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Supporting Young Schoolchildren: Creative Approaches

How can we help children find safety, feel grounded, and express themselves during the Covid outbreak? As we mark Children’s Mental Health Week, arts counsellor Anna Atkinson shares useful creative approaches from her work in a primary school inclusion team – and reflects on when a simple online game might actually be the best intervention.

Image: Created by one of the young school children Anna works with. [permission given for use]

As a member of the inclusion team in a Primary school, working during lockdown in a very deprived area, where do I start?

The impact of this pandemic has been huge. Issues that were mild have become chronic. Wellbeing that was once optimal has become diabolical. Families who already struggled have reached new thresholds of dysfunction. If life pre-Covid had the stability of four table legs, we are now at least one leg down.

We have to find new ways of staying functional and holding up.

So what are the three main pillars we can put in place for children to hold up a wobbly sense of coping?

1 Finding safety

As a therapist who primarily uses art and mindfulness, for me safe place exercises have been key. We have made and drawn dens, treehouses, tents, caves, portals, boats and pockets. Sometimes safety can be felt viscerally, by holding a painted stone from the beach or wearing a woven coloured wool bracelet made by a friend the child no longer gets to play with or hug.

In a workshop for refugee families held in a socially distanced space over the summer, we re-invented the doll’s house – using cardboard and collage, and sewing our own cloth dolls.

2 Grounding

How can we ground children in the here and now? It always starts with embodiment: feeling the ground and awakening the senses. Things like body boards, sensory toys, blowing bubbles, popping plastic wrap – squishing, scrunching, folding, breathing…

Exploring colour, texture, sound and smell brings the child back to the here and now, the felt sense.

So does exercise and fresh air. Many young people have been glued to their Xbox. Stagnant screen time needs to be balanced out with sensate experience. Outdoor learning is crucial here – getting muddy, interacting with nature as much as possible. We can still hug trees!

3 Emotional expression

Finally, using art, story, characters, puppets, places and objects, we explore the wheel of emotions – ­the four main feeling states or zones of regulation: Fear, Anger, Joy and Sadness. Show me what hope looks like, or how joy smells, or what sadness didn’t eat for breakfast…

Working creatively can help children to shape the anger around being abandoned by school, which for many young people is their only safe haven and source of predictable routine and structure.

A note about working online and the inevitability of regression

Currently, I am running online sessions for those who are finding whole-class remote learning challenging. Many pupils with ASD find the intense eye contact and face-to-face interaction of teachers on screens difficult.

I have taken to screen-sharing more so that, even online, the child and I are working alongside each other. The children seem to viscerally relax, and are less screen ‘conscious’. Often we talk while doing meditative drawing together.

What I’m noticing is that children need to be able to regress and express their young, vulnerable baby parts. So sometimes I play really simple online games – something I wouldn’t normally do. The children need something manageable. They need to feel in control. All of this has been out of their control.

Online games using the senses, such as sounds and colours, have also been popular.
I have been surprised by how much the children love playing Simon Says on screens at the moment. In my mind, this goes right back to early sensate experiences and parent-child mirroring.

Regression is to be expected. I think the one step forwards, two steps back model is ok right now. Too much pressure on progression is counterproductive.

We know that, unless the child can calm their parasympathetic nervous system, very little learning can take place. So we need to focus on self-care, self regulation and a lot of self soothing. As parents as well as children.

The pandemic is unprecedented and so we have to stop and re-think. The usual measures won’t work. We have to retrace our steps and ground. Track and trace.


Anna Atkinson

Anna Atkinson is a Transpersonal Arts Counsellor with specialist knowledge on using creativity to heal trauma. She has been working in both Primary and Secondary mainstream education for over 10 years, and runs creative artistic interventions with children and young people to impact wellbeing and support emotional regulation. Anna trained at, and is now a guest lecturer at, the Tobias School of Art and Therapy and has worked for organisations such as Eggtooth, Culture Shift, Brighton Academies Trust and Arts on Prescription. She has her own art practice and facilitates groups and one-to-one work.


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