Understanding the nervous system, responses to trauma and COVID 19.

The mainstay of my approach in Therapeutic Teaching lies in an understanding of Polyvagal Theory. Seeing the positive outcomes of The Safe and Sound Protocol (SSP), with the individuals I work with, is perhaps the most rewarding part of my work during these challenging times. It warms my heart to see the changes in a person’s quality of life through this therapeutic intervention. It’s not just about listening, it’s the connection in relationship that comes with the process that enables significant changes to take place. The SSP was developed in response to the Polyvagal Theory and the insights it has given us to the science involved in feeling safe.

This video recently released by The Polyvagal Institute explains the Autonomic Nervous System in such a way to give us all a clear understanding about how, by knowing our nervous system, we can better navigate the world feeling safer. This video refers to our responses to trauma and in the light of COVID, we could all benefit from learning about how social connection is so important to support our wellbeing, while recognising why this might also be something we are wary of during this time. It may cause you to reflect on any mixed feelings we can have about connecting socially but also provides us with the insight to manage our detection of threat so we can better assess safety in social connection.

If you are interested in learning more about how The Safe and Sound Protocol can help you feel safer go to my home page.

Attachment Play in the Age of COVID19

Our secondary attachments with young children rely greatly on physical proximity and touch. We are all working hard to mediate the impact of COVID restrictions on connection which supports healthy attachments. For some children their time in setting is the only opportunity to counter the stress they might be experiencing at home.

<a href="http://<span>Photo by <a href="https://unsplash.com/@annaelizaearl?utm_source=unsplash&utm_medium=referral&utm_content=creditCopyText">Anna Earl</a> on <a href="https://unsplash.com/s/photos/parent-child?utm_source=unsplash&utm_medium=referral&utm_content=creditCopyText">Unsplash</a&gt;Photo- Unsplash – Anna Earl

Our communication skills are even more critical to mental health and PSED at this time. It helps to remind ourselves of strategies such as ‘Observe, Wait, Listen (OWL) and making that attention deeply connecting – to see inside their feeling world. To activate stress-countering neurochemicals we are aiming for a state of interpersonal synchrony- ‘a delicious feeling of oneness with the other’ (Cirelli, 2014). There are lots of ideas on this DVD. Learn more at the forthcoming Early Years Mental Health conference hosted by Essex County Council, June 10th. Useful resources on this page.

Early Years Mental Health Conference

June 10th 2021 hosted by Essex County Council
Me, You, Us – Understanding emotional dynamics in the Early Years setting
Central to the mental wellbeing of the young child in the early years setting is safety in the relationships the child forms with early years practitioners.
I am presenting the keynote address that explores:

  • the role of the key person as a secondary attachment figure,
  • the impact of a child’s insecure attachment profile on their ability to relate to adults
  • and the subsequent impact on the Early Years practitioner’s mental and physical wellbeing.

The workshop that follows considers an assessment checklist that corresponds to the Early Adopter ELGs.

Download my flyer and find assorted free resource here . Book your place on this conference here.

‘Their challenges are our challenges’ – a must read…

A new survey by the Anna Freud Centre has revealed that a high proportion of nursery workers have experienced working with children facing extremely complex backgrounds and challenging emotional and behavioural needs. Many admitted that they had found these needs difficult to manage. Read the report here.


Winter warmers

In the last post we considered how quiet and stillness helps us savour the ‘hygge’ in our settings in winter. What about the children who struggle to relax? We reviewed the power of soft voices with easily-dysregulated children.

Let’s think about how movement helps to regulate the breath, which in turn regulates heart rate and the nervous system ‘brake’.  When you get the children really moving, so they start to puff and pant, as they stop and slow down, notice which children need longer to settle.

These children have lower ‘regulation fitness’ and need structured, regulating, movement often throughout their session.

Integrating movements to music can add to the fun and increase motivation, develop language skills through rhyming songs and support sensory integration.

How closely do we plan our input to our children’s sensory developmental profile? You might find this checklist and activities helpful.  

Find out more about helping children self-regulate through movement:  Early Years Mental Health training – a video, useful links and free resources are here.

Rest and Regulate

This should be a time to rest and renew but most of us are exhausted, COVID has amplified this fatigue. The children have been on an escalator of excitement and anticipation, joys and disappointments.

Can we enhance calm in our settings to relish the quiet and cosiness of the winter months? Imagine yourself through the sensory day of your most sensitive children.

Can we reduce movement? Soften the noise in our spaces? Are quiet spaces really that quiet?

Can we slow our talking and soften our tone any more than we do already?

On a sound walk, an imbalanced nervous system can be spotted in our struggling listeners.

Listening is a nervous system experience, what we hear can calm or arouse, create safety or danger. Our voices and the breath in singing and playing wind instruments is not only very regulating for our children, it can help us feel calm.

Find out more about helping children self-regulate through sound and listening experiences:  Early Years Mental Health training – a video, useful links and free resources are here.

Connection Calms

Enhancing connection with young children and parents/carers is one way we can ease the strain on everyone’s mental health in these difficult times.

Our nervous system reminds us, moment by moment, that connection to others can help us to feel safe, when some-one asks us how we are with a curious expression or reassures us with an empathic soothing voice. This only happens when we receive safety signals in the face and voice of another.

When we are stressed, we can find ourselves in a sympathetic ‘high energy’ (action or fight/flight) state very quickly or in an immobilised ‘helpless and hopeless’ shutdown, low energy state (freeze/shutdown).

It’s vital for us to move our own body to a calm responsive state and we need to read the child’s nervous system well, this video explains this with some nervous system ‘hacks’ in an entertaining visual way.

