I was thrilled to be asked by Kate to write a few words for Mental Health Awareness Week as mental health is such an important subject and one which, in common with many other people, has affected me directly and profoundly. Unfortunately, being thrilled and willing doesn’t necessarily go hand in hand with knowing what to write as I am not an expert in mental health, so I needed a starting point. I decided to reflect on where ideas about good mental health fit into my professional life.
Although I am now more or less retired, a great part of my working life has been in the field of Early Years as a teacher and a trainer working with adults and children. Over that time, it has always been abundantly clear to me that some learners (both children and adults) take quickly to the learning on offer (even if I don’t manage to get it quite right for them as individuals), confidently take on board new ideas and run with them according to their needs and understanding and seem to have high levels of emotional well-being in the learning environment. However, there are also those who don’t seem to be able to do these things for much of the time, or even any of the time in some cases and a learning environment can cause boredom, frustration, distress and sometimes anger, together with low levels of emotional well-being. This combination generally leads to avoidance or disengagement with the learning on offer.
When I was training to be a teacher we thought about these issues and considered barriers to learning in order that we could understand and address the needs of all our learners, but particularly the reluctant or disengaged ones – trying to unravel why this happens for some children and the adults they ultimately become. I myself learned the importance of not taking negative behaviour on face value, but to try and understand what is behind the behaviour and to respond accordingly and endeavoured to use this approach in my work, trying to have unconditional positive regard for learners as my starting point.
However, it wasn’t until I worked at a Sure Start Local Programme alongside mental health professionals, from whom I learnt a great deal, that I started to have a deeper understanding of the effect of a person’s well-being on their ability to learn. More importantly I started to join the dots between relationships both inside and outside the family (and with ourselves) and the effect they have on good mental health in general and emotional well-being in particular. I realised how profoundly our early experiences with others shape not just our brain architecture but our feelings and emotions, including how we think about ourselves as learners. This was so evident in many of the adults I have worked with in Early Years over time (who were of course once children) who, even though they have chosen to return to learning for professional or personal development have great doubts about their ability to learn and often find being in a learning environment extremely emotionally challenging because of their life experiences both within and outside education.
For me, this has two major implications for those working in Early Years. Firstly, unless the needs of these adults are understood and taken into account during professional development opportunities such as training or studying for further qualifications, history could easily repeat itself leading to another negative experience or failure which will profoundly affect emotional well-being – not a good outcome for the learner or the teacher. Secondly, carrying negative feelings about oneself as a learner could very likely impact on that person’s practice with children, who we know only too well, see past the words we say and pick up on body language and unspoken feelings. If children get the feeling that adults who are important to them aren’t confident about learning new things, this could affect children’s attitudes to learning, their confidence and in turn, their emotional well-being.
So, what can we as individuals working with young children do to change things? We certainly can’t change the whole of the education system or have a major effect on the everyday lives of people, especially those who are disadvantaged for whatever reason. However, there are some positive things we can do as part of our everyday practice through positive relationships with children, their families and ourselves which are possible and achievable and which will make a huge difference.
Importantly, we can recognise the necessity of good emotional well-being as a platform for learning (think Maslow’s hierarchy of needs) and how through our relationships with children and their families we can promote it. Sensitive and respectful relationships enable us to pay attention to each child’s level of emotional well-being through careful observation and dialogue with the child and their family. (A wonderful and simple observation tool for recognising levels of well-being is the Leuven Scale devised by Ferre Laevers and his colleagues.)
Everyone’s emotional well-being naturally goes up and down during the day or over a period of time, but if it’s always low then we need to understand why and if we can, do something about it. In Early Years, it may be that a child finds transition into the setting difficult which sets them up for an unsettled and difficult day. With careful attention to this child and their family and how they think and behave, we can endeavour to make changes to our practice which could raise the child’s emotional well-being, putting them in a better position to take advantage of the learning on offer. It’s important to remember that we can’t always ‘make things right’ for children or influence things outside the setting, but we certainly can make their time in the setting the best it can be, contributing to both good levels of emotional well-being and resilience which will carry through into other areas of their life.
We also need to monitor our own levels of well-being as it is extremely difficult to support someone else’s well-being when our own is shaky. Working with young children and their families can be extremely rewarding but it can also be challenging and emotionally exhausting. Everyone has experiences in their lives which affect their well-being in addition to what happens in the workplace and often our natural resilience allows us to bounce back and to just ‘get on with it’. However, when our well-being remains low, for whatever reason, we need to learn to be kind to ourselves and to address our own emotional needs. This isn’t a selfish thing to do, even if it feels like that, because our emotional state directly affects the state of others, that is the children and families we work with, so it is actually beneficial to others for us to do this. Being kind to ourselves can take many forms such as learning to express our feelings honestly, not taking too much on or simply just taking a few deep breaths and relaxing when things are getting stressful. It is important for those working with children and their families to have the opportunity to reflect on both their practice and their emotional well-being through professional supervision, so if this is something you do not have access to in your work place, it may be something that you could suggest through your appraisal process.
As I write this, I realise that paying attention to and nurturing children’s emotional well-being is much easier and something we are much more likely to do than considering our own emotional needs. However, as people working with young children, it is important to remember that children see us as role models and are especially influenced by us when we support their emotional well-being. This basically means children learn from how we behave as well as from what we do and say, so if children see that we not only look after their mental health, but also our own, this is an invaluable lesson which will help them in the future to feel confident and able to nurture good mental health in themselves.
Leuven Scale – https://www.kindengezin.be/img/sics-ziko-manual.pdf
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html
I am independent early years and adult learning consultant and author, now semi-retired. I am also a proud parent and grandparent. I have worked with colleagues from schools, nurseries, pre-schools, children’s centres and the home setting, focussing on developmentally appropriate practice and equality of opportunity – for me the cornerstones of early years practice. I have co-written a book about risky play and another about starting school. I am particularly interested in the links between early experiences of learning and the profound effect they can have on emotional well-being and achievement both in school and in adult life. Talk to me on Twitter @annegladstone