The 5 Essential Elements To Support Pupil Mental Health And Wellbeing With Alison Waterhouse

The 5 Essential Elements To Support Pupil Mental Health And Wellbeing With Alison Waterhouse

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Can a pupil really learn about emotions from watching a baby interact with their parent? Starting at the very beginning could be the answer!

In this School Behaviour Secrets episode, we interview Educational Psychotherapist, Alison Waterhouse. Together, we explore the 5 key skills needed for positive mental health and wellbeing and she discusses this unique project - Circles For Learning.

Important links:

Visit Alison's website Circle for learning here

Get our FREE managing strong emotions guide: here

Join our Inner Circle membership programme: Inner Circle

Download other FREE behaviour resources for use in school: Free SEMH resources

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Show notes / transcription

Alison Waterhouse  0:00  

I wonder why our baby went and sat back on mom's lap? Why did the baby turn around to check in with mom? Why did they do different things that you're watching them do? How do you think they felt when that shape wouldn't fit in the shape sorter? And that allows the children to observe and start to make connections with what they're seeing and what that young baby might be feeling or experiencing. For some children. That's as far as it goes. But for many others, they can then do the next leap, which is thinking about themselves.

Simon Currigan  0:31  

Hi there. My name is Simon Currigan and welcome to the school behaviour secrets podcast. Warning enjoying this podcast is a bit like experiencing a persistent tingle in your right arm. It's an uncomfortable warning sign that there's something deeply wrong in your life. I'm joined today as ever by my co host, Emma Shackleton. Hi,Emma. 

Emma Shackleton  1:28  

Hi, Simon.

Simon Currigan  1:29  

And before we get to the show today, I'd like to kick things off by asking you a question. 

Emma Shackleton  1:34  

Go for it go on 

Simon Currigan  1:35  

Easy one this week, you should just be able to rattle an answer to this out very, very easily. When you became a mum, did it change the way you approached the professional job of teaching in any way? 

Emma Shackleton  1:46  

Oh, yes, that is an easy one. I think the first thing that springs to mind was in a purely practical sense, I had to get really really good at juggling and managing my time even more effectively. So for example, where perhaps I might have spent ages thinking about a particular lesson and creating resources. Being a working mum meant that had less time to do that out of work. And you've got to remember that when I started teaching and you Simon, we didn't use PowerPoints or interactive whiteboards. We used to spend a ridiculous amount of time drawing our own worksheets with an actual pen

Simon Currigan  2:29  

By candlelight.

Emma Shackleton  2:30  

So I had to learn to focus more on the importance of the learning in the lesson and cut down on making the resources quite so pretty I guess. Just a quick story I vividly remember before I had my son, taking my whole class of children's artwork home and double mounting everybody's work. It took about two hours on a Saturday morning and then I proudly went into work on the Monday and displayed it all. Once I became a mum, I realised I haven't got time to do that anymore. Although don't get me wrong. I still worked a lot of hours at home as many teachers do whether or not they've got children. But I quickly realised that although that had made a lovely display, it probably wasn't adding anything at all to the children's actual education. So I guess the short answer is I learned to focus more on the important stuff and let some of the surplus stuff go. Okay, why do you want to know what's the link to this week's podcast?

Simon Currigan  3:30  

Well, I asked because this week, we're going to share my conversation with Allison Waterhouse. Now, Harrison is an educational psychotherapist who has been doing some really interesting work around social and emotional learning with children of all ages, both primary and secondary. It's a really fascinating programme actually, she runs a Circles for Learning project that gets students to observe the interaction between a real mother and baby in the classroom, and then use their observations as the basis to learn about social interaction, emotions and relationships.

Emma Shackleton  4:03  

Oh, wow, that sounds really different. Quite thought provoking. But before I press play on that interview, I've got a quick favour to ask our listeners. If you're enjoying this podcast, please, could you take 30 seconds to leave us an honest rating and review on your podcast app that will tell the algorithm to show school behaviour secrets to more podcast listeners, which means that we get to help even more teachers, students and parents just like you. And now here's Simon's interview with Alison Waterhouse.