 Find out more with Early Years Mental Health training – a video introduction with useful links and free resources is here.

If you, or someone you know , of any age, is struggling with balancing their nervous system then take a look at The Safe and Sound Protocol.

Playful adults in the Early Years

In the last post we considered how play can heal our children through this difficult time in our lives. How does it also help our mental health when we are playful with the children? In play children can rearrange the world to make it less scary and it’s the same for us. Healing neurochemicals are activated in joyful play and strengthen attachments, vital to feeling safe in setting.

Take ‘Peek-a Boo’ which creates a momentary fear response in the child but this small degree of fear can help a child regulate their emotions. Children with chronic anxiety struggle with even mildly threatening situations because it leads to high degrees of fear generated by the person’s fear of losing control (Gray in Voice of Play).

We also get protective anti-stress effects from our playfulness. While we can’t let ourselves go in the setting, try to make some time for play.

Give yourself permission, be spontaneous, set aside your inhibitions and try something you haven’t done since you were a kid. Learn more here

Play in the new future

Our new future puts relationships firmly at the centre of our practice.  Helping the child to feel safe to stay and safe to play requires strength, from recognising our own vulnerability.

Managing loss and uncertainty starts with our self-care and our capacity to enable healing through play.  

Suzanne Axelsson talks about the ‘play-responsive educator’ who notices the depth of the child’s immersion in play, ‘listens’ through this observation and sensitively times the interaction to extend the experience for the child. Play is powerful therapy when we witness and ‘hear’ their stories through play.

Telling stories to children so they can name feelings in themselves. Each child’s unique language of play tells us how they are feeling. Whether boisterous or solitary behaviour, the child needs to feel connected with us to understand feelings.

How we use our presence with the child in this new future requires even greater sensitivity from us. While we may be conscious of lost time let’s focus on the extraordinary magic of the secure relationship.

Early Years Mental Health training – a video, useful links and free resources are here.

The Importance of Self-Care

…building your own capacity to care…

July 2020 Early Years Education – Mental Health

Many of us are becoming accustomed to a ‘new normal’ after weeks of adjusting to managing the risk of Coronavirus COVID-19. Coping with significant changes to our practice such as these, at a time when we are living with uncertainty and threat to our own safety and wellbeing, is an enormous challenge.

We should not underestimate the impact that this time, in our personal and working lives, is having on our own mental wellbeing.

Educational settings have made many adjustments in practical terms. Some of us have barely have had time to reflect on our own wellbeing as we work out ways to stay afloat financially besides responding to the challenges of supporting the children of keyworkers, dealing with increased bureaucracy and supporting each other through this time.  Unable to see an end in sight, we have no choice but to continue to keep adapting to the challenges. It can take its toll on us.

Kate Moxley in Early Years Matters reminds us of the ways we can reframe the worry and uncertainty into things we can be sure about. Taking the time to look at what this crisis is teaching us and what we are creating, in terms of environment in our setting, is the lynchpin of all our coping mechanisms.  

Perhaps the physical contact issue has raised thoughts about the strengths of ‘Professional Love’ for you/ your team? It would be natural for your thoughts to gravitate to the risk attached to physical contact with the babies and children. Even pre-crisis we may have trod a wavering line between the belief in the nurture essential in physical closeness with children and the risk it poses to our own feelings as a secondary attachment figure and heightens our awareness of safeguarding when we are close with children. 

In response you might have created more space in your setting, reorganised play equipment and created new routines of sanitisation. Changes to our routine puts a strain on our brains until such time as these new routines become automatic. When we have so much more to keep at the forefront of our minds it is much like an overloaded device, too many apps open that slow down the processing speed. This can make us vulnerable to mistakes of judgement. As many of us do this work driven by love and dedication to children, we naturally fear any mistake on our part might jeopardise that relationship. The risks may feel overwhelming to us at times.

The natural concerns of parents and carers has no doubt fallen at your doorstep with the expectation that you reassure and inform.  A daunting task when the information we need to do this is changing daily. It’s not all down to us, the information is there for everyone, but as a provider we may feel a huge responsibility and seek to retain the strong partnerships we have worked hard to create with parents and carers.

When so much of the risk is outside of our control, how are you taking care of yourself? We need to nurture ourselves to balance our emotional systems before we can offer this to the children in our care. We need to find ways to balance our own RAGE, FEAR, PANIC/GRIEF systems  with our CARE, PLAY and SEEKING systems, (Panksepp, 1998) before we can support the child to feel safe with us.  If you have ever wondered about the science behind your secondary attachment with children in your care take a look at this video: The Science of Emotions Jaak Panksepp (clip)    

Full video: The Science of Emotions (full TEDx) (17 mins)  

Reminding ourselves about how we communicate safety to others is one step towards strengthening psychological safety in the partnership between us, the child and their carer.  We can become so distracted from ourselves by the practicalities that it’s worth cueing into our awareness of our own nervous and emotional state not just when we need it but on a routine self-care basis.  Perhaps consider the following on a daily basis:

Taking some quiet time for yourself to notice your current state ? It takes just 7 minutes of being still with your body and noticing, or even being more mindful in a daily chore.
 Yoga with Adriene: How to start meditating

How safe are you feeling at work? Notice your breathing, deepen it, extend the exhalation to gain instant calming effects. Communicate your needs. Early Years Matters – Buddy Scheme

How are you communicating safety to others? colleagues, parents, the children? Facial expressions communicate the nervous system state… the sincere smile (in the eyes) calms and reassures (self and others). The Science of Safety with Stephen Porges  

Thanks for reading, this is the first of monthly posts, focussed primarily of early intervention in mental health.