Tag Archives: mental wellbeing

Sunrise

 

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This week is mental health awareness week, the overall theme is kindness. As people who know me will be aware mental health is an area I spend a lot of time in, I work with 4 yr olds who have social, emotional, and mental health difficulties and my Mum has Bipolar. This lockdown period has been a huge challenge for so many children, young people, and adults who have mental health difficulties. It’s also been a huge challenge for people who don’t usually have mental health difficulties.

During this lockdown, I have found myself being asked to write more articles, deliver more training, do more short video links around mental health and wellbeing alongside virtually supporting schools, families, and staff I work with. I found myself regularly questioning what on earth do I know about how to stay mentally well in these times. I am also trying to write a new book on how we support children with social-emotional and mental health difficulties. Lockdown seemed the ideal time to write a book, but actually, that isn’t my experience!.

In my writing and training, I talk about the importance of a routine for children and adults to support wellbeing. My usual routine before the lockdown was to do an early morning swim each Monday-Friday, I have been doing this for around 8 years. In lockdown I decided to replace my swim with a sunrise walk, at the start of lockdown this was around the time I would normally leave the house, 6.05 and it felt good to continue my normal routine. Then the clocks changed changing the time to 6.50 this still felt good. If I am honest I didn’t think that lockdown would last that long, I could cope with the idea of 4 maybe 5 weeks, I couldn’t cope with thinking of it longer than that. So I decided I would keep going with my sunrise walk. I knew the routine was important, I knew being outside was good for my wellbeing, but it’s become more than that. Now 9 weeks on the time of sun rising is getting earlier, tomorrow it will be 5.14 in our area, by the end of May it will be 4.59. I have been asking myself how long will I keep going, it doesn’t look like pools are about to reopen, so do I keep going, or do I stop? The problem is in my thinking about stopping, I have realised how much I cherish seeing the sunrise. It gives me hope for each day, it’s become a spiritual act, a time where I am reminded that all is not lost, there is still hope with a new day. More than ever this lockdown has shown me I need routine. Also, when all around me feels heavy and frightening, I need to see some beauty and something positive. Starting the day in this way feels like a gentle nurturing act of kindness to myself. I was talking it through with my husband this morning, I am thinking I might just keep going. The solstice is 21st June, sunrise here will be 4.52, that doesn’t sound too bad.

I have written a few books around mental health, see links below

Promoting Young Children’s Emotional Health and Wellbeing- a practical guide for professionals and parents

Promoting Emotional Wellbeing in Early Years Staff – a practical guide for looking after yourself and your colleagues

Mummy’s Got Bipolar. 

Can I tell you about Bipolar disorder- 

There is also a free animation of Mummy’s Got Bipolar on Youtube 

 

 

Gardening as a radical act

 

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This weekend I have mostly been gardening, I know I am very fortunate to have a garden and I have felt so grateful for this all weekend. My garden is long, quite wild, my gardening style is to put things in and see what happens, it’s haphazard and some things do amazingly well ( too well sometimes!) and other things do less well.

Since the lockdown, I have been growing lots of seeds in my greenhouse, mostly vegetables, but also flower seeds. I always grow from seed, but this year I have become very busy in the greenhouse with an increasing range of seeds being grown. I am trying new varieties of Tomato, and cucumber, lots of new flowers and I am also growing loofah plants. I realise the time in my garden and greenhouse feels gentle and slow, it feels calming and safe. I have always known that I find gardening to be a nurturing act, but at this time, it has felt life-saving.

I have been thinking about how gardening and growing plants feel like a radical act of hope in this time of COVID 19. While our normal lives have stopped, while there is worry and fear and grief and despair around us, I am aware that my act of growing is a rebellion to all of those things. I can’t pretend COVID 19 isn’t happening, but I can look forward to changes, new growth, new life. I am looking forward to sharing in the months ahead, with family and friends the fruit and vegetables of my garden. I am looking forward to giving gifts of homegrown Loofahs at Christmas, from my greenhouse. I am enjoying being able to share surplus seedlings and plants with friends who live nearby, leaving them on doorsteps when I am on my weekly shopping trip or daily walk, waving at friends through the window. This reminds me that there are still acts of hope there is still a way to connect with others.

