Tag Archives: children

The importance of talking about mental illness.

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We know that for years mental illness has been a taboo subject, this is beginning to change and shift, but it can still be an area we find it hard to talk to children and young people about, particularly young children. I grew up with a mum with Bipolar, I knew she was ill, both Mum and Dad spoke about her illness, but no one ever named it. As I got older I heard about cancer and so presumed my mum had cancer and that she was going to die, I filled in the gaps, I made up my own story to explain what was happening. That is what children do. I found out what my Mum’s illness was when I was 14 in a school assembly which the charity Mind was taking, they described manic depression ( as it was called then) and I had a light bulb moment, I suddenly realised that is my Mum.

I firmly believe we need to help children to understand about mental illness, we need to give them the words to explain the illness, and we need to help them feel safe and know they can ask questions. If we don’t talk about it, this is suggesting it is shameful, if we don’t acknowledge our feelings around it, this is unhealthy for everyone. Bipolar and mental illness is still a taboo subject with some of my extended maternal family, they still feel embarrassed and awkward. This is so sad and can leave a legacy of hurt and confusion.

Sometimes it can be hard to find the right words to explain a mental illness to children and young people, and we can be worried about using the wrong words. I want to reassure people it is better to be open and honest, it is better to discuss and explain rather than keeping quiet. Many excellent websites can help you to find the right words. Ones I would recommend in the UK are Mind and Mentalhealth.

Books and films are also an excellent resource to explain to children. I wrote a book last year called Mummy’s Got Bipolar this has just been turned into an animation which is a free resource on youtube, over the summer I also wrote a book for JKP called Can I tell you about Bipolar, this will be available in February 2018.

 

Image by Jon Birch in the book and animation

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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.

Start of a new academic year

 

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The bulk of my work is as a nurture consultant, supporting 4 yr olds in their reception year. Starting school is a major transition and can be so overwhelming for children and parents. The children I and my colleagues support have been identified as needing some extra nurture and extra support. However, in the first few days and weeks, all the new children ( and many of the parents ) need that extra nurture and support. The move to school is such a big change, even for those children who have been in early years settings full time. They are taking on so much new information, new experiences, there are not as many staff as there were in the nursery, the school is often louder, bigger, lots of children. There are many new noises, sights, sounds, smells, everything is often different, that can be so overwhelming even for the most confident and able child.

With all these new changes children will often be exhausted, I often hear parents who have had children in full-time nursery say that school shouldn’t be any different. It is important to understand that change is tiring, change makes us as adults feel exhausted. Think about when you started a new job; I bet you were exhausted at the end of the week; it is just the same with our children. The brain is taking on so much new information, it is working so hard, and this is tiring. So my tip is whether your child is starting infant school, junior school or senior school expect them to be very tired at the end of the week. Acknowledge this and support them with these feelings, they may well be more snappy, emotional, irritable, be there for them in these feelings. Acknowledge how they feel and validate those feelings for them. It is ok to be tired and to feel overwhelmed and to feel a bit scared at the start of something new. Be kind and gentle to them; this is a time of big change, they need to be supported and nurtured.

Also as parents, this can be a hard time for us, many of us cried when our child started school or senior school ( or university!), we can feel worried about how they will survive, overwhelmed by the change that is happening. Be kind to yourself, offer yourself kind words, do something that makes you feel happy, that might be eating cake or going for a run or a swim, speak to someone you know and trust about your feelings.

Recognising the change and celebrating every success

 

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Over the last week, I have been writing end of year reports for the nurture children I support. This is an opportunity to recognise and celebrate the development in the children we work with. Each September I am never really sure what progress we will make, there are so many possibilities that can affect the child and the work. Each year my hope is that the new little person I am starting work with will reach a place where they feel secure, safe and wanted. Our work is not about achieving academic targets, but it is about the child feeling that they are safe, that they can express themselves in positive and safe ways and for them to know they are wanted and loved.

The joy of writing end of year reports is that we start by remembering how the child was at the beginning of the year, in many ways this can be quite an emotional time, looking back and remembering how hard it was for the child and their staff. By this time of year, you can so easily forget and take for granted the progress made. I have children now who can sit for 10 minutes and join in, children who can tell their staff how they feel, children who now have friends and invite other children to play with them, children who when a stranger walks into the classroom no longer stand out as the child with big issues.

