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What helps your mental health and wellbeing?

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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.

 

 

 

 

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Taking the time to stop and listen to children

 

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The children I work with have now been in school for four weeks, I have spent the time watching, observing, listening and getting to know them and then assessing them using the Thrive assessment. From this week we start the intervention work, the Ta’s and I start working together with the child to build up their sense of feeling safe, feeling they are special and meeting their needs.

During the observation period, it is so important to see the world through the child’s eyes; we often focus on what overwhelms the child, what they find hard but I also love to discover what it is that excites them, that they are fascinated by. Once we glimpse this, we can then incorporate this into the nurture work and sensory work we will be doing. We know that children respond well when they are doing activities that link to their interests. I am always encouraging early years practitioners to follow children’s interest, and I believe we need to do this also in the nurture role.

This year some of the interests are Thomas the tank engine, owls, and dinosaurs. One little boy told me this week, with such passion and depth of feeling how he “adores owls” as he told me about his love of owls he put his hand on his heart and said “ I love owls so much’. Until this conversation I wasn’t sure what made him happy, this one conversion brought him alive, his eyes were sparkling, he was animated and enthusiastic, this was the first time I had seen this response. Another child loves Thomas the tank engine, the one way to engage him is to talk about Thomas and the characters.

This week I will be hiding Thomas and his fellow engines in lavender sensory rice, I will be hiding dinosaurs in crazy soap, and I will be playing with owls, fabric and boxes. I know from experience that keying into the child’s interests and incorporating this into the nurture activities will engage them, it will help them to feel they have been noticed and valued and help them to feel special. It’s amazing how much emotion language you can use with Thomas the tank engine or a dinosaur!.

Belonging

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This week I have been reflecting on the need we all have to feel that we belong, the dictionary definition of belonging is: has a place, fitting in, being included. This week has been the start of the new term for many pre schools, nurseries, and schools; many children have started nursery or school for the first time, both infants and senior, some adults have begun new jobs. For some those first few days can be overwhelmingly scary and frightening. In my nurture role, I have the privilege of being with four-year-olds. Watching these little ones start at their new school this week, I was reminded again of how much they need to feel that they belong, that the school needs to be a place where the children feel they fit in, where they are wanted and will be included.

Knowing that you belong is a feeling, you know when you do, you also know when you don’t belong. I believe as people we all have a desire and need to belong somewhere, this is in the groups we are part of, the faith groups, our work places, our places of education, our families and our friendship groups. I can think of many times when I have been in places, groups that I felt that I didn’t belong, I felt that I didn’t fit in, that I wasn’t understood, where I knew my voice was not being listened to, this left me feeling sad, isolated and unwanted.

This week I have seen some children who have coped wonderfully at the start of the new term, they have been excited, they have felt they had a place, and they belonged. I have seen other children who have been desperately sad, who have been overwhelmed by being in a place they did not feel was for them, a place they felt they did not belong. At these times it is so important that the children have calm, soothing adults around them who recognise and acknowledge their worries and fears. They need adults who are using emotion language to acknowledge and recognise their feelings; at these times it can be useful to use a script, e.g., “I can see you are feeling so sad about being in school, it’s ok I am here for you”. When a child hears this, they know the adult has recognised their strong feeling and worries they know they have been heard. Often what children hear after a few initial soothing words are the words ‘it’s time to stop crying now,‘ these words can make a child feel more isolated and scared.

There are simple things which help children to feel they belong:

The start of welcoming a child warmly by their name as they arrive is an important beginning. Most settings have named and pictured pegs and drawers for children in nursery and primary school, this can help them feel they have a place. However, some children then need further guidance, an invitation to find a book or join in an activity, with some children they need a member of staff to guide them and support them to the carpet/ activity/ book corner. This sounds obvious, but it is not always remembered in the rush of the morning arrivals. For the child who is feeling overwhelmed they need the gentle guidance and support from a trusted adult. I often think it is in the first few weeks of a new term that schools could benefit from having volunteer workers. A few calm, safe adults who can be there to sit with children, welcome them, guide them to the activity/ book corner, this frees up the teachers to speak with parents. Reception classes often have one teaching assistant. However, one TA to help settle up to 30 children can be a big challenge. If there are additional adults, who can reassure the children, listen to their stories about their journey arriving, look at their conkers, hear about the runaway dog, etc. then children arrive feeling welcomed, feeling they have a place, it helps them to feel safe and secure. By being welcomed and settled well the children are then ready to learn and explore that day. However, if a child arrives and feels scared, overwhelmed, frightened it will take them a long time to calm, to regulate and they will not be ready to start learning.

