What are you teaching your brain to focus on?

Focus on the positives

Focus is so important in improving your wellbeing.

Learning to control what you focus on, whether it is learning to meditate or teaching your brain to look for the positives will change your mindset more than you know.

For generations it was believed that we couldn’t change the way we think, that you literally couldn’t teach an old dog new tricks. We even accepted bad behaviour because it was taught as a child or learned behaviour from a parent. If a woman was always moaning about life or a man was unnecessarily aggressive we would justify it as being “just the way they are”. Even abusive behaviour patterns were accepted as being inevitable.

We have known for almost a hundred years though that it is possible to re-write our automatic responses to situations with practice and determination, although it wasn’t widely accepted for several years. 

 

When we have automatic responses to situations, those are created by neural pathways. We don’t have to think about how we react, our brain automatically follows the same path. It was once thought that these pathways, once set in early childhood, couldn’t be re-written. We now know that, whilst it isn’t easy, and it gets harder the older we get, it is possible to change these routes and as a result change our response.

So if you can change how you respond, what sort of things should you try to change to improve your wellbeing?

Obviously you can start with behaviours that would make your life more pleasant; short temper, sleep patterns, exercising more regularly, all those things that we know we would benefit from. 

Wellbeing Game Changer

However, in my opinion, one of the easiest mindset shifts to make is around positivity. Evolution has determined that our brains are trained to focus on the negative situations we encounter. This is with good reason. It is the negative and scary things we encounter which may cause us harm or even death. We need to remember more accurately where dangers may be to keep ourselves safe. 

Sanitiser

Our ancestors needed to remember which creatures or berries were safe and which caused them to feel ill or even killed someone last time. These are important things to remember. However, because of this, your natural settings are often to only look for the negatives and to fixate on them and miss all of the beauty and wonder in your life. 

How can we change this automatic response and start to see the positives more?

The most important thing is to realise that we still need to be aware of dangers and also to be aware that if you used to be really positive and suddenlt you can only see the negatives, that can be a sign of depression and you should seek help.

If you just want to feel more positive though it is relatively easy to change your neural pathways and re-structure your brain. All you have to do is to make a point of focusing on the positives in your life regularly. Once a day, at the start or end of the day it is often easiest to remember, either write or think of 5-10 things you are grateful for. You might write these positives down in a gratitude journal or add them to a gratitude jar, but you can also just make a point of thinking them. 

Try to think of different positives every day. If you find it difficult, challenge yourself to find even more until you find it easy. They don’t have to be huge positives. Focus on everything that you are grateful for; a warm bed, clean water, a hot shower, a cuddle from your child… they may seem small and insignificant but anyone who has had their boiler go in the middle of winter, appreciates the comfort and luxury of a warm house and a hot shower. 

The more you train your brain to look for the positives, the more positives you will see. Of course the reverse is also true. We all know that if we wake up feeling down and tired and something goes wrong then everything seems to go wrong. In reality, it is just that our brain is focusing more on the negatives because of our mindset.

Learn more about mindset shifts

There are many gratitude activities as part of my school resources. It is so important to teach our children these strategies early on so that they make that change when it is easier and becomes more of a life long habit.

If you would like to know more about these resources you can learn more here.

6 Ways to Introduce Gratitude in your school

The Happiness Code

How to change your mindset

 

Mental Health isn’t a tick box exercise

Mental health

I hear so much talk about mental health at the moment. It is almost the latest trend.

How much of what is happening is really meaningful and how much is just box ticking though?

I have visited some incredible schools recently who, following my training, have made some really meaningful changes. Not just support their pupils’ wellbeing, but also, more importantly it could be argued, staff wellbeing.

If teachers are over-worked, unappreciated and run down, they don’t deliver the best education to our children.

So many teachers I know have said to me over the years; “Oh yeah, we had someone come into our school and talk about mindfulness. They gave us loads of things we had to try and find time for and then we went straight from that to a meeting about how much paperwork we need to have in for tomorrow!”. (I’m paraphrasing but you get the idea!).

 

Mental Health isn’t just an issue for our students

When we discuss wellbeing and mental health issues in relation to schools the focus is almost always on the children. This is great, our children have never needed support with their wellbeing more, but there is also a requirement for schools to care for the mental health of their staff. I’m hoping that this isn’t news to anyone, but just in case, you can have a look here.

Schools have a responsibility not just to care for the wellbeing of pupils but also all staff. OFSTED are apparently looking at this provision more and more, and well they should. We are already seeing staffing shortages and in the US there is a full blown catastrophe looming in some states because the teacher shortage is such an issue. If we don’t care for our teachers, if we don’t respect them as the professionals they are, they leave. 

Interestingly, if you Google “teacher” you are faced with lots of pictures of people smiling while standing next to white boards, just like this one. This is how the world sees teachers. Which is great, because, let’s be honest, this is probably how we want to be seen. What you don’t find is pictures of teachers crying in their cars at lunchtime, or sitting taking deep breaths in the staff room. These are often facets of teaching too.  Teachers are often exhausted; physically and mentally, and they may be experts at hiding this from their students and families but it doesn’t make it any less a reality of the job.

teachers
staffroom

Making the issue worse

I was talking to a teacher a while ago who told me that they had been given a mental health questionnaire by their management team. Most of the staff hadn’t even bothered to fill it in as they felt it was just more unnecessary paperwork that wouldn’t make a difference to anything. She had decided that it was an issue she felt was importand and had taken the time to complete it fully and honestly.

