April 26, 2023
It Takes a Village
By Dr Kathy Weston
Sometimes, for no apparent reason, I wake up in the early hours feeling a surge of excitement about life. It is normally ignited by people I have met professionally that day or week, or by a conversation I have had. It can also be sparked by something I have read or seen. It doesn’t happen every day, or even every week, but when it does, it genuinely feels like I am acutely aware of my vocation and life’s purpose. I feel full of energy, passion and enthusiasm and can’t wait to get up and get going. I have no idea why it happens, but I am so grateful for it and hope the feeling won't dissipate.
The first time it happened was when I was a young teen. I woke up in the early hours with a very firm affirmation in my head, as if someone had whispered it in my ear. It was crystal clear. I was to accumulate as much knowledge as I could and do as much as possible (perhaps re-read in these adult years as ‘take advantage of every opportunity’). Recently, my youngest teen arrived into the kitchen announcing a very similar realisation, that the secret to life was ‘to do as much stuff as you can’. Sparked by a newfound enjoyment of ice-hockey, he had found that trying new things made him feel differently about himself and enhanced his zest for life generally. He had learned that occasionally putting himself out of his comfort zone gave him new insights into himself and he found that life could be experienced with more clarity of purpose. His assertion made me think that perhaps my adolescent revelation wasn’t that unique and is a normal developmental feature of rapid brain change, constant meaning-making and purpose-seeking.
This week, my ‘feeling’ was sustained for several days and I have been reflecting on why that might have been the case. Last week was a busy one which encompassed travel to new parts of the country, co-hosting a day long, online conference on autism and giving talks to hundreds of parents and educational professionals. You might think an eight hour round trip to the north of England and delivering three hours of inset training would be tiring, but it wasn’t, because of the people I met. You might think delivering webinars to parents would be fatiguing, but it never is (even if it is content that I have delivered hundreds of times).
Our online conference was an inaugural one at Tooled Up Education and, as such, an experiment. Could we invite academics, parents, teachers and people with lived experiences into a shared digital space to support and learn from one another? Would people welcome hearing new perspectives and ideas, or be open to revising or refreshing established, tried and tested methods, pedagogies and approaches?
The day ended up being incredibly motivating for me personally. The reason? I realised there was a sea of committed, passionate educators, academics and parents, all pulling hard in the same direction for the benefit of young people. I felt incredibly proud to be able to shine a light on evidence-based ideas and free resources that schools could use. The academics at the conference kept commenting on how much they were learning from contributing parents, the parents said how much they were learning from academics, and teachers were peppering the chat with commentary about how useful a particular resource could be for them in the classroom. There was a really strong sense that we are ‘in it together’.
I particularly enjoyed the moment when a parent asked an academic what the term ‘alexithymia’ meant. Now, I wasn’t familiar with the term either and was really excited to learn about it. Turns out it was first coined in the 1970s and refers to difficulties in recognising and distinguishing between different emotions and bodily sensations, difficulties in expressing emotions, a lack of imagination or fantasy life, and thoughts focused on external rather than internal experience. In Greek, it loosely translates to “no words for emotion.” 1 in 10 people have it, but it is much more common in those with depression and in autistic people. It is estimated that 1 in 5 autistic people have alexithymia.
After sharing this with my teens, my eldest, currently studying Greek GCSE, piped up and told me that our kitchen digital device is quite clearly and obviously named for this reason. “Don’t you know that ‘Alexa’ means ‘it spoke’ in Greek mum?” No, I did not, but isn’t it exciting to begin to connect strands of knowledge, to learn new facts and to find our brains firing up in receipt of new ideas and insights?
It was amazing to experience how a sense of community could be established online and in one day at our conference. When attendees had to leave, they would tell us, “I am off on the school run now!” or, “I have to dash to a meeting now, but have taken lots of notes!”. When it was drawing to a conclusion, even the trained autism specialist teachers that were there talked about what they had learned, how they were keen to reflect on their practice and bring fresh thinking back to their setting. Ego was absent, and in its place the simple motivation and desire to learn, improve and move forward. These were people, parents and professionals who would go to the ends of the earth for children they love, care for, or work with. Now, that is worth getting excited about!
