Starting April 20th, 2020: 100 Days of Child-Friendly Mindfulness (YouTube)

I’m currently approaching my fifth week of quarantine. Urghhh!

And I’ve been so inspired by the efforts that educators/public figures/everyday folk have gone to throughout this period, supporting children digitally to learn, move and grow at home.

Day-by-day, I’ve been piecing together my own plan – as a children’s wellbeing teacher – to support children’s mental health via an online approach.

Having spent the last fortnight learning the essentials of filming, video editing and the like – a process which made me feel like I had NO BUSINESS teaching anyone about mindfulness – I’m finally ready to unveil my project:

100 Days of Child-Friendly Mindfulness!

Starting Monday 20th April and concluding on September 4th, I will be uploading short, child-friendly mindfulness sessions daily on weekdays. Sessions will be roughly 5 minutes long, offer a little knowledge and one practical strategy, and leave students with a challenge that they can attempt during the day.

Sessions are aimed at children between 7 and 13 but may work well for younger and older children/teens and honestly, this stuff generally works for me as a 36-year old adult.

Videos will be uploaded to my new YouTube – Mindfulness with Miss Steer – by 9a.m. each weekday morning. In the clip below, I introduce the key aspects of the course and hopefully answer any questions you might have:

The purpose of this course overall is to give children strategies that will help them manage their thoughts, feelings, moods and emotions, throughout these unusual circumstances. Children who take part will finish with a toolkit of knowledge, skills and strategies that support emotional intelligence and resilience – a toolkit that will serve them long after this global crisis.

Let me add that I’m deeply reluctant about sharing content online; that the prospect of having my face out there and up for public scrutiny makes me feel vulnerable and afraid. This fear is outweighed however, by the knowledge that there are children around the country, currently missing out on pastoral care and PSHE lessons, at a time when they need it the most.

So I’m determined to step up and do my bit.

Plus, by the time I’ve uploaded 100 clips – I should be pretty great at video editing right?! Either that or single.


Help me to help others by sharing this with your own children, relatives, friends, colleagues and anyone looking to support the mental health of children right now.

Use the hashtag #mindful100 on Twitter and Instagram – I’ll try and reply to as many questions as I can.

 

 

 

I’m Now a Qualified Forest School Practitioner!

After a year-long course, which both inspired and challenged me to levels previously unknown, I heard this week that I passed my Level 3 Forest School instructor qualification. I’m incredibly proud of this because not only did it involve a gargantuan amount of work, but the practical element of the course i.e. sawing, carving, bill-hooking, setting fires etc. was worlds out of my skill-set and comfort zone.

You’d be forgiven for asking: why would I even sign up for such a course?

It all comes back to wellbeing, of course!

I’ll summarise in the following points:

  1. In the last few years, there’s been more and more research into the benefits of being outdoors in terms of our wellbeing. We’re talking changes in blood pressure, cortisol levels, blood sugar and more. I’m butchering the data here – if you’d like to read the fine-tuned details, click here.
  2. After numerous camping trips (and lots of arm twisting) I’d come to realise that active relaxation – whereby you’re focused on the essential actions of putting up a tent, cooking your dinner, building and lighting a fire – is actually an active form of meditation. I found myself ‘switching off’ and relaxing almost immediately, whereas usually, it takes me a while to stop thinking about my ‘to do’ list.
  3. Having forgotten most of what I’d learned as a former Girl Guide, I was curious – about trees, plants, animals, weather and the natural world in general. So too were the children I taught, curious and keen to know more. Curiosity causes us to look more closely, listen more intently; it lends itself perfectly to mindfulness.
  4. I noted myself that time spent outdoors, being curious and mindful, resulting in a natural increase in gratitude, appreciation and ease; not just for nature, but for everything.girl nature

With the course now completed and a shelter-building day already under my belt, I am more convinced than ever as to the benefits of Forest School practice (and just getting outside in general) in terms of improving mental health.

Now, I’m all about finding opportunities to take mindfulness outdoors, in order to increase curiosity, gratitude and mindfulness practice itself.

