8 keys to improving children’s physical and mental well-being

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Children Wellbeing

Introduction

Children and young people are the future, and their physical and mental well-being will determine what this future looks like.  Yet the harsh and ever-present truth is that children are growing up and entering into a future, faced with challenges to their physical and mental health like never before.  If the goal is for all children to flourish, then we are heading in the wrong direction.   The Children’s Society have noted in their 2021 report that “7% of 10-15 years olds (an estimated 306,000 children) in the UK are not happy with their lives” (The Good Childhood Report) .  Children and young people deserve better, and we all have a responsibility, in one form or another, to enact change in children’s futures!  I believe that we need to start with ourselves and become aware of our own knowledge capacities in order to be the change makers we want to be.  If you want to challenge and grow your knowledge capacity to improve children’s physical and mental well-being and subsequent flourishing, then you are in the right place!

Background

In my full-time job as a Chartered Physiotherapist, I work with both adults and young people.  Over many years I have witnessed first-hand the impact of early life negative physical activity experiences and how they can lead onto a life course of inactivity and mental disharmony.  I believe this pattern can be changed if we structure the right environments for children to create positive meaningful experiences with physical activity.  Wouldn’t it be great if there was a singular resource with content from experts on children’s physical and mental health that would allow professionals and parents to cultivate meaningful experiences within their own home, community settings, schools, or sports clubs?  This ‘internal call to action’ led to the creation of the Believe Move Grow Podcast where I invite myself into the minds of leading experts to find out how we can all play active roles in allowing children to flourish!

In this blog I have handpicked my top learnings from the podcast so far that I feel highlight some simple yet powerful ways that you can improve children’s physical and mental well-being.

  1. Personal accountability for our children’s futures

It is all too easy to devolve responsibility and outsource our roles and responsibilities when it comes to children’s futures. Do we rely on the government and expect them to hold the elixir for our children’s educational ascendency or prosperity of health and well-being?  I would argue not. We can all be ‘grass root leaders’ in our own ‘mini worlds’ to move the dial for children to flourish, with well-being front and centre.  Where do we start with this?  How could we possibly have an impact on this at an individual or local level?  This is something I explored in my conversation with Charlie Foster OBE who explains how we can start simply by advocating change at a local council or school level as you can directly influence children or sports teams.  Charlie explained how this makes advocating change more reachable and relatable as we all have the power to do this. What stops us doing this, most likely, is a lack of knowledge or confidence but this ‘action apathy’ can easily be fixed with some simple action taking steps, which we can all do and don’t need ‘expert knowledge skills’ as Charlie explained “show a general keenness to help people and care about a local organisation, advocate and ask for more resources and children’s access of facilities”.  In short, we all have a responsibility to advocate for physical activity.

  1. Better humans as a key outcome focus for children’s education

To reference Sir Anthony Seldom “Our schools are fundamentally the same as in 1600 – teachers at the front, children in rows, homework, exams, grades, rankings”. Is this really the environment we want our children to learn within over their formative years and does it facilitate a skill set that benefits the “whole not the limb” for the future harmony of our species? Where in this model is consideration given to the development of socio-emotional skills, individuation of learning, linguistic flexibility, physical literacy and conscientious thought and action to our environment.  Fortunately, the tides are a changing and a very slow paradigm shift seems to be brewing within education, driven by the amazing teaching profession.  A wonderful example of  a flexible, post modernistic education approach was evidenced through my chat with Neil Moggan who spoke of how in his academy, a Student Sports Council was created, whereabouts select pupils per year group (mix of ‘sporty and non-sporty’ and those who are disengaged) meet on a regular basis. This led to a change in the PE kit so females could feel less vulnerable.  Neil emphasised how this approach helps young people feel listened to, own their curriculum and continue these moral, ethical practices into adulthood.

  1. Student voice within a professionally designed curriculum

We need to be cognisant to include and not dismiss the voice, opinions, needs and individualistic wants of the child themselves.  Surely, we want all children to feel a belonging and ownership of their curriculum?  The national curriculum has set mandates and targets in place, which could be perceived as a litmus test to measure the overall quality of a child or schools ‘academic success’.  The issue here is that those in charge of designing an education system can run the risk of assuming possession of the social assets, habits and dispositions of a student in order to achieve ‘educational success’. Surely a modernistic education system should have the eclectic student voice routinely considered in the design of the curriculum to make it personalised and socio-culturally relevant in an age where globalisation not nationalism is key.  I spoke to Shaun Dowling about involving students in the design of their PE curriculum and Shaun spoke about ways in which teachers provide choice for students, whether choice of activity (especially in Key Stage 4) or choice within activities i.e., choice of task, choice of space, choice of numbers playing. He also referred to a survey in his role as Head of Sport for United Learning, which asked 6000 students what they wanted from PE; the responses included more choice, a greater range of activities and better gender equality.

