When I had my first panic attack at eight years old, there was little to no information about anxiety disorders – or mental health, for that matter! Years later, when my trainee-nurse sister brought home some information explaining many of the things that I had experienced, I was relieved to find that I wasn’t crazy or abnormal after all.
This gave me an insatiable curiosity about the mind/body connection and I found effective techniques such as neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). I also found the world-famous coach Tony Robbins, who uses similar techniques, and I was amazed at how effective his books were in helping me not only to manage my anxiety, but also to reach my own potential. I wondered why we weren’t teaching these types of strategy to children!
When my daughter had her first nightmare, managing it came very easily to me through using a simple CBT technique called ‘reframing’ that I’d learnt for managing my own anxiety. This was my ‘eureka’ moment seven years ago when I decided to take on the challenge to create characters and stories that could help children manage tough emotions and reach their potential – think Peppa Pig meets Tony Robbins.
Feel Brave was born and feedback has shown us that it is so effective that I now feel it’s not just something that I want to do, but something that is my duty to give all children access to.
There is no doubt that we are heading towards a mental health crisis right now in New Zealand and global trends show that these types of issue are only increasing. What is difficult is that there is mounting pressure for teachers to ‘fix’ this crisis whilst juggling all the other heavy educational and departmental pressures.
Having been a teacher myself, and understanding the huge role that it is, I have great empathy for teachers, but I also have a lot of hope that, with some creative innovation, we have the potential to make a global positive shift in children’s emotional health and wellbeing just by doing some very simple things every day. Here are three of my favourite examples that can be woven seamlessly into the classroom:
- Teaching children about their brains
When we understand how we operate, we can better manage our feelings and why we (and others) might think, feel and act the way we do.
Children are never too young to be introduced to how their brains work and you don’t need to be a neuroscientist to teach them! Like a dog, our ‘old brain’ (the cheeky monkey) is most useful to us if it’s trained well by our ‘new brain’ (the wise owl). Just getting children used to the idea of a ‘cheeky monkey’ and a ‘wise owl’ that is a part of who they are will give them a great start in building their emotional intelligence.
For very young children, monkey and owl puppets work brilliantly, along with questioning such as ‘Was that your cheeky monkey who just did that? What could your wise owl do instead?’ This type of questioning helps to build good vocabulary about their brains. There are some simple and clever ways to teach children about their brains online, such as Dr Hazel Harrison’s upstairs/downstairs brain concept.
2. Building resilience
Resilience is one of the most important things children can build in order to be self-confident and to ‘survive and thrive’ in life. A resilient child is one who feels connected, loved, has hope, and a strong sense of belonging and attachment.
We can help children develop this by listing all of the things that make them feel that they belong. It is also powerful to help them create their own special places of belonging through guided imagery then get them to further crystalise these places with words and pictures.
Having a special place that is familiar to us in our minds is a nice place to go from time to time when we need a three-minute mental break. There are some great guided scripts that can be found online to help you enable children to do this or download and use the ‘My Special Place’ script from the Feel Brave Teaching Guide.
Building tribes is also key in developing resilience which we can do by creating strong class groups, school houses, mentor groups and/or daily practices such as songs or statements that make them feel protected, respected and connected. Devise strategies to link students who dwell on the fringe with other class members such as a special project like gardening or cooking.
Empathy plays a vital role in preventing bullying and building strong relationships. Some great ways to practice empathy every day are to carry out ‘random acts of kindness’ or to report regularly on what kind thing you did for someone (or saw someone do for someone else) today.
3. Managing anxiety, fears and worries
There is huge power in changing the way children feel about something simply by ‘reframing’ it using storytelling. If something is scaring a child (e.g. a recurring nightmare or a negative memory), get them to imagine the most ridiculous thing that could happen to their scary or negative thing then make up a new story with them where the scary thing becomes funny, small or cute.
Children love nothing more than role playing a tough situation they are facing when you play the part of them or you share a similar story from your childhood. Role playing gives them a safe environment to try out different coping scenarios.
When we ‘name’ a feeling, we ‘tame’ a feeling so using stories to open up conversations about what might be worrying a child (and emotion cards to identify names for our feelings), helps us find ways to process and overcome them.
Avril McDonald is an ex-primary school teacher, the author of the Feel Brave series of books – little stories about big feelings for 4–7-year-olds – and the creator of www.feelbrave.com.