I’m equally keen to engage children in active meditation through tasks that require their attention to be in one place at a time (i.e. carving, making, crafting etc.)

But if all of this means very little to you right now, that’s the only advice I’m going to give you: to get outside, kids in tow if you have them.

And look, hear, touch, smell, feel the natural world around you.

That’s a better place than any to start.


Interested in some outdoorsy Mindfulness? Looking to book a Forest School Shelter-Building day? Call 07719330358 or email jo@skillswithfrills.com to check options and availability.

Why it’s Important to Teach Children about Habits

With the dawning of 2020 and the promise and potential of a bright, better decade, many of us now turn our attentions inwards, looking to make changes – to creating a brighter, better version of ourselves.

“New Year. New Me!” I used to declare every January.

Until I got wise to the fact that it wasn’t me that needed to change; just my habits.

“Same Me. Different Habits!”

It took me thirty plus years to learn this lesson – thirty plus years of telling myself that I didn’t measure up; that I wasn’t enough.

I wish I’d learned this sooner. Maybe even, at school?!

That’s why I’m currently champing at the bit to start my new KS2/3 unit based on habits, with a TON of mindfulness mixed in. (Obvs!) 

Over the course of six 45 minute sessions, each class will get to grips with what healthy and unhealthy habits are, where they come from, and of course, how they can go about rewiring the behaviours that aren’t all that helpful into ones that are.

It’s all good stuff in terms of key life-skills. Exercise, diet, sleep and screen-use make quite a few appearances too.

From my perspective though, what really matters is that children learn to separate their habits from their identities. i.e. So you’ve just developed a habit of reacting angrily when things don’t go your way? That doesn’t mean you’re a bad/angry person. It means we need to work on rewiring this habit and replacing it with a calmer, more empowering response.

This message is what Growth Mindset is all about. And it’s pretty vital in terms of self-esteem, confidence, resilience and just plain old coping.


If you’re a teacher/school/trust leader, interested in seeing Jo deliver Wellbeing workshops in your school, call 07719330358 or email jo@skillswithfrills.com to discuss options and availability.

Owning My Story: Why I Do What I Do…

“When we deny our story, it defines us.
When we own the story, we can write a brave new ending.”
– Brené Brown. 

In recent months, I’ve been increasingly inspired to open up about my own personal struggle with anxiety – either through writing, teaching or speaking – as a means of both allowing myself to be imperfect and vulnerable, but also as a means of better connecting with my audience.

Today, I figured, was as good a time as any to share a little more about myself here, as a means of explaining my reasons behind doing the work that I’m doing in and out of schools. 


I went to school in the nineties, daughter to lovely parents, student to lovely teachers. I worked really hard and as such, managed to achieve a solid set of GCSE results. To the abstract observer, I was a success story. Inside, though, I was miserable. 

My shyness was exacerbated in the high-school environment, over time morphing into something much bigger; anxiety, self-loathing, fear, panic and dread. Every day.

My method of coping was avoidance of anything that made me uncomfortable, especially socially, leading to a hardwired habit of avoidance that amplified all that I was afraid of. When I was forced into a situation where I had to ‘step up’, I hated every moment and got through it as quickly as possible, seemingly unable to cope with the eruption of physical sensations that ran through my body. I didn’t know it then, but I’d developed a fear of the sensations of fear, rather than the actual situation that triggered it.

See…mental health just wasn’t spoken about back then, not at home or school; not by me, or anyone else. 

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So nobody explained to me that I’d simply become stuck in a cycle of listening to unhelpful thoughts, beliefs and visualisations, that fuelled what I felt, said and did (or didn’t do.) Nor did anyone point out that the physical sensations I experienced, when I was asked to participate in class discussion, didn’t mean that I was insane; that it was simply my body going into fight, flight or freeze as a means of protecting me; something that I could manage with my breathing, body language and focus. 