In my last week before I became a homeworker, I planted seeds with the nurture children I work with, they decorated a small ceramic pot and we planted flower seeds for them to take home. At the time I was aware this may be my last session with them for months, I love growing things with children and it’s an activity I often do, but I hadn’t realised at that time the significance of this act. The children took home their pots and were encouraged to nurture these seeds. I now hope in growing these seeds they will be reminded of our work and our nurture times together. I have heard one of my boys has been excitedly telling his teacher each week in a telephone call how the seeds are growing, I am going to be speaking to him tomorrow, I am looking forward to hearing his delight in the small act of hope.

Awe and wonder around us

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This weekend my husband and I went to watch the wonder of Starling murmurations on the Somerset Levels, we live quite near the area and it’s something we have started to do each year over the last few years. It’s an amazing spectacle to watch, so awe-inspiring, the movement and fluidity of the birds, in synchronisation with one another is incredible. It is a natural wonder.

This term I am delivering lots of staff wellbeing training, over the coming months I will be delivering this 8 times. In many ways, it’s no surprise that January and February are the months that schools and nurseries are wanting support in this area. For some people January and February can be quite bleak and tough, the lack of sunshine and often endless rain in the UK doesn’t help that. Each time I deliver wellbeing training I talk about being outside, I encourage the participants to get out, to spend time in nature, enjoy the outdoors, to engage with the awe and wonder that surrounds us. This can feel hard to do in the winter months, but it’s worth making the effort. There is growing evidenceshowing how engaging with nature boosts our mental and emotional wellbeing.

Watching the murmuration yesterday evening we were alongside many other people, of all ages, but particularly families with young and older children. It was a joy to share this delightful moment alongside strangers. You would often hear gasps of wonder from across the ages at the sight they were watching, there was something magical that we were all sharing. A reminder of how precious our earth is, how wonderful nature is. I did not doubt that our hour spent out in the dusk, watching birds was a huge boost for everyone’s wellbeing.

A year of outdoor swimming

 

I spend much of my working life talking and training on wellbeing, both for adults and children. Several years ago I realised that outdoor swimming was an essential part of supporting my wellbeing. At the beginning of 2019, I decided I wanted to do more outdoor swimming. I love swimming and I swim every early morning Monday-Friday in my local pool, that time is precious and an important part of my routine, also it has given me a lovely swimming community to be part of. However, outdoor swimming brings a different joy, the joy of being in nature, the amazing feel of cold water on my skin. It’s hard to explain but it is wonderful.

At the start of 2019 I wrote a list of outdoor places I hoped to swim, it was a mix of lidos, and sea swims, and rivers. I hoped that I would be able to swim outdoors at least once a month from around April/ May. I decided to keep a list of all the outdoor swims so that I could see over the year the different places I had swum. I managed to swim outdoors every month from February-December, some of these were cooler lidos but mostly they were rivers, sea, lakes, ponds and tidal pools. I have swum outdoors 43 times this year.

Swimming outdoors is about pure pleasure for me, it’s not about the distance or the length of time in the water, it’s about the joy of the experience. I feel so alive when I swim outside and it makes me feel so happy. Swimming outside has also become something that I do with my husband, our children have now left home ( mostly!) when our youngest left for uni in 2018 I knew we needed to find something that we could do together, a way of reconnecting. Outdoor swimming has become that thing.

In my wellbeing training, the final point I put to the group is an encouragement for people to discover what makes them happy, the thing that makes them smile when they think about it and brings them joy. So much of our lives can be busy and hard, often taken up with meeting the needs of others, putting in place something that brings us joy is a good start for wellbeing.

I am currently writing my list of ideas for outdoors swims in 2020, starting on January 1st!.

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.