The next thing she knew she had been called to the Head. 

She was basically told that she was wrong. That what she had said wasn’t the reality of the situation and that they were disappointed in her responses. She was then treated differently for the remainder of the year.

If you don’t really want to know what people think, don’t ask them. Not prepared to make any changes, don’t ask people what changes they would benefit from. Don’t give your staff more work just so that you can tick mental health off your to do list, if you aren’t really interested in the wellbeing of your staff.

If you truly care about the mental health of your staff, whether a school or a business, you have to treat them like people. Ask them what they need? Know them well enough to know if they are having problems with one of their children, or their Dad has been ill.

Respect your staff and colleagues enough to ask them if there is anything about their working conditions that they would like to see change and then work together to make any practical changes.

Don’t let mental health awareness just be another burden and time suck. Together we can really make a difference to the wellbeing of everyone involved in education, we can help our teachers to enjoy their job and feel like the competent, passionate professionals they are, or we can treat them like children who need to conform and have no say in the running of their lives.

I know which method will result in a happy and cooperative working environment, don’t you?

You are important too!

You are important too

Teacher wellbeing is perhaps the most important issue in schools. 

I know you are going to try to argue that the children’s learning and development is the most important thing, but hear me out. I have reason and logic and I’m prepared to use it!

Picture the scene: it’s 9am and you are entering a classroom full of eager, intelligent children. You have been awake all night creating amazing resources and ensuring that their lessons today maximise your time together. Your Mum rang last night to say that Auntie Ethel died yesterday, she was your favourite aunt growing up and you know you haven’t made time to see her for years. You are heartbroken and annoyed with yourself for not visiting her more often. To make things worse, you probably won’t be able to get to the funeral because she isn’t a close enough relative to get the time off so you won’t even be able to say goodbye. You know that you have reports to write at the weekend otherwise you won’t get them done in time but it’s your youngest daughter’s birthday on Friday and she’s desperate to have a family day out on Saturday to celebrate – bless her, she hasn’t even asked for a party. 

You will inevitably end up working late all week so that you can justify the time off on Saturday and you have already noticed your diet sliding. It will be ore take aways this unless you can convince your partner to cook. Your best friend text this morning to ask if you would do the Race for Life with her this year, you really should, but you can’t remember the last time you made time to go for a run, who knows, maybe this year it will finally kill you? You grabbed a coffee on the way into school and sat for a few minutes and cried; exhaustion, grief, despair? Who knows. Thank goodness you didn’t put make up on so it won’t be obvious to anyone. You look at the children in front of you and wonder if they can see all this on your face, probably not, but some of them definitely clocked that stifled yawn a moment ago and a couple of the girls are looking at you with a mix of sympathy and confusion, it’s probably the unnatural amount of dry shampoo in your hair this morning. When was the last time you had a shower?… 

Is this the best mindset to be in to cope with the demands of teaching? Will those children be getting the best from their teacher? 

Equally importantly are your own children or loved ones getting the best version of you. 

Most importantly though, you deserve to be feeling, at least some days, like the best version of you.

My teacher wellbeing journey…

This photo is me with my very first class. I was 23 years old and living alone for the first time. There were lots and lots of factors (which you can read about in more detail here if you are interested.) but one of the most impactful was my burning desire to be the best teacher I could possibly be. I had wanted to be a teacher all my life and I wanted to prove I could really help the children in my class. 

I lived alone, so I didn’t have anyone else to care for at home. My parents were still young and healthy, even my grandparents were. I had more time and energy than at any other time in my life to put into my job and that was the problem. 

My first class

I gave teaching everything I had. Literally every drop of energy, every waking moment. Until I woke up one morning just before Christmas and I couldn’t stop crying. 

It took 6 months of antidepressants and a lot of weepy conversations with my Mum (also a teacher) and lots of good friends to get me back on track.

I was lucky. 

I know that probably sounds silly, but it’s true. I threw myself into teaching so completely that I broke hard and fast. The result was that I recognise the warning signs when things were starting to get too much and I didn’t let myself go as far down that road. I changed my routine, my habits and withdrew any non-essential energy. I have been fortunate that I have never reached that point again. 

Many teachers bob along somewhere on the “teacher wellbeing scale” for years without hitting that point. Many more than would like to admit it are closer to breaking point than they are to blissful happiness though.

Teacher wellbeing training

Teacher Wellbeing Training

Last week I was finally able to deliver some face to face training and it was so good to be back with teachers. The impact of the last two years has been huge on schools and it has never been more important to focus on mental health. 

The schools had asked me to talk about my resources and particularly my whole school programme (which they had subscribed to but not explored fully) and also to talk about the science of wellbeing and focus a little on teacher wellbeing. This is my favourite sort of training session, and what I encourage schools to have because making the session all about the children can feel like we are just adding to staff stress and workload.

At the end of the sessions I had so many teachers, incuding leadership teams, coming over and thanking me for giving them the opportunity to really think about their own wellbeing and priorities. 

I’m ok!

You might be reading this and thinking, “I’m ok, I love my job and I never feel stressed!”. I hope you are. However, if you have noticed that you aren’t sleeping as well as usual, your diet has changed, you are drinking more alcohol or feeling more negative than usual you might be at the top of a slippery slope. Please don’t ignore my warnings because it is so much easier to make changes and create good habits when you are feeling well.