Had I learnt these things, maybe my experience of high school would have been a happier one; maybe I’d have chosen university courses I liked, rather than the ones that didn’t involve a speaking element; maybe I wouldn’t have wasted years in an IT job that I had zero talent for or interest in; maybe my PGCE year wouldn’t have been the worst year of my life; maybe I wouldn’t have needed Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, years of mindfulness and an obsession with self-help, to get me to a point where I can even begin to imagine myself capable of what I hope to achieve.

I’m not complaining here. Without my experiences – without my struggle – I would never have found my way to the path that I’m on today; a path more fulfilling than I could ever have imagined. 

teacher profile picWhen I walk into schools today, ready to talk wellbeing and emotional intelligence, I take my struggle with me. After all, it’s this that gives me the empathy, knowledge, skills and understanding to do this kind of work. It’s what allows me to break down barriers with the children and adults I work with. It’s absolutely what gives me the courage to walk forward, despite feelings of fear, self-doubt and discomfort.

I do what I do, because I don’t want my story to become the story of others.

I want kids today to know that they can challenge limiting thoughts, beliefs, reactions and habits; that they can achieve what they set out to; that they’re enough, even when they don’t look or act like their favourite social media star. More than anything, I want them to learn these things now, in school, rather than hearing them from a therapist years down the line.

The following slides from staff training demonstrate what we’re working towards, in school:

We can’t ‘cure’ mental illness just as we can’t foresee the direction that our students’ lives will take. But if we arm them with knowledge, skills, strategies and self-awareness, chances are that they’ll have an easier time finding their way towards purpose, potential and happiness.

There’s just one last point I need to make. In today’s climate, overworked teachers are increasingly stressed, anxious, depressed and resigning. Expecting them to pull together a lesson on mental health without any warning/training/experience, feels ineffective if not slightly unethical. We need our schools to acknowledge that our teachers often need as much support in this respect as our students do – and there’s an increasing number of organisations around the UK that offer this.

Put upon, as teachers so often are, it’s so easy to roll our eyes and view mental health as just another thing to do – another box to tick. Hopefully, in sharing my story, I’ve shown you that it’s so much more.

 

 

 

 

Knowledge Hacks for Happy Kids (and Adults!)

When it comes to developing emotional intelligence and resilience in children, I’m a big fan of repeated, consistent practice of strategies.

Skills are crucial… but the knowledge that accompanies it is no less so.

In fact, the written techniques that we use in the classroom, the meditation activities and the mindfulness-based activities, are only effective when interlaced with key pieces of knowledge.

Below are four knowledge hacks that I find myself repeating, again and again, with children older and younger: 

Just because a thought comes into your head doesn’t mean it’s true: you might have a thought i.e. “I’m stupid/ugly/pathetic.” and because it’s so negative and cutting, we might listen and take in this thought, not stopping to question whether it’s trustworthy or reliable or helpful. As I tell the students, I might have a thought that I’ll tap-dance through the school canteen, wearing a onesie… but I’m probably not going to do that and this clearly isn’t a reliable, trustworthy or helpful thought. It’s useful to make comparisons like this, so that we can see that we do have some choice in terms of which thoughts we listen to, and which we ignore.

thoughts buckets - maths test complete

Switching your ‘I’s’ to ‘there’s’ can disarm negative thoughts: when we practice mindfulness, we strive to watch our thoughts from a distance. Let’s say we’re trying a ‘3 Minute Breathing Space’, noticing the weather in our mind in the same way that one might turn on a TV and just notice what channel is playing. Language plays an important role here in reinforcing that distance. Let’s say, for example, a child is feeling very angry. Rather than saying, “I’m angry,” they instead simply notice the thoughts/feelings and say, “there’s worry”. This small change can really loosen the grip that uncomfortable feelings have on us – it’s the difference between being in a thunderstorm and watching one.  

It’s not the situation that’s to blame, it’s all about the Vicious Cycle: learning about how your thoughts/mindset feed into your feelings and behaviour is a real #gamechanger as far as I’m concerned. It’s incredibly empowering to know that even when things seem bleak and out of your control, you can still make a choice to see things from another angle; to alter the pictures in your mind; to adjust your body language; to just breathe. You can ride the waves, no matter how high or choppy.

