There are times working with children when it can feel as if everything in front of us is misty and unclear. For early years workers and educators, there are clear guidelines about the development that children are expected to make. There are increasing numbers of hoops our children need to jump through and an increasing number of targets to be met. For some children these targets are set far too high; they may be aged four but they could be working at the development of a two-year-old or younger. It can be hard for the educators working with these children to know how to move forward, and how to scaffold and extend the child’s learning. The way forward can be misty and unclear.
My role is supporting staff working with children who are finding it hard to transition into school. These children often don’t meet the development guidelines for their age. I have had many conversations over the last few weeks about the way forward for these children, and about how we might adjust our expectations and our way of working to meet their individual needs. To find a different path through the mist. I am really aware that it is so easy in my role as a nurture specialist to advise, support and try to guide the staff, but the really hard work is for the teacher to be willing to step away from the usual path they take and to try new things. To take risks and to accept that the mist will probably not clear quickly. This can be a scary path to take and one which often means letting go of some control and being willing to be a co-explorer with the child.
Working with and looking after children is such a rewarding job. I love my role of supporting children in school who are finding the transition hard, but often this work can be challenging and draining. If we are not looking after ourselves we can’t look after the children we care for. If our own well-being is low, we are unable to care for and nurture children to our full capacity and we are unable to fully help them develop a positive well-being.
During the last year I have had many conversations with teaching assistants and teachers about how they look after themselves; encouraging them to think about how they nurture themselves and love themselves. These are such essential ingredients if we are then able to go on to love and care for the children we work with/ look after. Often this can be a challenge when we are tired and worn down, but this is when it is particularly important to take care of ourselves. It is only the beginning of a new term and new school year, but already I am seeing staff looking tired and stressed. This is the time when we need to start off by putting things in place to look after ourselves.
For a variety of personal and work reasons the last week had been a hard long week- some weeks are just like that. Fortunately, over the weekend, I had some nice things arranged to help feed and nurture my well-being. A mix of swimming in the sea at Dorset, watching red kites search for prey, and some moments of great laughter with old friends ; these have all really helped to re-nourish my soul and help me feel once again refreshed and ready for this next new and exciting week.
How long do we expect children to sit?
It’s a new term and I am back into schools, in reception classes. I have been struck once again by the need our school system has to make children sit down on the carpet. My gut feeling has always been that this is unnecessary for young children; more than that, it is unhelpful and unrealistic. This week I have seen 4 and 5 yr olds sitting on the carpet for over 30 mins; this is too long.
This week I read an article by Angela Hansom, who is paediatric occupational therapist in America- http://wapo.st/1xlsgMV;
she advocates that children (specifically those under 7) need at least one hour a day playing outside. She goes on to explain how children need “rapid vestibular (balance) input” every day. She describes this as the opportunity to go upside down, spin around in circles, and to roll down hills – all wonderful examples of outdoor play. By enabling children to do this, their balance system will develop effectively. Until this is effectively developed she argues children are not able to sit and concentrate. I found this really fascinating, for how often do we hear children being told by teachers, early years workers, and from parents not to roll down the hill, and not to hang upside down on the bars?
I regularly see children who really struggle to sit still, who fidget and roll around on the carpet. I see other children who are labelled as being naughty because they won’t comply with the rules of sitting for an extended period. My question is always why are we asking young children to sit on the carpet? What is the child telling us through their behaviour? how are we listening to children about what their needs are? Some of the best early years practice I have seen is from those practitioners who really tune into what the children are telling them and what children need; who have very limited times when the children are sitting on the carpet. We need to ensure that we enable children to play and learn through play and exploration, especially outside. We need to allow our children many opportunities to spin , roll, balance and hang upside down, and most of all we need to make sure our young children are not sitting on the carpet for too long.
our young children are not sitting on the carpet for too long.
Last weekend I went on a retreat led by Gail and Ian Adams – http://www.belovedlife.org; one of the questions posed was what is it that brings you joy?. I have been reflecting on this question all week, and one of my thoughts has been that if as adults we are not in touch and aware of what brings us joy then we will be unable to support and help children to be joyful and find joy.
Most children are brilliant at playing and laughing and expressing happiness, but we know that there are some children for whom their lives are very difficult and it can be hard for them to be in touch with those wonderful feelings and sensations that joy can bring.
Our role as educators, carers and parents is to help children to be in touch with their feelings and emotions, to help them to have the emotional vocabulary to express how they are feeling and to help them to understand the feelings they are experiencing. To be able to help children be aware of what might bring them joy we need to be aware of makes us joyful.
I think joy is more than happiness, it is a deep rooted feeling and emotion. Two things which make me joyful are gardening – growing food and flowers, and my early morning swims. I swim each weekday at 6.30 am this is a time when I feel really alive. I love the rhythm and movement of gliding through the water. It’s a wonderful start to the day. With gardening, it is the delight of seeing ( if the slugs don’t eat them) plants emerge through the soil and the fruit and vegetables that emerge. I get really excited at seeing the first shoots of a plant coming through the soil in the spring.
To be able to offer the children we care for the best of us and to help them to fully develop and grow we need to look after ourselves, and I would suggest part of this is by discovering and nurturing what brings us joy.
