Developing Wellbeing in the Early Years
A supply teacher with Zen shares her personal experience implementing mindfulness practices on both a whole school and classroom level.
A whole school approach to wellbeing
A whole school approach can be adopted by mirroring the practice of the staff with the children and encouraging parents to continue this at home. For nearly 20 years, I have developed my own mindfulness techniques with young children and am very aware that the happier children are, the more productive they are.
Last year, I was lucky enough to work in a school who wanted to make this change. They decided to participate in and eventually gained a ‘Wellbeing Award’. At the start of the school year we began by using a book called, ‘Emotional Intelligence 2.0’, by Travis Bradberry. Staff completed an assessment in the book to evaluate our EQ (the emotional version of IQ). The teachers also measured the children’s academic attainment against the ‘Leuven Scales of Wellbeing.’ This gave us all a baseline. A ‘Change’ team was created to foster the development of wellbeing and collect evidence for the award. I was part of this team and ideas were put forward, such as creating ‘Wellbeing Champions’. Being a champion myself, I provided a sympathetic ear to anyone in the school community and had access to a variety of outside support agencies to refer people to, depending on the issue.
It was critical for all visitors to the school to know of our commitment and so a ‘Wellbeing Mission Statement’ was created and displayed in multiple areas. Staff policies were amended to reflect wellbeing, especially in the ‘Staff Code of Conduct’ section. The areas for development highlighted in ‘The Emotional Intelligence 2.0’ book were evident and staff chose to buddy up and provide support to each other with the process. The exercises in the book were very straightforward and easy to apply. Extending positive staff relationships was an important part of the process. Suggestions can be made by staff for outings or activities the school can host weekly, such as a fitness coach and prizes for achievements. The staff can then have a real sense of camaraderie with any goals.
Another necessary component to improving wellbeing, is to involve a highly qualified organisation to provide training such as Special Yoga. Special Yoga is a company that provides courses for schools. Their amazing work has been documented in a short film by the BBC Education Department. They model techniques to be implemented throughout the school day. These techniques provide staff and children with a basic tool kit to help them not only manage, but thrive.
Here are a number of activities you can use throughout the school day
Settling: Checking In
Take a minute to put one hand on your chest and one hand on your belly. Take a few deep breaths and feel the rise and fall. Say out loud, “My head feels…. My body feels …”. Add your descriptors to the end of each sentence. This an excellent exercise to be done all together at the start of the day. It builds an emotional connection to yourself and your class before learning begins.
Focusing Attention: Breathing a Rainbow
Before the lesson, invite children to find different colours around the room with their eyes only. When they settle on that chosen colour, ask them to imagine breathing in that colour.
Young children can be very bubbly when they come back from a break. Invite the children to pretend to be frogs jumping up and down on their logs. After a few jumps they can settle on their logs (e.g. their carpet spaces) and watch the imaginary flies with their eyes. Tell them a fly has landed on a particular object in the room. When they find it, they can poke out their tongues to catch the fly.
Behaviour: Internal Weather
This is an area that builds up over time. The first step is for children to begin to identify their different emotions. A game that is very useful for this is called ‘Internal Weather’. Children use weather symbols to tell their own weather forecast (sunny equals happy etc).
Circle time and role play are valuable tools for enacting conflict/resolution scenarios and discussing what to do. Children very quickly learn a language to describe their emotions. They begin to notice how their moods change and why they change. This helps everyone identify the triggers and anticipate them. Different ideas and suitable techniques can be discussed openly and implemented.
I found it very helpful to be completely transparent about how the children are affecting my well-being positively or negatively and to let them know when my emotions were changing and what I was going to do about it. It is important for them to understand that everything we feel is okay. We all feel bad sometimes and that is normal. The trick is what we do about it. If children can have these honest discussions, in a safe non-judgemental space, it improves their behaviour, self-esteem and empathy.
Finishing the Day: The kindness bowl
Invite the children to hold their hands in a bowl shape and ask them to suggest beautiful things to put in it. We then drink the contents of the bowl, to nourish ourselves. We repeat the process and throw out the contents of the bowl to nourish the world. This ‘feel good’ exercise completes the cycle of the day with the closing of the emotional connection, which began with ‘Checking In’. I feel that it is vital for my children to understand that, despite all the academic pressures of the day, we are all humans and should be celebrated as such.
Towards the end of attaining the ‘Wellbeing Award’, the staff once again tested their EQ and the children’s attainment and progress, against the ‘Leuven Scale of Wellbeing’. All of the scores had increased immensely and the correlation between wellbeing, progress, and attainment, was undeniable. I would highly recommend developing wellbeing in your school and I hope this article has inspired you to do so.