It was ‘Earth Day’ last Sunday, a day to ‘zoom out’ and consider life through a wider lens perhaps or taking time to appreciate the beauty and delicacy of the planet we inhabit. How might our personal behaviour be impacting upon its health and wellbeing? It can also be a day to consider our own life’s purpose and approach to life. How did you celebrate with your children?
Perhaps you simply considered the vastness, beauty and majesty of the Earth? Perhaps you lay on the grass with your kids, or had fun looking at all the places you can find on Google Earth (appreciating scale and context). Did you zoom out even further and check out some of the breathtaking, awe-inspiring images that have been returned to earth via NASA’s latest telescopic data? By grounding ourselves in nature, attuning to the beauty of the environment around us and getting back to basics in terms of appreciation for what surrounds us, we can really enhance children’s wellbeing but also anchor them psychologically. Nature has this impact on us and our children, as research shows.
Last year, I hosted a webinar with autism expert and Forest School leader, Samantha Friedman. She talked about a whole raft of research which shows that connecting with, or even just having access to nature has been widely associated with better mental health. For children, spending time in nature at school (at break time, gardening or for outdoor learning) has been found to reduce stress, is associated with fewer emotional and behavioural problems, provides an opportunity for social development and increases their capacity to focus on learning tasks. She also told me that parents’ connection with nature predicts that of their children – certainly food for thought!
Samantha’s own work focuses on the outdoor learning experiences of a small number of primary-aged autistic children in the US. Her qualitative case study found that teaching these children outdoors for 30 minutes per day as part of a social skills class was beneficial for both the pupils and their teachers. Being in a more natural environment seemed to support the children’s development towards their Individualised Education Plan goals. The students, one of whom had selective mutism and rarely spoke indoors, all seemed more engaged outdoors, beginning to ask more questions and speak openly, and the teachers noted that they felt reduced levels of stress and a sense of respite from the indoor classroom setting, which could be chaotic. An opportunity to reduce teacher burnout through outdoor learning is encouraging and might be an interesting idea for schools to consider.
There’s also a body of correlational evidence suggesting that access to nature may impact positively on the development of children’s self-regulation skills. Self-regulation is the ability to control our feelings, thoughts and impulses. It’s what allows us to conform to social expectations, learn independently and have positive interactions with others. Researcher, Gemma Goldenberg, told me that, whilst more rigorous research is needed in this area and we don’t yet understand exactly why, exposure to nature correlates with better self-regulation. There are various theories to explain this link. It may be that nature is an environment that reduces stress and improves mood, it might help to replenish our cognitive abilities, and it may even protect against negative factors such as noise, pollution or issues with gut microbiota. What we do know for sure, is that, for many children, nature seems to have a positive effect on behaviour and that time outdoors is to be encouraged.
There are numerous ways we can encourage our children to engage with the environment around us. Apps, such as iNaturalist, are a great way for adults and teens to share their observations of the natural world and really consider what is going on around them. Climate Game is a fun way to help young people think about how to reduce their everyday carbon footprint. Younger children might enjoy receiving Friends of the Earth’s Planet Protector pack or considering how to encourage more bees into the open space around you (schools can become bee-friendly too!). The Young People’s Trust for the Environment has a great website with resources for young people, parents and teachers and The Wildlife Trusts and the Marine Conservation Society websites are both packed with interesting ideas.
In other news, April is the designated ‘Month of the Military Child’, a time to celebrate and raise awareness of the unique experiences children from an Armed Forces background may encounter.
Recently, I have been paying attention to this particular cohort of families as I heard from teachers who are supporting children with mums or dads who may be deployed overseas and from families waiting patiently for a parent to safely return. As you can imagine, military family life is quite unique. Whilst it is undoubtedly characterised by times of excitement and difference, it can involve a great deal of transition, adaptation, periods of coping, worry and anxiety. Children of military personnel have distinctive challenges and have to navigate frequent and lengthy goodbyes, cope with uncertainty and manage worries about a parent’s welfare.