Sport England completed an interesting survey focusing on secondary school students’ attitudes and behaviours towards PE, school sport and physical activity. They identified that “physical activity levels decline from year 7-11” and  highlight “the importance of knowing your students and providing the opportunity for them to have a say in what they do and how” (Sport England).

Now, not all ideas are perfect, realistic, or immediately actionable but surely considering the student voice within a professionally designed framework for learning will lead to greater engagement with the PE curriculum and the beginnings of a path towards lifelong physical activity participation.

  1. Taking a breath

Breath

At the time of writing this blog we are still feeling the aftereffects of Covid-19 and it goes without saying that both adult and child mental health will have been affected, albeit to differing degrees. A recent survey from Young Minds (Covid Impact On Young People With Mental Health Needs ) reported how children are “deeply anxious, have started self-harming again, are having panic attacks, or are losing motivation and hope for the future”. Pre Covid-19, children were already living in an age of cognitive overload with competition for their attention greater than ever before from ubiquitous social medial platforms, alongside an ever-present need for socially prescribed perfectionism and peer comparison. This is a breeding ground for cognitive overwhelm and worsening mental well-being.  Therefore, it is paramount that children’s emotional health is nurtured from a young age in order to manage emotions, frustrations and anxieties that accompany the current and future fabric of our information overload existence.  I spoke with Maureen Healy about children’s emotional health, and she spoke eloquently about the importance of self-awareness and interoception . Maureen explained how by simply placing your hand on your heart and taking a deep breath, a visceral memory can be created that when we do this, calm can be elicited. To avoid the pitfalls of children comparing themselves with others, Maureen also stated how children should ask themselves “Was I better than the person I was yesterday”, which is the only healthy comparison.

  1. The Stoic Archer

I am a firm believer that we can only control the controllables in life. This is an early and pertinent lesson for children to appreciate and practice as if they go through life’s myriad of experiences trying to control every detail, stress will soon come metaphorically knocking at their door. I had a wonderful conversation with Jonas Salzgeber who referred to the Reserve Clause and the Process. Jonas spoke of the ‘Stoic Archer’ where one imagines you have a bow and arrow, and the goal is to hit the target.  If you focus only on the things you control i.e., the bow you choose or the training you put into the action (focussing on the process), then the moment you release the arrow the outcome is not within your control.  If the arrow is blown off course by a gust of wind, this doesn’t matter to the Stoic Archer, as he/she tried their best and they accept the outcome with equanimity. The Reserve Clause prepares oneself to accept the outcome with equanimity i.e., I will try my best, but I am aware I may not succeed as something may happen outside of my control.  This will prepare a person if things don’t go as planned. I thought this philosophical thinking could be applied in multiple contexts for children within education, sport and life and is a nod to focussing on the process and not obsessing about the outcome.

  1. “Discomfort breeds growth”

A common theme that has occurred in the podcast refers to redefining discomfort and failure. Historically both these terms have attracted negative connotations but as I have discussed with my guests, if  children can reframe their responses to these terms in a positive light, then they can be used advantageously for personal growth.  In episode #6 with Kasey Orvidas, I discussed her thoughts on “comfort and change zones” and how the path to achievement is often not without discomfort but more often than not this discomfort breeds growth.  Will Swaithes referred to the idea of being in a practice vs. performance mode and in school if children get ‘comfortable’ in a performance mode they will only participate in what they know they are good at, which doesn’t breed growth. Whereas Will argues that growth comes from taking children into the ‘learning pit’ whereabouts children are challenged to work on their weaknesses. The notion of becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable encourages healthy vulnerability, which goes someway to unveil the cloak of perfectionism, which is becoming rife in today’s perfectionist culture.

Will referred to a fantastic story and example of a student’s self-awareness to seek out discomfort in order to grow: Will taught a student called ‘Joe’ who had no interest in PE and was more academically orientated with an ambition to attend Cambridge University. ‘Joe’ joined the sixth form rugby team as at school he was academically a big fish in a small pond but would be a small fish in a big pond at Cambridge and wanted the exposure to struggle and how he would find his place within it.

