbeing. I had some great responses about engaging in learning through books, web training, reflective practice with colleagues, being involved in yoga, gardening, knitting, spending time outdoors.
I have recently been working on my metal wellbeing by extending my learning and my creativity through foraging!, since a study trip to Denmark around seven years ago I have become fascinated in foraging and what you can cook and make from the foraged food. This spring I have been experimenting a lot, some more successful than others. I have discovered a few foraging people on Facebook who I now follow. I have made nettle soup, nettle cordial ( not a success!) dandelion and wild garlic salad, wild garlic and nettle pesto, wild garlic bread and dandelion salve for tired muscles; the dandelion salve that one was a great success foe my general wellbeing. Today I am going to make a nettle and honey cake, and I will see if the elderflower in our local playing field is out for me to make my yearly elderflower cordial. I love the creative process of experimenting and making new things with my foraged goodies; I am fascinated around what we can eat and make from the weeds in my garden and the lanes around my house. It is engaging my brain in a way that is gentle but enjoyable, and for me, it is a great way to switch off from work and my nurture cases.
My encouragement today is thinking about how you are looking after your mind and your mental wellbeing, what could you do today that would gently help your mental wellbeing?
This week I read a piece by the Henri Nouwen Society about choosing to find joy. They propose that finding joy is an act we can choose to engage in. So often it easy to think that joy is something which people have when they are in a job they love, when they have money and all is well for them. However joy can be something that we choose to engage in, this is not to negate from the feelings we have at difficult and painful times but it is to recognise that we can still find joy in moments of deep hardness. It is often so easy to get stuck focussing on negative thoughts, feelings, and actions. The challenge is to look for the joyful moments. For me, this is particularly important when we are working with children who present with challenging behaviors and lives. The children I support through my Nurture work can at times present with deeply challenging, sad stories and lives, which can lead to very challenging behavior. It is so easy to get stuck in problems, in the moments that have gone wrong and forgot or not notice the glimpses of joy. To choose to see the moments of joy takes a very purposeful and mindful decision. Choosing joy can often be about noticing and picking up on small details. One way of practicing an intentional act of finding joy is through taking time at the end of each day and asking the question, “Where did I find joy today.”
This morning I found joy while walking in the early morning, I saw a deer, rabbits and a buzzard, I found joy while picking wild garlic to put in the bread I plan to bake today. Where will you find joy today?
This is an article I co-wrote with my 17 yr old daughter for the Church times for mental health week.
Recognise and use emotion language with your teenager. Acknowledge how they are feeling. You could use words such as ‘I know you are feeling upset about falling out with your friend, it’s ok to feel cross and upset. When you are ready I am here to help you think about a way forward’. Make sure you don’t belittle their feelings or come up with immediate solutions for them, be there to hear them and listen to them. Help your teenager to use emotion language with themselves; many people learn at a young age to self-criticise, the words we say to ourselves can often be harsher than the words you would say to a friend, children and young people learn to do this at a young age. Help them to use kind words to themselves e.g. ‘I know I am feeling scared, that is ok and normal, it’s an exam, every 16 yr taking exams is feeling scared right now.’
Teach your teenager to be kind to themselves. If we can teach our teenagers to be self-compassionate, we are offering them a great life skill. Learning to be self-compassionate starts with having a good emotional vocabulary as mentioned above. Being kind to themselves is particularly important for girls and boys who are high achievers and have high expectations. Encourage them to recognise when they need to take a break from working hard, e.g. go outside, listen to their favourite music, read a book, have a drink or eat some food that makes them feel good. During exam time or when they are feeling very stressed, ask them each day, ‘what will you do today that makes you happy?’ Encourage them to think about things that are life giving to them e.g. seeing friends, going for a walk, doing some art, doing yoga, going for a run.
Help your teenager to navigate between being independent and having support. Summer Mainstone-Cotton (age 17) says ‘As teens, we think independence is expected of us from ourselves and society, however as teenagers, we are not fully grown yet, we experience so much turmoil during our lives during this stage. Yes, we are independent young adults, but we are still partly children. We need parents to support us emotionally through this, without being patronising, we need parents to empathise with our struggles instead of being judgmental, e.g. a 6th form student may not have enough time in their lives to balance school work, social life and earning money and they should not be pressured to. A teenager might feel overwhelmed with school or home, to nurture themselves they need social time outside the home/school with friends, they need to be supported in this.’
co-written with Summer Mainstone-Cotton. Photo by Summer.
On Monday 8th May it is the start of mental health week in the UK. On Monday the 8th May it is also the start of SATS week for year 6 children in England, (for those reading this in countries other the UK, SATS are exams for children aged 10/11 in their last year of Primary school). This feels very ironic.
As we know there is an increase in the number of children with a mental health disorder, Young Minds suggest there are 1 in 10 children in the UK with a diagnosable mental health disorder ( that is roughly 3 children in each class). I am writing this blog piece this morning as I am struck by the irony of how we can have an increased understanding about mental health, how we can have dedicated mental health weeks and yet we are still putting young children under a huge amount of pressure to sit a week long exam in year 6.
I fundamentally disagree with children in primary school taking exams for a week but it isn’t just the taking the exams that is the problem, it is the months and months of preparation that is around it. I have heard this year of some schools choosing to put in revision sessions during play times 3 times a week for months before, some schools sending home SATS papers from October for children to practice and practice, some schools sending home papers during the Easter holidays for children to do every day. Over the last few weeks I have heard locally of Yr 6 children who are self harming, I have had yr 6 children tell me they are worried, they want to do their best but they don’t know if they can, I have heard of yr 6 children waking up in the middle of the night in tears because they are scared. I work in schools and I used to be a chair of Governors, I understand the pressure that the schools and teachers are being placed under, the Government are constantly placing more and more pressure on schools and teachers but it is not ok for that to be passed onto children. I know there are some examples of schools that are doing a great job within the awful system. I heard of one school who sent a letter to their children telling them how wonderful and unique they are and that the SATS do not measure how awesome they all are, I know of another school that told children at Easter to eat ice cream, climb tress, enjoy the holidays.
Surely there comes a time when we need to speak out, when we need to challenge the government, when we need to challenge schools who are putting too much pressure on children, when we challenge multi academy trusts who run schools about how they are addressing the mental health needs of their children. How can we recognise and talk about mental health week and yet in the same week cause mental distress to thousands of yr 6 children?