I am

 

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One reason I love my nurture role with 4 year olds is having a year to help a little one to believe they are amazing, to know there are adults who love seeing them and spending time with them, to help them know they are special and unique and wonderful. If we can help a 4 year know that, I believe this is giving them such a good start to life, a strong foundation to believing good things about themselves. We all know that is too easy to grow up with negative ideas about ourselves, negative thoughts, that our internal script can be one of I cant do….

Over the last five years, I have been really challenged in thinking about my own internal script, reading Brene Brown and Kristin Neff has hugely helped this. In the last few days, I have been giving this some more thought, a few days ago my friend Will wrote a piece about an exercise he did where he wrote 100 I am statements. Will and I both work in similar fields, we both work with children who have social, emotional and mental health difficulties, we are both self-employed and over the years we have weekly checked in with another. We have been friends for over 20 years and we have an honest relationship with one another where we can ask the other challenging questions. This last year has been a really tough one for Will and from this experience, he is reflecting a lot on the messages he lives under, the stories he tells himself. This week he wrote about an exercise he did call 100 I am statements. he wanted to challenge his thinking and believes. He describes this exercise as:
100 statements of I AM. Let me tell you that although this is not an easy task it has incredible power to change and shift your thinking about yourself. The list should include things that you would like to define your life. These are statements that you would want to shape your inner dialogue, and simply by changing the words that define your concept of self and choosing the words that you opt to place into your thoughts you take back control of how you see yourself.
The idea of doing 100 seemed huge, but I liked the idea of the challenge, so I gave it a go. it’s a really powerful exercise to do, in my experience, I just did it without over thinking it, this worked for me as it felt authentic. A number of my statements began with I am a woman who…. , this was interesting as when I read back over it I realised how important it is to me, that I identified as a woman who is capable and able to live life fully, a woman who can be creative and imaginative and able to lead as well as being nurturing and supportive. There is so much talk about self-care and supporting our own wellbeing at the moment, I am part of that, I have written a book on wellbeing for early years staff. However, writing these statements reminded me that no matter how much yoga, exercise, mindfulness, good sleep, good eating you do, if your inner messages are negative, if your self-script is one of I can’t rather than positives I am, then this will eat away at your wellbeing, this will impact your mental health. 100 statements is a lot, but it felt like the right amount of challenge. On reflecting on my list I realised how much I have changed over the last 5 years, I don’t think I could have written that list 5 years ago. I recognised that all the statements I had on my list were ones I believed not just ones I aspired to be. I realise that is largely thanks to reading Brene Brown, Kristin Neff and going on Ian and Gail Adams retreats.

Being authentic about wellbeing

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This week I have been guest lecturing in Weston Super Mare on an early years degree course on the subject of staff wellbeing. This was a fantastic opportunity to speak to people at the beginning of their career. I have spent the last 5 years writing and reflecting on wellbeing for children and staff. Through my nurture work with four-year-olds and their staff I have been able to see how crucial it is to embed good wellbeing practice into our lives. I am really fortunate to work with a team who value and support one another in putting this into our daily lives, as a team it is crucial that we are authentic in living this ourselves, we can’t offer ideas to offers if we don’t root this in our own lives.

I have recently been reflecting on what it means to authentically live this out. There are so many ideas and books out there about what you need to do to improve your wellbeing, so many voices shouting loudly about how you just need to change … or start…. then all will be well. The problem is making longterm change is not easy, it can be easy to start something, be excited about it, shout loudly about it, but then get bored, and move onto the next thing, try the next super new idea and then start shouting about that.

The joy of talking to students at the start of their career is they have the chance to embed some life-affirming, good practices now. If they can put in place some good habits, good wellbeing practice now, then these have a great chance of sticking with them. I have been reflecting a lot recently on what good wellbeing practice looks like, I think an essential element is about habit forming, doing something that is good for you regularly, that becomes part of your daily, weekly rhythm. There are a few routines, rhythms that are vital for me, swimming on a Monday-Friday, this is a mindful, contemplative time, walking around the community meadow on a Sunday morning and meeting a friend for a morning coffee most weekends. There is nothing radical in these rhythm’s, but over the last 7 years they have become an embedded part of my life, they are life affirming and life enhancing.

