Self-harm, autism, and the desperate need to be understood

hard to reach children

The heartbreaking motivation that compelled Åse Brunnström to find a way to help carers communicate visually with hard to reach children.

One day in 2009 sparked the inspiration for Åse and led her to investigate the different ways in which visual communication could be approached to help hard to reach children, dedicating her time to creating a universally accessible resource for the professionals, teachers and parents who would need it. The result was Robin and the White Rabbit, illustrated by Emma Lindström, a vital tool that helps children express and understand their thoughts and feelings through the use of visual communication cards.


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Emma Bacon discusses eating disorders, her books and building a healthy relationship with food

RelationshipEmma Bacon, author of Rebalance Your Relationship with Food and co-author of Eating Disorder Recovery Handbook, is the founder of BalancED MK, an eating disorder support service, which she set up after her own recovery from anorexia nervosa. She also offers mentoring and facilitates a self-support group for sufferers and carers, with the aim of spreading awareness and understanding about eating disorders. We caught up with her and asked her a few questions about her book, her inspiration and what keeps her motivated. 

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The extraordinary projects making mental health a key player in the school day

mental health schoolsJenny Hulme, author of The School of Wellbeing, discusses her new book and the projects she’s explored that support students’ emotional wellbeing. At a time when the state of young people’s mental health is being recognised as central to their learning and attainment, her book gives unique insight into these projects and features the education leaders and charities behind them, including Place2Be, Kidscape, Beat and more.

When I started writing this book a year ago, the media were talking, ever more urgently, about the epidemic of young people at odds with the world around them. Research was suggesting rates of depression were rising in primary schools and anxiety among teenagers had increased by 70 per cent in the past 25 years. Meanwhile, reports noted the rapid rise in hospital admissions for young people with eating disorders. Every story posed more questions than answers about the role of everything from poverty to education policy, exam stress to social media. Other more recent headlines included news of a 14 per cent rise in teenagers being admitted to hospital after self-harming, with the NSPCC saying they delivered thousands of counselling sessions on self-harm last year (as many as 50 a day) via Childline. It was heartening to read at the same time talk of the Government making relationships and sexual health a statutory subject to tackle the problem of sexual harassment and sexting in schools. But developments like this come not a moment too soon. Continue reading

Pooky Knightsmith: Three good reasons to write bad poetry

You don’t need tKnightsmith_Using-Poetry-to_978-1-78592-053-0_colourjpg-printo be a poet to write poetry, and you don’t need to write ‘good’ poetry to get a lot out of it.  I’ve found that the very act of writing and reviewing poetry can be incredibly therapeutic regardless of what we might produce.  Letting go of the idea that we need to be in some way talented with words to write poetry can open the door to a truly engaging, interesting and meaningful way to explore and express how we’re feeling.

In this blog post I’m exploring three key reasons why I’m an advocate of writing even the most terrible poetry – I hope it inspires you to give it a go (if so, you may find the fifty poetry writing prompts in my new book, Using Poetry to Promote Talking and Healing a good starting point).  Continue reading

Dyslexia, self-harm and attempted suicide

 Research shows that at least 5% of schoolchildren are likely to have dyslexia.  Children sometimes lack the maturity to ask for help and things can go sour when they’re left to fend for themselves. With the aim to assist both parents and educational practitioners to recognise the emotional turmoil that young dyslexics face in life, Neil Alexander-Passe explains the link between dyslexia, self-harm and attempted suicide. The author’s new book Dyslexia and Mental Health: Helping people identify destructive behaviours and find positive ways to cope is out now.

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School – legally enforced torture

If you were forced to attend school in Japan without the aptitude to understand the language nor pens and pencils to record what is required, you might not mind if it were only for one day. However, imagine you were legally forced to go five days a week for eight hours a day for ten or more years. Is this fair? I’m sure you would agree not. Well this is exactly how a dyslexic feels. They lack the skills and tools to understand school, and are marked poorly by the lack of such abilities. Everywhere they turn, they see books, and the ability to read and write are valued above all other skills. You can appreciate that they could feel helpless and lacked of control in their lives.

To make matters worse, most teachers lack the skills and aptitude to recognise a struggling learner in their classrooms. It must be said that dyslexic children begin to develop self-protecting strategies to camouflage themselves from showing up their lack of skills, especially amongst their able-bodied peers. Such strategies can include: hiding in class, being the class clown to cover up for the lack of abilities, being the class helper to avoid writing tasks, forgetting homework on purpose, and calling in sick to avoid lessons when there are spelling tests or they need to give in homework. They develop sensitive antennas for situations that might highlight their difficulties, and quickly put in place back-up plans to avoid trouble.