  1. The growth mindset

As children navigate their way through childhood, they are faced with challenges and failures and the key is to not be discouraged by failures but view them as an opportunity to learn. The idea of a growth mindset was brought firmly into societal consciousness by the legendary Carol Dweck in her book Mindset. In essence a growth mindset, as explained by Carol Dweck, is “based on the belief that your basic qualities are things that you can cultivate through efforts, your strategies, and help from others” (Dweck, 2017, pg.7).  In my conversation with Kasey Orvidas, she explained 3 simple steps to explain how a growth mindset can be applied pragmatically:

  1. Feedback – How do you respond to constructive criticism? Do you feel defensive and feel the need to justify why you are correct? Or do you take the feedback as a way to grow and improve?
  2. Setbacks – How do you respond to setbacks or failures? How can you leverage the setback so when next time comes around you will perform better?
  3. Success – How do you view the success of other people? Are you jealous and do you believe the person was born in a particular way to give them an advantage? Whereas a growth mindset approach would be to look at that person and say, “wow that person has done this and that means I can do that too and I just need to figure out how to get there”.

I think these are all immediately actionable and valuable pointers for children to work on from a young age. Seems simple right?  Well, it is worth mentioning here that Kasey spoke of how a growth mindset can elicit a “double edged sword effect” if delivered incorrectly in that it can create feelings of self-blame. For example, Kasey explained how a child can buy into the benefit of a growth mindset and that change is within their control and up to them; however, on the other side of the sword the child then believes that where they currently are i.e., overweight, is their fault (self-blame) also because they are responsible for what happens to them.  Self-blame can be a precursor to anxiety and depression.  Therefore, Kasey referred to a simple strategy called compensatory messaging in which change can be made without blame i.e., “You can love yourself where you are at currently but still want to change”.

It is also worth noting that Carol Dweck refers to a type of ”false growth mindset”.  Dweck explains in her book Mindset, that  “some people think growth mindset is only about effort, especially praising effort” (Dweck, 2017, pg,215).  Dweck refers more to the importance of “praising the process children engage in i.e., their hard work.” (Dweck, 2017, pg. 215).  However, it is important not to offer empty praise and Dweck fears this “effort praise is being used as a consolation prize when children are not learning” (Dweck, 2017, Pg. 216).  This is more of a cautionary tale to show that adopting a growth mindset with children is undoubtedly very valuable if used conscientiously, but if used incorrectly, can be at best ineffective and at worst cause self-blame.

  1. How experiences shape perceptions

As a physiotherapist I witness first-hand how poor lifestyle choices can negatively impact the health and well-being later in people’s lifespan.  Common themes for disliking physical movement centre around negative experiences of PE when younger and within this a dislike of sport and competition.  When I delve a little deeper it also becomes apparent that their family unit were also not very active in general, pointing towards familial influences on behaviour and mindset.  I am a firm believer that to reverse the global trend of poor adult physical and mental well-being it is essential to develop healthy mindsets towards physical movement from an early age, with research reporting how mindset-like beliefs are present as early as 4-7 years of age (Schroder et al., 2017).  In my discussion with Liz Durden-Myers we spoke around the idea of existentialism, which Liz explained as “a personalised dialogue between ourselves and our surroundings and a collection of experiences which shape who we are and who we become”. Liz noted how our experiences shape our perceptions i.e., “If you have a horrible experience of PE, no wonder we avoid it in adulthood.”  Historically there has been a culture of competitive sport within the UK PE curriculum as highlighted by the esteemed Professor Anne Flintoff (Dean’s Lecture 2017 ) whereabouts “competitive sport was established in the Victorian era of the early elite,  private schools, transported around the world as extension of nationalism and the empire”.  Research evidence points to what children want from sport at an early age, as explained by Smoll and Smith, 2006 (cited in Cope et al., 2013), whereabouts “skill development, making friends, and putting in maximum effort is prioritised over competition and winning”.  However, the rhetoric from the UK Government still seems focused on a competitive aspect with the Conservative Party’s manifesto for the 2019 general election stating that the party wanted “to do more to help schools make good use of their sports facilities and to promote physical literacy and competitive sport”.  It is worth pointing out here that if competitive sport is introduced at the wrong age, without consideration of individualistic student motivations towards sport and discussion as to what constitutes ‘success’ to each child, then the competitive element can lead to sport being associated with “connotations of pressure, insecurity and fear of judgement” as noted by Sport England in their article Under the Skin. This narrative is avoidable and short-changes children as numerous evidence (Bailey et al., 2009; Keegan et al., 2009; Kirk, 2005, cited in Cope et al., 2013) suggests “taking part in sport and other physical activities from an early age is important if children are to develop a foundation for lifelong physical engagement in healthy sporting experiences” (Cope et al., 2013).

