I like to make sure all children and young people can go to school armed with approaches that enable them to address any mental health and wellbeing issues they may have. I often deal with the more complex areas of PTSD, self-harm, trauma, etc. Rather than the teacher thinking they have to get specially trained, I seek simple, humanistic approaches that everybody can use on a daily basis to enable their pupils to become happy, healthy, safe and valued young people who have positive values and are ready to face life’s challenges.
School teachers and other educational practitioners made it worthwhile for me to go into school – in fact they were very important in keeping me alive, because at that stage my own story was very traumatic. I experienced childhood abuse and the teachers in school gave me a purpose.
Self-harm, depression and psychotic episodes became part of my daily life at university, with trauma affecting the way I was functioning, and to be honest, there was not much functioning happening during this time.
Following a very dark period in my life when sectioned into a mental health hospital in London, there became hope. More detail of my story will be shared on the main stage at the SSAT conference and you will hear how a mirror and some pyjamas literally gave me a new viewpoint of myself.
I finally began to ask myself, “who am I?”
And that’s the foundation I work on in schools and with practitioners.
How teachers saved me
At school, the teachers kept me level-headed (most of the time), made me realise that what I was experiencing at home was not the norm. And they made me feel valued, by checking in on a daily basis, even with simple questions like “Are you ok?” or “How are you today?” They helped me to be grounded, to realise that actually it was worth being in this world. And it was worth being in school because (a) I could build relationships with other children; and (b) I could learn some amazing things from these educators.
Teachers saw I had some musical ability and one of them gave me a flute. I worked very hard to master that. A beautiful melody took away all the pain and trauma I was experiencing. So when I began my career as an NQT, employed as head of music in a difficult school in Hampshire which had a lot of problems with drugs and I had a class with a lot of very challenging behaviour, I realised they were suffering as much as I had been at that age. I asked them to sit, close their eyes and listen, then played a piece called Gabriel’s Oboe. There was an amazing reaction, it transformed that classroom. We all discussed how we felt after listening to that music. After that, young people were disclosing the pain of abuse they had experienced. From that day on I realised that using the right music, at the right time, for the right reason can change your emotional makeup and mental wealth, as I like to call it. I did some years’ research into the effects of music on the brain and used this as part of my master’s degree (MA Ed, University of Wales, Swansea). In practice, in class, it was extremely powerful. I wrote The little book of music for the classroom: Using music to improve memory, motivation, learning and creativity (Crown House Publishing, 2009).*
Applying what I had learned
Based on my experience I think you should never tell anyone who is self-harming that they have to stop. Instead you need to say, “I hear you, I see you, I understand you. We’ll go on this journey together to find a way, so you don’t need to self-harm anymore.” Always ensuring that the relevant safeguarding leads are aware of your conversation.
I work on the basis that we start with how our minds work. And when we’re not in a good place, first of all we have to put in place self-care strategies, which I call ‘mind medicine’. I work with teachers on how to recognise what I call ‘the simple steps to save those smiles’. Children need to understand that they will experience highs and lows in their lives, and when it’s important to ask for help. And I help teachers to understand, when they see challenging behaviour – even children abusing them – it’s a coded message: “I’m not ok… you’re the only one who can rescue me.” Behaviour is chosen, and can be a direct result of coping with various difficulties.
In my SSAT conference session, I want to give the simple steps, for example making sure that everywhere in school there’s a place for children and young people to be valued and connected. We also need to recognise that everyone has special talents – they need to matter, to be valued, to be shown kindness. That’s very difficult when the school staff are also under tremendous pressure with their workload. But there are simple tools schools they can use, like having a wellbeing philosophy for the whole team as well as students, some of whom can be wellbeing ambassadors – some children and young people find it easier to go to their peers rather than staff about these sorts of things.
I’ve worked in a number of different countries. In Hong Kong, where there have been a number of suicides among young people, I advised parents on coping with the cultural issues and the pressures they put on their children to excel in exams. I said to parents (which the schools couldn’t), “you love your children so much you’re killing them.” And I made sure I gave people a supporting mechanism.
My motivation is simple: to make sure our future generations of children are going to be equipped with the skills, strategies and emotional resilience to be prepared to have their armour dented. To do this they need to have the right mindset at difficult moments: “I can get through this, and there is always hope”. Looking at preventative measures in early childhood is most definitely the key. Learning and living great ‘mental wealth’ will enable every child and young person to have a better understanding of themselves and work at a toolkit of self-care mechanisms. I am currently writing my next book, Schools Being Well, which I hope will help to support every child, young person and educator to make the world a safer, happier and more fulfilled journey for everyone in school so that they are prepared for the best learning and living experiences.
* Nina has also written Of teaching, learning and sherbet lemons: A compendium of careful advice for teachers (Crown House Publishing, 2015).
Nina is speaking on the second day of this year’s SSAT National Conference where we will be continuing our collective fight to put social justice at the heart of the education system. View the full programme with main stage speakers including Professor Sir Tim Brighouse and David Lammy; panel discussions featuring Professor Dame Alison Peacock, Priya Lakhani OBE and Tom Ravenscroft; plus over 30 school-led workshops exploring themes including wellbeing, curriculum design and eradicating illiteracy.
Learn more about our main stage speakers by reading our interview with Lee Elliot Major OBE, the UK’s first professor of social mobility.