It should also be recognised that children sometimes lack the maturity to ask for help from teachers, and get bored waiting in a long line for help. Calling out in class is sometimes seen ‘bad behaviour’ but in reality it is the child asking for help, albeit not in the way the teacher would prefer.

 

Regaining control in a world they can’t control

When dyslexics feel that they have no control over their life at home and at school, and feel like failures at everything they try to achieve, they begin to look for ways to feel better.

We all can recognise comfort eating; maybe a chocolate bar when you feel sad – but self-harm goes beyond this. Food, if taken to extremes can give an individual some control in a world they feel is uncontrollable. They are forced to go to school each day; even though they hate it and are taught in ways they can’t learn. Over-eating and becoming obese can protect them from social situations that might require them to read or write (e.g. reading the bus timetable; reading numbers on a bus to meet up with friends; reading the name of the film being shown at the cinema; reading a timetable etc.). They might take the other extreme and think if they didn’t eat they would be so small and thin that no one would recognise and take note of them.

Others see that drugs are a way to escape the harsh world they believe they live in, so sniffing glue or taking drugs will bring a high that allows them a respite/escape even for minutes from the pain they feel at school and home, being socially excluded or by them not having a job.

Self-harm through cutting allows a sense of control in their lives, it also gives an adrenaline high to the body. It allows an individual to regain control of some aspect of their life, however it can become more dangerous in their pursuit of this natural high. Easy to hide at first but harder as time goes by with constant cutting.

In the extreme, the need for an escape through risk-taking can lead to putting one’s life in even more dangerous situations (e.g. playing on train lines, getting into fights), however it is with attempted suicide that can be shocking in young dyslexics from a very young age of seven years old. They want to escape a world they feel excluded from, they also see the pain and anguish they are putting their parents through and want to save them from further pain. Sadly many dyslexics do take their lives but such deaths are unrecorded as they haven’t left a suicide note, as that would require writing, a task they feel is very hard and they want an escape from.

It is interesting to note that some dyslexics get into fights to break bones, especially arms and hands to avoid writing tests. Such calculated lengths to avoid taking tests should be recognised, along with unrecognised dyslexic children forcing themselves to be sick just before a test to avoid being judged badly in front of peers. The lengths some dyslexics go to preserve what self-esteem they have can be remarkable.

 

What can be done?

  • Schools need to screen and put in place interventions to help dyslexic and other struggling learners.
  • Schools need to provide counsellors for children who experience difficulty learning at school, as the emotional effects of failure can lead to social exclusion, depression and self-harming.
  • Teachers need to recognise the avoidance by children, ask themselves why, and act to question if there is a learning difficulty or another barrier to their learning e.g. avoiding reading and writing.
  • Teachers need to read through secondary behavioural manifestations in pupils and look to understand their primary learning needs. What is bad behaviour covering up? Are they lost in class? Have they missed vital stepping stones to learning? Are they using bad behaviour to cover up for their struggle to understand what is required?
  • Parents need to recognise the signs of self-harm and depression in their children, so that they can refer them to specialist teams for help.
  • Parents need to praise the effort, not the end result, and support their children to focus on strengths not weaknesses.

 

Neil Alexander-Passe is the Head of Learning Support (SENCO) at Mill Hill School in London, UK, as well as being a special needs teacher and researcher. He has taught in mainstream state, independent and special education sector schools, and also several pupil referral units. He specialises in students with dyslexia, emotional and behavioural difficulties, ADHD and autism. Neil has written extensively on the subject of dyslexia and emotional coping and, being dyslexic himself, brings empathy and an alternative perspective to the field. Find out more about Neil’s work here.

Learn more about Dyslexia and Mental Health here.

Read Neil’s other blog post: The lifelong social and emotional effects of dyslexia

Helping young people to build a positive body image

Check out this free activity from bestselling author Kate Collins-Donnelly’s upcoming book Banish Your Body Image Thief. Collins-Donnell_Banish-Your-Bod_978-1-84905-463-8_colourjpg-print

This activity will help young people to be more aware of, and to understand, their own body image and how to develop this in a healthy way. Examples of poems, drawings and songs from other young people will help them get started and show that they are not alone in how they feel.

Download the activity here

Read more about Banish Your Body Image Thief

Read more about Banish Your Self-Esteem Thief, also coming soon from Kate Collins-Donnelly.

C’mon everybody – get writing!

