Supporting children’s mental health through storytelling

Supporting children’s mental health through storytelling

The transition to primary school can be a difficult time for young children. Storytelling can play a huge part in preparing them for this transition. Research carried out by the National Literacy Trust shows that children who are the most engaged with literacy are three times more likely to have high levels of mental wellbeing than children who are the least engaged.

"If children feel physically and emotionally safe, they will naturally want to learn." - Michelle Cunningham, Fellow

Fellows Michelle Cunningham (CF 2014) and Olivia Richards (CF 2016) are working together on a project that combines their Fellowship knowledge in order to support the mental health of children as they prepare to start primary school. We asked them about their ideas and hopes.

Tell us about yourselves.

MC: I am a 2014 Fellow who travelled to the USA to learn behaviour support strategies for children and young people who are looked after. Professionally, I specialise in training foster carers, children’s residential staff and early help colleagues in behaviour support, attachment, and child development for a local authority. After I had my children, I decided to create a blog called raising2children to share evidence-based research on therapeutic parenting strategies.

OR: I’m the Wellbeing Lead Teacher at St Paul’s Church of England Primary School. For my 2016 Fellowship I travelled to the USA and Canada to learn about how reading and writing can be used to support children’s mental health. As a result of my Fellowship I founded a social enterprise called The Story Project. The Story Project's mission is to provide teachers and parents with training and resources so they can use diverse and engaging stories to improve children's wellbeing, whilst also reinforcing literacy learning.

Can you tell us more about your project?

MC: Our experimental project entails stories and activities that help toddlers prepare for primary school, which was inspired by my son. It was my son’s last year in nursery and I started to wonder about the transition to school that all toddlers face. From a behaviour support viewpoint, any time of significant change means that children may feel additional stress, and therefore we could see an increase in stress-led, challenging behaviours. Evidence-based research allows us to think that if emotional regulation, resilience and pro-social skills are healthy, then a transition period would feel less scary. I discovered Olivia’s work on The Story Project after reading her blog on the Churchill Fellowship website. By the end of our first conversation, we had the idea to use children’s books that had a wellbeing message related to the skills my son needed for the transition to school. Olivia suggested books that I should read to my son and play activities that explored themes such as resilience. For the full breakdown on how it went, you can check out my post ‘Preparing for school.’

OR: When Michelle got in touch, I had started providing Story Project training and resources for primary school teachers to deliver in school. This was proving very successful, as 90% of teachers reported that they had seen an improvement in children’s wellbeing. Therefore I was very interested in Michelle’s ideas for how the work could be extended to support children before they even start school. One of the things that had been made clear to me, on my Fellowship, was that the earlier wellbeing education can be put in place the better. The Early Intervention Foundation recommends that the most effective age to teach wellbeing skills is age 2 to 7.

The positive experiences Michelle and her son had, when they started reading the books and trying out the activities, made us sure that this was something that needed to be shared further. I then worked with the EYFS (Early Years Foundation Stage) team at St Paul’s Primary School to share the stories and activity plans with our incoming parents. The feedback from these parents was similarly positive and it was really encouraging to hear how children were applying what they had learnt from the stories to their real lives, such as one child whose parent informed us that they “took a deep breath and climbed, like Jabari (a character from the recommended story Jabari Jumps) did.”

What do you hope your project will achieve?

MC: If children feel physically and emotionally safe, they will naturally want to learn. I hope that through the stories, our children can explore social skills, feelings and approaches such as mindfulness, to build resilience and pro-social skills to help with school. The stories we used worked brilliantly, and I feel it made a difference to my own son when he started school.

OR: Before children start school, parents are usually informed of the school-readiness skills that their children should have. However, there is not a lot of information available for parents to help them support their children to develop these skills. Therefore our aim for this project is to provide parents with practical ideas for developing these skills in a fun and engaging way.

How has your Fellowship influenced your project?

MC: My Fellowship was the catalyst to delve further into evidence-based research on child development, attachment, behaviour support, trauma and adversities. This in turn supports how I consider a therapeutic approach to supporting children and young people and parenting.

OR: On my Fellowship I had the privilege of visiting The Friends Center Pre-School in Connecticut, who were delivering the RULER programme, a social emotional learning programme developed by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. I observed stories with a social purpose being read to children as young as 2, and I witnessed how the children in this setting were displaying more developed social and emotional skills. Having this experience helped me feel confident that The Story Project approach would work with a younger age group.

How has it been beneficial to collaborate with another Fellow?

MC: There is an intangible mindset that Fellows demonstrate. Our interest and passion drive our work to make a difference. I’m amazed by Olivia’s work and her drive to continue her work. We have lots in common, which made collaborating very easy and worthwhile. We started very small, but over the year our conversations led to wider thoughts and plans. It may sound silly, but I found a teammate, someone to bounce ideas with.

OR: My work on The Story Project can occasionally be quite solitary, as I am the sole founder, so it is absolutely vital to take opportunities for collaboration. As soon as Michelle got in touch, I knew I had met a kindred spirit who completely understood the work I am doing and had great insight into how it could be applied in a different way. We both brought our own individual skills and experiences to the project idea and this made the project stronger overall.

What are your hopes for the future?

MC: Our project is going well. Olivia is working with my son's primary school, which we are hoping will extend to the cluster of schools in a specific geographical area. I’m talking to my younger son’s nursery to help prepare the transition as part of EYFS. I hope to engage parents as part of the process. Through my job, I want to include early help colleagues and libraries to create a small group of families whose children will be attending primary school. The aim will be to prepare the children for school, but the skills the children will learn are lifelong attributes.

OR: I am excited to be working with Michelle’s son’s primary school to bring The Story Project to Leeds. The school have shared our excitement and enthusiasm and it is great to see more children benefiting from this work. When I visited the primary school in Leeds, I also had the pleasure of meeting Michelle face to face for the first time. During this meeting we both had lots of ideas for further collaboration and supporting the more vulnerable families that Michelle works with. This year, I was awarded an Activate grant from the Fellowship, which is helping me to develop these resources further and to develop The Story Project website, which will make it easier to share the pre-school resources with schools around the country. This project is just the start of an exciting new way to support children’s wellbeing at the most crucial age.

If you would like to find out more about The Story Project and the resources mentioned, please contact Olivia at olivia@story-project.co.uk. If you would like to explore behaviour support strategies for parents and professionals, please contact Michelle at raising2children@gmail.com or visit raising2children.com.

Disclaimer

The views and opinions expressed by any Fellow are those of the Fellow and not of the Churchill Fellowship or its partners, which have no responsibility or liability for any part of them.

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