Where is your happy place? I know it’s an unusual question to ask parents and education staff! Although, as we come to the end of an academic year, I know you’re all envisaging it.
I’ve made no secret of my own mental health difficulties over the years. Over the last couple of years I’ve started to write some blogs about dyslexia and mindfulness. In many ways, the help which I have sought has been so valuable in not only empathising with my leaners, who are often anxious or feeling challenged in every day life and education, also in helping them reflect positively and see their own progress and development. This might not be only in their reading and spelling but their general approach to education and day-to-day.
To be clear, I am not a therapist. However, I do feel that having your own difficulties allows a person to empathise and share the positive knowledge and experiences from their own journey.
I work with primary, secondary school students and young people making the transition to adulthood, who have complex learning differences. Although my reflections around this are not exclusive to young people, my adult learners often need to reflect and as professionals and parents, we also need to find our happy place!
Over the last few weeks, one of my learners has been experiencing lots of anxiety in general about their education. A 16 year old, who can see all their peers preparing for exams and their next stage of education. At the moment, this young person isn’t making the same transition, although they have made significant growth in their education and putting in place strategies to help themselves during times of anxiety.
The result for this young person has been difficulty attending or engaging in our sessions. The leaner made a mind map about their feelings and they have given permission to show it.
The learner looked at the problem in the middle and then mapped the negative and the positive response to that problem. One of the repeated areas of difficulty for this person is their motivation. When the learner explored their thoughts about motivation, they identified their inner critic was making an appearance again. As adults we can all identify with our own inner critic. Most of us have one, even the most confident of people. That inner critic was causing the learner to respond negatively and their days in school where becoming traumatic. Once we’ve gone down that road to self destruction, it can be hard to come back.
Firstly, it’s important for young people to know that we all have an inner critic. It might say different things to different people. It might say different things to us at different times, it might respond differently if we are in different circumstance, situations or with different groups of people. If you think about your own inner critic, what does it say to you and when does it speak the loudest? The problem with the inner critic is that it’s become so imbedded in the way we self talk, we don’t even notice we’re ding it. The negative words just spill out of our mouth on auto pilot. We usually then reinforce it when we are talking to others. Jokingly saying how we can’t do this, we are rubbish at that. Usually, we than all laugh and agree we are the same. As adults we are usually in a pretty poor habit of negative self talk.
What I’ve learned about my own inner critic is that she won’t stop talking. Sometimes the the things she says are useful but they are rarely valuable comments. There are times when the voice can keep me safe but usually she’s just keeping me in a place that is comfortable and not allowing me to progress, experiencing anything new, then allowing me to reflect on what I found, to make choices for the future. In other words, she’s kept me in a comfort zone for years, telling me the same negative story and it never gave me the opportunity to find out if she was right or wrong. This is very much how my learner is viewing themselves, negatively.
My learner also felt that everyone around them was viewing them negatively too. We spoke about other people providing positive affirmations. However, think back to that time when you put on a new outfit, started a new job or joined a new class for a hobby. No doubt everyone said, you look great, you’ll be fine, you’ll love the class. But honestly, you didn’t really believe them. Why would you, you know differently. At least your inner critic does! However, this is how we speak to students, friends or colleagues. We try to motivate them externally. When really, the inner critic will compete against our words all the time.
The point where we need to get out learners to (and probably ourselves) is self belief. We need to help show our learners how to identify that their negative belief systems are not true. That the voice of the inner critic serves no purpose. We need to show them the progress they have made and let them identify it themselves. We need to show them the small wins they have made. It doesn’t need to be they have spelled the word correctly. It can be they managed to approach a new piece of work more confidently or less anxiously.
My learner asked me for a positive affirmation about their progress. Of course I gave one. I also asked them to reflect on their own progress. They gave me an example of, ‘I know I can pass this next exam’. Which is great self belief. However, I then encourage them to look at why they knew they could. To break it down into the reasons why they knew that. We spoke about the education factors such as; I know I can read words at this level, I can write sentences and punctuate. We also spoke about the strategies. I know I can remain calm when presented with an exam questions that is unfamiliar, I know I am no longer afraid of taking exams, I know I can complete the work in good time, I am no longer afraid of being timed, I know my anxiety levels are low in exams now I have completed practice papers. Passing an exam is made up of many skills and our learners with complex needs often have many more hurdles to over come when working towards exams.
Silencing the inner critic totally isn’t necessarily possible, it’s going to start talking when we are tired and stressed. It’s again important for those we work with and care for to know that. It is possible to dilute it. It’s so very important that we all have self care and that we are kind to ourselves. I know during the times when I worked hard on my own problems, I viewed myself as an athlete. Not in the way I had a perfect body!!! (inner critic still present). In the way that if I did not ‘train’ every day, how could I possibly recover. Time factor was important. For me, I needed to mentally be in the right place by a certain date or what was the point. I was in fact told to train like this by therapists. I was told that when I failed, I wasn’t engaging. I was just point blank terrified of the task I’d been set. All this did was put me under pressure, make me keep placing myself in stressful situations to try to prove/disprove that I was ‘ready’ or ‘recovered’. Ultimately, most of these scenarios failed and only served to reinforce the inner critic, sitting on on my shoulder, providing so much negative talk. As an adult, I had a choice what I did. But actually, I wasn’t giving myself any choices. I was putting myself under immense pressure to perform and recover. In effect, by setting some goals for those we educate and care for, we are doing the same. This is without their own inner critic sending negative messages.
This is not to suggest that we don’t have goals but that we achieve them in a different way. The main thing I have discovered is that you can’t build on rocky foundations. Meaning, we can’t treat the symptom, without treating the person first. If we carry on only providing intervention and support for the presenting problem, it will continue to arise if you don’t get to the root cause, it just manifest itself in a different place or presenting way. I’ve read a lot about metacognition and in many ways what I’ve written about in this blog is in essence simply that. However, we do need to go that next step and look at the inner critic and belief systems.
Where is you happy place? .
Credit image from Integrated Learning Strategies
In order to tackle the problem about core beliefs, it works better if you are in a good place. To get there you need to be in a happy place, feeling good about yourself. Being kind to yourself, having ‘me time’, if only for 15 mins a day. I know I can hear everyone shouting at the screen, “I can’t even go to the loo on my own without being shouted”. However, you can’t run on an empty tank. We know we need it as adults and so do our young people. For me, my happy place is a spa day, listening to zen music, a walk next to a babbling brook, smelling the delicate spices of a honeysuckle or lilac blossom, listening to the birds, watching the changes in nature and scenery. For my learner, they enjoy working on a farm and probably due to their ASD, need that sensory feedback to feel ‘balanced’. We spoke about perhaps a physical happy place they enjoyed being. It can be difficult for some people to simply relax and imagine that place. The image above may be helpful to help start a conversation with younger people. It’s important to be able to feel balanced and safe within yourself. When we feel unsafe and anxious, we need to be able to find that place of safety in our own minds. Without that it’s difficult to make progress.