Building Strong Children

Liz Bates worked for Services For Education since its inception (and in its prior format too).  She was instrumental in developing our offer around Emotional Health and Wellbeing and the courses and resources we offer.  She is well-known in Birmingham schools for her vast knowledge and understanding relating to children’s mental health, but also how to put strategies into place that really work in schools.  We are fortunate to still have some of Liz’s expertise as part of our offer as we have a selection of webinars on offer and she has contributed to resources that form part of our popular safeguarding subscription.  For further details see the end of this blog post.  Read on for Liz’s take on a crucial aspect of how to support and encourage postiive mental health and resilience in children.

Never before has the mental health and wellbeing of children and young people been in sharper focus. And never before have schools needed to take on so much of the ‘heavy lifting’ with regards to supporting struggling children and young people. We also know both instinctively and through research that learning, socialising skills, higher level thinking, problem solving, organising and planning are more likely to occur in the brain of an emotionally healthy and secure child who feels safe in their environment.

I recently presented a talk ‘It is easier to build strong children, than to repair broken men’, for the Association of Child Protection Professionals (formerly BASPCAN). And it is this quote from Frederick Douglass, escaped slave, orator and philanthropist, that carries so much truth when we consider the mental health and wellbeing of children and young people.

So how do we build strong children? Children who know that how they feel is hugely important and valuable; children who understand that their behaviour is a way of communicating how they feel and what they are thinking; children who understand what feeling safe and unsafe feel like; children who know what it means to trust an adult; children who know that it is important to ask for help and then who to ask and how to ask for help; children who have the strategies to self-calm when needed; children who can believe that their emotional world is essential to understanding them and by talking with a trusted adult this understanding can be shared.

We can do this by putting into place a robust framework, as early as possible and creating an environment where mental health and wellbeing does not just sit in PSHE but is a fundamental part of the setting.

Understanding our emotional world and the connection between our feelings, our thoughts and our behaviour is a crucial part of developing good emotional health. Knowledge and understanding of, and access to their internal, emotional world can give children the skills to then navigate the external world, and seeing how those worlds are linked, is where the power lies.

Some of you may have come across my books and resources before, but with a new publisher I have now been able to re-write, extend and enhance them to provide bigger, longer children’s storybooks and more detailed guidance and information for professionals, with new approaches and activities in the practical resources. Plus a new one ‘Cool to be Kind’. Each resource consists of a set of 2 books – a child’s storybook and an adult guidebook/practical resource.

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Something Has Happened BookThere is so much that can affect what a child’s story of their world is. Their experiences may have taught them that the world is a forgiving place, it can be relied upon and trusted. It is safe.  Or they may have learned something very different from their experiences; that the world is unpredictable, risky and it hurts.  It is unsafe. 

Something Has Happened is designed to introduce children to the right to feel safe and explores the whole safety continuum from feeling safe to feeling unsafe – with plenty in between.  

A key feature of the resource is disclosure: 

Who to tell – is there an adult that I really trust, that I feel really safe with?  

When to tell – will this adult listen to me or are they too busy? 

How to tell – what are the words I need to say this thing? 

Is it safe to tell – what will happen if I tell?   

Will I get in trouble?  Will someone else get in trouble? 

Is it worth telling – will this hurting stop if I tell? Will I be believed?  

So this resource also takes a rigorous approach to, what does it mean to be a trusted adult?  Going far beyond just ‘someone I trust’ by exploring what it means to a child and to the adult. 

We follow the story of Joe as he confronts his feelings, recognises his safety continuum, seeks out an available trusted adult, learns about helpful friends, persists and succeeds in sharing his worries.  The adult guidebook follows this story with distinct sessions/lessons, a host of discussions and activities to use with children, as well as having a detailed introduction. Together the storybook and the guidebook create a valuable and important safeguarding scaffold. 

With Protective Behaviours underpinning it, Something Has Happened takes the right to feel safe and uses it to create a safeguarding resource designed to develop both understanding and skills. 

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Ruby Rafa and Riz BookYou may be familiar with the video ‘Why Attachment Matters’ made by Bath Spa University. It contains the following remark made by a young boy, “that’s not me….I’m on the inside…and no-one sees inside…” 

It was that comment which was the driving force behind the story of Ruby, Rafa and Riz.  What we see in a child’s actions is their ‘outside’, and that is always, always, a result of what is happening to them ‘inside’; and if course it is true for all of us. Our internal world is how we experience the world, our external actions / behaviour is how the world experiences us. And no-one knows my internal world of feelings and thoughts unless I tell them – and if I don’t tell anyone I will be judged by my actions.  So the key to this resource is the imaginary iceberg and the importance of recognising and sharing our feelings and thoughts so that others, and indeed we, will understand our behaviour.  By interrogating the unbreakable link between our feelings, thoughts and behaviour the storybook and the adult guidebook provide invaluable learning. 

We meet Ruby, Rafa and Riz as they negotiate their way through a world of likes and dislikes, of similarities and differences and through experiences which impact on their lives.  Their actions are unexpected but it is not until they share their feelings and thoughts that their behaviour makes sense.  Again the accompanying adult book contains a detailed introduction followed by comprehensive sessions with 24 activities and discussions related to the story. 