A fantastic article by Cope et al. (2013) looks into why children partake in and stay in sport. I have summarised some key points:

  • There are three developmental stages that need attention when structuring a learning environment, a) sampling years (age 6-12) b) specialising years (aged 13-16) and c) investment years (17+). Only during the investment years should there be a focus on only one sport in a competitive environment (Côté & Fraser-Thomas, 2007, cited in Cope et al. 2013).
  • An approach in which ‘success’ is defined by skill development over winning is something which coaches need to become aware of and promote (Abbott, et al., 2002, cited in Cope et al., 2013), given that the weight of evidence supports such an approach.
  • An alternative coaching approach, in which children do not participate in a range of sports, and where fun and enjoyment are not primary initiatives and performance is, has been termed as deliberate practice. Because the focus of deliberate practice is not primarily on children having fun and enjoyable experiences, this type of practice structure has been associated with an increased risk of children dropping out of sport (Côté, Baker, & Abernethy, 2007).
  • Children’s motives for taking part in sport are wide ranging and include perceived competence, fun and enjoyment, parental influences, learning new skills and friends and peers.
  • What constitutes fun and enjoyable sport experiences will be individual to each child i.e., “soccer players stated that fun was experiencing freedom and self-expression (Piggott, 2009), whereas swimmers experienced fun when competing in activities which were inherently challenging (Light & Lemonie, 2010)”.

What is clear here is that having a student/child centred approach, which appreciates the need for individualistic tendencies is a key underpinning to ongoing participation and motivation to continue in sport/PE.  An important part in this process is knowing and acknowledging our own personhoods and experiences with PE/sport as Liz spoke of how we tend not to “see the world as they are, we see the world as we are”, in essence viewing from our own lens.  Liz went onto explain that if the PE/sport system worked for us, we try to repeat the system, whilst not appreciating that some children are different from us and we need to find a solution that works for them and not us.

Liz believes we are all unique and reminded me of a poignant saying from Albert Einstein that ’if you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree it will always think it’s useless’.  Liz perfectly sums up the overarching aim of PE/sport for children in  “unlocking everyone’s embodied potential and find something for everyone”.

In summary

  • We all have a responsibility to advocate for physical activity
  • Considering the student voice within a professionally designed framework for learning will lead to greater engagement with the PE curriculum and the beginnings of a path towards lifelong physical activity participation
  • Facilitate an environment and culture whereby students feel they are listened to, can contribute to their own curriculum, and explore moral and ethical practices
  • To avoid the pitfalls of children comparing themselves with others, Maureen Healy states how children should ask themselves “Was I better than the person I was yesterday”, which is the only healthy comparison
  • Focus on the process and accept the outcome with equanimity
  • Becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable encourages healthy vulnerability, which goes someway to unveil the cloak of perfectionism
  • Adopting a growth mindset with children is undoubtedly very valuable if used conscientiously, but if used incorrectly, can be at best ineffective and at worst cause self-blame.
  • “If you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree it will always think it’s useless” (Albert Einstein)

I hope this blog has provided some useful tips and tactics from which you can apply in your world within coaching, education or even home environments to give children the opportunity to flourish in today’s modern world.

Believe Move GrowIf you would be great if you would like to leave feedback on twitter or via Apple Podcasts on your favourite listening’s from the podcast, what or who you would like to hear more of or any other suggestions that come mind?! Just send a tweet to @believemovegrow and I look forward to hearing from you!

Many thanks for taking the time to read my blog!

Dan Elias

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References

  • Dweck, C. 2017.  Mindset – Changing the way you think to fulfil your potential.  New York: Robinson.
  • Cope, E., Bailey, R. and Pearce, G. (2013).  Why do children take part in, and remain involved in sport? Implications for children’s sport coaches.  International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching, 7 (1), 56-75.
  • Schroder, H.S., Fisher, M.E., Lin, Y., LO, S.L., Donovitch, J.H. and Moser, J. S. (2017).  Neural evidence for enhanced attention to mistakes among school-aged children with a growth mindset. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, 24, 42-50.
  • Sport England 2021.  Research summary – attitudes and behaviours of the most and least active students.  [online].  [Accessed 6 October 2021].  Available from: https://www.sportengland.org/
  • Sport England 2014-15.  Under the skin. Understanding youth personalities to help young people et active. [online].  [Accessed 6.10.2021].  Available from: youth-insight-under-the-skin.pdf (sportengland-production-files.s3.eu-west-2.amazonaws.com)
  • The Children’s Society. 2021. The Good Child Report 2021. [online]. [Accessed 6 October 2021]. Available  from:  https://www.childrenssociety.org.uk/
  • Young Minds. 2021.  The impact of Covid-19 on young people with mental health needs. [online]. [Accessed 6.10.2021].  Available from: https://www.youngminds.org.uk/

 

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