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Stress – A crisis of epic proportions

Stress - the modern plagueTwo days ago I had my first article published in the TES. For the last two days I have been inundated by messages from teachers telling me their stories and thanking me for letting them know that they are not alone.

There is a huge mental health crisis, not just our schools but our hospitals, our universities, among our children, bankers, lawyers… everyone is being affected.

Yesterday we were told that Diane Abbott, the Shadow Home Secretary, was being replaced due to a period of ill health. We haven’t been told officially that it is stress related but whatever you think about her policies (and this isn’t a political post), there are two things that I find very upsetting about this news.

The first is that we have become a society who, for reasons unknown to me, seem to think that anyone who is in the public eye is fair sport and ceases to become a person. Diane Abbott has been trolled online for weeks. Some of the comments about her after her recent interview with Nick Ferrari were absolutely appalling. No one deserves to be treated in such an inhumane way.

Secondly, I fear that she is just the latest in a long list of people, passionate about their work, to be toppled by stress. When we are under stress one of the first things that happens is that our prefrontal cortex shuts down. This is the part of our brains which controls reasoning and rational thought. It helps us retain facts for exams and is pretty much the part that we rely on most to help us look like intelligent creatures. When this shuts down, due to stress and anxiety, we struggle to retain facts and cannot create a rational argument.

Whether Diane Abbott is indeed off with stress or whether she has other underlying health issues will no doubt come out over the next few weeks but one thing that is for sure, she was under a lot of pressure during the interviews she has given recently and by vilifying her for being unable to form a coherent argument the public have only added to her problems.

I don’t know Diane Abbott. I don’t know much about her at all. But I recognise symptoms when I see them. I do know many teachers, nurses and other valuable professionals, who are all in the same mental state that I believe Diane Abbott to be in. They can’t think straight. They can’t eat. Can’t sleep. They are snapping a their children and not able to function about the basic necessities.

Something has to change, and quickly

We are killing the beating heart of our country by not supporting each other when we’re in need. When we see someone struggling and it affects our life our reaction seems to be “how dare you make my life more difficult” not, “how can I help you?”. We need to stop aiming for imaginary ideas of what the perfect life is and start learning to enjoy the life we have.

We need to start caring again. Really caring about each other. But more than that, about our neighbours, random people in the street, the environment, people in other countries… We have to care deeply to reverse the crisis that is happening in the world. We have seen amazing kindness and compassion in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Manchester and London recently. That is what we need to start offering to our nurses, our doctors and even our politicians. There is no point behaving so valiantly when we have devastating events but ignoring the ongoing pain in our society. That’s like a murderer convincing himself he’s a good person because he goes to church on Sunday. We have to unite and be consistent. Learn to see the signs of stress. When you see them, reach out your hand and offer help.

As Martin Luther King, Jr said:

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Please, be the light.

We’re Going on a Bear Hunt!

We're going on a bear huntI love “We’re Going on a bear Hunt”! I first came across the folk song as a Brownie in the early 80’s (I know I’m getting old!) when we we would sing it on coach trips and round the campfire. So when I started teaching in the 90’s and discovered that it had been made into a beautiful children’s book in the late 80’s I was delighted. It was one of my favourite books to read to classes when I was teaching. When I had my own children we would read it and sing it and sing it and read it. We went across Cannock Chase on our own bear hunts. There is something mesmerising about the repetitive onamatapoeic language. It is perfect for teaching children so many aspects of language.

Imagine my joy when I discovered that this wonderful story had been made into an animation. Even my daughter (who is now 12 years old) is excited about sitting and watching it on Christmas Eve with her cousin. (My niece is only 2 years old and the perfect excuse for us to watch it – if we needed one!).

Would you like a magical “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt” mindfulness lesson plan?

Given my love of this folk song and story I couldn’t resist creating a relaxation lesson plan for you. Classrooms all over the UK and probably the world, will be buzzing with the swishy swashy sound of teachers reading this magical story.

Treat yourself and your class to a wonderfully relaxing lesson. Teach them some mindfulness skills for life and have fun at the same time.

You can get your copy lesson plan for less than a cup of coffee, what are you waiting for?


Teachers: changing lives, forever, every day.

changing livesWhen I was 12 years old I was in our annual school musical, “Oliver”. I was a milkmaid. It was a role, but let’s be honest, not the most important character in the show, in fact, one of the only characters who has no impact at all on the plot. I did have to sing a couple of lines in “Who will buy?” with my good friend Becky but it was not a huge role.

Why am I telling you this? Well, it was during that week that my life was changed by the most unlikely teacher. Our head of CDT (as it was then) was a formidable man, he never smiled and was a true perfectionist when it came to the school productions. He created amazing sets, ensured that the lighting was perfect, the sound was impeccable, he worked with our local theatre as well as on shows at school, he knew what he was doing. Well, I was a shy and insignificant 12 year old, barely brave enough to stand on the stage, the proverbial rabbit in the headlights, every night.

