Mental wellbeing for children: The most important lesson of all?
Recent years have seen a significant rise in the awareness of mental health. This includes an increase in knowledge of issues that people face, in the help available to them and in the destigmatising of talking about this area of our lives. It also includes more advice and support on how to constructively look after your mental health through breathing exercises, physical exercise, mindset strategies or just further cognitive understanding. There are apps, podcasts, videos and books aplenty to further your knowledge.
However, anecdotally and from my experience in school, an increased amount of primary aged children are finding managing emotions and their own mental wellbeing difficult. The challenges of the last few years have undoubtedly played a part in this with disrupted social opportunities and vast and sudden changes in routine and structure. The digital age of gaming, social media and ever-present devices in almost every house to some level have also altered the landscape for children dramatically. So how can we support children to find an equilibrium or a balance which exposes them to risk, to failure and to challenge, that builds resilience and perseverance but also protects them, cares for them and nurtures them in a world where they can feel safe, happy and cared for.
We have a number of approaches which we have applied to do this. Firstly, I believe that we must be proactive in giving children strategies that they can use. Each child, like each adult, will have things that work for them and others that don’t. We have a Wellbeing Wednesday session each week which offers the chance to discuss, to pose questions and to explore activities and exercises that they can try. If they can build a toolbox of things that work for them, be it when they are stressed or habitually as part of every day life, then they have an anchor to which they can return when they need it. In addition to this, we must model listening and acting. If we are asking children to open up with us or at home, we must also be prepared to listen. Children are brilliant at sharing all sorts of things, (often the things that will most embarrass their parents) but we cannot expect children to talk about their emotions and to share vulnerability if we are not prepared to listen, to empathise and to frame it as a positive act. Where they are facing challenges, we must act to support them and empower them to make positive change, through direct interventions on our behalf or through encouragement, support and strategies.
Secondly, we must model good practice. I use examples such as Mathew Syed’s fantastic children’s books, or inspirational people such as Henry Fraser or Stef Reid, to give examples of mindset, of overcoming challenge and of realising that there is always hope and that good can be taken from any situation. I recently held an assembly to talk about failure and our relationship with this aspect of life. We talked at length about this subject and the children were fascinated (and often amused) to hear about the things, and there are many, that I have failed at (don’t mention ice skating!). It is vital that we promote trying something, giving our all and exploring our capabilities over perfectionism. We do this by offering the opportunity to get out of their comfort zone on a regular, low stakes basis and help them to manage their emotions around this. The vast array of activities that the children undertake ensure that- be it a maths problem, a dissection in science, a sporting challenge, being on stage or building a fire in Forest School- they will have areas that they feel comfortable with and others that stretch them and that this is normalised.
Thirdly, we must give them the confidence in their individual identity; to be truly content they must be happy being them. We aim to encourage self-worth, celebrate difference and diversity and help them to learn that ideas and opinions are part of the rich tapestry of life. Our value is not validated by likes or followers, we are not aiming to all be the same clone of each other and we can hold vehemently different thoughts on an idea and still be friends (as a Welshman in England during the Six Nations, I am continuing to bear this in mind). To do this, we ensure that we are drip feeding these messages through PHSE lessons, assemblies, class discussions and the expectations that we set each day. It is my aim that each of the children at Westonbirt is proud of being them and is comfortable and confident with who they are.
And a final thought as we enter Children’s Mental Health Week. For all of the above that we try to put in place; the most powerful thing that we can do to support mental wellbeing for our children is let them be just that. They shouldn’t feel the pressure of an exam at ten years old, be worried about sporting performance at nine or concerned with following a fashion at seven. They should be jumping in puddles, climbing up logs or doing cartwheels. Of course, we must have a rigour to our academic endeavours and should encourage commitment and work ethic. However, we must also allow them to do the things that are most natural to them and let them run around aimlessly, sing made up songs, pretend to be a pirate, or an alien, or a dog, and to smile and laugh uncontrollably at not very much at all.
I once heard Mel Robbins discussing how we observe ourselves in the mirror. As adults, we usually look at our reflection and dissect what we see by breaking it down into things we are happy with and the details about which we are not. Children look at themselves and make the silliest faces they can! In my opinion, the longer they keep making faces, the better job we have done.