This article was originally written for head teachers update magazine
Children’s Mental Health Week earlier this month focused on self-expression as a means to promote good mental health. In response, many schools put on assemblies, art lessons and looked at this theme within PSHE lessons.
This was wonderful to see, but it is important to remember that to really embed this vital message then repetition over time is key. If we really want children to learn to take care of their own mental health by expressing themselves then we have to teach them how to do that regularly and in a multitude of ways. We have to help them apply these lessons to their lives.
One art lesson or one drama session a year isn’t enough. It is about changing patterns of behaviour, thought processes and embedding these coping strategies.
When I was growing up, I lived with a dad who struggled with manic depression and was an alcoholic. I was often overwhelmed with stress and anxiety, not knowing what would happen from day to day. Luckily, the first five years of my life were stable and the adversity didn’t begin to manifest until I was around six or seven.
The first five years are the most important as it is during these early years that children begin to learn how to regulate their feelings. With a nurturing care-giver, they will come to understand how to link their feelings to their behaviours – and what helps them calm down. Crying and being soothed are the very early stages of this, and that then develops as you grow. Thankfully, I had these early lessons which helped me develop self-regulation tools.
I learnt early on that my family didn’t share what was happening in our home with anyone and as a result I learnt to show up to school with a smile, engage with friends and leave the adversity behind.
As a young girl I found different methods to express how I was feeling; I felt they were the only ways to get those feelings out and make sense of them. I would write down every incident in a secret journal, which I hid in my wardrobe, I also wrote poems to describe my inner struggles. I recognised that they were better out on the page than stuck inside me.
I developed a keen interest in drawing and, alone in my room, would sketch the faces of children or adults. I listened to a lot of music, I found that listening to sad songs helped me to find the words to identify how I felt.
The singers and artists seemed to understand my pain and I found that healing. I would listen to the likes of Eminem, a rapper who swears a lot! This enabled me to scream out words I wanted to say (but couldn’t) and express my pain through the safety of a song. I believe that these methods of self-expression helped me get through the most difficult years of my life.
So, why am I telling you this?
For two vital reasons. First, to give this concept of “self-expression” context. Sometimes we can focus our energy and attention on something, but the reality of it can get lost amid the buzz words.
Second, and most importantly, because a child cannot simply be told to write something down or use music to express themselves if they are not comfortable with that medium.
When I was growing up we had music in the house all the time. I associated music with feeling good. We would dance to it, we would sing to it and it was part of who I was. I also learnt how to use music and its healing properties through my dad, who would get drunk while listening to Eva Cassidy, a soulful singer who perhaps helped him put words to his feelings.
I was encouraged to be creative, do lots of art projects and express myself through drawing (my mum loved crafts). This is an important aspect of why it was so natural for me to pick up a pencil and draw.
Think about your pupils
Now, think about the children in your classroom. How many of them are comfortable with music? How many have access to art and drawing, drama and dance in their day-to-day lives? If you do not feel comfortable with a medium, you will not reach for that medium when you feel down, alone or angry.
What we have to do is normalise these tools for self-expression as part of our everyday practices. We do this by encouraging children to utilise them when they feel happy and relaxed, and then slowly teach them that they can also use them to self-regulate or express themselves when they are hurting.
The work around helping children to do this goes far beyond one-off events and should be something we are developing in our daily routines. There are three specific ways you can do this:
1, Small daily practices
Add small daily practices to your day to promote self-expression. Embed this into your routines with the children. Can you play calming music in the morning as they enter the classroom? This is a firm favourite of mine (see my previous articles). It helps regulate the children’s breathing and heart rates, it calms their minds and helps them refocus before the day begins. It also communicates that music is a tool that can help us feel better.
You could encourage the children to write a short feelings journal each morning, allowing them to express any feelings before they start their day. Talk to them about how getting our feelings out is a great way to organise our thoughts and have a healthy mind.
Finally, can you introduce mindful moments, for example when you give the children five minutes of colouring time after break or lunch to calm their minds and bodies.
The more you add these small things into their days, the more you are teaching them to use self-expression as a tool for life.
2, Encourage self-expression as a means to regulate
What do you do when a child is struggling to calm themselves down? When they are angry, shouting, crying or refusing to engage? Do you acknowledge that they are struggling with their feelings and need some support or do you punish them for having a difficult feeling by telling them off and sending them out?
These moments are the perfect time to teach children how to self-regulate and express their emotions. Telling them off can encourage children to swallow their feelings and ignore or avoid them. Instead, we want them to express how they feel but in a healthy way.
When you are with a child who is struggling to manage their feelings, help them by suggesting they take five minutes to listen to music, read or draw. Allow them space to calm their minds down and help them learn how to do this.
This does not mean they avoid a consequence for their decisions or behaviour, but it allows them to be calm enough to accept that consequence and learn from it.
3, Model self-expression
Children learn from the adults around them modelling behaviours and self-regulation. What you say isn’t enough, it is more about what you do. Can you model self-expression by getting involved and drawing or colouring when they are having their mindful moment? Can you talk about ways you express yourself in normal conversation with the children: “I was feeling so tired after our day yesterday and so I went home and read my book while listening to music. It helped me feel much better. Does anyone else like to read to help them feel good?”
The more you model self-expression and normalise, it the more the children will be likely to use it as well.
These three approaches will help to embed the idea that expressing ourselves is good for our mental health. If we really want to make a difference to children’s mental health, then we must give them the tools to express themselves and commit to reinforcing this message every single day.