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Therapeutic schools: Looking after yourself…

This article was written originally for Head Teachers Update magazine 
Our therapeutic schools series continues. This time, Shahana Knight turns her attention to you – the teacher. If we do not look after teachers’ mental health then how can they be expected to support our pupils?

What is mental health? Mental health is how you look after your mind. Specifically, your emotional and mental states and how well you manage the behaviours that come with those states.

Do you know when you are feeling anxious? Can you identify that feeling and the impact it is having on your body? Do you know that it is making you feel uneasy and do you realise that you are experiencing self-doubt and thoughts about not being good enough as a result?

Do you recognise this feeling is making you snappy with family members and is affecting your sleep? Do you identify these things quickly and then do something to manage your emotions, thoughts and behaviours to help you feel better again and combat that feeling of anxiousness and even use it to push yourself forward?

Or do you allow the feeling to become overwhelming and therefore become a victim of the thoughts and behaviours and let them take over in such a way that you actually struggle with sleep long term, regularly have negative thoughts and simply come to accept the feelings of unease as “just the way you are”?

Managing your own mental health is a skill and something that you need to be taught in order to be able to fully understand why it is so relevant and effective. A lot of my articles in this regular segment have focused on your schools, classroom environments, teaching practice and the children. This time, I want to focus on you.

Let us look at how you can pay more attention to your own mental health and so in turn better support your pupils. After all, how can you look after anybody else if you are not looking after yourself?

For the whole school: The staffroom

A staffroom should be somewhere you can go to collect your thoughts, relax and regulate yourself. You might have had a difficult morning with a child, heard some bad news, had an observation, struggled with someone’s behaviour or just had a really busy day. The staffroom is a place that should be nurturing, somewhere you can refuel and feel calm enough for you to regain a good emotional state and take control back. This space should be inviting, calming and be somewhere you want to be.

Try this: first, declutter the space, remove unnecessary posters and old signs. Remove all boxes, files and folders on show. Next, pick a colour scheme. Choose two colours that will be the focus of the room. I would suggest white and another colour. Try to keep it calming: whites and pale blues, mint greens or purples work well. Back the boards in the room with your chosen two colours, making sure all of them match. If you have backed/laminated information or pictures hung up, make sure they match the colour scheme. Anything displayed should complement your chosen colours, including box files. This will help instantly calm the room, making it feel ordered and uniformed, which in turn will help organise your thoughts and increase feelings of happiness.

Make some small additions to the space to help make it feel more relaxing and therapeutic. Add fairy lights around the backboards (not ones that twinkle), turn off the main lights and use lamps instead. Include plants (or fakes ones) and fluffy rugs on the floor. Add cushions to the space to make it feel more homely and positive quotes to the wall to encourage positive mindset.

For the individual teacher: Mindset

Working in school environment can be demanding, stressful and fast-paced and can take its toll on your wellbeing and mindset. Good mental health also relates to the quality of your thoughts and how skilled you are at identifying negative ones and replacing them with positive ones. This is where mindfulness comes in.

To be mindful is to be aware of your thoughts in the present moment. Not being preoccupied with the future or the past – like how you are not yet where you want to be in your life or that experience you had and how difficult things have been. These thoughts often consume us and can impact on our day-to-day wellbeing because they alter our thoughts.

To be mindful is to be aware of this and realise that you are not your thoughts and they are not random. You allow them to be there. Therefore when you are thinking, “I am going to struggle with Jack’s behaviour today” or “I am going to mess up this observation”, you realise that you are allowing that thought to be there and choosing to believe it.

Mindful people acknowledge the negative thought and then replace it with a positive one: “I am in control of my day and it will be a good one.”

This helps to change their actual perception of the situation and is an important tool for any teacher. Becoming aware of your thoughts will allow you to feel more purposeful and in control of your circumstances and help you feel calmer – thus becoming a more reflective, purposeful, calm teacher.

Try practising following meditation at home regularly:

“Imagine you are stood in a field full of flowers, you’ve got bare feet and you are stood on the cool green grass, there is a light breeze. You can feel it on your face. Raise your head to the sky. The sun is shining down on your face and it feels warm.
Your whole body is relaxed. You look around the field at the flowers – what colour are they? You just stand there for a moment feeling happy. You look ahead and see a path with a sign: “Calming Garden.” You follow it. As you walk, you pass beautiful trees and flowers – what do they look like?
You notice a box on floor of the path which says “Feelings Box” – you can put your negative thoughts in here. You open the box and all of the negative thoughts and beliefs about yourself seep out of you and go into the box. You put the lid on and keep walking. You feel so much better now. You come to a gate in the path.
You slowly push open the gate and look around. You are in a wonderful garden. Imagine this garden. You find somewhere to settle down. This is your favourite place in the garden. You look around – what is surrounding you? You look down and see a note on the floor, it has your name on it. This is a happiness note – what does it say? The note makes you smile and you put it in your pocket so you can remember it. You sit for as long as you need to. Now it is time to go. You stand up, walk through the gate and back down the path to the meadow…”

Watch this meditation on YouTube here

When you try this, choose a relaxing piece of music and take yourself through the scripted meditation to help focus your thoughts. Do this every night to help promote positive mindset and therefore mental health.

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