Sonia Mainstone-Cotton, early years nurture and wellbeing trainer, and early years consultant, explains how you and your staff can take care of children’s mental health.
This article orginally appeared in the Alliance's Under 5 membership magazine.
Wellbeing is a term we hear a lot when discussing adults and young people – but we don’t often think about it so much for young children. We know that rates of teenage mental health problems are rising alarmingly and we are aware that young people can feel stressed at times. But I passionately believe that if we work to support the youngest children’s wellbeing as well then we are setting them off to a great start in in life.
One critical factor in helping children improve their wellbeing is making sure that they know that they are loved for being the unique and precious individuals that they are. Parents and grandparents clearly have a crucial role to play in letting children know that they are unconditionally loved, but I also believe that key workers, childminders and other early years practitioners have their own role to play in showing children that they are loved and wanted.
Practitioners can show children that they are loved through the words they use and the way we interact with them. As part of my role as a nurture consultant, I work with eight children and schools throughout the year. Every time I speak to one of these children I look them in the eyes and tell them how lovely it is to see them today and how much I have been looking forward to our time together.
Think about how you welcome the children you work with each day. Show warmth in your smile and your words. Notice how they look – maybe they have a Spiderman hat on or a new hair band in their hair. By noticing these things that are important to children and telling them how delighted you are to see them, you will help them arrive feeling wanted and loved.
Here are some practical ideas for supporting young children’s wellbeing:
Research shows that children have a need to be outside, taking opportunities to explore, discover, climb and run. Make sure you involve children in using your outdoor space by asking them to help create obstacle courses for one another, asking them to think about what tools and resources they will need. Or you could provide materials for the children to make dens outdoors. Could they have a picnic in their den?
Another idea is to ask older children to help make a treasure hunt and map for the younger children. Ask them to draw the map and plan out the route. They can also think about what the treasure will be.
Use emotional language
We need to help children understand their feelings and using emotional language will help give them the vocabulary they need to understand their own feelings, as well as other people’s. Even when children are babies we can start talking about their feelings. For example, when a baby is crying to be fed, we can say: “It’s okay, I know you are feeling hungry. I am going to feed you now.”
When a toddler is crying because their parent has left them at nursery, we can say: “I can see that you are really sad that Mummy has gone. She will be back later but I am here for you now.”
Our lives are often very busy, and our children’s lives can often be busy too. We need to help children find the time to rest and experience moments of stillness. Are there spaces in your setting where your child can lay back and relax or daydream? You can also use yoga and mindfulness with young children. Both of these practices help children to find stillness.
Creativity is an essential part of wellbeing. We need to give children the space to be creative and join in the process with them. Find times to sing and dance with children, this can be a joyful experience. Give children the opportunity to experiment with a wide range of materials and mark-making tools. Creativity should be about enjoying the activity and not about having a finished product.
Children have a passion for learning and discovering. They need adults around them who want to learn and explore with them. I believe one of our roles as practitioners is to be a co-explorer and adventurer with children. Children are great at becoming fascinated by something – this might be the snail and sticks you see on the road as you are walking to the shops, or it might be a keen interest in dinosaurs. As adults we can express our own interests and delight our children by learning alongside them, allowing their natural interests to shape our daily activities.
Sonia Mainstone-Cotton will run a practical workshop on Promoting Emotional Wellbeing in Early Years Staff at this year’s Alliance annual conference, Minds matter: protecting the wellbeing of children and practitioners in the early years, on Friday 1 June 2018.
This article originally appeared in the Alliance's Under 5 membership magazine.
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