It’s widely known that children who feel nurtured and safe will not only learn better but feel better too, but it’s sometimes easy to overlook as teachers grapple with the everyday demands of the primary school classroom.
Child Mental Health Week (4th–10th February) is the ideal opportunity to focus on creating a nurturing environment where every child feels valued and safe. Education expert and former primary school teacher Becky Cranham has some great ideas.
1. Get to know every child in your class
Why not take some time each week to learn a new fact about each child? Give them a ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’ card for them to fill in with something interesting about themselves, or as a space to share anything they are struggling with or worried about. Having one-to-one feedback on these (you could write a quick response on the back of the card and leave it in their tray, or take a child aside if necessary) or sharing a quick ‘Hey, I didn’t know you love ostriches – they’re my favourite animal too!’ moment with a child can make them feel really valued and supported.
2. Encourage every child to have a voice
Do you find it’s always the same children putting their hands up to answer a question? Use flip sticks to keep track of who you’ve asked a question and to encourage the whole class to take part in discussions. Another good method is to use ‘Talk for Me Buddies’ – a child discusses a question or problem with a partner who then feeds back what the first child has said to the rest of the class, and vice versa. This is great for children who want to share their ideas with the class but who don’t yet have the confidence to voice their own thoughts in a large group.
3. Be playful and have fun
Play fosters creativity, collaboration and problem solving, all of which are important for good mental health. Make sure there is time in the timetable for children to play, whether it’s a maths game, a role play activity or a team building game to foster class relationships.
4. Feelings and emotions: Name it to tame it
This gives children and adults the language to describe how they are feeling. In the words of American child psychiatrist Dr Dan Siegel: ‘Name it to tame it’. Children need to be able to identify the emotions they are feeling in order to understand how to deal with what they are feeling. Display an emotions poster in the classroom and encourage children to refer to it throughout the day, or give them each an individual feelings monitor to encourage them to identify when they feel different emotions, and thereby how to deal with them.
5. Take a mood register to check in with the feelings in the room
We recently asked some of our Facebook followers what they do in the to take the register. One response that we absolutely loved was to do a mood register. This involved children giving a number from 1 to 10 when answering their name in the register to show how they were feeling that day.
The teacher can then follow-up with any low-scoring children later in the day for a private chat, and other children can be aware of how their peers are feeling, giving them the chance to offer encouragement and support. This is what this teacher said about how it was working in her classroom: ‘It’s amazing how, when you make talking about feelings and emotions the ‘norm’, children feel totally safe and natural expressing how they feel.’
6. Create an atmosphere where all feelings are allowed
Give feelings an appropriate outlet. Put boundaries in place around behaviours to keep everyone safe and develop strategies to help reinforce those boundaries. For example, let children know that they are allowed to feel happy, angry, sad or whatever other emotion they may be feeling, but that they are not allowed to bully or hit.
When addressing undesirable behaviour, help both the child concerned and the other children in the class to understand that there are appropriate and inappropriate ways of dealing with difficult emotions. Learning to identify these will come in time as the children are supported in identifying and accepting their feelings.
7. Move on from a negative experience
Sometimes it’s important to help children (and colleagues) to see past the latest disastrous playtime or bad lesson and focus instead on the bigger picture. Is a child frustrated because they didn’t understand column subtraction straight away? Remind them of a time they struggled with, and overcame. Is this really any different? Do they really want to end the friendship with their best friend over the argument they had at playtime?
8. Take learning outside and make it active
It rains a lot in Britain. But that doesn’t mean that we should automatically discount the idea of making outside learning a regular occurrence. It doesn’t have to mean traipsing around a forest looking for earthworms (although this kind of outdoor learning is extremely valuable, too). Exploring places of worship, streetscapes, architecture, local businesses, museums, galleries, parks and shopping centres all provide rich experiences that provide an immediately engaging environment and provide many opportunities for learning.
9. Learn from fiction: discuss the feelings of book characters
Take the opportunity to discuss the feelings and actions of the characters as you read books to your class. Is there a better way they could have reacted? What led up to the crisis point? Analysing the actions and reactions of characters in a number of stressful situations can support children in identifying how they themselves react in certain situations and how they might react more positively next time.
It’s also important to share stories that directly encourage empathy, sympathy and kindness in order to foster these traits in children. The Kindness Movement, for example, are giving away a free kindness book which can help kickstart your class in thinking about, and discussing, feelings.
10. Keep it calm
Being able to calm down is a skill that needs to be practised (in some children more than others!). Embedding periods of calm into your classroom through simple activities, like this one from the Everyday Mental Health Classroom Resource website, will help your pupils to feel safer and more peaceful, leading in turn to better learning.