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.

Swap your Supply Cover for a Team-tastic day instead!

Having always been a firm advocate of structured teamwork and social skills in the classroom, I’ve been eager for a while now to throw some teamwork into the Skills with Frills mix.

So here it is… a ‘Team-Tastic’ day!

This super-engaging day is suitable for KS2 students, though as always, it’s easily adapted for children lower down school or further up. Throughout the day, students take on a series of team-based games and challenges, geared towards refining the collaborative social skills they already have. We look at examples of effective and ineffective teamwork, with the aid of video clips and music, picking apart the basics of what good collaboration actually looks like. We also explore specific team problem scenarios, discussing and developing strategies based on conflict resolution.

Self and team-reflection is woven into the fabric of the lesson to ensure that students really consider their own strengths and areas for improvement, whilst having a great time.

Activities in this day incorporate a range of cross-curricular skills like persuasive writing, speaking and listening, art and design. There’s a great mix of speaking, listening, writing, drawing and practical tasks – and of course, some friendly competition between teams.

Alongside this, students have plenty of opportunities to gain confidence when speaking in pairs, groups and as teams, in front of the whole class. We take a ‘mindful approach’ to teamwork, structuring and scaffolding activities in a way which allows for all students to safely contribute and participate in group tasks.

Whilst this may just look like fun and games, by digging further into what teamwork really is (and why we need it), it’s my hope that students come to reflect on their own team attitude and social interactions in the future.


To read more about Jo’s inclusive approach to teamwork, see this 2018 article from Optimus ‘Special Children’ magazine.

Looking to book? Still have questions? Call 07719330358 or email jo@skillswithfrills.com

QUICK READ: 5 Teaching strategies to benefit the shy and socially anxious

When I was at school, I was a massive ‘swot’. I wasn’t overly intelligent, but I worked incredibly hard. I’ve always loved to learn new things and I took a great deal of pride in producing work that reflected effort and creativity.

Yet, I hated school. I was just so unbearably shy – so socially anxious – that any area of the curriculum or school life that required confidence/social interaction/public speaking, caused dread, misery and upset. I saw everyone else as being super relaxed and confident – I was a pathetic freak because I couldn’t cope with normal life situations. As time went on, I was able to drop the ‘out-there’ subjects like Drama and PE and throw myself into academic subjects which tested my essay-writing skills, while allowing me to hide my inner-freak. I left school with awesome results, but my self-esteem was in the toilet. I’d had some fantastic teachers who had pushed me academically, but other than annual comments on my report that ‘she needs to put her hand up more,’ my lack of confidence was never tackled. Teaching ‘soft skills’ like confident public speaking, just wasn’t part of the educational dialogue at that time. Everyone was just expected to get on with it.

Nearly twenty years later with the roles reversed, I am driven by the need to make things better for the students I teach. More than anything, I want them to challenge themselves socially and grow their confidence and self-esteem, just as they would work towards targets in their academic subjects. It’s my hope that by opening up discussion of nerves and anxiety, we might just save our students from future years of avoidance, missed opportunities and feelings of worthlessness.

Here are 5 teaching strategies that I’ve found really effective in encouraging confident speaking and discussion: 