Good habits

Often our good habits slip over time and we don’t notice. Life gets busier and busier and we just keep sacrificing ourselves and we hardly notice that everything we enjoy doing has slowly slipped away and we are just machines fulfilling the many and varied rolls we have in life. 

We know that we should make time to exercise, that when we eat better, drink more water, get more sleep… that we feel better and we have more energy and most importantly that we are more efficient and calmer at school. When we care for ourselves we don’t lose our temper as quickly, we enjoy life more, we cope with hiccups and set backs with ease and we smile more. When we smile more and we cope with life more effortlessly everyone around us feels happier and more able to cope and the feeling spreads just like that awful virus that we’re all fed up of hearing about!

Care for yourself and you accidentally benefit everyone around you.

If every you needed an incentive there it is! I know that you think that by putting yourself last all the time that you are helping everyone else as much as you can, but in actual fact you are doing the opposite.

If you get to the point, like I did, where you can’t get out of bed and can barely function, who is going to teach your class? Who will look after your loved ones? Think of all the worry you will cause everyone? You don’t want to do that, do you? 

Of course none of these things would be your “fault” you always do your best, I know that. I’m just trying to push some of the buttons I hope will jolt you into action and make you realise that you are the most important person in your life, whether you can believe it yet, or not.

By looking after yourself you are giving them a happy, healthy, enthusiastic person to enjoy spending time with, in and out of school. 

So what changes can you make this school year to ensure that you are happy and healthy and giving everyone in your life what they really need from you? 

Want to read more about teacher wellbeing? Try these articles and blogs:

Teacher Stress

Spilling Coffee

Mindful Teachers

Solutions for improved teacher wellbeing

 

Spilling Coffee

spilling coffee

What’s in your cup?

You have no doubt heard the phrase: “You can’t pour from an empty cup!”

Well, I read a wonderful analogy this week. 

You are holding a cup of coffee when someone comes along and bumps into you, spilling the coffee all over.

Why did you spill the coffee?

“Well because someone bumped into me, of course!”, you say.

Wrong!

You spilled the coffee because there was coffee in your cup. Had there been tea in the cup, you would have spilled tea.

Whatever is inside our cup, is what spills out.

Therefore, when life comes along and shakes us up (which it will!), whatever is inside comes right out. So we have to ask ourselves, “What’s in my cup?”

Make sure you have more than coffee in your cup

When our ego is triggered, when unwanted things happen or wanted things don’t happen, what spills out? How do we typically respond?

Do we respond with openness, curiosity, patience, peace and humility? Or with anger, bitterness, harsh words and temper tantrums?

Such questions keep us spiritually honest and grounded. They reveal to us just how far we have already come and just how much work we still have to do.

Let us work towards filling our cups with acceptance, appreciation, joy, words of affirmation for ourselves; and kindness, gentleness and love for others.

 

Aim High! – The power of setting big goals.

Goals

Setting goals is often a new school year task. With younger children you may be setting goals for them. Older children may be setting their own goals for the year. They may be little goals like getting a particular letter or number formation right (and we all know that is HUGE when it finally clicks) or it might be bigger goals like reading a particular book, improving their level in a certain subject significantly or being brave enough to speak in assembly. 

Whatever goals you are setting for your children and yourself this year, I wanted to tell you a little story about my holiday to encourage you to be a little more brave than you might be inclined to be. I am a huge fan of the power of story to inspire so whilst this tale isn’t related to teaching I know you will see the relevance. It is the holidays after all.

Every year I go on holiday with lots of my family. Last year we were limited to numbers but because of that we were all the more determined to get all the gang back together this year. As soon as dates were announced we booked the biggest house we could find (one we had visited before as it turned out), in Edenhall near Penrith.

This beautiful old farmhouse and its little annex accommodated all 17 of us ranging from 18 months to 70+ and we had a week of love and laughter, as always, just enjoying each other’s company.

My Big Goal!

On the second day my brother in law, Tom, suggested that some of us might want to tackle one of the many mountains in easy reach – Penrith is just on the edge of the Lake District, a truly stunning part of the world. The discussion began; who would be interested, who had the necessary equipment with them, which peak would we attempt…

I desperately wanted to attempt this challenge. When I turned 40, five years ago now, I set myself a challenge to climb a mountain with my sister (she’s incredibly fit and my best friend so she was the perfect choice). I knew I needed to be fitter, so needed time for that, then finding a weekend we were both available, deciding which to tackle etc became difficult with family committments, then of course the pandemic stopped everything. All of which meant it never happened. It never stopped being one of my goals though. 

 Lockdown limitations

During the first lockdown, I did what many people did and sat too much, ate a little too much and felt generally lethargic. However, we did go for our permitted daily walks and I loved it. As time ticked on the need to be outside more grew and I started walking further and further. I also bought a cross trainer/exercise bike so I could squeeze workouts into busy days. I have been slowly building my strength.

Over the years there have been several occasions when big family walks have happened and I have never been brave enough to join them. My joints aren’t great due to my acromegaly and between that and my children being too young to join us, I have found excuses.

The truth is I was scared. 

Scared of holding everyone up. Afraid I wouldn’t be able to do it, or I would get up and my joints wouldn’t let me come back down. Worried my family would see me differently because my body fails me sometimes.

Walking for wellbeing

Excuses

It all felt completely legitimate at the time, but in reality it was just excuses. 

While being too afraid to do these walks, I did however, begin to gather equipment. Over the years I have bought walking boots and poles and I had both with me. The boots I knew would come in handy for the usual walks we go on together, the poles, fortunately, live in my car boot!

