Category Archives: mental health

Finding calmness in this hectic time

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For schools in this area, this is the last week of term, this can be one of the most challenging weeks of the year, very excited children, very tired staff. Some schools and nurseries will be doing plays this week, many places will be having parties. In my experience, lots of children can find this last week really hard. The routine has changed, they are tired and excited, they can be stressed and anxious and sometimes excited  about plays and parties. This is a big range of strong feelings, and some children will find this hard to manage and some staff too.

In the role of nurture support workers our team does a lot of work with children and staff about using calming techniques, we all use mindfulness both for ourselves and with the children we support. During these last weeks, many of us have been making calming bottles with the children we support as a tool to help them during these challenging weeks, a guide on how to make these can be found on pinterest. Many of the children we work with can find change very overwhelming and there are so many changes at this time of year. Change in routine, wearing different clothes, changes to the environment, there can be different and loud music playing in the school/ nursery, lots more people coming in and out of the setting. For some children, this is overwhelming and can be frightening. It’s at these times when knowing and using calming techniques are so important. Some schools and nurseries use mindfulness daily with children, teaching children these skills as part of a daily routine is such a good way to embed this practice with children, giving them vital life skills to help them with regulation. But even settings which are not already using these strategies, it is not too late to try them. My suggestion over the next week is finding some time each day for a time of stillness and quiet, a time when you all can stop, be still, be aware of your breathing, this will help both the children and the staff.
A few ways to do this are:

Finger breathing – click this link for a tutorial

Starfish breathing- a youtube film for this

Bubble breathing- have a pot of bubbles each, dip the wand in the bubble mix, take a deep breath in and breathe out through the bubble wand and repeat a few times. Explain to the children that while doing this you are watching and noticing the bubbles.

With all of these, explain to the children that these are helping you all to stop, notice your breathing and find some calmness.

In January I am speaking about using mindfulness with young children on a free  pre school mindfulness summit clink this link and it will take it you to their website for more information.

 

 

 

 

 

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The story we create in our head

 

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I am someone who can catastrophize I learned this from my Mother, she has Bi-Polar and part of her illness is negative voices in her head of everything that will go wrong; unfortunately, they didn’t stay in her head and she would often speak them out. I know I can easily fall into this trap, thankfully I am now aware of it and mostly I can stop myself, but sometimes, particularly when I am tired, it catches me unawares. A practice of Mindfulness and self-compassion has helped to calm this but I need to continue practicing them. Brene Brown writes about the stories we create in our head, I think this is such a helpful phrase, she encourages us to stop and question what is the story that I am telling myself? is this real? do I know this to be fact? or am I just presuming the worst?

In the last few weeks in my work life, I have needed to stop myself and ask is the story I am creating and presuming about the nurture work/ training/ writing the real story or one that I am making up and presuming the worst. The one thing I have learned through the nurture work with four-year-olds is that stories can change, hope and change is always possible, we don’t always know what that will look like, but we can believe that things will change.

I try hard to create a curiosity about the stories I have in my head, why am I thinking that? do I know that is true? where is this coming from? from fear or fact? Thankfully I have an amazing husband who is great at spotting the negative stories and I have a fantastic supervisor who will listen and question the story and help me to see the story in my head is not always the real story.

Being authentic about wellbeing

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This week I have been guest lecturing in Weston Super Mare on an early years degree course on the subject of staff wellbeing. This was a fantastic opportunity to speak to people at the beginning of their career. I have spent the last 5 years writing and reflecting on wellbeing for children and staff. Through my nurture work with four-year-olds and their staff I have been able to see how crucial it is to embed good wellbeing practice into our lives. I am really fortunate to work with a team who value and support one another in putting this into our daily lives, as a team it is crucial that we are authentic in living this ourselves, we can’t offer ideas to offers if we don’t root this in our own lives.

I have recently been reflecting on what it means to authentically live this out. There are so many ideas and books out there about what you need to do to improve your wellbeing, so many voices shouting loudly about how you just need to change … or start…. then all will be well. The problem is making longterm change is not easy, it can be easy to start something, be excited about it, shout loudly about it, but then get bored, and move onto the next thing, try the next super new idea and then start shouting about that.

The joy of talking to students at the start of their career is they have the chance to embed some life-affirming, good practices now. If they can put in place some good habits, good wellbeing practice now, then these have a great chance of sticking with them. I have been reflecting a lot recently on what good wellbeing practice looks like, I think an essential element is about habit forming, doing something that is good for you regularly, that becomes part of your daily, weekly rhythm. There are a few routines, rhythms that are vital for me, swimming on a Monday-Friday, this is a mindful, contemplative time, walking around the community meadow on a Sunday morning and meeting a friend for a morning coffee most weekends. There is nothing radical in these rhythm’s, but over the last 7 years they have become an embedded part of my life, they are life affirming and life enhancing.

