In my September article, I talked about supporting children who have high social, emotional and mental health needs (SEMH). This article will be looking at how we also need to support staff who have high SEMH needs. We need to view SEMH within a model of difference rather than one of deficit. We are all on a SEMH needs continuum, and we all need to have our SEMH needs met.

Often as practitioners, we think about meeting other people’s needs first, the children we work with, our families and colleagues; sometimes, we can be the last on the list or see looking after ourselves as a luxury. However, we can only look after others if we are taking care of ourselves. When we think about well-being for adults, the media makes us believe that well-being means going to nice spas, having massages, and spending lots of money; this is not it. Well-being is about recognising what helps us feel happy, healthy, loved, connected and putting in place the things that will support this.

We all need to be in a place where we recognise what helps us. A question to think about is: What helps you to thrive and not just survive?

When we are feeling low, stressed, unwell, it is easy to forget or drop the things that help us; they can often end up being the things that get left off the day because we are too tired or too busy. This can then become a negative downward spiral. If we are too tired or too stressed to do things that help us, our SEMH needs can become higher.

On my laptop, I have a photo board called my happiness board. This happiness board is there to remind me when I am feeling tired or stressed about the things that help me. It is a board of photos, a mix of my friends and family, my team, my garden and swimming spots. This board acts as my reminder, it makes me smile whenever I open it, and when things feel too much, it can remind me to do something that will help me.

Knowing what helps you

One key factor with well-being is knowing what helps you. I am a swimmer, I swim each morning Monday - Friday at my local pool, and whenever I can, I also wild swim. The daily swims keep me sane! The routine of getting up at the same time each morning, going to the pool, swimming for 30 minutes, and connecting with my friends at the pool is essential for my well-being. In the lockdowns, I found it so painful both physically and mentally not to be swimming. Alongside my daily swims, over the last 5 years, I have learnt to love cold water swimming, where possible I swim all year, only in a costume, in the sea and rivers. There is something about the shock of cold water that is both exhilarating and incredibly mindful. As you enter the water, all your body thinks about is the coldness; you forget everything else at that moment. So when work and life are feeling hard, I increase my cold water swims.

I am not suggesting that you should all take up swimming and cold water swimming! However, I am suggesting we all need to find our thing. For example, a friend yesterday told me he had just heard he was probably losing his job, he went for a long walk with the dog, he was telling me that is his equivalent to my cold water swimming, that is what grounds him, enables him to let go, that is what nurtures him.

My day job is all about nurturing children, and it can be helpful to think about what nurtures us. Below are some ideas :

  • Exercise
  • Being with friends
  • Being with family
  • Laughing - listening to comedy or watching something funny
  • Eating well
  • Baking
  • Gardening
  • Knitting
  • Music
  • Being in a choir
  • Being in nature
  • Yoga/mindfulness
  • Engaging in faith-based activities
  • Being creative
  • Pets

Take a look at the list, are there things on that list that you enjoy? Maybe you do them regularly, or perhaps there are things you would like to do more often or try. As you will see from the list, they are not radical new ideas; in many ways, they are simple everyday activities, but they can bring us joy and connection and help us relax and let go.

How can we support our colleagues?

We must be recognising and talking about what supports our well-being in our workplaces. It needs to be an embedded part of the environment to recognise the importance of well-being for staff and children. This is not met by holding a once-a-year or once-a-term well-being week; as lovely as they can be, there is a danger of them being tokenistic. We can promote well-being in our workplaces by having an emotionally literate environment, where we can all safely recognise our feelings and ensure these are respected by others. We can provide basics, e.g. a safe and healthy workspace, availability of drinks, and child-free spaces to have our breaks. We also need to check in with one another, make sure others are OK. We could do small acts of kindness for others, some examples are:

  • Making a drink for others
  • Covering a late shift if you can see a colleague is especially tired or stressed
  • Bringing in flowers or chocolates for everyone to enjoy
  • Thanking people for doing their job and telling them how much you appreciate their work

These are very basic and simple ideas, and of course, they will not be enough when someone is struggling, but they can go a long way in helping staff feel appreciated. For example, in our team, we talk to each other about what we do to support our well-being; our manager actively encourages us to go and do those things, helping us all to recognise we need to look after ourselves and encourage one another to do the things that help us.

Key points

Looking after our well-being is essential, not a luxury.

We are unable to support others well-being if we are not in a good place ourselves.

Write a list or make a photo board of things that help you to feel happy, healthy, loved, connected.

Have conversations in your team about what supports well-being.

For more information, take a look at my new book.

Sonia Mainstone-Cotton

Sonia Mainstone-Cotton is a freelance nurture consultant, she has worked in early years for 30 years. Sonia currently works in a specialist team in Bath supporting 3- and 4-year-olds who have social, emotional and mental health needs. Sonia also trains staff across the country: she specialises in supporting the wellbeing of children and staff. Sonia has written 8 books including: 

Supporting children with social, emotional and mental health needs in the early years” published by Routledge,  Supporting young children through change and everyday transitions”, “Promoting Emotional Wellbeing in Early Years Staff” and “Promoting Young Children’s Emotional Health and Wellbeing”. Sonia is also the series advisor for Little Minds Matter series of books promoting social and emotional wellbeing in the early years with Routledge.

Website - http://soniamainstone-cotton.com

Email - sonia.main@icloud.com

Instagram - @mainstonecotton


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