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.

 

 

 

 

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

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.

2 CBT Techniques for getting out of a Stress-Cycle

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) is a powerful form of therapy, in which patients learn to analyse their thoughts and behaviours, considering where they may be adding to their own negativity and unhappiness, rather than diffusing it.

CBT is often used to treat people with Anxiety, Depression and a range of other mental health problems; problems that are sadly rife amongst educators. To note one study from this year alone, researchers at Leeds Becket University found that 54% of teachers surveyed described themselves as having poor mental health, and 52% of those people had been referred to a GP because of it.

Let me just say here that the onus should always be on schools and employers overall, to look after the mental health and wellbeing of their staff.

The problem is… this just isn’t happening quickly enough. And in some cases, it isn’t happening at all. When this is the case, people begin to feel powerless, and hopeless; feeling that there is nothing that they can do in the face of all this stress and misery.

CBT Techniques such as the ones below aren’t a ‘cure-all’ for the countless problems faced by the modern teacher… but they can really help, if only because they allow you to regain some control over a bad situation.

**If you are struggling with stress or anxiety, the Samaritans offer help 24 hours a day, seven days a week**


The following tips are from my latest TES article:

1. Getting out of the negative cycle

In certain pressurised situations, when our buttons have been pushed one too many times, even the most calm and measured of professionals can feel that they have little control over their own thoughts, feelings or even actions.

Let’s say, for example, that you are the unwilling victim of an irate parent first thing this morning – and it’s completely OK to be bothered by that. But if you’re still “carrying” this misery, along with gut-churning stomach cramps into the late evening, then it’s likely you’re unconsciously adding fuel to the fire.

  • Are you continuously replaying the scene in vivid Technicolor? Try to change up the image by adding a pink wig and banana suit into the mix. Flip the negative emotion into something silly and laughable.

  • Do you loop around negative thoughts, based on how you should have handled things differently, even resorting to insults and name-calling? Consider what you’d say to a friend in this situation and instead, kindly tell it to your inner self.

  • Have you checked-in on your own verbal and body language? If you’re walking around with slumped shoulders and your eyes down, only looking up to tell anyone who’ll hear about this outrageous encounter, you’re actively turning a small albeit unpleasant moment into a day-long mood.

2. Check your facts

For me, one of the most powerful messages a patient gains through cognitive behaviour therapy is that your thoughts are not facts. Just because something pops into your head, doesn’t mean it’s reliable or true or even helpful. So we need to interrogate our thoughts.

Perhaps your mind is repeatedly telling you that you can’t cope with a looming situation – maybe a second encounter with the irate parent – and as such you’re a “pathetic waste of space”.

Not only is this a long way off from being constructive criticism, is it even accurate? Is there any hard evidence that you can’t cope, other than your thoughts and resulting sensations?

Maybe there’s even more evidence to the contrary, to show that you have coped with this and much worse.

With this in mind, it might be wise to come up with a more realistic, less emotive statement, such as: “It’s okay not to look forward to this – no one would. Whatever happens though, I’ll handle it as best as I can.”

3 ‘Quick-Wins’ to try with your Anxious Child (or Self) Today!

If there can be any positive side effects to the current mental health epidemic, it’s that the topic of wellbeing has finally moved up the agenda. With this, we’ve seen an explosion in campaigns, resources, books and guidance, all aimed at helping you to help yourself, or your child to become happier.

Brilliant? Yes. But overwhelming? Also yes. Especially when mental health problems like  anxiety add an element of desperation to your solution-seeking.

If you’re looking for quick, simple and effective ‘quick wins’, here’s three child and adult-friendly activities that you can put in place today: 

  1. Write down three things you’re grateful for each day: Developing a ‘Gratitude Attitude’ is a key step in overcoming the minds’ natural bias towards negativity. When you’re genuinely feeling thankful for all you have, it’s very difficult to feel negative emotions like bitterness, sadness, hatred, anxiety and so on.

    Writing down what you’re grateful for reinforces this positive focus. If you’re super keen, you can extend this, writing down three things you’re thankful for in the morning and three great things/moments you experienced before bed.

    If you’re trying this out with a child, be aware that they might find this tough at first and may need lots of prompts to consider things that they’re perhaps taking for granted. Like anything else, the more you practice, the easier it gets.

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  2. Develop a routine of Mindful Eating: Mindful eating is always a favourite, with both adults and kids. If you haven’t tried it before, here’s a Mindful Eating Script to start you off.

