Category Archives: mental health

The summer to slow down and re start creative thinking

 

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These last few weeks have been an opportunity for me to slow down, in term time I spend half my working week supporting 4 yr olds with social, emotional and mental health needs, the other half of my week is for writing and training. I have learned over the years that as the term moves on and as the school year progresses I feel less creative, I have less energy or headspace to think and dream.

Over the last few years, I have created a pattern over the summer holidays which works for me. I have worked out what I need to recover and relax; this starts with a family holiday for a week, usually somewhere remote where there are very few people, big open spaces and water to swim in. During the first weeks of the summer break, I spend time resting, reading, I will do small pieces of writing work in a gentle un-rushed way. Then usually by week 3, I start to dream and imagine, to have creative ideas about possible side projects. Then towards the end of the summer holiday, I will start to plan and prepare for the new children. I am not yet in the stage of being ready to think about the new term, I am still in the stage of needing to be gentle to myself, allowing myself to dream, think, and try out creative ideas. I have learned to love this stage, I never used to think I was a creative person, but being married to an artist for 27 years has shown me and encouraged me to be creative. I used to be afraid of trying out something new, especially if it was something public, but I have learned to be brave, to try things and it’s ok for them to not work.

Over the last couple of years, I have also realised that I need to spend the summer holiday intentionally taking care of myself, and I have learned the key ways to do that are by wild or outdoor swimming and spending time outside. These are intentional acts, knowing that I will need to feel relaxed and rested at the start of a new school year, but I have also learned that wild swimming and being outdoors is often the time when I have more creative ideas. If I have an idea for a new book I will often go for a walk to sort it though in my head or swim to help me clarify something that has been buzzing about in my mind.

I have three weeks left until term, still time to creatively think and gently try new things, and plenty of time for more swimming!

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Thinking about mental health

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I have spent the last few weeks thinking a lot about mental health, mainly because my Mum is really struggling with her mental health at the moment but also the last two weeks I have spent a lot of time talking to staff and parents about anxious children. One of the reflections I have had is that when someone is suffering from mental health it impacts not just the person but many around them. One problem is this is such a difficult thing to talk about because we don’t want to make the person feel guilty. There is, of course, nothing for them to feel guilty about. However, poor mental health always affects more than just the sufferer. Talking about mental health is less of a taboo than it used to be, and that is a good thing, but I think talking about the impact on surrounding people is talked about less.

JK Rowling writes about the dementors in her Harry Potter series, she has talked about how the idea of dementors came about from her experience of depression. I think this is such a good description, depression and anxiety suck the life out of you, it sucks away the joy of life, which is exactly what the dementors do in her stories. The problem is this doesn’t only impact the person, it also impacts those around them. When a child is highly anxious in school, they will often show this through very challenging behaviour, leading to the staff feeling distressed and often de-skilled as they feel unable to help or support the child. When a parent has a child who has been excluded due to their challenging and often distressing behaviour, again the parents feel worried, anxious and don’t know where to turn for help and support.

There are no easy answers in all of this, but one small thing that is needed is for people around to notice, and offer support. This week my colleague Fred called me and popped in for a tea in the middle of our day between schools visits, he knew my Mum was ill and he wanted to check in that I was ok. This meant so much to me. This small act of kindness and noticing made a huge difference. I think sometimes we can feel de-skilled when we know depression and anxiety is affecting a family or a school. When I delver staff wellbeing training I regularly talk about the need to support our colleagues. If you know a teacher or teaching assistant in your school has had a tough day due to being hurt by a distressed child, check in with them, ask them if they are ok. If you know a friend is struggling with their anxious child and the child has been excluded for the day or refusing to go to school, check in with the parents, ask how they are.

The other question you can ask for those surrounding the person with mental health difficulties is what small thing can they do help themselves feel well. They need to be well themselves to be able to support the person who is mentally ill. Thinking about their own mental health is so important. I write a lot about how swimming helps me feel mentally and physically well. On Thursday this week, I knew I needed to swim outside, the weather was awful, but I knew outdoor swimming would help me. I swam in our local Lido, in the pouring rain and it was the best decision I had made all week. It felt wonderfully refreshing, it allowed me to let go of what is in my head, it was cool, but that was I needed, the rain was at times heavy but that just increased the mindfulness of the experience. I am looking forward to my next outdoor swim this week.

How to thrive during term 6

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During half term, I have been thinking a lot about how to thrive during term 6. Term 6 is often the busiest term of our year, we take on new children and end with the children we have supported all year. From the last 5 years, I have learned that by the end of term 6 I am exhausted and drained both emotionally and physically. I love my job as a nurture consultant with 4 year olds, it’s incredibly rewarding and challenging which works well for me, however, I realised I often spend term 6 in survival mode not thriving and I want to change that.

Over the last few years wild swimming and outdoor swimming has become a key part of my summer, last year I managed 23 outdoor swims over the spring and summer months and that was great. Last week I had time away in the Peak district and then the Lake district, I discovered a Lido in Hathersage at the beginning of the week and then I swam in Wastwater Lake at the end of the week. The swim in the lake was probably the most beautiful wild swim I have done. The water was amazingly clear and fresh, and the lake is surrounded by stunning mountains, including Scafell Pike. It was a cold swim, this is the deepest lake in England, but I decided I wanted it to be my first wild swim of the year without a wet suit. It felt amazing, the endorphins I got from this swim were fantastic! yes, it was cold, but it was so worth it. Since returning home I swam yesterday in my local favourite swimming spot in a nearby river and again this was wonderful. I have known for years that swimming really helps my wellbeing, both mentally and physically, that is why I swim five days a week in a local pool. Last year I began to realise that wild swimming particularly helps me to feel great. Knowing this I have realised that is what I need to do to thrive term 6, I need to swim outdoors at least once a week. So that is my aim, to swim in the local lidos and to swim in the river, I have booked it in my diary, to help me make sure I remember. I hope this will increase my wellbeing and help me to thrive this term not just survive this term.

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.

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.