Vanessa Rogers is the author of Working with Young Women, Working with Young Men, Let’s Talk Relationships, 101 Things to Do on the Street amongst others. In this article she gives her writing tips for aspiring authors. And, if you’re feeling inspired feel free to send in your proposals to post@jkp.com


They say that there is a book in all of us, and judging from the number of emails and Tweets I get from people in the youth work and social education field inspired to write their own, it would certainly seem to be true. So this is a collective response to those of you who have asked me for ideas of how to start writing, and to share my personal experiences of writing a book. I hope it is useful – but please remember this is only my way, which I made up as I stumbled along the way.

When I start a new resource book it is because the subject holds a compelling fascination for me. For example, Working with Young Women (Jessica Kingsley Publishers ISBN 9781849050951) came out of lots of girls’ groups that I was facilitating at the time. The young women came to the group because they had been identified as at risk of offending and aggressive behaviour, but the more I got to know them the more I thought that a lot of their behaviour was actually a response to the bad relationships they had with their peers, parents and boy/girlfriends. It seemed to me that their anger and aggression was a coping mechanism that until now had worked for them. So, this made me question how young women can build a sense of self, gain confidence and assertiveness, look at the role models they have and their aspirations for life – in a way that is interesting, non-judgemental and fun. After all, through the group work I was basically asking them to change their existing coping behaviour, (which whilst not necessarily socially acceptable to all, gave them the kudos and ‘respect’ they sought), to take a chance of being vulnerable and exploring things that hurt to find a better way with me. But it seemed that this was the foundation for everything else – e.g. if you value yourself and your body you are more likely to respect it and look after it.

So from here, as for every other book I have written, I devised a series of questions that I wanted to answer. These help me keep focused and distill the essence of what I am trying to do.

After that, I spend about 3 months researching the topic. I do this by reading around the subject and trawling the Internet for ethical and correct data and statistics, but also by speaking with other practitioners and as many young people, or in the example above as many young women, as I can, to ask my questions and test out some of my theories. By now I usually have at least one box file filled with clippings and stuff, as well as my trusty notebook (I always have at least one hardback notebook on the go) filled with points to remember and ideas for games, quizzes or activities.

One thing; all of my session plans have to be tried out with young people before I will include them. For me, this part is one of the rules of my work to keep it ethical and grounded – it has to have been tried and tested and I have to know that young people will learn from it and more importantly enjoy doing so.

As I write constantly this means that I often have ideas stashed on my computer that are developed later when the opportunity presents itself. I try my best to include lots of learning styles in the activities and this might mean that I write the same learning outcomes three times, with three different ideas for delivering them. So, as I try them out with young people I use the one that goes best and dump the rest. I also ask young people to give me feedback as the book comes together, which I value as they don’t hold back if they think it won’t work!

Once this is done, I stick my main points on bits of paper around my desk and tell everyone that I am going to be ‘writing’. To my family this means that I am likely to be distracted, a bit bad tempered and the dinners will be rubbish for a while – but the good news is that I will be in the house for days on end and easily tempted to buy take-aways!! To my friends it means that if I do see them I am probably going to bore them witless by obsessing over my blossoming (or not) book. All training and other work is put on hold. And then – I write it.

I tend to write ‘all over’ my books – meaning that I might write part of the intro, then get a bit stuck so move on to one of the later chapters.  It may look chaotic but it isn’t – more like putting a jigsaw together, because by this stage I know exactly what I want to write and how it will look at the end. I tend to really get into this bit so write day and night, with no adherence to office hours – I actually prefer working through the night so it is pretty usual for me to be writing between 2 and 5 a.m.

Once it is done – which usually takes about 7 days end to end – I put it away for at least 3 days before getting it out and editing / doing the final writing.

Then it is off to Jessica Kingsley Publishers …… and I miss it like mad …… get a bit sad, like at the end of any relationship …… do any edits or re-writes asked of me by the editors and proof readers ….. and leave the printers to get on with it. In my head it is over.

I try and build a break in at this point so that I can have fun with friends and family and shake off the topic that has been all consuming for what might have been up to a year. And then, just when I think that I have had enough of writing, something sparks my interest – and the whole cycle begins again.

I hope this helps – but as I say all writers are different and I am sure you will find your own way of working. My only advice would be, write for you and choose a subject you feel passionate about – if you aren’t at the start, you definitely won’t be at the end! My very best wishes and good luck with it – let me know how you get on.

 

Working with or supporting young people who self-harm

In this article Professor Carol Fitzpatrick gives her top tips for adults working with and supporting young people who self-harm whether you’re a parent, teacher, youth worker or psychologist. Recognising self-harm amongst young people and how to approach this topic with sensitivity can be difficult. Carol Fitzpatrick’s new book  A Short Introduction to Understanding and Supporting Children and Young People Who Self-Harm guides the reader through what self-harm is, how to recognise it, and how best to respond.