    Develop a routine of slow-motion eating at one meal or snack-time, working to your family routine. It doesn’t need to be something that lasts for a whole meal. In fact, it may only be something you try for the first bite or two of your evening meal. But the key is to explore your senses with curiosity. Get out of your head, or the TV, and smell, taste, touch, look and feel your food, in the present moment.

    That’s some delicious headspace right there!

  3. Create an Anchor: 

    An anchor is something that you or your child can use as a reminder to come back into the present moment and be mindful. It might be a chair you sit in daily, a picture hanging on the wall or even a sound that rings from your phone. Essentially, it doesn’t matter what it is, only that it’s something that you’ll encounter often enough for it to be meaningful.If you use a chair, for example, then whenever you sit on the chair… you should take a moment to explore how your body is feeling, from the tips of your toes to the top of your head; to notice your breathing patterns and where you feel them in your body; to consider any sensations and tension that lie in the body.

    There’s a lot of freedom here in terms of what you choose to be your anchor and how you use it. Just be aware that as with the other two activities, it’s about building up those neural connections through consistent practice.

Make mindfulness and gratitude part of your daily routine and you might just find that you automatically go into the present moment more often; fostering feelings of calm, comfortable, awareness and acceptance.

Seven quick-win lifestyle hacks for daily happiness

Apparently, I just can’t shut up when it comes to wellbeing advice for teachers. Here’s the latest TES article, with some super easy and effective hacks for anyone forced into this ‘adulting’ lark.


That education has acknowledged a problem with mental health and wellbeing among teachers is undoubtedly a good thing, but not everything that has come out of it has been positive, or easy to interpret. For many teachers, the advice offered to keep yourself healthy is overwhelming, off-putting and conflicting.

This is a shame, as the truth is: there’s no need for a dramatic lifestyle overhaul. Small, subtle changes often yield big results and ones that you’re much more likely to maintain.

Here are some of the small lifestyle ‘hacks’ that have been making me happier over the last few years.

  1. If you’re working, keep your phone on but out of sight
    I keep it on vibrate so that I’ll hear work calls, but my brain is no longer being pulled in different directions by social media or untimely personal messages.

  2. Take some time to prepare food the night before
    Even with the best of intentions, chances are that if you leave food prep to the morning rush, you’ll end up with a packed lunch of hot-dog salad. Making extra portions of dinner, roasting a batch of veg or freezing batches of healthy soup are all simple ways to make this a super-quick evening job. (check out these healthy packed lunch ideas, too)

  3. Look for opportunities to be active in your day
    If you’re struggling to fit gym time into your busy schedule, don’t sweat it! Instead, set yourself a secret fitness mission to move as much as possible through your day. Take the stairs, walk the long way around, make the journey to the staff room at break. Download one of the many free pedometer apps if you’re keen to occasionally measure your progress or check out these exercise ideas you can do in the classroom.

  4. Have a water bottle nearby
    I’ve lost count of the number of days I intended to drink my 2.5 litres of water, only to finish a lesson-packed day crawling towards the nearest water cooler. I simply forget. Having a full bottle nearby has reminded me to hydrate more often, resulting in fewer headaches and more energy.

  5. Working at home? Stick to the same room
    Restrict work (and work-related items and reminders) to just one area of the house – preferably not the lounge or bedroom. Having a clearly defined workspace can help you to ‘switch off’ along with your laptop.

  6. Notice noticing your thoughts
    Before you listen to your thoughts, add a little distance between you and them by inserting the words “I notice” into your head. For example, “I notice that I’m thinking that I have X to do when I get into school; I notice that I’m feeling a little anxious about Y this afternoon.” The more I’ve practised this, the more I’ve found that I’m much less phased and more accepting of work-life stress.

  7. Explore what relaxation is to you
    Just because it’s called downtime, doesn’t mean you have to spend it lying down aided only by a family-sized bag of Doritos and a show about Hoarders. Get curious about what makes you tick. You might just find that playing sports, writing a blog or practising an instrument offers you exactly the headspace and relaxation that you were looking for.

3 Mindfulness Tips for a Restful Nights’ Sleep

Struggling to sleep? Waking up feeling anything but refreshed? Take a look at a recent article I wrote for TES, including mindfulness-based strategies for getting some shut eye. These techniques work for adults and children alike!


Thanks to a growing wealth of sleep-related research, we now know that good-quality sleep is essential to healthy brain and body function. And yet achieving a solid eight hours of sleep can seem near impossible when you have assessment objectives and mark schemes buzzing around your brain. Even when the miraculous happens and we make it to bed at a reasonable hour, how frustrating can it be to lie there, wrestling your own thoughts in the early hours.

