Smiling Mind is a nonprofit organization with a mission to provide accessible, lifelong tools to support healthy minds. Headed by CEO Dr Addie Wooten, the organization is well-versed in supporting the mental health of young Australians. Smiling Mind currently delivers critical mindfulness training to educators across the country through its award-winning School Program, where teachers are empowered to be champions for fostering positive mental health among their students.
In its latest initiative promoting positive mental health among young Australians, Smiling Mind has launched its Care Packs initiative – a new, free resource aimed at supporting Australian children as they deal with COVID-19 related challenges.
Dr Addie joins me to talk about how Smiling Mind is supporting elementary children with their mental health and well-being.
Student Mental Health and Well-being with Smiling Mind
Full Episode Transcript
Bron: A huge welcome to you, Dr Addie, and thank you for being here on For the Love of Teaching.
Dr Addie: Thank you for having me. It’s exciting to talk to you.
Bron: Amazing. So you’re a clinical psychologist and the CEO of Smiling Mind which many of our listeners will already know is a free app that they can access audio resources through.
But Smiling Mind also has an amazing website full of resources for teachers, parents, and students as well.
So could you tell us a little bit for our listeners who may not have heard of Smiling Mind a little bit about the organization and its history?
Dr Addie: Yeah, I can. So Smiling Mind is a non-profit. We have been around since 2012, so our focus right from the start was around how can we equip young people, children, and adolescents with tools that they can use to proactively look after their mental health. Our founders are really passionate about trying to help Australians in particular think about mental health in a bit of a different way. So instead of thinking about watching out for signs or symptoms or treating problems, how do we actually get in early and make sure that we’re thinking about our mental health in the same way that we do our physical health.
So just like we go to the gym or we might swim or walk for our physical health, what are we doing to look after our mental health? And for them, mindfulness was a really important part of their their own practice to look after their mental health. And we know now that there’s lots of evidence to support the benefits of mindfulness practice. So we really focus in on how do we provide really accessible, relatively easy tools for people to use that are mindfulness-based and can be used in lots of different environments, including at home and at school so that everyone can have access to mindfulness in their life.
Bron: Yeah. Fantastic. And that especially important and highlighted the need for access to quality resources for mental health this year at home, as well as at school, because still we have some students in Australia learning from home at the moment and through a resource like a website or an app it’s so much easier to access that support.
What are the patterns that you’ve seen emerge in an, in the need for mental health support in 2020, particularly for young children and adolescents?
Dr Addie: I think 2020 has been a really hard year for lots of people with the bush fires at the start of the year, and now the impact of coronavirus. I think we have certainly seen a huge number of people come to our platforms, whether that’s the website or the app you know, an enormous amount of people in April, we had more than 180,000 people come to our app and new subscribers to the app.
And then, and we’re averaging about half a million people coming regularly to the app, which is phenomenal. It’s huge compared to what we normally see. So I think that’s a sign to me that people are actively looking for resources to support either themselves or the kids in their lives.
And I think it’s a sign. I mean, it’s a really promising sign as well that people are actively looking for things that are a bit more proactive. Maybe more focused on what they can do either in the home environment or if you’re a teacher, you know, looking after the remote schooling and trying to juggle all of those challenges.
We, we’ve also seen a lot of parents coming into our platform, so lots of parents really looking for tools to support their kids. And we’ve been working with lots of different schools to try and figure out how we adapt all of our programs so that they can… teachers can continue to access either professional learning or accessing our resources all digitally. And that’s a beauty I suppose, of, of a digital product that you can access it anywhere as long as you’ve got a device and an okay Internet connection.
So it’s, yeah, it’s been a really interesting time. I think obviously the main, the, the main emotional impacts that we’re seeing things like anxiety and stress. But also I think parents and teachers have been looking for resources to help use this time to teach their kids in their lives about uncertainty and about emotional challenges because kids are obviously very aware of what’s going on. So how do we use this time to actually teach them some really important skills that they’ll probably, or they will use for the rest of their life?
Bron: Absolutely. And I think that two points that you’ve made that really resonate with me as a parent of young kids and also as a primary teacher are the importance of early intervention to target the students learning and, and develop those skills so that they have them into the future.
And also the other one is incidental learning. So I’m looking at what’s happening in the external environment and using that in our classrooms to teach really important skills that might not necessarily be part of the Australian curriculum, but are just really important life skills and social and emotional learning skills that functional people need to have.
So Smiling Mind really is doing a great job of providing support with that.
Has there been a particular strain on the system, the public health system with mental health this year because of the, just the sheer volume of need for that this year. And I know that you were given a grant from the Victorian government and some other supporters in response to particularly the, the bush fires and, and the Covid situation.
Is Smiling Mind filling a gap there where students might not be able to access mental health services and are able to use the app effectively at that early stage?
Dr Addie: Yeah, that’s definitely where we try and focus our attention on how to, how do we develop resources that can be useful for people in that early stage. So thinking about what we can do as either prevention or early intervention, I don’t work directly in the clinical world anymore, but I know from reading all the reports and the, the publications that the clinical services are saying a really big surge in demand, we’re seeing lots of different presentations even I think, you know, even in, in the acute end of the spectrum. So the emergency departments are really feeling the burden of mental health problems as well. And I also think that clinical services took… it’s been a bit of a process for them to transition into digital and telehealth.
