This is a long blog … so I suggest you get a cup of tea, grab a biscuit and settle in for the next five or so minutes …
You may remember we started our blog series by trying to raise awareness of the impact adversity in early childhood can have upon health outcomes later in life.
Our own community has dealt with adversity for centuries; world wars, depressions, economic crisis, unemployment, floods, crop failures, business collapses, illness and disease and the loss of major industries around Tayside. These events could certainly create stress, tension, low mood, depression, substance misuse and other adverse experiences during a life time. So in short adversity is nothing new. Raising children in times of austerity and adversity is nothing new either. What is new though is what we know about the brain, and this is mainly due to the invention of MRI scanning and other medical advances. The way the brain works and how hormones and neurotransmitters influence connections is an area which allows us all to consider how learning about biology can help us meet our own needs and the needs of our children. It certainly doesn’t mean we will be better parents than bygone eras, it just means we will have knowledge and understanding that our own parents and grandparents didn’t have access to. How we use this “new” information is what matters most or we will lose an opportunity to “do things differently”, and consider whether a change is really an improvement.
One night in September 2017, 220 families were represented at the screening of “Resilience – the biology of hope” – this in itself was a truly remarkable feat given that at the time of showing it we were the first school in Scotland to attempt it. We were also supported by our local councillors who attended the screening. Since then we have been inundated with requests from parents who couldn’t make it … so we will show this film again before the summer. We have also had requests from all over Scotland to visit our school from local authority teams and schools to see how we are changing our ways of working and even requests from Dublin, Northern Ireland and America. We have had a number of unique visitors already to the school, who inspired us and we hope have left inspired and carrying with them messages of our kindness. These included Ken Muir, the Chief Executive of the GTCS, and Anna Fowlie, the Chief Executive of the SSSC. Our work will be featured in both the SEJ journal and the SSSC news.
On the night of the resilience film, a parent asked “So what are our next steps?” We really liked the use of the word “our” from this parent. We also liked the fact that he started a conversation which still continues months later. At the time we honestly had very little idea other than a direction … until of course, we had all seen the film. So with encouragement from Dr Suzanne Zeedyk, the wider research community, our local authority and our own school community, we began to consider ways to begin our work. Literally, it was such a fresh path that there would always be the inevitable wrong turns and points in time where the path just disappeared and was hiding in plain sight.
So where are we now? It’s probably more appropriate to think about where we have been … we have a long, long way to go.
First things first, the aim was to intentionally try to attract new partners who could deliver improved outcomes for our children at Burnside. We did this by sharing our emerging work and hosting the film. So like a Nursery school in Balgay Dundee, says “Please excuse the mess, we are busy learning!” It was messy and it was loud and at times busy …
It was worth it, to show everyone concerned that we were vulnerable, ready to accept help and full of real determination and a focus on our families. This is why you may have seen our social media presence spike a few months in – attending conferences, relentlessly blogging, speaking events, tweeting, retweets on Facebook, hosting visits from other schools. This commitment was pretty daunting whilst balancing our commitment to keep the fires burning under the hot stoves of our existing improvement plan focussed on learning, but we did it.
As a result of this focussed communication we created new partnerships and ways of working with NHS Tayside, Allied Health Professionals, Women’s Aid, St Anne’s Catholic Church, Children 1st, DB Yoga, Connected Baby, Acting up, Angus Alive, Angus Community Team and CAMHS. These partnerships yielded new learning for us all. We learned from and with others and found ways we could and could not work together.
One of the benefits of this “communication blitz” was, soon after the first screening and Headteacher blogs, several parents with expertise in the care profession immediately stepped forward to offer their precious time to become involved with the school on a far deeper level. We had already tried the “usual” approaches of asking for volunteers via text or newsletter but the strategic approach we took in attempting to connect with the wider community by using different media channels paid off.
We also wanted to learn about the biology of behaviour so we could help remove stressors for children and families, identify skills deficits and meet learners needs. We have since learned about relate, rupture, repair cycles, trauma and hormonal responses to stress, how to promote healthy chemical responses (you’ll see lots of handshakes and hugs) and the self regulation system (you’ll also see the odd teddy bear and sabre tooth tiger). We don’t run around in white coats yet … we do have coats though it’s freezing … but we do now talk like scientists in team meetings on occasion …
We have asked you (parents) to leave your mobile phones in your pockets at collection time (the response has been amazing) and our staff run check outs at the end of the day … every day across the school to support a calming end to the day. Our school bells have gone or at least been silenced. All classes have been taught yoga, mindfulness and relaxation. We are, in effect, building a toolkit which every engineer possesses, it’s just ours are “imagineers” and there are close to 500 of them, all learning about the brain and biology.