Simon Currigan  4:35  

I'm very excited to welcome my guest Alison Waterhouse to the show. Allison has worked with children with additional educational needs for the past 22 years in both mainstream and the private sector and other educational settings. She was the founding head of an independent therapeutic special school and is a trained educational psychotherapist. She's also worked as a Senco and inclusion manager and teacher in charge of social and emotional well being. In 2013, Alison became concerned by the amount of children that she was seeing struggling with challenges around mental health and well being. And so the circles for learning project, which we'll talk about today was born. Alison is also an author, and has written the mental health and wellbeing teachers Toolkit, which is a series of five books published by Routledge, and her next two books will focus on ways to weave wellbeing into the literacy curriculum. Alison, welcome to the show.

Alison Waterhouse  5:28  

Thank you, Simon. It's lovely to be here.

Simon Currigan  5:30  

It's a pleasure to have you. So we're here to talk about Circles for Learning today. So what are the aims of the Circles for Learning programme? What does it set out to achieve for young people?

Alison Waterhouse  5:40  

The aims of the project are twofold. One is for the young people. And so that's about building positive foundations for mental health and well being. So all those skills that underpin mental health and well being and then also focuses on work with teachers. So there's a lovely quote by Desmond Tutu, "there comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river, we need to go upstream and find out why they're falling in". And if you like, that was the catalyst for me to think about what needed to happen for children in schools that will prevent me having to see them as an educational psychotherapist years later. So what we're looking at is those five key areas. So relationship, emotional literacy, understanding self, the brain, learning and behaviour and of course, skills for learning. And we know from research that they're really important areas that underpin everything that we do, from a staff point of view, it's developing their knowledge in each of those areas, so that they can weave them into their classroom practice, and therefore help children develop them gradually as they go through school, rather than just an intervention at a certain point when there's a problem. 

Simon Currigan  6:47  

So this is about addressing the issue that children have underlying needs that are causing them to struggle socially and emotionally. Yeah,

Alison Waterhouse  6:55  

Yeah, that's right. Exactly. Right.

Simon Currigan  6:56  

So what was the spark that led you to develop this approach? In the introduction, we said in 2013, you you became concerned by the amount of children you were seeing, but you know, what was the genesis of this?

Alison Waterhouse  7:05  

Okay, it's a really good question, because I think the spark started a long time ago, just quietly burning inside, and different things have fed it. So the first bit was working in a therapeutic special school, when relationships are key to everything we did that relationship, manage the behaviour and manage the learning. After that, or while I was doing that I was training at the Tavistock where I did a baby observation. And I was privileged enough to watch a parent and young child for two years, once a week for two years, and therefore that fed that spark about how powerful that could be. Then I was back in mainstream school, and I was running work discussion groups with TAs and teachers and their interest in attachment and understanding behaviour added to that spark and fueled it a bit more. And then one day while I was sitting, having a cup of coffee, the thought entered my head, and it all went boom, so to speak. And it was sort of like what would happen if I brought a parent and young child into a classroom? What would be the impact of that? Could I use that as a way of engaging teachers and children and helping them think about what was going on and how to build those skills. And that's when the adventure began, really. And so that's what we did tried it out to see what happened. 

Simon Currigan  8:18  

Okay, so that brings us neatly on to what does the Circles for Learning session look like when it's running in school?

Alison Waterhouse  8:25  

Okay, well, the first thing is, it sparks amazing interest because people aren't used to working with a baby and a parent in a classroom. So all of a sudden, everybody gets curious. And everybody talks. So when you run it in school, everybody drops by to see what's going on, parents start talking, and everybody wants to know, Well, why is this happening? What's going to happen from it? So you've got everybody captivated to start with, then what happens is before they can run the project in their classroom, teachers need to do one or more of the online courses that we've got. And we've got a course for each of those five key areas. Once they've done that, then they're coached and mentored throughout the first year to set up the project and to run it and to think about the follow up activities they would need to do with the children in the classroom. So we do that then there are five resource books available, which we've talked about, which are the mental health and well being teachers toolkit. So again, one for each area. But the most exciting bit, of course, is when that parent and child comes into the classroom. And they come in once a month for a year. And so the children get to know the little one, their class babies, they call them, they get to watch them, they get to watch emotions happen, they get to watch learning unfold, they get to watch how a child starts to build an image of themselves through their interactions with others. And it becomes a really exciting thing that as a teacher, you can follow up depending on your class cohort and what they need. So there's a huge bit there. It's not a pre written course that you have to follow lesson one, lesson two, that's why the mentoring is in place so teachers can think about where they're class also need to do some work, what's the deficit and start to build on that, and then start to do those follow up lessons to allow children to build those skills.