So the Smiling Mind Care Packs that we’ve developed designed for, so that end of the spectrum, so prevention and early intervention, and they’re really designed to help support parents and teachers with really practical strategies that they can use to help kids understand the emotions that they’re going through and to, I suppose, to put a framework and the language around it.
So how do you actually get your kids talking about how they’re going and, and help them understand that it is a normal process, and they have responses like they’re having and hopefully that will prevent, prevent the need for more intensive clinical services. So if we’re, if we’re equipping kids early, hopefully helping them understand all of the complex emotions that they’re feeling, hopefully that will have a flow on effect over time in terms of the reducing the burden on the clinical services. But they’re certainly not they’re certainly not designed to be either or, so if you’re, if you’re working with kids or you have kids in your family that need additional clinical services definitely access those where you can and these Care Packs might be really nice, additional activities that you can use in between the times that you see the professionals.
So what are some of the signs that students might display, and the teachers can keep a really close eye out for if they’re facing particular mental health challenges and perhaps might need a referral further than the classroom?
Dr Addie: Yeah. So there’s a, that’s a really important question and there’s a difference isn’t there between feeling a little bit unsettled and feeling um, a bit worried? And I suppose it’s really important to keep in mind that whole spectrum of different emotions that kids and adults feel, but stress and worry and anxiety at some level is really normal. And we need to be helping our kids in our lives understand that that’s normal and it’s okay to feel some of those emotions. We’re not talking about getting rid of the emotions completely. We’re trying to help them build up a really healthy relationship with emotions.
But when we move into a certain level of experience, that is when it starts to become a problem. And so if you’re, I think the best guide for me when I’m thinking about what’s a problem, and what’s normal is thinking about how much it’s impacting on day to day life.
So if your child or the kids you’re working with in your classroom are experiencing symptoms that are stopping them, doing things that they would normally love, love to do. It’s preventing them from engaging with their friends or participating in school activities. Then that’s probably an indicator that it is at a problem level, and you might want to seek help. I think that the symptoms that we’re seeing at the moment are definitely around anxiety and stress that, that seems to be predominant or that the most experienced. And, and you might see things like kids feeling you know be shy or protective.
They might be avoiding social situations. They might not want to leave their parents so that social anxiety might be coming out a bit more. We might be seeing kids feeling scared or worried because of the uncertainty around them. So that you might find that clinginess and then you might need it might be good to pay attention to the sort of normal routines of the day as well. So if they’re not sleeping properly, if they’re wetting the bed again, or things like that, then they’ll usually signs that something is not, not quite right, and that they might be feeling some, some really significant mental health or emotional challenges that probably need to be supported either through your GP or through a mental health professional.
Bron: Yeah, that’s really great. Thank you for, for sharing those really practical things to spot because, you know, in the busyness of life and with planning and I guess facilitating online learning and classroom learning with all of the changes teaches up extremely overwhelmed ourselves.
So it’s just really important, I guess, to stay on board and keep an eye out for those indicators for the students in our classrooms as well.
So how, how, what’s the best way that teachers can integrate using the Smiling Mind Care Packs in their classrooms?
Dr Addie: You can download the Care Packs free on our website. So I recommend you jump in and have a look at them because you’ll know exactly where they fit into your teaching and your curriculum planning. I think so they’ve been developed to be developmentally appropriate. So they’re designed for, for five years all the way through to 12 years. So that primary school age range, and they’re in different sections. So you can pick the, the age that’s most relevant to your class. And then there’s three different areas that we focus on. So we, we have activities and meditation practices that are designed that it’s designed to introduce mindfulness more broadly as a foundational skill.
And then we have a section on how to use these activities to manage challenges, I suppose. So that that’s where we really focus in on anxiety and stress and sadness. So those really complex emotions that kids might be going through, how can we use mindfulness meditation practices, but also activities to help them process those emotions? And then we have a section on cultivating the positive. So we’re looking at gratitude and optimism, focusing on strengths and things like that. So it’s up to you to decide how you want to fit it in. You can either go through a whole section and do a meditation and get the kids to do an activity, or you could split it up and just do a meditation at the start of your class. Or you could find time to do the activity as a standalone activity as well.
And they’re things like drawing how they feel identifying things that they’re grateful for, or that they love in their life, and really fostering that sense of creativity and emotional learning, I suppose. So it’s quite flexible. You can use it however you want. But what we find is that if you’re doing these sorts of practices regularly, the kids will start to learn the, the intention of these activities as they go. So the more you do it and the more regular you do it and build it into your routine the better.
Bron: Yeah. Yeah. Fantastic. And mindfulness, meditation like guided meditations and all of these kinds of things are something that teaches a constantly requesting for more of. I just think that it’s, Smiling Mind is such a fantastic resource and something that’s, you know, if teachers haven’t already had a look at it, they definitely need to hop onto it.
It’s free and it’s beautifully aligned to the curriculum. And yeah, I really appreciate you joining me today, Dr. Addie, to talk all about Smiling Mind and how we can use your beautiful care packs in the classroom. So thank you so so much.
Dr Addie: Thank you. My pleasure. Yeah, please do have a look. If you haven’t checked out our resources, we love developing things for, for teachers in schools. We think it’s the best channel to reach and support as many kids as possible. So give us your feedback as well, if you have it.
Bron: That’s brilliant. Thank you so much.
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