The opportunity to re-write and extend this resource has enabled me to devote a significant part to responding to a child’s behaviour; including a ‘don’t want to or can’t’ approach, the importance of our ‘first thought’, the language we use, de-escalation, the behaviour continuum, connecting with a child, and ‘know me’ cards. This section is called, unsurprisingly, ‘That’s not me’. 

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Myg and Me BookUnderstanding and normalising anxiety is a gift we should give to every child. 

There are many reasons why children and young people may become anxious at school or at home or anywhere else. If that anxiety is preventing a child from accessing learning or doing the things they want or need to do then it is important that the child is helped to manage and overcome those, often, paralysing feelings.  

It is important to remember:                                                                           

Anxiety is not the enemy. But it does have power and sometimes that can overwhelm us. The more we can understand it, the more we know about it then the more power we can have over it.  And if we can recognise the anxiety, accept it, let it happen, be in charge, then we are telling our brains that there isn’t a threat. 

So meet Myg the Amygdala, see how brilliant our brains are, find out how Myg keeps us safe but sometimes works too hard, learn where anxiety comes from and that we all get anxious sometimes, and finally practice becoming a Child in Charge. As with the other book sets the storybook is a fun read for children this time introducing the reasons why we feel anxious at times of change, challenge and risk; how our brilliant brains can be compromised; and finally how we can take charge.  The adult guidebook supports the story with explanations exploring how anxiety feels, looks and sounds; where it comes from; how it can impact on learning and then what we as adults can do to help children understand and manage the feelings and thoughts which might prevent them from achieving or simply feeling ok.  Activities, discussions, relaxation and visualisation scripts and a wide range of self-calming strategies, all fit together with a certificate at the end, teaching the strategies but also pre-empting the feeling of overwhelm by teaching them about anxiety. 

This new edition will be available from April 24th.

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Be Cool To Be Kind BookAs Henry James said, “Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.” 

There is no escaping the rise of unkindness in its most evident, explicit and toxic form.  The internet has allowed an anonymous, ‘no rules’, onslaught of unkindness which is almost impossible to challenge and as a result anti-bullying work in schools has now taken on a level significance and immediacy unrecognisable only a few years ago.  Over the years working with schools and Birmingham LA in this area I honed my approach to this topic; I wanted to shift the thinking, the methodology and the language because just the word ‘bullying’ carries such an emotional response, from children, professionals and parents.  There is no shared understanding of the word with everyone bringing their own experiences and interpretations.  A favourite question I would ask on courses or training is ‘what is the difference between bullying and teasing?’ and this could take over the rest of the session if I wasn’t careful. 

My response was to talk about the right to feel safe (see Something Has Happened above) and kindness / unkindness. And that eventually resulted in Cool to be Kind which tells the story of Coco, Otto, Ollie and Ling as they as they negotiate the sometimes, tricky world of friendships and relationships, observing the unkindness of some and using their ‘superpower’, kindness, to change the lives of others.  The adult guidebook again has activities and discussion starters designed to interrogate and explore what it means to be kind, what it means to be unkind, why that unkind choice is sometimes made and how usually there is another choice – to be kind.  There are plenty of immediate actions and opportunities for schools to introduce kindness into their day-to-day life and ways for adults to support children to see that kindness can be a choice and to discover other ‘powers’ – the power of friendship, the power of difference, the power of language.   Crucially this resource also has a section on self-compassion and being kind to oneself – a lack of which we know can lead to a drive to be perfect which, when not achieved, may become a threatening and sometimes uncontrollable aspect of a young person’s life. 

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If you like the type of support and approach you have read about in this blog, you can access training webinars Liz has created from the Services For Education website. 

Namely we offer:   

  • A 5 module online course about creating an “Emotionally Safe Classroom”

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  • An online video led course on “Dealing with Loss and Bereavement”

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  • A webinar and podcast about “Managing Anxiety in Chidlren and Young People”

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  • If you subscribe to our Safeguarding Subscription you get access to more of Liz’s resources as part of that package of support as she has recorded a webinar on FGM, Forced Marriage and so-called Honour-Based Abuse discussing what it is and how to address it in the curriculum. 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Liz has worked in education for over 40 years, as a teacher, deputy head, safeguarding advisor, wellbeing advisor, mental health school engagement advisor, for a range of organisations such as Optimus, the Anna Freud Centre, the Protective Behaviours Consortium and indeed Services For Education.  She has worked with a wide range of professionals including teachers, learning mentors, pastoral support and family support workers, educational psychologists, clinical psychologists, Children’s Care staff, therapists, as well as children, young people and parents. 

Liz Bates

Liz’s books and resources have all been written as a response to her experiences and have been endorsed by a wide range of professionals such as the Chair of Developmental Psychology in Society, University of Bristol; the Head of the School of Psychology, University of Sussex and leader of The Kindness Test; the Principal Education Psychologist in Birmingham; the CEO of the Protective Behaviours Consortium; and many of the professionals mentioned above. 

lizslamer@gmail.com