Simon Currigan  10:08  

So we invite a mother or a dad and baby into the classroom, presumably, then there's some focus around this. There's some discussion work with the children with your class before the adults and the baby comes in. Can you give us a concrete example of what one of those focuses might be? Then what the observation looks like? And then the reflection afterwards? 

Alison Waterhouse  10:27  

Yeah, of course. So the work that you do before the baby and mum or dad come into the classroom is thinking about observing and what it might be like to be that little one in the middle of a big circle of children. So you're thinking about observations and what you learn through those observations. When the child thing comes into the classroom as the lead practitioner, the adult running the session, what you're doing is asking lots of questions. I wonder why our baby went and sat back on mom's lap? Why did the baby turn around to check in with mom? Why did they do different things that you're watching them do? How do you think they felt when that shape wouldn't fit in the shape sorter and that allows the children to observe and start to make connections with what they're seeing and what that young baby might be feeling or experiencing? For some children. That's as far as it goes, that's where they say is observing that young child, but for many others, they can then do the next leap, which is thinking about themselves. When I do that, when I feel that this is what I do. I felt that when so now you start to open up amazing conversations with children. And it's really inclusive, because of course, those children with the skills can start to share with those children who haven't yet developed them. And we know that children learn from each other far more than they learn from us as adults. And they're absolutely captivated by this little one in the classroom. And they're now starting to wonder what will happen next time? How they ask questions of the parent? How are you going to manage that? What do you do when they do something that you don't want them to do? All of those questions start to happen. And as the facilitator, you can start to point out those emotions that lead to the behaviour that leads to how you manage it. And that's then starts to come back into your classroom, when you can start to do the same with the children you're teaching.

Simon Currigan  12:16  

This sounds like it would be particularly powerful for children affected by adverse childhood experiences and trauma, can you tell us a little bit about their reactions and the impact you see for them?

Alison Waterhouse  12:27  

So I've done several research projects now. And each one has sort of led us or led me to another way of thinking or developing the project a bit further. I'll talk about those later on, perhaps. But for those more vulnerable children, they stay with what they're observing with the child. Yeah, so that's where they say they're not quite ready often to talk about themselves. But as practitioners, we know, when they're saying, I think the baby is feeling that actually, that's their projection. And that's what they would be feeling. So it starts to allow us to see where they are on that development of the social and emotional learning aspect of things. And what we need to do to put the next step in for them to allow them to grow. And to develop further. What they're then doing is they're starting to talk about themselves or thinking about themselves. And it allows them to think about people who've been important in their lives, situations that have been important for them, and allows them then to think about those things with a trusted adult, because they're only going to do it with somebody that they trust. And this sort of work builds that trust within a classroom environment. So it starts to a bit have an effect on the classroom environment, not just on the teaching. Does that help?

Simon Currigan  13:39  

Absolutely. Yeah. We've talked about how the children observe and the teacher sort of asks open questions to provoke thought about the kids and the relationship between the baby and the parent, what's going on at a deeper level through that observation in terms of helping them develop positive relationships, emotional literacy and self esteem. How does it work? Yeah, that's the question I'm asking, but actually what's going on at a deeper level,

