ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) are something I hadn’t heard about until recently and since starting to study them it has joined all the dots for me.
It backs up what I have long believed; mental and physical health are not as easy to separate as we would like to believe.
We must keep the prime areas of development as our priority in Early Years and throughout childhood; we must not brush children’s experiences to one side.
Keep talking to our children, be honest and open and demonstrate empathy always in order that they may grow to do the same with the people around them.
To make the biggest change in our society we must raise children who do not judge but demonstrate genuine compassion for others.
Putting the emphasis on the three areas of prime development does not inhibit academic learning but support it.
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A lot of talk surrounding this subject online and in the media at the moment and I have to say that some of the responses have shocked me.
The lovely Jane Evans has received a lot of hate online for saying that children should NOT be forced to hug and kiss family and friends on ‘Good morning Britain’. What shocks me the most is that so many people would dismiss the evidence and science of child development in order to keep their “It never did me any harm” mentality.
Firstly, I’m so glad that it never did those people any harm and secondly, unfortunately it has harmed many, many others.
This is not us saying “don’t hug your children” it is a scientific fact that we need connection in order to thrive and our brain quite simply doesn’t develop the same without it. It’s about being wise, being smart and understanding that the behaviour we teach our children from birth has a long-term impact and helps them to develop vital skills that can help keep them safe.
Talk to your children about how they can express themselves when they feel happy and loved by sharing cuddles and kisses but also teach them that if they feel uncomfortable at sharing those hugs and kisses with someone that is ABSOLUTELY FINE. Teach them to recognise their emotions and fears and let them know that it is correct to respond to them.
Christmas is coming up and gifts will be shared, do not make your child offer physical contact as a way of thanks. Insist they say thank you and let them choose how they wish to express that thanks. This is one of the most important things we can teach our children to help protect them from abuse; you’re teaching them that they are in control of their bodies and they do not have to give themselves physically if it doesn’t feel comfortable or right in any way. You are teaching them consent.
So, don’t dismiss all this as political correctness gone mad. It’s not.
Something MUST change, the historic cases of child abuse that are reported every year is evidence in itself that we must change, but now, the science is there to tell us how. Let’s listen to it.
And say ‘Thank you’.
As parents we can become worried about what we feel our child should be doing to be keeping up with what we perceive to be in line with normal development and certainly to get them ‘school ready’. What could be better than getting them writing! I mean, they go to school and they write so that is probably one of the things that it’s best to focus on right? So how do we prepare our children to be ready to write? Rather than answering that question, I’m going to say – don’t! Here’s why.
For a child to write effectively long term they first must be able to use what is known as a ‘dynamic tripod grip’. This basically means that they can hold their pencil between 2 fingers and create the movement from their thumb, fingers and finger tips. Most children master this grip between the ages of 6 and seven (another example as evidence that we send our children to school too young in this country.
That is not to say they shouldn’t be encouraged to use pencils and crayons before they’ve grasped this grip (keep them chunky) - they definitely should and there are so many ways to do that without encouraging them to write. This is referred to as ‘mark making’.
Children are developing, and it’s important to understand that if a child hasn’t reached that stage of development not to push them into something they are just not developmentally ready for. They need time to play and explore in different ways to build their strength in both their gross motor skills and their pincer grip.
Supporting your child’s gross motor skills is a fantastic way to help them be ready to write. Think about sitting at a table and writing, just think for a minute of all that’s involved. For us it’s so easy we do it without thinking but children are developing and have not all the finely tuned physical skills that we have as adults so let’s break it down a little.
The gross motor skills involved in handwriting mainly refer to the postural control that is required for writing. Efficient control of the larger muscle groups in the neck, shoulder and trunk is necessary to maintain stability in order for the fingers and hands to move to complete the handwriting task. As children develop, control and stability begins at the trunk, progressing to the elbow, wrist and finally the hand. With normal development, fine motor skills are developed from gross motor skills. For example, a baby will first learn to swat, then reach, then grasp and then manipulate a toy. Children need to develop the proximal muscles (closer to the center of the body) of the trunk and shoulder girdle in order to use the distal muscles (further from the center of the body) in the fingers and hands. These proximal muscles develop in children with gross motor movements such as reaching, tummy time, rolling, all fours position, crawling, standing and walking.