So I started to explore the idea with Tom that I would go with them. He could see that I desperately wanted to do it this year and he chose a route that he felt would be ok. It was decided that we would attempt one of the easier routes up Blencathra.

 

Blencathra

The big day…

From our party of seventeen, eleven of us wanted to attempt this mountain so we picked our day, gathered our equipment and off we went.

Now I knew that it would be a challenge but I prepared myself as best as I could, I visualised myself reaching the top the night before and got an early night. What we couldn’t prepare for, was the car park we intended to use being full, meaning an extra 1.5km there and back on top of the walk (and mostly uphill too!). By the time we reached the start of the climb my legs were already feeling it. 

In an attempt to prepare myself, we had done a 10km walk the day before to a bronze aged stone circle so my muscles and joints were already a little sore. But we set off and a combination of the beautiful weather and the company made me determined to keep going. The first few miles were much steeper than any of us were prepared for though and as I dropped further and further behind the rest of the group my morale dropped and I got frustrated with myself. 

My amazing Mum, who was facing her own challenges (she went over on her ankle last autumn and has had her confidence knocked a little as a result), my 10 year old nephew, and my stepson’s partner, were amazing though. They hung back with me and took it in turns to spur me on with motivational talks and distractions. 

Blencathra is a series of three peaks on the route we took. It took many tears and lots of determination to get up the first, steepest, peak. The only thing that got me up there was thinking “If that’s the only summit I reach today, at least I can say I have climbed Knowe Crags”. Of course once I got to the top and was reunited with the rest of the group, who were having their lunch, I sat and refuelled. I saw that the rest of the distance was a much easier walk and got my determined head on. No way was I going to get so close and not actually achieve it – my Dad had promised me a Blancathra, Wainright badge if I managed it and we all know how motivating a badge or a sticker can be!

Goals

Psychology at play

It was fascinating seeing the difference between the first stretch and this last leg. 

I realised that starting the walk, already tired from the walk from the car park had knocked my confidence in my ability to do it. It felt as though I had just about believed that I could do the mountain walk but that extra distance was just too much. 

Being so far behind everyone else had also had an impact. I felt I was holding everyone back and spoiling their walk (remember all those excuses I had made for all those years?). I realised that if I let myself have a good cry though, it released something and I walked quicker for a while. So I got up there on stubbornness and tears.

In reality my family were concerned about me. They were willing me on. My sister was so proud of me when I said I was going to keep going at the top of the first peak that she burst into tears. Even my 12 year old son was sending me text messages to keep me going – he was right at the front with the fastest walkers, my little mountain goat!

Mission accomplished

I did it!

When I reached the 868m summit I was overwhelmed with relief and pride. There had been so many moments on the steep ascent when I had doubted my body’s ability to get there. I was so proud of my Mum, who had been telling me how proud she had been of her Mum when she had walked the Lyke Wake Walk at the age of 65 many years ago. Well she had climbed a mountain three days before her 69th birthday and as she will never tell anyone about this amazing achievement, I am telling you. I couldn’t have done it without her and I am so grateful for the incredible example she has always set me. She is determined, compassionate, encouraging and stubborn and I love her so much.

It was an incredible achievement for each and every one of us and a massive reminder to me not to listen to my own self talk and to keep pushing myself out of my comfort zone. 

It doesn’t matter what the goal you are setting this year, with the right motivation, cheerleaders and a little bit of sheer determination, you can achieve it, we all can.

It might not be easy. You might take a little longer than you hoped (I know I did!). It may take tears, a little pain and a lot of gritting your teeth. You may need an incentive to keep going, some good company and someone to hold your hand but you can achieve it if it means enough to you. I believe in you and I know you in turn believe in your children and will support them to achieve all their goals this year too.

When you set little, easily achieved goals, it gives you a little easily achieved boost. When you dare to set a great big, challenging goal, you get a great big boost and a feeling of pride and achievement that will keep you going for a long, long time. 

I learned so much about myself through challenging myself and pushing myself in this way. I learned that I can push myself so far beyond what I believe I can do, physically. I was reminded of the importance of mindset. I was grateful for the love and support of my family…

…and yes, my Dad did buy me a badge! 

School Holidays

Missing your teacher friends

Holidays? Teachers are always on holiday! 

If you haven’t had this conversation with a friend or family member then I am guessing you aren’t a teacher. I lost count of how many times people told me that I was “always on holiday”. What few people realise is that there is a mammoth amount of work to do during the school holidays. Lessons don’t plan themselves, classrooms don’t move themselves and set themselves up for the new year. It can take a day just to label all the new books for the new school year, can’t it?

If anything the challenge for most teachers is remembering to actually take a break. I remember when I was a newly qualified teacher I went to germany and the Czech Republic in the summer holidays. I spent the whole holiday taking photos of tessellating tiles on buildings, buying Pied Piper resources and taking photos of statues etc in Hamelin and buying cfairy tales in different languages to show my class. 

 

 

This is not a holiday.

This is a resource gathering expedition.

Hands up if you have done the same thing?

I know you have, because if you are reading this you work in a school!

We have all spent Christmas day asking family members not to screw up their Quality Street wrappers so we can put them in the art corner, or saving Toblerone boxes for next time we do 3D shapes. It took me almost 10 years after I stopped teaching to stop doing these things!

We spend the whole of our holidays doing things which are, directly or indirectly, school related.