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Happiness is something you can find in small moments, daily: trapped on the hedonic treadmill, always waiting to have more likes and followers, the latest device or game, and the backside of an ‘influencer,’ many kids in junior and secondary schools cultivate daily unhappiness. Teaching kids about this concept allows them to recognise where they’re chasing happiness in all the wrong places. Furthermore, giving them a basic knowledge of mindfulness and gratitude, allows them to take note of the small, ordinary and wonderful ways in which we can find and create happiness each and every day. 

Share these hacks with your students and/or children. If nothing else, it might help them to make a little more sense of their own mind.

Reduce SATs-Stress with these Mindfulness Techniques Now!

We’re a week away from Year 6 SATs exams in the UK – a time which often provokes stress and anxiety in teachers, headteachers, parents and of course, the children themselves.

Now, without getting into a debate about the fact that many schools have been unwillingly forced into a culture of exam and data obsession which actually harms the mental health of the children that they care for (as well as the staff); let’s just acknowledge that it’s a rough time for all involved.

Cue Mindfulness.

The following tips will help you, and your children, to relax and calm exam-related anxiety in different situations:

If negative thoughts come into your mind (e.g. ‘What if I fail?!’) in the days/weeks before the exam: try a Thoughts-Pop. Take your attention to a place – your hands, feet or breath perhaps – and strive to keep it in this one place. Whenever a thought interrupts your attention, notice it, squeeze your hand and return your attention to where it was. Think of your thoughts like clouds in the sky. No matter how stormy or grey or thunderous they might be, all clouds will pass eventually, revealing a sky underneath just as brilliant, blue and calm as it ever was.

thoughts buckets - maths test completeIf you’re really struggling with negative thoughts, you might find it helpful to write down the thoughts that you’re having and decide whether they belong in the Save, Shelve or Bin bucket. Where there are lots of unhelpful thoughts – you might even like to write them down, before screwing them up and actually binning them.

If you keep picturing yourself in the exam, panicking and messing up, and feeling terrible as you do so… change the movie into a comedy. Throw in a banana peel, a dancing penguin and a clown suit – make it ridiculously silly and take the negative emotion out of the scenario. Even better, follow this up by watching a movie where you feel calm and confident on the day and everything runs pretty smoothly before, during and after the test.

If you’re struggling to sleep the night before the exam: firstly, remember that this is completely normal – most people struggle to sleep the night before a new challenge. Secondly, try a Body Scan Meditation. Simply bring attention up, from the tips of your toes to the top of your head, spending a little time in each place noticing any sensations and feelings that are present. You might find it helpful to tense/scrunch up muscles and then release, or to imagine that you are comfortably sinking into your bed. Still awake? Try the Thoughts-Pop again, staying with your breath until you fall asleep.

Click here for more specifically on getting to sleep.

If you’re panicking during the exam: again, remember this is natural. Your brain senses a threat and in order to protect you, it’s triggering the ‘FFF Alarm’ (Fight, Flight, Freeze.) Speak to that anxious part of you, as if it’s a worried friend, and tell them it’s okay in your most encouraging tone of voice. “We’re just going to work through this test and do our best. That’s all we need to do.”

happy kid play superhero , boy power concept

And breathe! In through your nose and out through your mouth, sensing where you feel that breath in your nostrils, throat, chest and stomach; following the rise and fall of your belly as the out-breaths follow the in-breaths. Calm down that inner-worrier with the power of the breath and the stillness of the present moment.

Good luck! x x x

What 6 Sessions of KS3 Mindfulness Looks Like

Recently, I set a task for students in KS3 to complete a Mindfulness Mind-Map, showing the what, where, when, why and how of Mindfulness.

We were in our final of 6 weekly sessions, in which we’d tried out different mindfulness-based strategies, considered some of the basic Neuroscience and Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) – the Negativity bias, Unhelpful thinking patterns, Gratitude and of course, the power of Growth Mindset.

mindfulness mindmap - 6 week course.jpg

The picture above shows my own mind map, which details the basics covered during the 6 sessions. 

