Category Archives: stress

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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

The labels we use

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Over this last week, I have had the chance to stop and rest. At the beginning of the week I had a strong urge to find some wildness, I felt that I needed to physically let go of what was in my head and what I was carrying in my body. I wanted to stand on a cliffside with the wind blowing around, to feel a sense of letting go and breathing deeply. I was able to go to Zennor in Cornwall for two days and walk to Zennor point, on the cliff top, with the wind whipping around me, there was silence, and awesome beauty. Standing on the cliff I felt I was able to let go and breathe deeply. There is something about this process that helps me to begin to rethink and begin to question. I was aware that I had labelled last term as being hellish.  Having time to stop and let go enabled me to question if this was really true, if it was the whole picture. One of the questions I have had is around the labels I use for children, situations and myself and how easy it can be for those to shadow my view.

I like to think I enter into work with a new child with an open mind, we are given information about the family and the child, I meet and observe new children and use those observations to inform my thoughts and plans. However, I am aware that it can be easy to allow the views of previous settings and parents to shadow my view. It can be so easy to see a situation within a deficit model, to label and fear the worst for a situation and allow that to impact my expectations and views. I have noticed this term that I was beginning to carry the views of a deficit model around in my head, viewing and labeling situations in a negative way, rather than seeing the positives or being open-hearted and minded about a situation.

I have a few children I am working with this term who will be making significant changes and transitions during the coming term. One role I have is to send information on that will support new practitioners/ carers working with the child. I have recently been writing this for one child. Looking back I realised that at the start of September I had low expectations, I anticipated the term to be hugely challenging with this one child and setting, but that hasn’t happened. Instead, I have seen progress made by the child, I have watched the child’s ability to engage with joy and an unexpected tenderness. I have also been moved by the commitment and openness from the setting, and the dedication to make this term the best they can for the child. It has been wonderful to see and reflect on. It’s unusual for me to reflect on a child and the progress made this early on in the year, as we don’t usually write a mid-year report until December. However, writing and reflecting now has helped me to see how the expectations I initially had were totally wrong. It also helped me to see where something went really well, this exercise has encouraged me to go back over all the other children and list the positives, the things that have gone well, the moments that were good from the last term. This has been a good exercise to do, to help me re-label the last term and see it through different lenses.

Making plans for your wellbeing

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At the start of last week, I spent a team day with my team. We did an exercise thinking about how we wanted to develop this year, how we wanted the team to develop and what we were going to do this year for our wellbeing. I spend lots of time thinking about wellbeing, it’s an essential part of my job, it’s what I write about!. But I really appreciated the act of taking time to stop, think and commit to paper and publicly say to my team, this is how I want to support my wellbeing. By sharing this with the team I felt that we were making ourselves accountable to one another. I love that I work for a manager who prioritises this at the start of the year, that as a team we were saying to one another this is important, as individuals we need to take care of ourselves but also as a team, we need to look out for one another.

My plan for the year to support my wellbeing is to find opportunities to swim outdoors. I have spent the summer engaging in lots of outdoor swimming and I have written about this on numerous occasions, but during this summer I realised just how important outdoor swimming is for me, I feel calmer, I feel alive and I often feel such joy. There was an article in the Guardian yesterday about cold water swimming helping with mental health and depression, I don’t suffer from depression, although anxiety is something I often have lurking in my head and chest. I have certainly found the outdoor swimming has become a very mindful practice and one which stills my mind and helps my anxiety.

As we enter a new work year ( school year in my case) I think it is really helpful to set out, write down our intentions for how we will support our wellbeing throughout the year. I know there will be times in the coming months when I will feel very stressed, and to have thought ahead about what will help is a good exercise. I am not sure yet how much outdoor swimming I will manage throughout the winter!, I have a colleague who swims weekly in a local river, throughout the year, I am planning on swimming with her sometimes, hoping that I can cope with the cold. But realistically I realise I may not manage it in December – February! and that’s’ ok, this is not an exercise about setting goals and then feeling guilty if I can’t achieve them, this is an exercise about thinking, recognising what helps in those times I feel very stressed. This weekend I started as I hope to continue, I swam in a beuatiful spot near to us, in a local river. It was cold, but I felt so wonderfully alive and joyful during and after the swim.

For more thoughts and ideas on supporting your wellbeing, I have a book called Promoting Emotional Wellbeing in Early Years Staff.

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.

What will help your wellbeing this week?

 

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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:

 

Be outside
Spend time with family
Cook and eat nice food
Run
Swim
Walk the dog
Be in the woods
Crochet/ Knit
Sing
Draw
Read
Watch films
See friends

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.

How to nurture your teenager

 

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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.