Children also must develop the ability to plan and execute gross motor skill actions. With handwriting tasks, this motor planning requires muscle groups to work together with the proper force, timing and actions to produce an acceptable outcome (ie legible handwriting). For example, in order to write with a pencil, the brain has to plan and carry out the skill in the correct sequence. Starting with the pectoral muscles, the trapezius and the rhomboid muscles coactivating with the proper force and timing to stabilize the shoulder in order for the fingers and hand to move the pencil along the paper efficiently. Children with decreased motor planning skills exhibit poor legibility of handwriting compared to their peers (Tseng & Murray, 1994).
Not as simple as just picking up a pen and going for it is it? It’s a lot for them to think about. They also need to be able to stabilise the piece of paper they are writing on, use their hand eye coordination and think about how to form the letters and think about what they write. That is a LOT to be thinking about so trying to get them to achieve this before they are developmentally ready is setting them up to get frustrated and feel like they hate writing.
So what can we do?
All these activities will help prepare your child be ready to write. All these prime areas of development are so intrinsically linked and getting ready to write demonstrates this so well. Children develop holistically so it’s not as simple as ‘teaching them to write’, it’s making sure they are READY to write by supporting those 3 areas of prime learning, the foundations for your child’s well-being and learning…you do that and you can build skyscrapers on top!
Or write novels.
It's always difficult to go into as much depth in a blog post as I'd like, If you've any questions on the stages of pencil grip development or anything else discussed in this post please do get in touch via Facebook, email or by using our contact page.
We want to protect our children, it’s natural and right. The difficulty is deciding between what they actually need protecting from and what they need to experience in order to grow and develop.
Learning to cope with emotions is a difficult and lifelong process for us all and it’s important not to shelter our children from them. We use the term ‘negative’ emotions but that gives the impression that they are bad and have no purpose. In fact they ALL have a purpose and vital role to play in our decision making throughout life and in keeping us safe; being able to recognise these emotions is harder than we might first believe.
Giving them practice is one of the ways we can help children to develop emotional literacy skills. Exploring emotions in a safe place is a perfect place to start, using role play with small world toys, puppets, stories and games all allow children opportunity to explore feelings of fear, sadness, frustration, joy, excitement, loss and anger.
An important part of children experiencing their emotions is through their friendships and socialising with other children. It’s important to not always ‘jump in’ to situations where a child is having a toy snatched or having a fall out with a friend for example. If we takeover the situation we are hijacking their chance to feel and develop their own coping strategies for the emotions they feel in these situations.
My son has never beaten me at draughts…yet! Some people have said that is cruel, I believe it’s important to let children lose. He has learnt over the years how to cope with that emotion and when he does finally beat me (which he will) the pride and elation he will feel will prove to him that resilience and perseverance pays off and give him a much bigger confidence injection than if he’d been having small, meaningless victories along the way; he’ll also be a very good draughts player!
When he finally beat my husband at table tennis 2 years ago the whole campsite in France knew about it, he was so happy and proud. He ended up winning 3 table tennis tournaments over the next few years because of the genuinely good player he had become. I mean, imagine if Jessica Ennis never lost against anybody when she was younger, what would she have had to strive for?
So as hard as it is sometimes try and sit back and let them feel, resist the temptation to step in straightaway. Support them by scaffolding their play to help them in their exploration, and model the language they need. Empathise with situations both real and imaginary and be there to listen.
Let them lose; it could help them to win.
'You have no choices about how you lose, but you do have a choice about how you come back and prepare to win again' Patrick Riley
It is easy to believe that the key to giving our children a head start in education can mean teaching them numerals and their ABC's; it is easy to believe because it is what our education system tells us.
Study after study shows us that children require experiences to learn effectively; teaching by recall or to the test does not give children a rich and full knowledge.
Its 'rote learning' vs 'meaningful learning'.
Rote learning doesn’t allow for a deeper understanding of a subject.
it doesn’t encourage the use of social skills, there is no connection between new and previous knowledge and it may result in wrong impression or understanding a concept.
Meaningful learning involves understanding how all the pieces of an entire concept fit together. The knowledge gained through meaningful learning applies to new learning situations; this type of learning stays with children for life.
Get in touch to find out more about the prime areas of learning and how that knowledge can help your child both now and in the future.
If you want to make an angry or upset child angrier or more upset then tell them to calm down.