One night Mr Stokes, that was his name, came storming into the gym (our “backstage”area) before the start of the show. He was fuming! He started shouting about how disappointed he was with everyone’s behaviour. How shambolic the production was and how if “everyone was as professional as Katherine Smith the show might have a chance”. In case you haven’t already guessed, Katherine Smith is my maiden name. Well, at the time I wanted to gym floor to swallow me up. I was mortified to have been singled out. Over time though, I realised a couple things; firstly, someone had noticed me and not just noticed me but noticed me for the right reasons, secondly, someone with such high standards, had held me up as an example of how “professional” everyone else should be.

That moment changed my life.

Life changing
With gratitude to my Dad for documenting my life so brilliantly in photo form. I am centre right, holding my bucket up and looking scared!

It sounds dramatic, but that recognition gave me the confidence to audition for a bigger part the year after and I continued auditioning for bigger and bigger parts until I was playing lead roles and I even went on to perform on stage at the London Palladium as an adult. I honestly think that that one comment had a huge impact on all those future events.

I have lots of examples of teachers who have influenced me and I’m proud to say that I have been contacted by not just ex-pupils, but also people I went to school with myself, over the years and been delighted to hear that people remember me for a small act of kindness which had an impact on them.

Why am I telling you all this?

Well, you are in a very privileged position. You can make a difference to countless children every day. The teacher who changed my life, Mr Stokes, never actually taught me but he had an impact. It might be a child you commend in the corridor walking to assembly or while you are playground duty. You can change lives.

We are approaching the end of another academic year. What can you do to make sure that you leave your children with something life changing to remember you by?

Well, here are a few ideas I had:

  • Make them a bookmark with a positive statement about them or a few positive words that you think of when you think of them: John is helpful, hardworking and a good friend. A laminated piece of paper could make all the difference.
  • Create an affirmation which you think will help them. An affirmation is a positive statement in the present tense to help you believe something you are currently struggling with. “I have beautiful handwriting and I always try my hardest” The beauty of this is that you are making the child feel good about something they may not be feeling very proud of.
  • Get all the children to write a positive sentence about each of their class mates and compile them and give the list of sentences to each child so they know what their peers really think about them.

I’m sure you can think of lots of lovely ideas yourself.

Remember, the times you have the biggest impact are probably the times you aren’t even aware of. You are doing an amazing job, never forget that.

  • I am now friends with Mr Stokes, he isn’t scary, I’m even allowed to call him Peter, and he had no recollection of these events and was genuinely surprised when I told him this story a few years ago.


How can we save our schools from drowning in assessment?

SATs stressAs I sit in my office this morning, enjoying an unexpected day of productivity (I was called for Jury Service this week but haven’t been required, yet), my mind keeps coming back to all the children and teachers sitting in classrooms this week in the middle of assessments.

My son is 7 years old and consequently is doing his Y2 SATs and honestly he isn’t even aware that they are happening. His teacher is doing an amazing job of staying calm and not letting the pressures impact on the children.

Unfortunately this just isn’t possible with the Y6 tests though as they have to be done in such strict exam conditions you just couldn’t possibly conceal them.

Teaching is widely reported to be one of the most stressful professions and it isn’t hard to see why. As one of our caring professions teachers have not just an obligation to provide the children in their class with an education but they also provide a wide range of social care.

Teachers are highly qualified professionals who spend years training to understand, not just the subjects they teach, but also; child development, child psychology, social expectations, assessment strategies, statistics, reporting, and much much more. Despite this we insist on testing the children in their classes to a borderline abusive level in order to, allegedly, check that the teaching is of a satisfactory standard. In addition to these tests the teachers assessments are scrutinised and then as if this wasn’t insulting enough, we send in OFSTED inspectors with 24hrs notice to check that they are doing their job properly on a day to day basis.

Don’t get me wrong, I am aware that there are some teachers who do not do a satisfactory job. As there are in all jobs. But all too often in teaching, the few instances of lower standards have been caused by mental anguish and unmanageable workload which has either led the teacher to fall out of love with the job or to suffer some form of breakdown, physically or mentally.

We are reading this week about children who have been reduced to tears by the Reading Tests (read the full article here: https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-news/sats-pupils-tears-after-sitting-incredibly-difficult-reading-test), children who are unable to eat, who haven’t been able to sleep. These are tell tale signs of fairly severe stress and anxiety and yet we are doing all this in the name of education.  This is not my idea of education, this is torture, both for the children sitting the tests and possibly more so for the teachers who are fighting their every instinct to teach to test and who know that they aren’t doing the best by the children in front of them.

Something has to change

AssessmentSomething has to change and quickly, before we lose all our best teachers either through stress or despair, and before we are responsible for a whole generation growing up with mental health issues.