It isn’t easy to teach a topic as deep and far-reaching as this over the course of 6 hours, and in reality I don’t think that’s what I’ve done.

What I hope I have done is to give students some little pieces of knowledge about how their mind, thoughts and bodies work, along with some practical strategies that will help them to manage uncomfortable feelings as well as increasing their daily happiness overall.

The thing about mind maps is that they’re unique to the person writing them. Mine, for instance, is focused towards using mindfulness primarily to ease anxiety. Because in reality, that’s what I use it for more than anything else!

Much like in any lesson, just because we hear the same information, doesn’t mean that we listen to this in the same way. Students take from these workshops what they need; what will make a difference to their own lives; what they will actually use and apply independently – which is all one could ask for really.


If you’re a teacher/school leader, interested in seeing Jo deliver mindfulness workshops in your school, or a parent looking to try out one-to-one coaching over the Summer months, call 07719330358 or email jo@skillswithfrills.com to discuss options and availability.

3 Mini Mindful Meditations for all ages, at school or home

Currently, I’m lucky enough to be teaching mindfulness (with a good mix of CBT/Growth Mindset/various wellbeing strategies) in infants, juniors and high school. All I find are equally rewarding and all pose different challenges.

One of the main challenges, in the majority of younger children, and a handful of older ones, is their inability to sit still and not speak/move/whistle/poke the person next to them for anything longer than a couple of minutes. For children who are easily distracted, including those with special educational needs and disabilities, standard silent meditations are just too much – at least initially.

Through experience (and a good few failed attempts) I’ve learned which mindfulness activities are most effective in these situations, remembering of course, to start at about a minute in duration and build up over time.

Here’s three of my favourites:

  1. Thoughts Pop: Students take their focus to one place; their breath perhaps, or their feet on the floor. Whenever a thought or feeling comes in, they squeeze their hand and bring their attention back. This isn’t about pushing thoughts away or controlling them, it’s simply about noticing them and then returning your attention to where it was. 2 minutes of this a day, and children (and adults) are sure to grow those attention muscles, as well as being more resilient to negative thoughts and feelings.
  2.  Mindful Listening: I have the kids wear blindfolds and then I wander about the room opening drawers, turning taps on, treading loudly and quietly. Afterwards, we consider what the sounds were like (sharp or soft; long or short; flowing or jumpy, etc.), asking ourselves which direction they came from in relation to us, noting hidden sounds within sounds. The kids love it. Plus, there’s no need for silence (which can be hard to come by) – the noise of somebody walking in to interrupt, presents an opportunity to listen to the crescendo of an opening door.If you’d like to know more about conscious listening, here’s a link to my recent TES article on this very subject.
  3. Mindful Eating: I find that ‘eating in slow motion’ is always a big hit, even with kids who claim to despise grapes and indeed all fruit. It’s an opportunity to explore different senses – sight, smell, sound, touch, taste and aftertaste; to really look at something with that ‘beginners’ mind’ and savor the experience of eating. As well as being popular in class, I find that this is one that children will actually repeat on their own time.

Keen to get going? These activities will work with individual children and classes in school, and with your own children at home. Let me know how you get along in the comments below:

Teaching Gratitude

As a teacher of Wellbeing strategies, there’s not many topics I don’t enjoy teaching… but admittedly, I do have my favourites… and Gratitude has to be one of them.

Gratitude? Seriously? I know.

My inner Year 6 teacher, for whom ‘real’ learning and real results are the only concern, inwardly cringes even when I say it now.

But it’s okay. And I know it’s okay. Because according to the Science, the benefits of Gratitude practice are just as, if not more valuable than good grades in Maths, English and Science. A growing body of research and studies show that people who practice gratitude live happier lives in general, as well as being more emotionally and mentally resilient to lifes’ ups and downs.

So what does this look like in school? 

When teaching the skill of Gratitude, I approach this in the same way that I would introduce a new concept in Maths or a text/theme in English. In fact, this is a really important step if you want the kids to take it seriously; something that may be a problem particularly in upper school.