  1. Always give ‘thinking time’ in class discussion. When I ask a question in class, I usually ask three times, while wandering around the room. I change the expression in my voice, the emphasis and sometimes the pace of the question. I wait ten seconds or more before choosing someone to answer/taking hands up etc. All students, but particularly nervous speakers or low ability pupils, need time to prepare an answer.
  2. Allow them to prepare feedback in pairs. Whether you want them to consider a question, respond to some stimulus or solve a problem, ask them to discuss this in pairs before answering in front of the class. For younger children, you can make this really structured by giving them set amounts of time each to speak, asking them to speak in turns or giving them speaking sentence openers. For SEND students that struggle to remember what they’ve discussed, they can write notes on a mini-whiteboard to help them answer. I tell my class that as I’m giving them time to prepare, I expect everyone to be ready to answer – then I’ll choose a name, use a name generator or pick out a lollipop stick with a pupils’ name on.
  3. Open up dialogue about nerves, anxiety, social anxiety, fear of public speaking. I found it particularly useful to spend ten minutes going over the physical symptoms of ‘fight, flight or freeze’ and why our bodies react this way. We talked about everything from dry mouth and palpitations to the need to have a nervous wee! We also delved into why the body is designed this way – how it expels fluids so that you can run away more quickly; why your heart beats faster to ensure blood is circulating to your major organs; that when you feel like time has stopped, it’s because your senses are heightening, ready to act. Not only did this allow students to realise that these reactions were normal, but also put a positive spin on them.
  4. Before a presentation, ask your students to write a ‘recipe for success’ and a ‘recipe for disaster.’ I love this task so much! It really pushes students to think about what they need to do to perform an effective, confident and calm presentation, and contrast how they would prepare if they wanted to do a terrible job and let nerves take over. When I was really struggling with public speaking myself, I found it incredibly useful (and amusing) to write my recipe for disaster. It was a big turning point for me, because I realised that I’d spent my entire life up to that point following the wrong recipe!
  5. Notice – listen – understand – but still challenge. When I come across a child who is too afraid to speak in class, I set them a challenge of putting their hand up once a half-term/fortnight/week/lesson. I usually tell them to get this out of the way at the beginning of the lesson, so they’re not worrying about it. This doesn’t work for everyone, but I’ve found this really successful with some students. You can see the mixture of relief and pride cross their face once they’ve ‘done the deed’, and wonder what they were so worried about. Even better, once this becomes a regular pattern, you can see them build up positive momentum. After a while you can’t shut them up!

 

Have I missed anything? Tell me your thoughts in the comments below!

QUICK READ: Top 5 confidence hacks for students

Confidence isn’t something that has ever come naturally to me. It’s something that I’ve had to, and continue, to work on daily and as such, I’ve absorbed a scary amount of self-help material. Because of this, I’ve gained a really useful tool-set when working with students who struggle with the same issues. The methods below have really worked for me personally, and they’ve always been well-received with my students too!

Here are 5 top tips to gain instant confidence:

  1. Tony Robbins tells you to imagine that you’re wearing an invisible cape – like a superhero. Seriously. If I’m ever feeling low, I put my cape on and turn around to see it flapping in the wind. Your body language changes entirely. What can I say? I’ve always fancied myself in a bat-suit.
  2. Tell yourself – it’s not nerves, it’s excitement. In nerve-wracking situations that used to terrify me (job interviews, public speaking etc.) I would practise deep breathing and tell myself I was calm. My brain just didn’t buy it – what my body was feeling was the opposite of calm. As the symptoms of excitement and anxiety are the same, it’s much easier to just repeat in your head, ‘I’m so excited!’
  3. Step into the moment. If you’re having a wobble, distract yourself by noticing your surroundings – really noticing… like you’re a new born baby or an alien. Stare at the sofa/carpet/sandwhich as if you’ve never seen anything like it. Examine the way it looks, smells, feels, sounds, tastes – just be warned that if you taste the sofa, people may start to worry about your sanity.
  4. When you’re full of self-doubt/paranoia/fear and anxiety, think about what you would say to a friend in this situation, and say it to yourself. A lot of us find it easy to motivate and inspire our friends when they’re down, but don’t extend the same kindness, patience or sympathy to ourselves. Treat yourself like you’re a good pal, apply reason and show yourself some self-love.
  5. Recite a mantra in your head. For years, I was super skeptical about mantras. I likened them to incantations and pictured myself talking to the mirror like Bruce Willis in Friends: “I am a neat guy!” Then, a couple of years ago, I listened to the audio-book of Susan Jeffers, ‘Feel the Fear and Do it anyway.’ When I heard her happy, confident mantra, “I’ll handle it,” on my way to school, I realised that if I really believed that I could handle any situation – any presentation, difference of opinion with colleagues, argumentative colleague, last-minute deadline – then although the actual tasks would still be there, their negative emotional pull on me wouldn’t be. Whenever I start to feel like it’s too much and I can’t cope, I force a smile and tell myself, “I’ll handle it.”