Alison Waterhouse  13:59  

Okay to think about that it might be good to give you some examples of some work that I've done with children in the classroom. So if we start with relationships, I was working with a year three, four group of children primary school children, our class baby was Baby Anna. She was very shy and very anxious. And she visited us one day after a rather exciting assembly, so I wasn't sure how it was going to go because the class were quite a bubbly class. I wasn't sure how that was gonna go. But I was really amazed because the moment Anna and her mom walked in the class just completely quieten down, they adjusted their voices, they adjusted how they were talking, you know, to each other as well as waiting for Anna to come in. It was just amazing to watch them adjust everything for this little one that was coming into their classroom. Then what happened was mom bought out a big orange ball and the children of course are really excited because they knew they were going to get to play a game with Anna so that the buzz went up a bit but then one of the children reminded the others about how it would feel for an or if everybody was shouting at her, asking her to roll the ball to them. And of course, it just completely quiet and down again, Anna then got the ball. And she made eye contact with one of the children and waited for them to sort of sit up and show her that they were ready. And then she rolled the ball to them. And then they mirrored that behaviour back to her. So they held the ball made eye contact and got ready to roll it back to her. And then she started to do that around the circle. So my question to the children having watched this start to develop was, what did they think Anna was learning? I wanted to see whether they noticed all the things that were happening. So yes, they had because they noticed that she was making eye contact, she was learning to read faces, she was learning to read body language, she was making connections with them. But she was also learning how to take turns. So it was very clear that they were observing and noticing what was actually happening in the classroom. So they got to see relationships in action, they actually got to watch it happen, and they could see their part in it. So it was really important if we move on to the other one that we talked about, which was emotional literacy. Another example of that I've got is working in a year four or five class primary school again, this time, our class baby was Emma, she always took a while to settle. She was fine when she did, but she liked to sit on mom's lap. And we knew that she was ready to interact when she climb off and sit on the floor. And the children would always wait for this and a couple of them timed it to see if it got shorter, the more she got used to us. And they found it did. So that became quite an interesting talking point. So anyway, she sat on the floor, mum got out another big ball. But Emma knocked it and it rolled away from her and they watched her face completely crumble tears well up, you know, looked back at mum. So we were able then to take that one short observation and expand it a bit further later on in the class follow up sessions. So we looked at how do we self regulate? What do we do? How do we manage that? And we talked about what we did when we're your very little thumb sucking or dummies or or teddy bears or whatever what we do now. And then also not only that, how can we change our state? So if we're feeling sad or upset, how can we change that so that we can actually feel better about things we did thermometer about angry, so really angry at the top not so angry at the bottom, and we looked at all the different words and put them in the sort of order that we felt they should go in. And we looked at then what we did at each point to bring ourselves back down. And of course, some children are really good at managing those big emotions, whereas others aren't. And then of course, it became a talking point about where you could try this. Or you could try that they started to become really more supportive to each other and understand that sometimes somebody was angry, and they needed to walk away and let them calm down. So because it developed emotional literacy, but it also developed their relationships because they started to help each other and be supportive of each other. And that became really important.

Simon Currigan  17:58  

So it's, in some sense, a reflection of if you're watching a young child develop the skills, you're learning about your own development and the development of those around you. Is that the kind of...

Alison Waterhouse  18:08  

Yeah, absolutely. And you're starting to make links to how you feel and how you behave. So now we've got cause and effect. So now we can build on that. So one of the big things that I made a decision about write early on was I thought perhaps I needed specialist teachers to run it. But the heads I was working with were all absolutely adamant, absolutely not, and rightly so. Because what they pointed out is if you have a specialist teacher who comes in to do this, that specialism walks out the door, the moment they leave, if you train our staff to do it, then that specialism stays in school and it starts to filter down because people are interested, they pop by to watch the session to see what happens. And it starts to become a catalyst for their thinking about behaviour and what that might mean. And therefore what the child's need is because you're looking at a young one, it's not difficult to extrapolate it up to much older ones. And that's where it sort of happened really. So it was very much about training the staff to be able to have the confidence to run this in schools themselves not to bring a specialist in to do it. 

Simon Currigan  19:10  

So in terms of progression, especially actually, how do you implement circles for learning as part of a whole school approach because presumably, the reactions and the planning you need to do for EY Fs kids will be different to Key Stage One to Key Stage Two to Key Stage Three to key stage four. So what does it look like as a whole school approach?