Self-harm and suicidal behaviours are increasingly common in young people, but are often hidden problems. Most young people who self-harm say it gives them some relief from unbearably painful emotions or numbness. Most say they are not suicidal, but a small number are truly suicidal, and it is known that young people who repeatedly self-harm are at increased risk of dying by suicide.

Adult support can be very helpful to a young person who is troubled, and it is often underestimated. Such adult support might be provided by a relative, a youth worker, a teacher, a coach – any adult who has an interest in the young person. Actively listening if the young person does want to talk is very helpful. Sometimes contact with and interest shown by someone who is less emotionally involved is much more acceptable.

An adult who ‘keeps an eye out’ for the young person, who checks in with them regularly, who may have a shared interest, and who does not expect deep conversations about how they are feeling, may provide invaluable support, often without knowing they are doing so. This is particularly so for young men, who find it notoriously difficult to talk about their feelings.

Keeping communication going can be a struggle, but self-harm can be seen as a form of communication that all is not well for the young person. Calmly stating what you have noticed helps to let the young person know you are aware that things are not easy for them. Don’t expect the young person to open up and talk about their feelings, but simply registering your concern without being too intrusive can be supportive.

Remaining calm is helpful, but is easier said than done. For teachers, who are often aware that a student is self-harming, knowing the school’s policy and being able to discuss the situation with colleagues can provide invaluable support.

Formal help, such as counselling or attendance at a mental health service will be needed for young people whose difficulties are seriously interfering with their health or their ability to get on with life, or where there is a significant risk of suicide. It can be very difficult to get young people to attend such services, but parents can do a lot to encourage attendance.

Mentioning your concerns based on what you have observed, rather on what you think the young person may be feeling, seems to work better. Be prepared for an angry denial that there are any problems, and try not to take personally hurtful responses such as ‘you’re the one with the problem- if it wasn’t for you I’d be fine’. A helpful response to that type of remark is to agree that they might be right, and that is one of the reasons why you will be jointly seeking help. Try not to get drawn into a lengthy argument, and be prepared to keep any appointment you have made – even if you have to attend without the young person in the first instance.

Looking after your own health and well-being is important if you are a parent or carer of someone who is self-harming. This may be far from your mind, but by doing so you provide a good role model for the young person, as well as keeping your own spirits up. Exercise, healthy eating and relaxing, all help with this. The most up-to-date research shows that most young people who have self-harmed in adolescence are no longer self-harming by the time they reach young adulthood. This is encouraging, and offers hope to those who care for and about these troubled young people.

In Search of Youth Work by JKP author Vanessa Rogers

An interesting and thought provoking article from JKP author, Vanessa Rogers on what it is to be a youth worker today. Vanessa is the author of a number of titles on working with young people including, Working with Young Women, Working with Young Men, Let’s Talk Relationships, 101 Things to Do on the Street, and new from JKP the Little Books on Alcohol, Drugs and Tobacco Set.


What is Youth Work?

Today I realised that I have been a youth worker for over 15 years, yet I still struggle to explain exactly what that means, especially to someone outside of the profession. It is not a simple answer and I have even been known to say, ‘social worker’ in certain social settings just because it is easier.

The irony is not lost on me; that I am prepared to betray my profession, even though I feel so passionately about it, because I can’t be bothered to explain what I do and that it involves more than playing pool and sorting out squabbles about which track to play next on the iPod in the youth club. Explaining detached youth work is even harder, and has even been met with snorts of laughter at the thought of being paid to wander the streets talking to unknown young people. ‘But what is the point?’ is a constant refrain.

It has not always been so. There was a time not that long ago when it would be hard for me not to weigh in with my views. In fact, many of my ex-students could stand testament to the fact that, ‘what is youth work?’ is one of my favourite assignment titles, and the 500 words produced in response are a constant source of interest and heated debate.

Then it dawned on me that perhaps the sinking heart I get whenever someone asks me what I do for a living is not merely personal apathy, but because I have had the conversation one too many times. The sense of justifying what youth work is, why it matters and the unique place it has in supporting young people – not only amongst friends, family and strangers but also with youth workers and other professionals – has become habitual. I realised that I am a bit tired of the struggle and don’t want to spend time any more time analysing the process at a cost of actually doing it less.

It hasn’t always been so difficult, although I am in no way harping back to some mythical golden age of youth work. I am simply pointing out that if you had asked me 15 years ago what I did my answer would have been pretty easy – an area youth worker for the Youth & Community Service responsible for developing girls work, work with young parents and managing a large and busy youth wing on the site of a school in an area described as ‘deprived’. So far, so clear.