“Come on now, calm down!” *enter more loud screaming/hitting/throwing (delete as appropriate)*
Put yourself in your child’s shoes for a moment. When you’re angry over a situation what do you need? What makes you feel worse? What makes you feel better?
For example, if a work colleague has upset you and they then told you to “Calm down!” when you displayed your anger over the situation would you feel calm? If you were to confide in a friend about a situation you were angry about, what would help to make you feel better? Empathy. Empathy and understanding helps us to feel better. We need to have our feelings acknowledged before we can even begin to think about processing them and coming out the other side.
By telling your child to calm down, you are telling them to stop feeling - to stop showing emotion. We aren’t built that way, we are built to feel and our feelings matter; to be told they don’t can really knock the wind out of our sails and stop us from being open about how we feel next time.
Trying to help them to achieve calm by taking the emphasis off them and on to what you want them to do is a more practical and achievable way to ‘be calm’.
Firstly, be what you want them to be, so if you want them to calm down the first and most important thing is to maintain a level of calm yourself. If you are not feeling calm try and achieve calm for yourself before attempting to calm your child.
Tell them what you want them to do rather than what you don’t want them to do.
“Put your hands on your knees” rather than “stop picking your nose”. By doing so you are cutting out a lot of language processing from the equation - keep instructions short and direct to also help with this.
Try giving them strategies there and then “Take big breaths” “Tell me about it” “Let’s take some time by ourselves to calm our anger”. Try taking them away from the area that they began to feel angry or upset in; even moving to another room in the house can help to restore calm.
Use it as an opportunity to continue teaching them important emotional literacy skills by acknowledging and naming the emotion “I see you are angry”
Try and stop any destructive behaviour “Can you put the toy down gently please”
Offer them an alternative “let’s take 10 big breaths together”
Encourage them to ‘use their words’ to talk about it, “Would you like to talk about why you are angry?”
Finally, and this is important, help them to plan for the next time they feel that way. Develop a strategy together. Facilitate them to do this as independently as possible and try not to hijack the process. The more they have ownership over the strategy the more chance they have of being able to use it for themselves.
Children haven’t had the experience of being exposed to their emotions unlike we have. Even with all this practice in place, we can still find it hard to manage our own feelings. Just imagine how difficult it is for our children, without all our experience and without the knowledge of what the emotion is that is causing their body to feel this way!
“I am here; you are safe.”
“It’s scary AND…”
Acknowledge your child’s fear, without making it more frightening for them by using the word AND to add to phrases such as “…AND you are safe” “…AND you’ve felt this before and then it felt better again” “…AND you have a plan”
Model the dialogue you want them to be able to use, so that they can process it for themselves as they grow.
Always reassure them that they will feel better; together you and your child will be able to ‘calm down’.
Today is world mental health day, a day to raise awareness about all things mental health. A time to reach out to others, share stories and, above all, a time to achieve and offer understanding.
Mental health is often seen as an issue that really only kicks in when we hit our teens. When we have our young babies in our arms it is so hard to imagine them as angst ridden young people because it feels such a long way off.
We should, of course, always enjoy the moment of time we are in, because time passes so quickly and our children grow up so fast. However, it’s my strong belief that we should keep in mind that we want to build strong foundations in their development. This means as they enter their teens they have already developed some coping strategies for dealing with their emotions.
Many of us find ‘opening up’ about our emotions difficult, especially the more negative emotions, so teaching or modelling to our children how to process and cope with these emotions can be easier said than done.
I talk an awful lot about modelling. Modelling positive ways of handling our own emotions is one of the greatest teaching tools we have; showing them how we want them to be by being it ourselves.
Andy Cope, a Derby based Emotional Intelligence expert, says ‘The general rule of parenting is that your children won’t do what you say but they will do what you do’.
They learn by watching us. If we want our children to be able to talk to us about how they feel as they enter puberty then it’s something that needs to feel natural to them already. They need to understand that emotions and feelings can change quickly creating hurdles you just couldn’t envisage being there previously.
The teenage years are a challenge for parents as well as for children. Their behaviour can be volatile and unpredictable. They can challenge in ways it is hard to predict. Try not to fall into the trap of thinking that it just won’t happen to you. That your teen will never lie, will never ‘close up’. I hear it often, hey, I said it myself, “My child can talk to me about anything, we’re so close. We are so open with each other” That may all be very true, it certainly was for me but don’t let that blind you to the facts and don’t let yourself believe for a minute that it’s something you did wrong as a parent; it’s development, it’s the 21st century, heck, it’s life.