Alison Waterhouse  19:27  

Okay, well, that's one of those books came in you say because teachers are saying we don't have enough lesson plans to go with the follow up for this. It takes us too long to find them. So therefore what I did was put them all together in one place. So each of the five books go for key stage one, Key Stage two and key stage three, so you can move them depending on where you're teaching them what your children need. Personally, I got fed up when I was teaching of buying three books every time I needed to do something. So that's why I created just one book and people can adapt it they can take a Key Stage Two lesson then but use it for key stage three, because they can fit it to their children. There's something about teachers have the professionalism to be able to do this. And it's sort of reminding them of that and saying you're perfectly good at knowing your children and knowing what they need. I'll give you the materials and now you can use them. But if I go back to your question, which was whole school approach, it fits in really well, because if we take the emotionally healthy school model, where we've got six areas, a plus the bit about it having to come from leadership, the moment a school senior leader decides to bring this project into school, that shows if you like that they're serious about mental health and well being and building the skills that underpin it, that they're not just wanting to deal with the problems that they've got through school counsellors or referrals, they want to actually make a difference and see why they need to make a difference in school, if we take that bit. And then we take the next one, which is developing the curriculum. It's got all the lesson plans there, nobody needs to do anything, you can find the lesson plan, you want to run with your children, staff development. That's what the five online courses are all about staff development, working with parents, well, you've now got 30 children going home and talking to parents about a baby in their classroom, parents are interested, they now want to know more. So now you've got a conversation going about the importance of building those skills for mental health and well being and how is the school you're going to do this and working alongside parents. So you've now captured everybody's interest. Targeting support. That's why the assessments come in. So there's loads of assessments out there. When I've done the projects, I've used the emotional literacy assessment from Southampton educational psychology service, I think it is. So that's a really good baseline assessment. I've also used the effective Lifelong Learning inventory from Bristol University, which talks about learning, that's a great one to use. Because I'm an educational psychotherapist, I've used the butler self esteem. So that really helps. So again, if they're measuring wellbeing, now they can focus on to one of those five key areas that you want to develop identifying need and monitoring impact. There's your measuring again, and looking at how you're going to do it, testing it at the end. And then ethos, we've talked about the fact that this impacts on the environment, the classroom environment, the children become more supportive, they become more watchful of each other, they become more respectful of each other, they start to celebrate each person's individuality rather than how they fit in to the things that you're doing in school. So it fits in really, really well.

Simon Currigan  22:27  

How do the parents react when they're bringing their children in? Do they have any concerns? Or are they just excited to share the child with the world? Or how do they feel about it?

Alison Waterhouse  22:34  

You ask. You ask parents within the community. So if the teacher is going to do it, they go and find one parent that they feel might bring a toddler, a little one into the classroom. So my first parent ever was my ed psych. And her baby who was nine months old, she brought her into school, and she did it, she was so excited by it that she became part of it. My second mom that I use was a speech and language therapist, because of course, it was a real interest for her to watch what happened and how the children interacted. So most parents once there are so delighted, and they love it, because they're learning things as well. A lot of schools use teachers who've been part of their school, or that they know or parents that they know really well, but they love it. 

Simon Currigan  23:16  

What's been the impact on the children that you've worked with?

Alison Waterhouse  23:19  

Okay, so the first one I did was with six schools in East Sussex with six teachers running it within their own classroom, each classroom developed things very differently, because they were following the needs of their children, the outcome that we found. So one class was an infant class, so is a year two class and they were getting ready to do transition. So their class teacher and the children rewrite their transition policy. And what they developed was transition champions. So children who didn't mind change, supported those who did mind change. So that was a really lovely piece of work that came out of that. With another school, they really loved the profiles that were created. And so they developed a language around learning and they developed learning conversations between the class teacher and the children every term to look at what was happening with their le profile. So that was a really exciting thing. And then another class was a year six class where there were quite a few behaviour challenges and what they then noticed and what we recorded was there was a reduction in behaviour incidents. There were much better relationships between children. But interestingly, there were much better relationships between the adults and the children to the next project I did was across two primary schools with an executive head who had run the project in her own school as a class teacher. She then became an executive head she then ran it across two schools. So we trained the whole staff team, and what we found was again, we did those assessments, but we found 89% of the children became more self aware. 86% increase self regulation 87% demonstrated greater empathy and 91% and improve social skills. And they had a 38% reduction in behaviour incidents just within the classrooms that were running it compared to their sister classroom. So to speak. From a staff point of view, they were having much more professional conversations about children, because they were looking at behaviour as the communication of need, the head found that she was getting feedback from outside professionals they were working with about the standard of the conversations they were having about children within the school. So that was really great. The last project I did was a secondary school one, that's where I did my masters. So I looked at five secondary schools because I thought, well, what's going to happen if I put this in secondary schools, so I asked for volunteers, and I found five teachers who really wanted to run it in their schools. So I had a SEMH school, a school for profound learning difficulties, a mainstream secondary school, a mainstream secondary school with a behaviour unit, and then a special school, the special school had to drop out. So I ended up with the four schools, what we found there was a 41% increase in self esteem, a 57% increase in learning relationships, a 50% increase in social skills, 57% increase in self regulation, 46% increase in self awareness and a 46% increase in emotional literacy and a real impact on teachers understanding behaviour and managing behaviour within their classroom. But also the feedback to them was that it seemed to give them permission to deal with emotions in their classroom. And because they dealt with it, they were really surprised because they thought they'd lose teaching time. But because they dealt with those emotional issues, what they found was when they got teaching time, it was much more productive. So they actually didn't lose out on anything at all. So it was really fascinating.

