Learning to cope with life's challenges from an early age

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Childhood in 21st century Britain is not without its challenges.

Body image, exam stress and trying to fit in are just some of the issues our young people are dealing with - but lived out in today's selfie culture, across an ever growing number of social media platforms.

Children's health is regularly on the national agenda, but the emphasis is usually on issues such as obesity rather than mental health.

In Cumbria there are efforts to change that.

Working in local schools, the Carlisle-based World Health innovation Summit (WHIS) has been running sessions with primary-aged children focusing on emotional, rather than purely physical, wellbeing.

It aims to help children understand their feelings, how to express them and where to go for support when they need it.

Since its formation, the WHIS Kids operation has successfully run sessions with 750 primary schoolchildren, with hundreds more coming on board from September. They are also working to develop a secondary school programme and reach out to youth groups.

Gillene Sealby, who runs the sessions, said it is about helping them build up emotional resilience - a fundamental life skill that will help them to better cope with the challenges that come their way.

“WHIS Kids is about health and emotional wellbeing. It’s all about helping children to become more aware of themselves," she said.

“We talk about how they are feeling, their emotions and how they can self-manage those. It helps to build up resilience and makes them aware of the support that’s around them, who is there from them."

During her sessions, she uses the My Way Code mental health programme to underpin everything she teaches.

It takes the form of a six-week programme, which can currently be tailored to any class group, aged from four to 11.

To start, youngsters design and make their own colourful 'avacars' to represent themselves. Each day they place that car on a numbered road to show how they are feeling, with one being low and 10 being excellent.

Gillene starts each class with a short yoga-based warm up session, followed by some group work. This looks at different emotions, how they make you feel, and how the children can deal with them.

She urges children to think about warning signs of different emotions, such as anger, so they know how to recognise them.

They then discuss support networks, and who children can turn to in different scenarios, such as at home or school. There are also some relaxation sessions and linked creative projects.

One of the schools they have been working closely with is Lanercost Primary, near Brampton.

Headteacher Alison Clarricoats said WHIS Kids has been hugely beneficial to their children, helping them to better understand and deal with their feelings and boosting their wider education.

“I feel it’s started to give them a bit of understanding about their own emotional importance," she said.

“How they are feeling impacts on how their brain works. In school, we put a lot of focus on knowledge - but that goes hand in hand with children being happy and well balanced.

“This is about giving them the vocabulary to be able to talk about their own feelings. If we can understand our feelings we can identify warning signs, and then learn how to deal with them."

She stressed that school is not just about exams and Ofsted reports, but helping each child to grow as a person.

“Supporting their mental health should be part and parcel of the school. We are a Church of England School and those values really permeate through everything we do," she explained.

Sian Kellock, who teaches years three, four and five, said that if something happens during the day, a child will sometimes move their avacar along the road - giving both staff members and other pupils an indicator of how their mood has changed.

She explained that if a child scores their mood lower than a five, she will make sure she speaks with them informally at some point during the day.

"They only talk if they want to. They know they if they rate low I will approach them but I don't make a big deal about it. Sometimes it can just be that they've fallen out with someone or something hasn't gone quite the way they wanted.

"It makes us more aware of the children's emotional intelligence helps us become more in tune with them, as well as impacting on their learning," she said.

Martyn Blacklock has been involved with WHIS since August 2015.

Originally working in banking, he became disillusioned with the corporate world and retrained as a counsellor and yoga teacher.

It was at this point he met WHIS founder Gareth Presch, and the pair instantly clicked. "We had very similar values. I believe in working from the ground up, that everyone has a part to play.

"I'd been held back in my previous career, where it was overly bureaucratic and you didn't really get done, but this really stoked my passion," he said.

Initially Martyn's focus was on wellness for adults, but as that took off he wanted to do more to help children and young people. Together with Gareth he launched WHIS Kids.

Their first sessions were at Great Corby School, near Carlisle, using feedback to develop and enhance the programme.

He said the sessions are constantly evolving in response to comments from the children, teachers and parents.

"Getting Gillene on board has been brilliant. One of her suggestions was parent sessions, which is now part of the programme. This way they are speaking the same language at home and school," he said.

"We've got even more schools on board from September. We have worked with 750 children over 11 schools and it will soon be about 1,000 across 14 schools. We are also expanding into Copeland."

The WHIS Go secondary programme will launch in 2018, and they are working with young carer groups outside Cumbria.

Asked what he feels are the biggest issues facing young people today, Martyn said: "I think social media. It's bitter sweet. It is a huge fountain of knowledge for us to be able to explore and understand who we are. The downside is that it creates a false world.

"It's a double-edged sword. The culture we live in is trying to make everyone the same, to be the best at the same stuff.

"I hope that by working on self-awareness, we are helping to create a space where they can be who they want to be.

"We do it through a combination of physical and emotional work, in a fun way that's for everybody. It's not just for those who have issues. We don't want specialised classes. We recognise that every single child has a unique offering in the world and want them to explore that."

BLURB: Tomorrow - how Cumbria's older people can stay healthy, mentally and physically, through retirement.

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