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?
During this last week in my nurture work, I have been thinking about how I help children to make good memories about their time in reception class. This is part of my thinking and preparing around transition work. For the children I am working with some transitions are the movement onto the next class at the end of the school year, and for other children, it is transitions of moving away.
One of the activities I do each year is get children to take photos of what they enjoy doing in school, the children love this, together we wander around the classroom and school, and they take photos of the things which are important to them and that they enjoy. I usually make these into a simple book for them, but this year I have bought scrapbooks, and I will print out the photos and get the children to stick in their photos and make comments about their photos. We will also take pictures over the coming weeks of activities they are enjoying in school; this might include a picture of their TA and teacher, hand prints of them and their friends. We will use this scrapbook together to share with their future teacher and Ta and then the child can take it home with them over the holidays, to share with family and remember their good memories.
As adults we have an important role in helping children to make positive memories about their time with us. Having positive memories that we can recall enhances children’s wellbeing and also our wellbeing. I know when I am feeling stressed or low I will look at photos of positive times with my family and friends , this helps me to remember times when I felt happy.
As well as thinking about how I help the children I work with to have positive times and good wellbeing I also need to be mindful of my own, so this morning I went for a walk with my husband in the local woods, looking for Bluebells and taking photos to act as a reminder.
In my work with children and my training, I often explore about how we can help children to have times of stillness and silence. In my recent book Promoting young children’s emotional health and wellbeing, I have a chapter exploring this. Currently, I am writing a book for Jessica Kingsley Publishers about promoting the wellbeing of adults who look after children, and recently I have been reflecting a lot on how as adults we need to have times of silence and stillness. If as practitioners and parents we want to help children to be able to manage a time of silence, then we as adults need to practice this exercise ourselves.
Our lives are often very busy and noisy, particularly when we work with children, we can often encounter a lot of noise each day. How often do we have background noise of TV, radio or music in our homes and sometimes work place, our streets are noisy from increasing traffic, living with and working with children is inevitably noisy. Silence can be difficult for some; it can lead people feeling uncomfortable and awkward, many people seek to fill the silent spaces.
Over the last few years, I have been interested in seeking out silence and reading about silence. Several years ago I was inspired by Sarah Maitland (2009) A book of silence. Since reading this I actively put rhythms into my life which enable me to be in silence. One of these is my early morning swim each weekday morning, the process of getting up in a silent house, while everyone else is sleeping is very precious, during the swim there is an agreement with the regulars that no one chats, the focus is on the swimming. On a Sunday morning, I walk around the community meadow at the back of our house, this is often at a time when no one else is around. Of course, there is rarely complete silence, on the walk this morning I could hear several different varieties of birds singing and the gentle noise of hot air balloons above me, but the lack of other noises allows me to notice and appreciate the sounds in the meadow.
Research shows that lots of noise can have a negative impact on our mental health, it can lead to high blood pressure and cause people to feel increasingly stressed (Gregoire 2017), in my experience children are also vulnerable to this and can become increasingly agitated with an increase in background noise levels. So my question this morning is when do you encounter times of silence?
Image of the meadow this morning.
These last few weeks I have been growing plants with children, we planted cress faces and planted peas in pots. I love the activity of growing plants with children, it is hugely sensory and the children I work with need many sensory experiences to help them feel calm and in touch with their feeling and emotions. Also, there is something very beautiful about seeing a child who can find life and school challenging to be supported to nurture and grow something; it can give them a massive sense of achievement. As I went back into school this week all the children were excitedly showing me the peas that had started growing ( the cress worked less well!). The children were all taking such pride in watering and checking on their plant each day. There is the risk the plants won’t grow; we discovered cress doesn’t survive the weekend without being watered, but the staff and I were able to support the children to understand this and think about what we could try differently. The activity of growing something with children is an excellent way to help them with their wellbeing. It gives them sensory experiences; we can use lots of emotion language while doing it, we can talk about the importance of being cared for and tell children ‘ my job is to care for you and together we are gong to care for this plant’.
I know many great examples of nurseries and schools who have gardens that children help to tend and look after, RHS have a schools project with ideas and suggestion on how your school or nursery can set up a garden. Many of the children I work with can find school work hard and a challenge. However they often respond very well to being outside and gardening, if they have support in taking responsibility for some of the growing they can often thrive and develop in this role and take real pride in what they have done. I wrote a blog piece about being outside last week and the research showing how good this is for our wellbeing and children’s wellbeing. Gardening is also recognised as an excellent activity for wellbeing; the charity Mind has many gardening projects across the country set up to help people’s mental health. I know for myself Gardening is one activity that helps me to feel calm, I find gardening a very mindful activity, I become totally focussed on the activity, and it allows me to switch off from everything else. I think this is the same for many children who are stressed and anxious.
This weekend I plan to spend lots of time in my garden and greenhouse.