Now we have identified the issue, what can we do to sort it out?

Shift your priorities

When the holidays start make your personal life your priority. Whether it is spending time with your family and friends, catching up on jobs around the house or days out. Those are top of your to do list for the next few weeks.

Get outside

Whether it is a day out to a local beauty spot or just sitting in the garden with a cuppa and a good book, spending time in nature is calming and you will feel more relaxed just by being in the fresh air. Even if it is tackling a big garden project, you will feel tired but rejuvenated from the physical exercise and the fresh air. Whatever the weather, getting outside has physical benefits for your physical and mental health. We spend so much time indors during term time so even if it is taking some planning onto the patio or to the local park, get outside as much as you can.

Sanitiser

Get your school work done as soon as you can

I know that some schools won’t let you in during the start of the holiday to set up, but I always used to try and get everything set up in my classroom and all my planning etc done during the first week, if at all possible. That way my brain could relax knowing everything was ready for going back. That way I could fully relax and enjoy the time off.

Make fun plans

If you have plans that make you smile during the holidays, whether it is days out, coffee with a friend or a visit to somewhere you have always wanted to go, having plans in place, preferably before the holidays start, ensures that you will have things to look forward to and you won’t drift through the holidays in a haze of Netflix and sleep. Making happy memories with loved ones will give you things to look back on and ensure you are making the most of your time off.

Do things you love

It’s easy to fill the school holidays with things that you feel you should be doing; sorting out the garden, decorating that room, giving everywhere a deep clean… It might give you great joy to get those jobs done, and if it does, great. If it doesn’t then maybe you can leave them? If you really feel that you have to get those jobs done, then try to balance them with things you love. So if you spend two days decorating the spare room, have two days away in a cottage somewhere, or spend two days sitting in your favourite place reading a book you have been wanting to read, whatever makes you happy.

Start good habits

Have you let your diet slip? Stopped exercising? Maybe you always wanted to get into a daily meditation practice? Whatever it is that you know you would benefit from introducing to your life, start the habit during the holidays and by the time you go back to school it will be a non-negotiable and you will find time to keep it up. I used to tell myself I didn’t have time for exercise. The reality was, I hate it! A few months ago I bought an exercise bike/cross trainer and put it in my office. Now I cycle for at least 15km every morning before I do anything else. I realised I can read while I cycle so it doesn’t feel like wasted time because I am reading for about half an hour a day too and I feel stronger and happier than ever before. What can you start doing that you will benefit from in the long term?

Learn to be more mindful

Mindfulness is a great way to learn to control your mind. Simple daily strategies like morning meditation or journalling can help you to quiet your mind and relax. Why not find a technique that you enjoy and try it every day of the holidays. By the time the holidays are over you will probably keep it up and stay calm and happy all year long. Another of my favourites is yoga. It’s such a lovely way to start the day. It strengthens your body but calms you mind at the same time. I thoroughly recommend Yoga with Adrienne if you are looking for an online option to test the water. She has videos for every condition, every competence level and always gives simplified versions for beginners or people who are less flexible.

 

The most important thing of all though…

…is giving yourself permission to switch off. As teachers we are so used to being busy all the time, we find it hard to stop and just rest. It is so important that you are able to rest you mind and body when you have chance. I appreciate that everyone’s personal circumstances are different. If you have young children it might be more challenging to find time to do some of these things, but spend real quality time with your children. Get some popcorn and have a film afternoon. If they are old enough and have the attention span have a film day. We used to have themed days. We watched Harry Potter films all day one summer, we made beds on the floor, ate jellybeans and chocolate coins and made coke floats and called it butter beer. The children loved it and I had a day of resting while we made amazing memories. If you can of course, you can find a new series on Netflix and give yourself permission to just sit and watch them all, even if it is just after the children have gone to bed. 

Don’t feel guilty for taking time off. You have earned this time and your loved ones deserve time with the calm, happy you, not the tired and stressed version. 

 

Ripples of Calm

ripples of calm

Ripples, however small, slowly move out from the source and impact much further than we ever know. Whenever we do a small act of kindness or impart some small wisdom we never know the full impact that will have. 

“Even a pebble cast in the middle of a lake creates ripples that eventually reaches the shore.”
Jeffrey G. Duarte

 

I was talking so someone the other day who said that they thought it was ridiculous teaching children at primary/elementary school mindfulness and wellbeing; “what did they have to be stressed about?”

I should point out that this person did not work in a school or even have young children.

 

The more I explained why I felt that this was the best possible age to teach mindfulness and wellbeing, the more amazed their face became and the more excited I became. It’s funny how often being forced to defend your point of view makes you realise just how passionate you are about something. Of course I knew that I was passionate about teaching children wellbeing. What I hadn’t fully realised until I had this conversation, was the wider reaching reasons that it is so important to start young. The most obvious comment of course is that younger and younger children are struggling with stress and anxiety. They do need help with their wellbeing. 1 in 6 children of school age has a diagnosed mental health issue. This has risen dramatically over the last twenty years from 1 in 10 in 2004. By giving our young children coping strategies and techniques to use then we can hopefully begin to reverse this trend. We must support those who are already struggling.

We aren’t just equipping them for primary/elementary school

In addition to helping our young people while they are at primary/elementary school, we are teaching them techniques to help them with exams right through their education. Not just that, we are showing them how to manage their emotions. This will support them in ever relationship they will ever have and help them stay calm throughout their lives. When they go for their first job interview they will remember to breathe and calm themselves before they walk in. When they take their driving test they will do a few rounds of 7-11 breathing before they set off to ensure they are focused on the task in hand. 