I have written a book for early years staff about embedding wellbeing, it’s aimed at early years staff but the ideas, practices and research are relevant for anyone.

Looking after your wellbeing over Christmas

 

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We know that the run-up to Christmas can be very stressful for many. If you work with children and young people this also a tricky time of year with extra colds, illness and very excited children can lead to staff feeling extremely tired, worn down and having low wellbeing

The Christmas holidays can be both emotionally and physically draining, that is particularly hard if you are already feeling worn down and not at your best. I think it is important to think about a few things you can put in place to look after your own wellbeing. This doesn’t need to be time consuming or expensive, but by stopping and thinking about yourself, your health and how you feel, this could help you get through the Christmas period.

Below are a few suggestions on what might help your wellbeing over the next days and weeks

Eat well- make sure each day you eat something which is good for you and makes you feel good. Food which is classed as good mood foods are- blueberries, avocado, kale, marmite, sweet potato, spinach, dark chocolate, chamomile tea

Sleep well– we need around 8 hrs sleep a night, sleep enables us to have clear minds and make memories.

Spend time outside– there is growing research to show the positive impact spending time outside has on our brain, emotional and physical wellbeing. If possible get outside every day, even if it is only for 5 minutes.

Be kind to yourself- so often we can put high expectations on ourselves, we can be self-critical about things not being perfect or not getting enough done. Think about the words you use on yourself, take time to notice these and if they are negative change them, tell yourself that what you are doing is good enough, remind yourself it is ok to feel tired, you will get through this.

Do something that makes you happy -do something each day which makes you happy and is for you. When I asked people what they did that made them happy the list was varied, some ideas were- swimming, crochet, bake, read, listen to music, garden, walk my dog, mindfulness, yoga, paint, run, sing.

Experience some silence– our lives are so busy, particularly at this time of year. Having time to stop, be silent, experience stillness, even for 5 minutes, can be very good for our wellbeing. Some people use mindfulness, yoga or spiritual practices for this, others just enjoy the silence while in the bath, or during a walk by themselves. Experiencing silence can be liberating and can help you to find some calmness.

 

Whatever you do over Christmas, I hope you find some time to look after yourself, this is not a selfish act but it is an important part helping our own wellbeing.

If you would like more ideas and further writing on this subject, I have a new book out this week –Promoting emotional wellbeing in early years staff published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers. The ideas in the book are suitable for everyone, not just early years workers.

Letter to the reception class teachers I work with

This is a letter I sent today (email actually!) to the excellent early year’s teachers I work with. I am posting it on my blog as it is also for all those other reception class teachers who feel deeply depressed after reading Ofsted’s damning report and recommendations on the reception year.

Dear all, I am working with each of you in your schools. This week there has been a very depressing Ofsted report about reception classes and teaching and the emphasis on reception classes needing to prepare children better for YR 1- e.g. more formal.

I know you are all excellent early years teachers, I see your work each week, and I am really impressed at the dedication and commitment you all make to excellent early years practice.I know this is not really my role But I wanted to take the opportunity to say Thank you for the amazing jobs you are all doing, thank you for your dedication to the children you work with, thank you for allowing the children in your classes to play and discover and be curious and to learn though this. Thank you for committing yourselves to making a difference to these children.

We all know Ofsted are wrong in their suggestion, we all know that early years children learn best through play, through having their learning scaffolded and supported by trained, early years staff.

I know that reading the Ofsted report is deeply depressing and must make some of you wonder why you are still doing the job. That is why I am mailing you, to thank you and encourage you. As I am not sure, you get that enough.

There is another report, which does have hope and which is based on early years practice, research and evidence. If you want head teachers reading something useful this might be a useful link for them!

Have a restful weekend

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