These children will not necessarily reach their early learning goals; they will all still need support and help in year 1. But these children have all grown and developed and flourished, and that is wonderful and worth celebrating.

My role at the end of the year with the staff is to remind them of the amazing work that they have done with the children. To remind them to celebrate the steps that have been made.

At the end of May, I planted a sunflower seed for each of the children I was working with. This week they have started to flower, a beautiful reminder of the joy and wonder and celebration of the children I work with.

Support for you

 

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During this year I have been writing a book about the wellbeing of adults who look after children, it is almost finished!. I am at the stage of finalising, checking, pulling it together. As I finish this book, it feels almost ironic that I have written this book while supporting and working with two children who’s story is deeply complex and very sad. In my experience of working with children for over 25 years, there are always one or two that stay with you, that you don’t ever forget. The two I am working with this year fall into that category. This year I am supporting their Ta’s and their teachers, and together we are helping them to feel safe and loved and protected when everything else around them is changing and falling apart. Our focus is on nurturing them, protecting them, enabling them to express how they feel, our focus is not on learning.

 

This has probably been one of the most emotionally demanding experiences I have had in work, and it has highlighted for me again how vitally important it is to have the right support in place when you are working in emotionally demanding situations. My job is to support the children but also to support the staff, to talk with them, listen to them, guide them, supervise them. There have been moments this year, when we have cried together, there have been moments when we have shared our deep frustration and anger at what is happening around the children, that we have no control over. Each week I remind the staff how they need to take care of themselves, how they need to be kind and gentle to themselves and do something that makes them feel good.

We are only able to help and support children who are finding life very hard when we have support ourselves. I have a fantastic supervisor, although we don’t see each other every day, I am always able to ring her when I need to talk through a situation. This week she left me chocolate in my pigeon hole! She knows me well, as that always helps me to feel loved and supported!.

If you are working in an emotionally challenging situation, think about who is supporting you, what is in place to help you offload, who is there to listen to you? This could be your supervisor, manager or colleague. If you don’t have this in place, then it needs addressing, and you need to ask for support.

Mental health and our children

 

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On Monday 8th May it is the start of mental health week in the UK. On Monday the 8th May it is also the start of SATS week for year 6 children in England, (for those reading this in countries other the UK, SATS are exams for children aged 10/11 in their last year of Primary school). This feels very ironic.

As we know there is an increase in the number of children with a mental health disorder, Young Minds suggest there are 1 in 10 children in the UK with a diagnosable mental health disorder ( that is roughly 3 children in each class). I am writing this blog piece this morning as I am struck by the irony of how we can have an increased understanding about mental health, how we can have dedicated mental health weeks and yet we are still putting young children under a huge amount of pressure to sit a week long exam in year 6.
I fundamentally disagree with children in primary school taking exams for a week but it isn’t just the taking the exams that is the problem, it is the months and months of preparation that is around it. I have heard this year of some schools choosing to put in revision sessions during play times 3 times a week for months before, some schools sending home SATS papers from October for children to practice and practice, some schools sending home papers during the Easter holidays for children to do every day. Over the last few weeks I have heard locally of Yr 6 children who are self harming, I have had yr 6 children tell me they are worried, they want to do their best but they don’t know if they can, I have heard of yr 6 children waking up in the middle of the night in tears because they are scared. I work in schools and I used to be a chair of Governors, I understand the pressure that the schools and teachers are being placed under, the Government are constantly placing more and more pressure on schools and teachers but it is not ok for that to be passed onto children. I know there are some examples of schools that are doing a great job within the awful system. I heard of one school who sent a letter to their children telling them how wonderful and unique they are and that the SATS do not measure how awesome they all are, I know of another school that told children at Easter to eat ice cream, climb tress, enjoy the holidays.

Surely there comes a time when we need to speak out, when we need to challenge the government, when we need to challenge schools who are putting too much pressure on children, when we challenge multi academy trusts who run schools about how they are addressing the mental health needs of their children. How can we recognise and talk about mental health week and yet in the same week cause mental distress to thousands of yr 6 children?