We have noted an increase in parents having the confidence in us to share their anxieties around parenting and accept our support this year. This has seen parents dropping in for informal chats, noticeably increase. The words “trouble with transitions”, “self regulate”, “behaviour is communication” usually come up. We are not experts, but we are very good at listening and we can share what’s working in school to help you with your journey as a parent. Our workshops run by Dr Zeedyk have been nothing short of compelling as families come prepared to engage, with an honesty which has humbled and inspired all our staff in equal measure. We will be running a further two opportunities in this series before the summer.
Children have attended drama therapy to address concerns they have had with the pressure of growing up in our community and role play alternative endings to challenges they have faced. The children’s voice has been the driver in creating these sessions, facilitated by Mrs Smiles. We have also been supported by our local Catholic church, St Anne’s, giving us the space we need to ensure children are operating within groups and sessions, created so they can share openly. The feedback from the children around the wellbeing outcomes these sessions are generating are very positive indeed.
Every child now knows how to use their breathing count sticks (beads and pipe cleaners) in times of stress. Breathing is now something that doesn’t just happen; it can be noticed and controlled to help us feel better in times when we feel anxious.
We have amended our behaviour policy to remove “red cards” which perpetuated conflict and this was influenced by relationship and our new learning. We have written a children’s story on overcoming trauma and adversity which we hope will be published to promote new learning across the community called “The Little Iceberg.” We run tai chi classes weekly for children and staff and have even started staff circuit lunchtime clubs and Zumba.
Some of our children are now yoga ambassadors and support others to learn the different stretches. We have a large team of peer mediators who support younger children and older children are timetabled to attend and play with younger children in toddlers and nursery each week. Throughout the school older children read to younger children to help raise their attainment and connect. All our classes run check-ins three or four times a day.
We have created a new charter which hangs in every classroom and our reception area … “Dear children … we care about you … we will listen … you matter … ” Kitbags are used across the school to help children talk to one another about their feelings. We have a number of children who run kitbag sessions with children, for children. A number of our parents “borrow” our kitbags to take home to use to problem solve with their children over weekends.
The school staff talks with any child who appears in a distressed state using the same vocabulary and key phrases which we share in an ongoing way with parents.
We have created opportunities for children to work on social skills targets as part of outdoor learning. So whether it’s boat building or orienteering, children are learning how to overcome their barriers to learning through feedback before, during and after their outdoor experience.
We are one of the few schools in the United Kingdom teaching Mandarin Chinese to all our children every week throughout the school. This has shown the importance of learning to communicate and learn beyond our own culture. We have three gardening projects underway to promote wellbeing.
We have over twenty five parents consistently volunteering on a weekly basis across the school to support children’s learning and wellbeing. We have started our own food and clothing bank to support our own community.
We have ensured every child has two consistent key adults they can work and talk to every week across every class. Best of all, we will continue to find ways we can all work together to promote wellbeing.
Our meeting room doubles as a wellbeing hub on a Wednesday with Women’s Aid running groups to support children – we even provided beanbags to sit on.
We wanted to create networks within our community who could support others. We realise the most powerful force in our community is our families. We have established a core of twenty five parents who have attended more than two of our sessions delivered by Dr Suzanne Zeedyk on building children’s resilience. Our core group of parents continue to support our work and influence other parents as a network of support.
We wanted to give parents and partners confidence in our vision so they would contribute to guiding coalitions (planning teams) to promote wellbeing. We now have over ten parents and partners involved in our improvement planning for next session.
We wanted to reach out into the community and work with others to provide an improved offer to the community. We have begun planning opportunities with community teams to turn our school into a “family hub” focussing on adult learning, family learning, youth work and English as an additional language support.
NHS Tayside is delivering professional learning for all staff in our cluster of schools in March and Dr Zeedyk will return in February to continue our own staff journey into neuroscience and rejoin our team.
We wanted to support parents learn more about biology and bring parents together to talk. We are preparing to launch a community cafe to help parents in our community connect. This will require support from parents and will run in and around the days the toddler groups we support aren’t using the space. Our “grab a bagel” breakfast initiative will ensure all of our children have a breakfast each morning to prepare them to be ready to learn.
We wanted to identify and close any poverty related gaps in attainment which existed. We continue to work hard in all our core subjects improving our evidence of children’s outcomes and progress so we can engage parents and continue to work together to raise attainment. We created a team of four principal teachers to develop “how we do learning & teaching” at Burnside … who have excelled and pushed the school further than anyone thought imaginable in their first year of working.
So by collaborating with our staff, partners, parents and children the future is bright because it must be … it is the only way out of the gloom which the shadow of adversity casts. Biology of behaviour matters as long as there is a rise and a fall in all of us … it matters.
And of course it’s still one of the most positive places to learn and work … and you will hear lots of laughter … lots … and see lots of smiling faces … and lots of handshakes, high fives, high tens and hugs … it really is the best medicine …
Thank you for reading this …