The impact is even further reaching than that though.

You see the one thing we know about children is that they love to share. Whether it is sticky fingers, cuddles, head lice or sweets, they share things with those they love. The knowledge that they pick up at school is no different.

I often have parents and grandparents telling me that their child came home and taught them the breathing technique they learned at school that day. Sometimes even that they sat down and talked them through the meditation they had learned. 

Children love to show the adults in their lives that they know something and they learned something new. I know that I have learned many things from my children (particularly about the periodic table, which it seems has doubled in size since I was at school!). The magical thing about children sharing this particular knowledge though is that it can then be implemented by those adults and help them stay calm and happy too.

Picture the scene

Grandma returns from work looking a bit stressed and asks their grandchild to just give them a minute because they are a bit tired, they have had a difficult day. 

sharing

That grandchild picks up on the tension in their Grandma’s voice (they have become really good at reading emotions because they have learned a lot about emotions at school) so they give Grandma a minute. They then snuggle up next to her on the sofa and gently tell Grandma that they learned some ways to feel happier and more calm at school this week, it’s easy, I can show you if you like? 

Of course Grandma loves hearing about what her grandchildren have been learning so they encourage the child to tell her everything. Before she knows it, Grandma is breathing like a bumble bee and is beginning to feel more calm than she has in ages. 

Grandma then goes into work the next day feeling calmer and more grounded and notices that her colleague is looking a little tense today. She subtly stands next to her while she makes her coffee and asks her if she is feeling ok. Grandma’s colleage explains that she has a lot going on at the moment and apologises for being a bit stressed. So Grandma tells her colleague that her granddaughter taught her this amazing breathing technique to calm her down last night. Her colleague asks if it is easy and can she teach her…

Before you know it the ripples of that one child are wide reaching and so many others in her wider community have benefitted just from that one technique.

calm

Ripples keep spreading

You see when we teach our children methods of staying calm we send ripples out not just into the wider community, but also ripples into the future. These techniques will be passed from parent to child in the same way nursery rhymes or recipes are.

 

We aren’t just helping our children to stay calm in their next test or exam. This isn’t just equipping them for the next school year or the next step in their education. The techniques we teach them now will stay with them throughout their lives. They will share these with others they meet who need support.

The strategies will be passed from parent to child and before we know it everyone will have these simple and effective ways of supporting their mental health. 

We may never know the true impact of our actions but I do know that when we teach children to care for their mental health the calm ripples we send out into the world are far reaching and life changing.

Start teaching you class these simple but effective life skills today and watch your school community be transformed.

 

Is your breathing making you stressed?

Breathing

Breathing is the most important thing in life. 

There is no denying that really. You stop breathing, you stop living. Did you know though, that your breathing could be making you stressed? Learning to breathe in the right way might just be the most important thing you ever learn – in my opinion anyway.

You may have heard me talk before about how important it is to breathe correctly. I’m not going to even pretend that this isn’t something I preach whenever I get the chance. You see, I know how dramatically it has changed my life and I am just so eager to share this impact with as many people as I can. 

I’m sure there are some of you reading this thinking, “I am pretty effective in my breathing skills thanks Kate, I’ve literally been doing it since the moment I was born, I think I’m ok on this one.”.

You are of course right, however, there are many way to breathe and most people I meet aren’t breathing effectively, or even properly. It’s true, really.

 

Take a moment to just think about how you breathe. 

Place your hand on your stomach, perhaps put your other hand on your chest and just take a few breaths in and out, don’t change the way you breathe, just relax but be aware of how your body moves as you breathe.

For example, does your stomach move in or out when you breathe in? Does your chest move in our out as you breathe out? Do your shoulders move at all when you breathe? Where can you feel your breath when you breathe in? Perhaps you can feel it entering your nostrils? Maybe you can feel it in your throat? 

Just be aware of how you breathe.

 

Ok, so now you know how you breathe, let’s just check a few things to make sure you are breathing efficiently.

When you took a breath in did your stomach go in our out?

It should go out.

I know that goes against what we have been unconsciously taught by phrases like “breathe in” (when we are trying to get through a narrow space) but when you breathe in, your body should expand, it has to, it is filling with air. So your diaphragm should move down and push your stomach out slightly.

Likewise, when you breathe out your stomach should go in. Your chest should also get smaller when you breathe out, and bigger when you breathe in.

As for your shoulders, they shouldn’t move when you breathe. If you need to use your shoulders to breathe in and out you are struggling to breathe and should probably see a medical professional to check for conditions such as asthma. 

breathing
breathing

Optimising our wellbeing

Now we know how to breathe effectively so that our body is getting the most oxygen for the least amount of effort, we need to look at other factors which  affect the impact our breathing has on our lives.

Obviously things like the quality of air we are breathing has an impact on our ability to focus and our general health. The most important factor though, by far, is the speed at which we breathe.

I can pretty much guarantee that when I asked you to focus on your breathing that it would have slowed, just becoming aware of our breathing we automatically slow our breathing down.