Being thankful

 

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This week I have have been writing a chapter on emotional wellbeing. For part of this, I have been thinking about the practice of gratitude and how this can enhance our sense of happiness and wellbeing. Sonja Lyubomirsky has written a book called The How of Happiness, she is the professor of psychology at the University of California and has spent years researching happiness. One conclusion from her research, this is also echoed through Brene Brown and Kristin Neff’s research is the positive impact regularly practicing gratitude can have on a persons life.

Lyubomirsky suggests keeping a gratitude diary or noticing and giving thanks regularly in the moment.

It is so easy to get caught up in the difficulties, the problems, the negative aspects of life. This can be a particular danger in my nurture work, where some of the children are regularly displaying challenging, unhappy, distressed behavior. There is some staff I work with who wait to tell me the long list of things which have gone wrong that week, and that is ok, I am there to hear those, to support them in their frustration, but I also need to be able to see the glimmers of hope as well. One way I try hard to practice gratitude in my nurture work is by thanking the child at the end of our session together. I will tell them how much I have enjoyed being with them and playing together that day. I will find one thing to focus on that went well, this maybe ‘ I love the way you enjoyed the sand today’ or ‘I enjoyed playing bubbles with you today and watching you smile and laugh when you caught them”. This act of expressing gratitude to the children helps them to feel valued and wanted, and it helps me to find the glimmer of hope in the work.

Gratitude is sometimes for the big events and others for the fleeting moment. I have had both this week, my Dad was taken critically ill in New Zealand while visiting my sister at the beginning of this week but is thankfully now recovering and doing well, I feel so grateful for him surviving. I have also had moments of gratitude while being in the sunshine and enjoying the spring flowers growing in my garden.

It is worth taking a moment to think about what you are grateful for from this last week.

Searching for signs of change

 

 

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This week I started back with my nurture role. January can often feel very hard,  the children take a while to adjust to being back in school and the routines, staff often don’t feel hugely relaxed after the holiday and everyone is slightly niggly about being back in school. January is a time to go back to basics; I often revisit activities around emotions, this week I will be using homemade lavender play dough and emotion games and revisiting the characters from the film Inside Out.

Importantly January is also a time to see the glimmers of change, to remind staff of the positives, the good things we are seeing, the changes we have seen over the last four months. This morning I was thinking about these changes as I walked in the meadow and through my garden. My thoughts were around the changes we have seen in the children, the small glimmers of hope that remind me that the work is having a positive impact. As I walked and reflected on this I noticed some daffodil bulbs just beginning to emerge from the earth in my garden; another sign of hope that things will change, spring is not far away, hope is ahead of me.

Finding wild spaces

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Today I have been seeking out wild spaces, as a family we drove into the beautiful peak district and then walked high in the hills, surrounded by the magnificent surroundings.

I felt a longing to be in a wild place, to be outside seeing beauty, this may have partly come out of two days of long car journeys, but is was also a recognition in myself of needing to be reminded of the possibility, to see the beauty, the wonder of what is around us. I find being in a wild place offers me a reminder of all the possibilities ahead of me; this felt very timely as we begin to move into the new year.

There is something about wild spaces that feeds the soul. This last year I have been writing a book about children’s wellbeing, this inevitably led me to think a lot about my wellbeing and the wellbeing of others I work with, particularly the staff in schools that I support. I am often thinking about what helps adults and children’s wellbeing, and I think in my top 5 list would be experiencing wild spaces. One of my plans for 2017 is to spend more time in wild spaces.

Photo by Summer Mainstone-Cotton

Finding space

 

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When your working life is filled with talking to adults and children, hearing people’s stories, being present for people, by the end of the week it can be a relieve to find some space and silence. This was how I felt yesterday afternoon, it has been a busy week and ended with delivering training yesterday morning, I felt in real need of some space and beauty.

In the afternoon I went to see an art exhibition which my husband had work in, it was in the Bishops palace at Wells. Afterwards, we walked through the gardens and found a garden of reflection, this was a beautiful, quiet space, with a large white wall and seated area, in the space your eyes are drawn up to the sky. In this space, I found the silence, space, the beauty my soul was desiring.

I think we know when our heart and body is telling us we need to find space and silence, we need to learn to tune into those messages. Just by spending 20 minutes in this space, in silence, I felt enriched and nourished.