Regardless of how close you are and how much you share with your teens they will still have things and feelings they just won’t want to share with you. As they evolve as people and they make new relationships that expose them, mould them and help them to develop their own identity you may be pushed back for a while. They need their own privacy to be able to forge their own place in the world.
‘So, why do teenagers lie? Interestingly, teen lying is part of the normal developmental process. At this stage in their lives, teenagers are looking to individuate themselves from you in order to forge a new, adult identity. Sometimes, this process manifests itself through lying, especially when teenagers perceive that their actions are out of step with their parents’ ideals and morals ‘ Mercedes Samudio
I think the most dangerous thing to do is assume that you know everything that is going on in your teens lives. You quite simply may not and bearing that in mind is so important in being able to protect them and keep them safe.
I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t trust your children, but please know that lying is an actual stage of development, it doesn’t always mean they can’t be trusted (I know that sounds like a contradiction in terms) but being aware that they may be lying to you alerts that extra sensor into action, you never know when you may need that sensor to tell you that further intervention or discussion is needed.
Mental health problems continue to rise in our young people and we know how important emotional literacy and communication skills are in helping to protect children and their mental health. Technology and social media make the world better in a lot of ways but the way that it has changed how children and teens communicate needs addressing. The world around us has evolved but how we develop remains the same.
Communication is a huge part of protecting our mental health so learning how to model real communication skills to our children from birth is so important. Don’t be the parent that thinks they know it all, you can’t, we don’t. But by sharing experiences, learning how to support these stages of development and understanding the importance of them we can endeavour to improve both yours and your child’s life, relationships and mental health.
Happy World Mental Health Day
It's not easy being a parent and none of us can get it right 100% of the time, we are quite simply not made that way. We aren't perfect and we will not be raising perfect children either...we all make mistakes, that's OK, it's what we learn from those mistakes that matters. It's building resilience which is one of the most important things to have in life.
Just yesterday I had to check in with myself over my youngest child's behaviour and look at MYSELF what was I doing in the bigger picture? Had I let her have too much screen time that day? Had I actively listened to her when she had tried to engage?
As an early years practitioner I am trained to self evaluate in order to improve my practice, as a parent? Not so much. It is something I have started to implement into my parenting life over the last 3 years and it made all the difference.
I'm never going to be perfect but the skills and knowledge I have helps me EVERY.SINGLE.DAY.
Bridge the Gap is not about casting judgement over parents it's about offering knowledge and support to make a real difference to children's lives, helping parents to bridge the gap between home and school so that all children have the best chance possible to reach their positive outcomes.
So no, I'm not a perfect parent. But I aim to be the best that I can with the knowledge I have and that's all anybody can do. I will never stop studying in order to help not just MYSELF as a parent, not just MY children but also other parents and other children so that we can all be perfectly imperfect together; which ironically sounds pretty perfect to me.
Time after time I get asked “My child is struggling at school and I want to know how to best support him. He’s struggling with Maths, what can I do?”, as you can imagine the content varies but the basic question remains the same. Very often when probed the parent will reveal that the child has just left foundation stage and entered key stage 1 (from reception to year 1). This never, ever surprises me.
Our children leave the wonderful, child led environment of early years, that has been designed around their development, and then enter an outdated system that was created when we still believed that ‘children should be seen and not heard’. It has no support system in place to help with this transition and the fact that they need one speaks volumes about the education system we entrust our child's education and development too.
Let me be clear, this is NOT the teachers fault in anyway whatsoever. They are also thrust into a system that means that the actual ‘teaching’ comes way down on the agenda compared to the ticking of boxes and preparing children for assessments. Teachers usually become teachers because they care, they have ideas on how to support children’s learning and want to make a difference but they find themselves in a system that offers them little flexibility and support. Funding is dramatically cut and teachers with classes of 30+ children are spinning all the plates without even a valuable and much needed teaching assistant. This system FAILS OUR CHILDREN.
We are behind in the league tables so why not look at the education systems of our European friends that finish so much higher in the league tables; why not follow suit? Instead we make young children do more classroom based academic learning earlier and earlier and then wonder why we do not get the same results.
Children learn through play, through experiences and by doing so they develop holistically, in a way that is of upmost importance in today’s vulnerable world. We need creative thinkers, good listeners, children who can empathise and problem solve. We can teach children everything else by letting them be children, letting them explore, think critically and figure things out for themselves.