That’s exactly what we want to happen. When we breathe quickly our breathe becomes increasingly shallow and this means that, not only do we not get as much oxygen, but our body goes into fear mode. You see when we are scared or anxious one of the first things that happens is that our breathing becomes rapid and shallow. Because of this our body has learned to detect this as an early warning sign and to release chemicals into our blood stream to send messages to the rest of our body to enable us to run or fight. This is great if we are in real, physical danger, but if we are just worried about an observation or interview, these chemicals create a chain of events which can be quite damaging to our physical body. Worse still, if you have got into the habit of always breathing in a fast and shallow way, your bodies then believes you are permanently in danger so keeps you in a permanent state of alert.

What can we do to change our breathing?

There are many ways to change our breathing. Any mindful breath work is based upon this principle of focusing on your breathing and slowing your breathing down in order to calm your nervous system and relax your body.

7-11 Breathing

7-11 breathing which is perhaps the simplest of all breathing techniques. This is the first breathing technique I teach anyone when we start to learn about breath work. As soon as you can count to 11 you can master this simple technique. All you have to do is to count to 7 as you breathe in, and count to 11 as you breathe out. It is so incredibly simple. It is also one of the easiest techniques to use in any situation. You can count in your head and breathe in time whether you are at home alone or sitting in the middle of an exam.

Give it a try, do about five cycles and see how different your body feels. I guarantee you will feel more relaxed. Obviously techniques like this are to calm your body in the short term, but if you can learn over time to breathe more deeply and more slowly, your body will feel calmer all the time.

There are many more breathing techniques you can use to slow your breathing and calm you body. 

Here are some starting points: 

Hot chocolate breathing

Changing the way you breathe can change your life

breathing

When you breathe effectively and slowly your body functions better and you feel more calm all day every day. 

Breathe better, stress less, it’s really that simple.

If you would like more ideas for mindful breathing and want to introduce breathing techniques to your class, Calmer Classrooms with Mojo has a whole day a week dedicated to learning to breathe mindfully. This is of course available as part of my Calmer Classrooms school membership along with all my other resources for primary/elementary schools. If you want to have a little experiment without any committment you can also download my Calmer Classroom cards for free when you sign up for my fortnightly newsletter.

Find out more about the benefits of mindful breathing. 

 

The Happiness Code: 5 easy changes to create a happier life

Happiness

Happiness is the most important thing in the world.

I am sure many of you are familiar with one of my favourite quotes:

“Happiness can be found in the darkest of times if one only remembers to turn on the light” 

Albus Dumbledore

Before I go any further, I am going to confront the elephant in the room. I know that the author of Harry Potter is a contraversial figure for many people now, but I firmly believe that someone can create something truly magical and have questionable personal beliefs. Whether you feel that her comments over recent years are acceptable or not is irrelevant in this context. The fact is, this quote resonates with me and it always will.

 

Now that is out of the way, let’s return to the real reason for this article. 

Happiness. How many of us rate it highly when we are looking at what we need in our lives? We focus on family, work, holidays, possessions and what everyone else is doing. Do we ever really give ourselves time to stop and think about what really makes us happy?

I know, you are reading this and thinking; “Kate, please, I don’t have time to think about eating my dinner let alone what would make me happy!”.

I know! I really do. 

Life is busy and more so now than ever.

The last year has been one of the hardest many of us can remember. It has been a time of intense fear and anxiety for many people. A time when we lacked the support from loved ones we rely on so heavily. We have been alone, or with our little family groups for the vast majority of the last 18months now and even when we have been able to meet up with friends and loved ones or go out somewhere, for many people those things which used to bring us pleasure are now tinged with worry.

Many people have really struggled with their mental health during the global pandemic. Understandably. However, as Dumbledore says in this quote, we can often find happiness if we just turn on the light. 

How often do you allow one small issue early on in the day to determine what sort of day it is going to be? 

Your alarm doesn’t go off, the car won’t start, the kids can’t find their homework… by the time you get to school you have already decided that today is going to be a challenge, and sure enough, things continue to go wrong. 

What would happen if you could turn those moments early in the day around to see the positives?

What if you could see the alarm not going off as some much needed extra sleep? The car issues mean that you walk to school and you get some more steps in before school? You could be grateful that your children have done their homework so that they have something to lose? Could changing the way you see things really change your whole day? 

 These may not necessarily all be practical changes in attitude for your circumstances but do you see what I mean?

You can choose to find the happiness by turning on the light.

You don’t need anyone else to turn the light on, only you can choose to find the switch.

 

Happiness light

Find the light switch.

The light switch for you might be making time to go for a run at least twice a week. That might help you find your happiness. Perhaps you have always wanted to tap dance so your happiness is finding an adult tap class. You might have always wanted to learn a craft or to spend more time with your children, perhaps you always wanted to find time for a massage every week… Whatever it is that will bring you true happiness, even if just for a few minutes every week, do it.

Here are some scientifically proven light switches if you are struggling to find your happiness switch:

Smile

It might sound like an obvious thing, but so often people forget that simply by smiling more we can trick our brains into believing we are happy. The mere act of smiling, or laughing, even if you are feeling really fed up, will release all the happy chemicals and make you feel happier.

Make others happy

If you are feeling down, do something thoughtful for someone else. You will feel happier because you have made them smile and who knows, they may even do something lovely in return. Double happiness!

Count your blessings

I know I harp on about being grateful and thankful for the things you already have, but that’s because it really works. Counting your blessings helps you to realise how fortunate you are and helps your brain start to look for the positives in life rather than those negatives that evolution has taught it to focus on. Get a gratitude diary and write down at least 5 things every day that you are grateful for and see how your life changes. 