The role of a Youth Worker

Fast forward and my role, but not my professional title, has changed so many times that writing a CV can be a daunting thing. Terminology for the young people, or ‘client group’, has changed from young people ‘at risk’ through ‘vulnerable’ to ‘targeted’; youth services have dropped the ‘ & community’ tag and been variously part of the education, leisure, Connexions and social care departments.

Responsibilities have changed to include meeting parents, undertaking social care assessments, creating community profiles and measuring work by the number of accredited outcomes achieved.
What constitutes ‘youth work’ has changed so many times that it can now be tagged on to virtually any service that works with young people.

But is this a good or bad thing? Is the increase in those using traditional youth work skills to engage with young people something to be celebrated or lamented? All I know is that ‘youth work’ is a notoriously difficult term to describe, and it isn’t getting any easier. The task of trying to find a pithy one-liner to sum up the collective aims of so many different clubs, societies and detached projects is almost impossible.

Perhaps it is that so many people now describe themselves as ‘youth workers’, whilst working in areas more traditionally associated with social workers or youth justice? I have even spoken with police officers that say they do ‘youth work’. Really? Are the professional boundaries so completely enmeshed? Please note this isn’t about professional qualifications, or even the lack of them, more a questioning of how the ethos of voluntary participation and the gradual process of building positive relationships and engaging and empowering young people fits within a law and order or social care framework.

The ethos at the heart of Youth Work

Historically, youth work did not develop just to ‘keep people off the streets’ or to provide aimless amusement, it has always offered social and political education in an informal environment. Good youth work may look as if it just ‘happens’ but the success of it actually depends on good planning, clear aims and measurable outcomes. This ethos should be at the heart of all youth work – especially detached projects. Surely an exciting detached project that motivates young people to get involved should result in more, not less, youths on the street? And that should constitute success?

Put simply, providing young people with a ‘good time’ is not enough. Effective youth work should offer young people the opportunity to meet, socialise, develop new skills, explore the world around them and learn to question and challenge what they see effectively. Detached projects should not be about forcing young people off the streets and away from adult eyes, but more about building trust and developing interesting projects that are relevant to their needs, reflecting the things of importance to them. Which is unlikely to be the same as the media focus on demonizing young people as part of a lawless counter-culture.

As I see it the need to build two-way respect between young people and other members of their community is paramount – after all it is hard to encourage young people to take up their responsibilities and become active citizens if they are treated like social outcasts. Why would you want to be part of something that clearly doesn’t want you?

Perhaps the answer is purely financial. In the struggle to chase funding and secure projects we have been forced to chase the pound, rather than offer what young people truly want. Or maybe as numbers dwindle in traditional old-style youth clubs what’s on offer is simply outdated and no longer meets the needs of teenagers. In that case let’s stop hanging on to the solutions of the past and try new ideas.

Listening to Young People

Young people can be innovative and visionary, with energy and enthusiasm to shape and change the world. To do this they need to find ways to get their voices heard and be able to see that their participation in things like youth councils, forums and consultations actually makes a difference. To be honest, as an adult I am happy to give my opinion on things that matter to me but I get disheartened and then disinterested if nothing ever comes of it and I don’t receive any feedback. Too often I think young people are let down because although they are told that their opinions count, when it comes to money and budgets, they don’t. Participation has to be more than a paper exercise or a way to ‘tick boxes’.

Reclaiming Youth Work

So I think it is time for youth workers to stand up and reclaim youth work by celebrating how different it is to other work with young people. It should be seen as a whole, not as a useful pick’n’mix to compliment other services, and defined in our own terms – whether that is through a Youth Work Academy or some other collective process – before someone else does it for us.

In another 15 years time I don’t want to still be ducking the question, ‘what do you do for a living?’ – I want to be able to say (still with pride), ‘I am a youth worker’, and for that to mean something.

VIDEO: Rudy Simone’s 22 Things a Woman with Asperger’s Syndrome Wants Her Partner to Know

Rudy Simone is on a mission to prevent AS/non-spectrum relationships from breaking down because of a lack of information. Check out this video to find out more and for a great overview of her latest JKP book, 22 Things a Woman with Asperger’s Syndrome Wants Her Partner to Know.

In her latest book, Aspergirls author Rudy Simone covers 22 common areas of confusion for someone dating a female with AS and includes advice from her own experience and from other partners in real relationships. She talks with humour and honesty about the quirks and sensitivities that you may come across when getting to know your partner. All the pivotal relationship landmarks are discussed, including the first date, sex, and even having children.