Over the last few years, I have been really interested in how we might help children find moments of silence. I think this is something which we so often presume children can’t do, won’t do, or won’t enjoy. In my personal life finding moments of stillness and silence has become so important. A place I often go to is the meadow which backs onto our garden. This is a space where I feel I can breathe, it isn’t completely silent as there are the sounds of birds, grasshoppers etc, but it is a space where I can encounter stillness.
We are now living in a culture which is full of noise and busyness, so often rushing on to find and do the next job. We know that our children are also often busy; many children today in school and nursery are having their time crammed with so many activates and then when they come home their time and space is filled with things to do, and places to be. There is very little if any time for children to be still, to encounter some silence, and some space.
When visiting early years settings in Denmark and Sweden I was struck by the lack of hurrying and the space they gave the children. The opportunities the children had to stop and look, to lie on the floor and gaze at the sky. Many early years practices in this country are learning from this, with a great rise in forest schools, which is brilliant. However once they get to school this often changes. There are often so many things they have to do, learn, fit in, during their first year and then this increases up the ages. I have spent the last year supporting 4 yr olds who are often traumatised and finding the transition into school very tricky. I have learnt increasingly this year that our children need opportunities for silence and space. They don’t always need the noisy environment we give them, and they don’t always need lots of things to do and see. Sometimes they need a space where they can stop, and where they can discover silence and stillness.
As adults, we have a vital role in helping children to learn how to encounter moments of stillness and silence. We can do this so easily, particularly by using the outdoors, helping children to notice what is around them, the bee on the flower, the spiders web. Encouraging children to lie on the floor and look at the sky, notice the clouds and the blue sky (or grey!). However to be able to do this with our children we need to feel at ease with finding moments of stillness and silence ourselves. We need to learn to be mindful about how we are and how we embrace those moments ourselves rather than always rushing onto the next thing without noticing.
On the news today, they have spoken about the rise in teenagers being admitted to hospital with eating disorders. The number has doubled in the last two years – http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsbeat/article/32975654/eating-disorder-hospital-admissions-nearly-double
I wasn’t surprised when I heard the news headline this morning. I grew up with a mum who had an eating disorder for over 30 years. I have friends who have struggled with eating disorders. A friend’s wife died of anorexia and my daughters each have friends who have eating disorders. I have also worked with some wonderful young people who have eating disorders, some of whom have been admitted to hospital for this.
There has always been pressure to fit in with others, to look beautiful, to have the perfect body etc. However, we all know this has greatly increased over the last few years with social media. Last year I did some research with young people about who they could talk to when they were feeling stressed, unhappy, depressed. Over half of the young people I spoke to had struggled with eating disorders to varying degrees. All of the young people I spoke to said that they didn’t have anyone to speak to, that family didn’t know how to help or couldn’t help them and that school was not a place where they could speak to people. They all said they needed to be taught about mental health and eating disorders at school, and they all said school needed to be a place where they could confide in someone, find out information and seek out help. They all felt that schools were scared to listen to them, were scared to really hear about their experience and were scared to ask them how they were.
There are so many issues involved in this topic, but we need to start by providing children and young people with clear information and education. We need to have adults who are able and willing to listen to them, to hear their fears and their worries, who won’t shy away from asking the difficult questions and won’t shy away from the difficult topics.
I had a conversation this morning with my neighbour’s daughter, she is eleven. She was outside playing on her bike and we were talking about bike riding, then out of the blue, she said: “I am not looking forward to this week, I have Sats.” I know the girl a little, we speak each time we see each other, but I am not someone who is a major part of her life. The thought of SATS has clearly been playing on her mind and I guess having an adult showing an interest, taking some time to talk to her was all that was needed for her to tell someone how worried she is feeling.
As the conversation developed she told me that SATS will affect the rest of her education and then her chances of getting a job. She told me if she gets it wrong now, she might not get good exams at the end of school. I explained that SATS was the government’s way to find out how good the teachers are, whether they have taught children the things the Government thinks they should know. I told her that her new secondary school will look at the SATS results to see what she knows and it will help them choose what set she goes in. I also explained that once she is in senior school they can change the set she is in, that her SATS results don’t decide what will happen for the rest of her schooling. I explained that, yes taking tests is no fun, and can be a bit worrying but she really didn’t need to worry that they would influence her future career.
What appalls me is that this eleven-year girl is worrying and stressing about how tests next week will impact upon her getting a job. Why are we allowing eleven-year-old children to feel stressed and concerned and worried about their job prospects? Why are we not encouraging them to enjoy life, to play, to discover what they are good at? Going up to senior school is scary enough already for them, without the added pressure and fear that next week they might ruin things for the rest of their schooling or life.
I am passionate abut hearing children’s voices. We need to stop and really listen to what our children are telling us and take notice. We know that an increasing number of children are needing help with stress and anxiety. We need to hear their fears and we need to address them. As a community, we need to speak out against the stress and pressure we are putting on our children. As parents, we need to support our children and help them know that their future in life is not dependent on them passing exams. We need to let them know we are available to listen to them and hear their worries and fears.
At the end of our conversation, the girl told me she felt better for talking to me, and she said she wouldn’t be so scared now. Hopefully, she will go into the week feeling a little calmer.