I was delighted to see parents taking the law into their own hands last week and keeping their children at home for a day to enjoy the freedom of playing outside and having fun (more information here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-36149850), but although they did an amazing job of raising awareness of parental opinion, there has to be a long term solution.

“1 in 10 children and young people aged 5 – 16 suffer from a diagnosable mental health disorder – that is around three children in every class (1).”



One in ten school aged children. Three children in every class. And that is only diagnosable mental health issues. What about all the children who are doing an amazing job of hiding it? This figure is already far too high and with the current trends in education it can only get worse.

What can you do to help?

Whether you are a teacher, a student teacher, a TA, a parent, a childminder… whatever your association with children, you can make a difference.

It is important that we join together now to let our children know that scores, results and assessments are only a tiny part of who they are. There is so much more to a child than a test result. Let’s celebrate the personalities, the quirks, the many beautiful things which make our children unique. Let’s remind them that they are special and that they have a wonderful contribution to make to the world whether they come top of the class or not.

Let’s teach them about the many incredibly successful and intelligent people who did terribly at school but who changed the world beyond measure. Einstein is widely held to be one of the greatest minds the world has ever known but he failed miserably at school.

Most importantly let’s teach children how to cope with stress. If we can’t change the world they are growing up into, let’s give them so many tools to help them deal with that world that they can flourish despite it. If we can educate this generation in the importance of love, calm and compassion as well as subordinate clauses and vertices then maybe, just maybe, they can put right all the things that our generation seem to have messed up.


If you are concerned about yourself or the children you teach please get in touch with me and I will do all I can to help. I have a wonderful free ebook, which you can download by filling in the box below, which gives simple 5 minute activities suitable for all ages, and there are also some lesson plans for relaxation lessons available on my blog. Don’t forget my Resources page Which has lots of leSson plans, MP3s and worksheets to help.
There are also lots of ideas for relaxation in schools on my Teachers Pinterest board.

“Back to School” – Making returning to school stress free

“Worry less, smile more. Don’t regret, just learn and grow” – unknown

back-to-school-calligraphic-designs-retro-style-elements-typographic-concep_z16rC7Ou_L As the summer holidays begin around the world and our children grow up and move on it is a time of great excitement but also great anxiety for many. Particularly for children who are making the move from one school to the next, but even for those moving between classes, the idea of going back to school can be a daunting one. With over a million school aged children being treated for stress we need to be armed and ready for any issues which may add to the often unavoidable stresses our children now face.

For many a new school year is an exciting time of new school bags, pencil cases and shoes and they can’t wait to launch themselves into the challenges of the year ahead. For others it is a time of terrifying change, that fear of the unknown sets in and it can be paralysing. It is easy as a parent to forget that feeling of dread and brush it off with a “you’ll be fine” but for your child it is equivalent to an important job interview, that will last a whole year!

It is a time of many difficult questions…

What will the new classroom be like? Will the new teacher have different expectations? What if they don’t like me? What if they make me sit next to the child who picks their nose? The work will be too hard, I won’t find my way round, they won’t have the food I like… sounds pretty intense doesn’t it?

So how can we help our children to cope with all these changes?


This is the key to successful transition whether it is starting school, changing class or moving school. If possible familiarise your child with the school, visit as often as possible, (when moving to a new class all schools give the children a chance to have time in their new classroom). Make sure they know the new routine; What time is break/lunch? Where will they eat their lunch? Where are they allowed to go during break? And so on. The more they know about how the day will run the easier it will be to picture themselves going back to school.


Whether they are worried about academic performance, sports, reading aloud, making friends or how they will find their way round, reassurance that they will be great, and are capable of making this change is vital. Let them know that as long as they work hard you will be proud of them (avoid saying try your best because that is a difficult thing to comprehend and it could be argued you can always try a little more!). They will probably be with existing friends but if not try to get to know other children their age locally who will be in their year and arrange play dates over the holidays if possible.

Relaxation techniques

Simple breathing techniques can really help children to stay calm in difficult situations. Teaching simple methods, such as equal breathing (breathing in to a count of four and out to a count of four) instantly calms down the body’s fight or flight reflex and helps us regain control.

Sensory triggers

These are very powerful for children of all ages, even as adults we can smell our Mum’s favourite perfume and feel comforted. Choose a relaxing essential oil such as lavender or chamomile, sit and hold your child while letting them smell the oil maybe listen to some relaxing music, read a book together or watch a happy film. You can then recreate that feeling of security and comfort for them by giving them a tissue with the oil on to take to school or even putting a dab of it on their sleeve.

Preparing for any change can be daunting but if we are prepared, secure and have that secret smile that comes from the knowledge that we have a whole host of people on our team it becomes much easier. Make sure your child knows you will be there when the bell rings at the end of the day to share all their adventures and give them a hug if they need it and together you can get through anything.

For more information why not download my Back to School ebook which goes through the many causes of school anxiety and how to best handle it.