I have written a book for early years staff about embedding wellbeing, it’s aimed at early years staff but the ideas, practices and research are relevant for anyone.

Talking about mental illness with children

 

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Although mental health is high on the agenda, with many people including celebrities talking about their mental illness and an increasing awareness of mental illness in teens; I think as a society it can still be hard to talk to children about mental illness. I think there is still a worry that if we use the words depression and mental illness, that children will not understand or become fearful. Even with all the discussion and acknowledgment about mental illness, with new celebrities and sports stars coming out each day talking about their struggles, I still think there is a stigma. Sadly I think there is still pain and shame felt amongst families when they talk about the mental illness in their family. A friend of mine Will Taylor is an excellent child counselor, he has recently written about his own struggle with depression and how some people have told him they wouldn’t want to go a counselor who has had depression. To me, this suggests that some people still view mental illness as something that is shameful.

I firmly believe we need to talk to children from a young age about mental illness, we need to use the correct language and help them to understand what is happening, by doing this we break down the stigma. Obviously, we need to do this in an age appropriate way, in a way which helps the child to not be scared but to give them enough information to help them to understand what is going on. A common held misbelieve is that children will not notice, they will not be aware when a parent or loved one becomes depressed. However, we know that children pick up on the smallest of changes, they know when something is different. I grew up with a mum who has Bi-polar, I was a child in the 70’s when depression was never spoken about. I have memories of being 5 and recognising the warning signs that she was becoming ill, they were small, but I noticed. She would give us extra money to buy sweets, she would start baking lots, this was always the begining of a manic episode. These sound like tiny changes but I noticed. My Dad talked about my mum being ill, but it wasn’t until I was 14 in a school assembly that Mind was leading, and I heard the term mental illness and realised that was what my Mum had. Until then I had presumed she had cancer and that she would die. If we do not use the correct words with children, if we do not explain what is happening, then children will fill in the missing gaps, and often get it wrong. Our role as adults is to help children to understand that depression, anxiety, bi-polar, schizophrenia etc are all mental illness, they are not something to be afraid of, or to be ashamed of, we can talk about it.

I do appreciate that it can be really hard to find the words to help a child understand, for me that is where books and films can be so helpful. I have written two books and an animation for children of different ages to help them understand Bi-polar. But there are a growing number of good resources about depression. Below I have listed and linked some of the ones I really like. On Wednesday this week, it is mental health day, there will be lots of discussions all week about mental illness, and that is great, but I would like to encourage people to talk to children as well.

 

Mummy’s Got Bippolar– Sonia Mainstone-Cotton

Can I tell you about Bipolar Disorder– Sonia Mainstone-Cotton

Mummys’ Got Bipolar animation

Can I tell you about anxiety- Lucy Willets and Polly Waite

Why are you so sad: A child’s book about parental depression– Beth Andrews

I had a black dog – Matthew Johnstone

Pretend Friends: A story about schizophrenia and other illnesses can cause hallucinations- Alice Hoyle

The wise mouse- Virgina Ironside

The illustrated Mum- Jaqueline Wilson

 

 

The joy with large, wild and deserted spaces

 

IMG_0005I have just spent the last week with my family visiting three islands Arran, Islay, and Jura. It has been a week of slowness, exploration and wild swimming. All 3 islands are beautiful and abound with wildlife. Significant amounts of time were spent watching and noticing, looking for golden eagles, trying to spot otters, laughing at seals playing, noticing hares run by, seeing highland cows on the beach and family swimming in freezing cold water and loving the experiences. This week I have really enjoyed the wide open spaces that the islands provide and I have loved the quietness and lack of people!.

I spend half of my working week supporting children in school who are finding life challenging. This is a wonderful but also at times intense job, involving lots of emotional regulation, being present for staff and children. By the end of the school year, I am aware that I long for space, quiet, fewer people. I also spent a lot of time talking and writing about wellbeing. By the end of July, I know that for my own wellbeing I need to be outside, fully embraced and surrounded by nature for an extended period of time. I have learned over the years how restorative being in nature is. Florence Williams in her the book The Nature Fix: Why nature makes us happier, healthier and more creative, explores evidence from across the world on how being in nature helps our mental and physical wellbeing. She talks about a recent increase in the idea of Forest bathing in Japan, this is basically about people spending time in forests. It is viewed in Japan as a preventive therapy, as a way of counteracting ‘karoshi’ which means death from overwork. The effects of being in forests have been measured with hundreds of people by Chiba University researchers. Their research showed that a casual walk in a forest had a 12.7% decrease on the participant’s cortisol levels and 103 % increase in the parasympathetic nervous activity ( Relax state) (Williams 2017).

Over the next few weeks I will be writing, planning, thinking and dreaming about the next academic year and beyond. I hope that this time spent in truly wild places has helped my creative thought processes.

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