Luckily, help is at hand…

How to fall asleep

Firstly, you can create a daily routine and lifestyle that promotes good quality sleep, long before your head hits the pillow. Leading sleep expert, Professor Matthew Walker, tells us that regularity is key – create a night-time routine and stick to it.

At the same time, when you do go to bed, ensure that your room is cool and dark. This includes having a “no-screen” policy for the last one to two hours before bed, no matter what emails may or may not be coming in.

Lastly, watch your caffeine intake over the day and swap the boozy night-cap for a camomile tea – while alcohol might appear to help you drift off, its sedative effects are extremely detrimental to both the patterns and quality of your sleep.

Now, let’s say for argument’s sake that you’ve already done all of this, but here you are at 3am, wide awake, fretting over the upcoming book scrutiny. If counting sheep just isn’t working for you, here are three mindfulness strategies that just might help instead:

1. Focus on your breath

Just begin to notice what your breathing is like; the feel of it going into your nostrils; the length; the temperature.

You can experiment with changing your breath, inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth. Maybe try inhaling to the count of four, holding for one and exhaling for six. Can you feel the breath as it reaches your chest…your sides…your stomach? Can you feel your stomach rise as you inhale and lower as you exhale?

If thoughts come back in, which they most certainly will, acknowledge this without any judgement and return to exploring your breath.

2. The body scan

This one is great to do both when trying to fall asleep and then again if insomnia strikes. Simply bring your attention up from your toes to your head, exploring all the different places and parts in your body, noticing any sensations of tightness/discomfort and allowing them to relax. You might find that tensing the muscles one by one, or imagining that your body is very heavy and slowly sinking will help you relax.

I’ve had great feedback from adults, parents and children themselves who have used a mix of mindful breathing and body scans to get to sleep. Click the link below for a child-friendly 6 minute body scan from ‘GoZen’ to get you started with your children.

3. Explore difficult sensations

When you’re kept awake because of fears, anxieties and other difficult emotions, become curious about the sensations in your body. Ask yourself questions like: is the feeling smooth or sharp? Is it pulsing or aching? Is it flowing or throbbing? What colour/shape would I give this feeling?

As counter-intuitive as this may feel, exploring how negative emotions feel within the body can be an empowering alternative to listening to your inner-monologue of thoughts and worries.

‘Emotional Athletes’: Emotional Intelligence & Resilience in the Classroom

‘Emotional Athletes’ is the latest wellbeing-based Learning Experience, geared towards developing emotional intelligence and practical strategies for resilience in students.

Of course, I’m completely biased, because these days are like babies to me – but it’s an awesome day.

Information and activities throughout the day are routed in Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, Mindfulness, child-friendly Neuroscience, Growth Mindset and Positive Psychology. There’s even a bit of Yoga thrown in!

Here’s what we’ll cover:

We begin the day by considering what it means to be ’emotionally athletic’, considering how and why it might be useful to understand where our thoughts and feelings come from. Using Dr. Dan Seigel’s child-friendly ‘Hand Model’ of the brain, we learn about how different parts of the brain work together, as well as what happens scientifically when we ‘flip our lid’ and become overwhelmed with emotion.

Morning activities involve engaging clips, quizzes, speaking and listening tasks and role play. There’s a small amount of writing as children are asked to think back to their own positive and negative feelings, considering how these emotions presented themselves in their bodies and thoughts.

As a class, we look at the 5 Part Model (CBT) of thoughts, feelings, behaviour and reactions, in any given situation, as well as considering the things in life that we can and cannot control.

Children are taught to take control of what they can in emotional situations; their breath, relationship with their thoughts and their attention overall. Mindfulness-based activities and meditations, sprinkled through the day, give them a chance to put this into practice.

In the afternoon, we focus on building our emotional resilience. Children move from table to table, trying out a variety of tasks in groups, aimed at either maintaining daily happiness or bouncing back from negative thoughts or emotions.

At the end of this action-packed day, children create their own origami fortune tellers, labelled with their favourite techniques from the day. This becomes a self-supporting tool that they can use independently the next time negative thoughts and emotions creep in.

Like I said, it’s an awesome day!


Jo Steer is an experienced teacher in primary, secondary, SEND and life skills-based education. She is also trained in Mindfulness and Yoga for children, and CBT (APT level 2).

If you’d like her to deliver this particular package or something similar in your school, call 07719330358 or email jo@skillswithfrills.com to discuss ways forward.

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!