Here’s what has worked for me, but everyone is different. If you’ve found success with any of the methods above, or have an alternative tip to share, comment below!

Skills for Success

In my last position as head of skill-based learning for Key Stage 3 pupils, I spent a lot of time thinking about the kind of qualities that I wanted all students to aspire towards having; qualities that would help them fulfill their academic potential, find good jobs, build solid relationships and lead happy lives.

Today, having been fortunate enough to teach children from Key Stage 1 through to Key Stage 5, I have developed a clear idea of exactly what skill-based learning should look like. I chose to name ‘Fishing Net’ skills as such, based on the old proverb:  “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” No doubt this resonates with teachers across the board – so often in the classroom it can feel like we’re constantly handing out fish to mob of hungry children. The idea of the ‘Fishing Net’ skills therefore, is that students have their own net, and they’re taught how to use it. They gain the confidence, independence and ability to think and act for themselves.

So what are they?

Freedom – Students must be able to ask questions, make mistakes and adopt creative learning approaches to suit their individual needs.

Independence – As independent learners, students will be able to follow instructions, organise themselves, meet task deadlines, find their way out of ‘stuck’ and take responsibility for their actions.

Self-belief – Our students need confidence in themselves in order to take risks, try new things, face challenges and grow.

Honesty – As reflective learners, students should be able to truthfully acknowledge their own strengths, weaknesses, wins and losses.

Investigate – Students should be able conduct research while considering the reliability and trustworthiness of their findings.

Notice – Through Mindfulness practices, students can increase their awareness of what’s happening around them, and inside of their minds, in the present moment. They’ll build up concentration and memory muscles, along with a greater ability to handle their moods and emotions.

Go for Goals – For some students, we need to inspire ambition. As reflective, independent learners, our students need to be able to set their own realistic but aspiration targets, and start working towards them.

 

Nurture – Students need to be taught to look after their minds and bodies, as well as the people and world around them. We need to ensure that they leave school with the skills and knowledge by which they can create a happy life.

Elasticity – Resilience is everything. We need our students to develop that bounce-back ability so that when things go wrong, they spring right back into action.

Team work – As collaborative learners, we need our students to practise kindness, empathy and understanding, putting this into action through team projects where they demonstrate sharing, listening, contributing and compromise.

Over time, Wellbeing and Mindfulness have organically become a central part of everything that the business offers; the frills to our skills.

If you’re interested in seeing what these skills look like ‘in the flesh,’ take a look at current learning experiences on offer. Click here if you’re interested in booking but unsure how it works or contact us to discuss options.

 

Teacher Wellbeing: My top ten TED talks

I’ll admit it: I’m a geek. While other people lie in on Saturday mornings, I wake up early and complete household chores as I watch and listen to TED talks. I love it – I’m getting things done, but I’m learning at the same time. When you work in this profession, you spend most of your time working out how to motivate and inspire others. Sometimes we forget that we need this too.

Here are ten of my favourite talks that always give me a boost:

1. Amy Cuddy will teach you to tweak your body language and ‘fake it until you become it.’ Moving and brilliant. I highly recommend hiding in the toilet to perform the ‘Wonder Woman’ for 2 minutes before staff presentations. And yes, we get the irony.

2. Michelle Poler’s inspirational talk is the end product of 100 days ‘without fear’, a project in which she faces 100 different fears, ranging from uncomfortable to mess-your-pants terrifying. You’ll be facing off with the spider in the shed before you know it and maybe even encouraging your students to do the same.

3. If you’re a self-confessed loner; if you’d rather have a night in with the cats than go out and see your favourite band; you’ll love Susan’s Cains’ talk about why it’s friggin’ awesome to be an introvert.