Meditate every morning

What if I told you that waking up just five minutes earlier and spending the first few minutes of your day in meditation could make you feel happier and more calm all day, wouldn’t it be worth losing just 5 minutes sleep every morning? Well it really works. In the same way starting our days with a few things going wrong can set us up for a day of disappointment, starting the day well will set you up for success. Just 5 minutes of mindful breathing or a short guided meditation could be the change you have been looking for.

Choose your fuel well

I know it’s boring but what we put into our bodies has a huge impact on our mental wellbeing. Our gut is known as our second brain because it really does have a huge impact, particularly on our mental health. Try to stick to the 80-20 rule. 80% healthy to 20% processed or unhealthy. By eating more fruit and vegetables and cutting our processed foods, sugary drinks etc your body will start working more efficiently, you will have more energy and feel great.

Small changes for big impact. Commit to being happy today. 

 

Is it time to scrap the exam system?

Exams

Exams. Just the word is enough to put many adults into fear mode. 

In the UK we have used fundamentally the same system of assessment in schools since public examinations were created in 1858, when two examinations were introduced to schools, the Junior (under 16yrs) and Senior (under 18yrs) exams. These exams were requested by schools in order to help them assess the students and Oxford and Cambridge Universities created them and they were sat in schools, village halls or church halls.

More than 150 years on and schooling has changed beyond recignition.

When these first exams were introduced education for many children was not accessible and certainly wasn’t compulsory. Most children from poor backgrounds would have been working rather than learning at school. Education was a luxury for the few who could afford to both pay the fees and lose the income from their children being at work themselves. 

That is far from the only change though.

 

When exams were introduced our whole approach to education was vastly different. Children of all ages sat in rows, usually with every child in the same classroom working from the youngest at the front to the oldest at the back. Corporal punichment was accepted as an essential part of learning and education was about learning by rote not encouraging independent, inquisitive thought. There was certainly no moving around the classroom, exploring their surroundings and very little creativity. Children were to be seen and not heard and were very definitely second class citizens in most families.

Over the years we have changed our pedagogy dramatically. We now celebrate difference and encourage children to think outside the box. We nurture their personalities and teach them the importance of critical thinking and not just regurgitating everything they are told.

Yet our exam system is fundamentally the same as it has always been.

Do exams go against the modern ethos of education?

More than just being a little dated though, does our education system go directly against the rest of our school system? 

In lessons throughout the year we encourage children to be creative and think around issues, then we have to teach them how to answer the questions in exams just the way they need to in order to get the marks they need.

Sanitiser

There is no wonder so many teachers feel they must teach to test in order to get the best results for their students. There are very few exams which allow the flexiblity which we know is important in education. Gone are the days when we needed rows of workers in factories or typing pools to all conform and do as they are told. The modern world needs people who can problem solve, think outside the box and be confident to try new things. Many of the exams that we use to show how well a student has learned, fail to test any of these things. They test memory, recall and an ability to stick to a formula. 

In addition to this aspect of the examination system being a little dated, the last two years schools and exams have been disrupted greatly and most children achieved the results they truly deserved. Last year the results were purely based on previous results and teacher assessment. this meant that the students who had worked consistently hard throughout their time at school got the results they truly deserved, whether they panicked on the day or not. Unfortunately some students didn’t do as well as they might have done if they had taken the exams, because they were relying on cramming before the exams to bring their grades up and they didn’t get that opportunity. In future years many students will learn from this though, hopefully, and work consistently during the length of their course, which can only be a good thing for everyone. 

 

Younger children

Of course the younger children were also affected by assessments being cancelled. Has this had any impact on the children though? Well, not a negative one, that’s for sure. Many people will argue that the assessments sat before going up to high school are important to give the high school an idea of the children’ ability. In reality, high schools reassess them when they start and many children have a mental growth spurt around this age and achieve very different results when they start high school than they did in primary school. There is definitely an argument that the assessments taken in primary school are more about assessing the teachers than they are assessing the children.  

Children don’t learn in a linear way. They have mental growth spurts just as they have physical growth spurts. They may struggle one year because they have something happening at home or because they are growing rapidly and they are struggling to concentrate. That is no reflection on the teachers. Many generations passed through primary school with little more than a weekly timestables and spellings test, I did, and it didn’t do us any harm at all.

 

Sadly much of the stress and anxiety children experience at school is due to assessments. Whilst I am not suggesting that we stop testing our children all together, there must be a better way to support our children and ensure that the piece of paper they carry with them out of school is a true respresentation of their abilities and talents. Since I was at school myself, long before I had any understanding of the impact of mental health on learning, I have been aware that some students weren’t achieving their potential due to stress. We had one girl in our school who got so anxious that she couldn’t hold a pen to write her answers. She was incredibly intelligent, but exams made her so scared that she had to do all her exams wearing cotton gloves. 

What we understood less then, was that the impact of this stress wasn’t just affecting her physical ability to complete her assessment, it was also impacting her memory recall, her problem solving ability and so much more. She was in a permanent state of fight, flight or freeze and that is a thoroughly distructive place to try to sit an exam in.

We can teach our children strategies to help them control their biological responses to exams all day long, but at some point surely it makes sense to stop and think about whether we actually need to be subjecting them to this stress in the first place?

Surely now is the perfect time to stop and think about our assessment system in the world. We have had to change countless things in schools this year so why not use this as a catalyst for having a really meaningful look at the whole education system. Starting with the exams makes perfect sense to me.

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