Staying connected as a family is tough during periods of deployment. Happily, military families do tend to enjoy a very strong camaraderie and live in close proximity to one another, which can help. But it can be hard to relax when, in some cases, you don’t know where a parent is geographically or what they are even doing there. Having the deployed parent return home can also present challenges for a family; trying to fit back into a routine that has been carefully designed for maximum consistency can be difficult.
I recently spoke with a mum of two children whose husband (the children’s father) was in the military. She told me that when her husband returns home from deployment, the family always books a few days holiday somewhere, which gives them a chance to fall back into rhythm with each other, without the added pressures of day-to-day routines. Speaking to this mum, she expressed that it was a balance. She recognised her children are fortunate enough to experience fantastic times (e.g., having a tour of a private naval base, taking part in activities organised by the military base near their house and feeling part of a wider network), but that these times were balanced out with missing their dad for extended periods.
There are numerous free resources available which are designed to help military families thrive that I want to share. Toria Bono has written a book to help forces families navigate the ups and downs of service life. Tiny Voices Talk is filled with practical, actionable advice on a broad range of topics including education, and trauma-informed practice that teachers and school staff can use to create a nurturing and safe environment for military pupils in their classroom.
Schools might like to take look at the Service Children’s Progression Alliance’s research-based toolkit, which provides schools with a framework of seven principles through which to reflect on their practice and a set of CPD resources, or Little Troopers’ Military Child Wellbeing Course, designed to support primary-aged children (Little Troopers have also produced a range of resources to coincide with the Month of the Military Child). Supporting Children in State Schools and Supporting Service Children in Education Cymru also provide useful resources and guidance for both schools and families.
Bedtime reading is a powerful bonding experience that military families may, at times, miss out on. To help, there are also some lovely initiatives including Aggie’s Storybook Waves (where parents posted elsewhere can record a bedtime story for their child) and Reading Force which aim to promote story-sharing among families, even when a parent is serving away from home.
Paying attention to our own mental health is vital for not only our wellbeing, but our children’s. For parents in military families, there are plenty of resources available to you and plenty of support. Check out the NHS website, the NSPCC, the Naval Families Federation, The Naval Children’s Charity and Forces Children Scotland for starters. Veterans can also contact Combat Stress which offers a 24-hour helpline (0800 138 1619) to all veterans and their families for confidential mental health advice and support, and an online self-help service.
Are you a Tooled Up member?
If you are supporting a child from a military family and would like to learn more, we’d recommend reading our article on recent research findings about Service life. We also have a list of books designed to support children with parents in the services, which might be useful for reading at school or home.
Over the next couple of weeks, we are hosting a range of webinars to help with stress management. This Friday, on April 28th, we’re hosting a lunchtime webinar with the superb clinical psychologist, Dr Monica Thompson on stress management for busy parents and on May 9th, we’ll be joined by psychiatrist and parent coach, Dr Gauri Seth for a 30-minute Q&A about how we can sustain emotionally deep and meaningful connections with our children whilst living busy lives. Both sessions are open for booking now.
On a different note, if you feel inspired by Earth Day and would like to learn more about the impact of our clothing choices on our planet, why not join us tomorrow night (Thursday 27th April) for a webinar Professor Natascha Radclyffe-Thomas, Professor of Marketing and Sustainable Business at the London School of Fashion, where we’ll be learning all there is to know about fast fashion. Also, if you’d like to nudge your children towards a greater connection to nature, we’ve put together a list of brilliant apps and websites that combine on- and offscreen activities to engage children with the outside world.
Got a teen reader at home? A team of researchers in the Departments of Psychology and English at Royal Holloway University, led by a recent podcast guest at Tooled Up, Professor Jessie Ricketts, are conducting a survey to find out more about the challenges and priorities for teenage reading. They are keen to include a wide range of voices and would love your input! Their survey only takes 10 minutes to complete, can be accessed here and closes on the 7th of May 2023. Thanks in advance and on behalf of the team.