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We’ll look firstly at the the science behind the brains’ natural negativity bias and the Hedonic treadmill that we so often find ourselves on, resulting in an endless chase for happiness.

Then, we might consider how spending more time in the present moment (i.e. Mindfulness), with a focus on what we have rather than what we don’t have (Gratitude) might result in us becoming happier people overall.

Bearing in mind that some children find it incredibly difficult on first attempt to think of what they have to be thankful for, I like to pre-empt our thanks-giving by looking at stories of inspiration people who have powered through adversity with courage and determination. For children who can’t really understand the concept of being fortunate to have even the basics of food, warmth and shelter, this is a good reminder that not everyone in the world has these things. And it doesn’t hurt that these people are great role models to look up to, despite their less-than fortunate circumstances.

Then, at last, it’s time to talk about write about what we’re grateful for; those things that we’d really miss if we didn’t have; the people, places, things and experiences that make our lives better and easier. I seem to teach this differently each time I approach it, but here’s a weekly review sheet that I’ve used recently with KS2 students and young adults, to great success.

And that’s that. At least for that one session.

Like anything, if you want it to actually stick, it needs repeating and reinforcing, until students reach a point whereby spotting things to be grateful for comes more naturally than the opposite.

Tidy up your Mind with some Thoughts Decluttering

In my latest TES article, I shared child-friendly strategies that could be just as effective for adults as for children.

Below is an excerpt from the article – with extras! – which breaks down one of my favourite CBT-based strategies for dealing with unhelpful thoughts. I’ve included screenshots so that you can see how easy it is to put this into practice as a teacher, parent or individual.


Ask yourself: “Am I hoarding thoughts?”

From What to Do When Your Brain Gets Stuck: A Kids’ Guide to Overcoming OCD by Dawn Huebner (2007).

Huebner’s book offers up an analogy that I’ve used countless times when teaching mindfulness to children: she invites children to think of all the dustbins that are positioned throughout their homes and to imagine what would happen if nothing was ever thrown out –  if empty crisp packets, yogurt cartons and toilet roll tubes were all valued and saved.

Of course, this paints an unpleasant image of a house in a state of chaos, in which every simple journey is hindered by the sheer amount of “stuff” we are clinging on to.

Huebner suggests that our brains are like our homes: when thoughts come in, we have to decide which ones are worth saving and which ones are fit for the bin.

When I introduce this in class, I ask children to write down six thoughts that have popped into their head that day and we often spend a couple of minutes in silence, allowing the thoughts to come in to our minds. Then, we go through them, deciding what we need and what we don’t, practising with my example as a class beforehand.

The picture above demonstrates just how simple yet effective an activity like this can be. We look over the thoughts in pairs and decide if they’re useful, reliable, helpful or necessary, moving them into the save or bin pile appropriately. Please note that in other examples, we might also use a third bucket, for thoughts we wish to ‘shelve’ for later i.e. I need to remember that I’m going to Grandma’s tonight and we’re having Fish ‘n’ Chips… but not in the middle of my literacy lesson.

I really don’t think that I can emphasize enough how powerful, meaningful and potentially life-changing having a conversation about thoughts can be.

Negative thoughts feed and grow in secrecy and isolation. Therefore, simply in having a conversation about the way we think – including those occasional negative, useless and really unpleasant thoughts – immediately takes some of the power away. Revealing too that thoughts are not all true or useful, and so needn’t always be acted upon or kept hold of, is an incredibly empowering piece of knowledge.

This is a great exercise for adults too. Don’t believe me? Try it! Take a few minutes now to write down your thoughts as a list, then go through and decide what’s worth keeping and what just isn’t.

If you have problems with negative brain-chatter, developing a habit like this could really change your outlook on life and the roles you play within it.

We can’t control the thoughts that come into our heads, but we can control what we keep hold of. Learn to notice your thoughts and discriminate between what’s useful and useless. Do this and you’ll become the master of your thoughts, rather than their servant.