Our children’s mental health is in jeopardy, serious mental health issues are on the rise and when we are continuing to squeeze them through holes they just don’t fit through are we really surprised? Our world is very different from 100 years ago so why has our education system not evolved accordingly?
So when I get asked the question “What can I do to support my child’s education” I respond “By doing everything at home that they are NOT doing at school”. Take them to parks, talk, play games, LISTEN and communicate. Keep their confidence and self-worth high so that when they get knocked down by feeling frustrated at school they can be resilient and have another go. Bridge the Gap for them, be the difference that they need and enjoy them; because our children are special, and deserve to be seen AND heard.
In 2017 we talk more about our mental health than we ever did back when I was growing up in the 80’s and 90’s which is something I find encouraging, but what I’m still waiting for is a bigger shift in how we view the term ‘mental health’. We use the term ‘mental health problem’ almost like it’s a disease that should never be mentioned. I feel it’s a phrase that’s almost whispered or mouthed like my Granny used to when she was talking about something she viewed as a bit ‘out there’.
Well, let’s put this out there… ‘mental health problem’ is a very generic term, it gives the impression that it is a disease all by itself when in fact, just like our physical health, the spectrum is so much wider than that.
We talk about looking after our health in terms of our physical state, and although there is more awareness and strategies out there in the mainstream to help us nurture our sense of wellbeing, I still feel there is a stigma attached to having a ‘mental health problem’.
Our health should not be separated but viewed more holistically, that is how we develop from birth. All of our areas of development are so intrinsically linked that everything has an impact on us as a whole; why stop viewing ourselves as whole?
The fact of the matter is that at some point in our lives we will all have a blip with our mental health, that blip doesn’t have to mean medical intervention but it is something we will all experience on some level…I mean who doesn’t get the odd ‘down day’ or feel anxious about a situation unfolding.
Just like our physical health there are degrees of severity. Some people suffer from headaches whilst others experience migraines and other people develop brain tumours. Some ladies experience a pretty ‘normal’ menstrual cycle while others suffer from endometriosis. We sometimes get a cold and for some people that can develop into pneumonia…you get the jist.
Our mental health is the same and as such it is something we should all just accept as red. We should know and understand that it is not something strange or unusual to develop a problem that impacts on our wellbeing. Depression, eating disorders, anxiety and stress are just a few illnesses that can take hold and lead to such utter turmoil that it can take people’s lives from them. And it is the illness that takes it from them NOT themselves.
The more we discuss the easier it will be to break down the stigma. The more we admit the more we can talk and develop new strategies to help us cope, nurture and heal our mental health when we reach that blip in the road. And it’s something that needs to change fast.
Talking to a nurse in our local children’s A&E told me that 10 young people are admitted every week with feelings of wanting to end their short lives; and they’re the ones who get through the door.
The rise of social media, constant contact with their peers and that old thief of joy, comparison, means that our teens are struggling to manage their feelings, feelings that developmentally as teenagers are felt more intensely than at any other time in their lives.
So what can we do?
We can talk, from birth about how we feel. We can talk, from birth about how we are dealing with our feelings. We can model, from birth the strategies we use to help us look after ourselves as a whole. “I’m feeling tired so I’m going to sit and have a cup of tea and a rest for 5 minutes” “I’m feeling angry inside so I’m just going to step outside and take some deep breaths”. It may sound basic and even a bit daft (and of course this is on a fundamentally basic level) but it’s talking about how we feel, it’s naming the emotions to our children and it’s modelling to our children ways to deal with those feelings. It’s the very beginning of them viewing themselves as a whole. It’s helping them understand that negative emotions are a normal part of life, It’s helping them learn how to empathise; and at some point in our children’s lives that could make all the difference.
Now, just like our physical health there are no guarantees. We can do all we can to look after ourselves but sometimes people just get ill, we can’t stop that. What we can do though is the best we can for ourselves, our children and each other, in the hope that when that ‘blip in the road’ arrives, be it big or small, we are better equipped to talk about it. That we have the vocabulary needed to discuss it. At some point that may have a big impact in helping to prevent a ‘blip in the road’ declining into a full-blown illness.
Early intervention helps in both terms of our physical and our mental health – our health as a whole, holistically, and there should certainly be no stigma attached to that.