Simon Currigan  26:49  

This was like the key that unlocked teaching time during the rest of the week.

Alison Waterhouse  26:52  

Absolutely. Yeah,

Simon Currigan  26:54  

Absolutely fascinating, a really interesting approach and youre clearly getting great results from from the project. 

Alison Waterhouse  27:01  


Simon Currigan  27:01  

If you're a teacher, a school leader, listening to this podcast, what's the first step you can take today to learn more about implementing this kind of approach?

Alison Waterhouse  27:08  

Okay, get in touch, I like to talk to people, I really love the project, you know, it really is very important to me because of the impact it can have. So get in touch, they can get in touch through my website, the circles for learning website, or I'm on LinkedIn, and they're very welcome to message me on LinkedIn if they would like to, and just say, Please, can we talk to you? And I'd be saying, yes, of course,

Simon Currigan  27:29  

I'm finally restless of all our guests, who's the key figure that's influenced you. But what's the key book that you've read that has the biggest impact on your approach to working with kids?

Alison Waterhouse  27:38  

Okay, this is a good one, because I don't have a key figure, I have a whole variety or whole collection of children. It's the children that I've worked with over the years that have taught me more than anything else. They've taught me how to support them, they've taught me how to be a better teacher, how to be a better educational psychotherapist, what they need and why they need it. So I think it's observing and reflecting and interacting with the children has been the biggest influence on the work that I do. As for a book, I chose a book as well, which was really hard, because I've read a lot and it's been each time you read something, you take something away from it, and you can go back to books and read again and again, and gain more and more. But if I had to choose one book, I think it would be Containment and Reciprocity by Hazel Douglas, which I think because they're two really, really important concepts that have such an impact on relationships. And for me, relationships are key to all the work I do. So that would be my book.

Simon Currigan  28:37  

Alison, thank you for being on the show. It's been absolutely fascinating to learn about your approach. And I'm sure lots of our listeners are going to want to find out more. 

Alison Waterhouse  28:44  

Lovely, thank you so much, Simon.

Emma Shackleton  28:46  

So that was really different, really innovative, but when Alison explains it, you can see how it totally makes sense. And you can see how bringing in a real mother and baby into the classroom would really get the kids engaged.

Simon Currigan  29:00  

And of course, I'll drop a direct link to Alison's website into the show notes so you can find out more

Emma Shackleton  29:06  

And if you're working with children who have difficulty with their emotions, we've got a free download that can help.

Simon Currigan  29:12  

It's called How to help children manage anger and other strong emotions, and it will take you through one approach called Emotional scaling to help your students improve their emotional awareness and better regulate emotions like anger, anxiety and fear.

Emma Shackleton  29:27  

This resource is full of practical techniques and even gives you resources to print out and use directly with your students. All you need to do to get the guide is visit click on the free resources section near the top and you'll find it near the top of the page. Remember, it's called How to help children manage anger and other strong emotions. And we'll also put a link in the episode description.

Simon Currigan  29:54  

And if you found today's show interesting or valuable, then don't forget to subscribe so you never miss  each episode, all you have to do is open up your podcast app and press the subscribe button. It's completely free. Subscribing will make you feel as happy as a queen ant that's just squeezed out her 100 1000s egg. Certificate time.

Emma Shackleton  30:15  

That's all we've got time for today. I hope you have a great week and we can't wait to see you next time on school behaviour secrets. Bye

Simon Currigan  30:23  


(This automated transcript may not be 100% accurate.)