4. Having one of those days where you feel like you’ll never be confident enough to face that class/speak at INSET/join the ‘Thriller’ flashmob at Tesco next Saturday? Watch Dr. Ivan’s Joseph’s talk and remind yourself that confidence is a skill to practise and grow, rather than something you either have or don’t. Growth Mindset isn’t just for the kids.

5. Caroline Casey’s talk is so moving and so inspirational. No spoilers – I’ll just say it’s all about perception baby!

6. When we grow up, we want to be Dr. Pam Peeke. Her insights and research into sugar addiction are just fascinating, and she looks (and talks) like she could star in ‘Dallas.’

7. Who doesn’t love a bit of profanity with their housework? Sarah Knight doesn’t disappoint.

8. Andy Puddicombe (the voice of the Headspace app) has such a soothing tone; if he can’t convince you to meditate for ten minutes a day, then you may as well give up now – you’re a lost cause.

9. If like us you’re prone to a little (or lot) of self-destruction now and again,  you’ll appreciate Mel Robbins’ candour, humour and tips to get things done.

10. If you take away even just one thing from Caroline Myss’s talk, you will be a better person for it. This is one to watch again and again.

 

Brave new world: Act II (a plan is formed)

Since September, I’ve been earning my money through supply teaching in local primary schools. While I was nervous at first, I quickly realised that this was actually a fantastic opportunity for me to continue enjoying the best bits of teaching while dropping the worst. Teaching spontaneously like this – keeping students that I’ve only just met happy and engaged, well behaved, learning – has definitely allowed me to add to my own skill-set. Every day when I enter the classroom, I set myself the secret challenge of being the best supply teacher the children have ever seen. I make it my mission to make these children feel good about themselves. This doesn’t always work – supply teaching isn’t without it’s challenges – but like we tell the children, when we reach for the moon, we land among stars even if we miss.

never give up.png

One upsetting aspect of leaving your job is that you can no longer use ‘marking books’ as a legitimate reason to avoid the gym.

I had thought that I might have a problem with traipsing to different schools where I didn’t know anyone, but actually I’ve found it fascinating to visit schools that are vastly different in the makeup of their students, staff and approaches. When you have a permanent job in school, you can become very insular and set in your ways. Yet, we can learn so much from seeing the way things are handled in other schools.

Even where schools appear to be very different, they often have much in common. Right from the bustling, multi-cultural inner-city academies, to the leafy lane one-form entry religious schools; teachers gripe about Ofsted, excessive workload, student behaviour, learning and attitudes. Across the board, many staff feel that they have to cram in curriculum content in a series of fast-paced, prescriptive lessons, without any real time to focus on other things that should matter just as much.

As a passionate facilitator of skill-based learning, I recognise that children everywhere are being pushed academically by some fantastic teachers and support staff; but that their life-skills have been mostly forgotten. At best, words like collaboration, communication and confidence are mentioned at a shallow level. At worst, they are unheard of within the school dialogue. Even the truly brilliant members of teaching staff and leadership are often just too busy trying to keep up with ‘aspiration data targets’ to truly consider how best to instil an ethos of independent learning and resilience throughout their class or school.

In the current educational climate, anything that isn’t measurable in the form of a data spreadsheet or written exam, just isn’t a priority. So this is where I plan to come in.

Though I have often been prone to bouts of insecurity, I have never wavered on my decision to leave my job and ‘go it alone.’ Even more so, I am certain that I can use my own knowledge and skills more effectively under my own banner, and pass these on to a much broader community of students and staff. For this reason,  this month I officially registered ‘Skills with Frills Education Ltd.’ I plan to launch in January, 2018, offering my teaching services to schools within Yorkshire, promoting my newly-created ‘Fishing Net’ skills.

What we need to consider as educators is that not only do we have a duty to develop the whole-child alongside their academic abilities; but also that if we were to inspire qualities such as resilience, independence and communication within our students, then they would no doubt reap academic benefits alongside an abundance of others.