Emma at her home in Cambridgeshire.
Photo: Frances Butler
Emma Smith has recently become a qualified Ollie Coach, helping young children with issues such as bullying and family trauma.
I meet her at her home one cold Monday morning, where I am welcomed in with a smile and a cup of tea. We sit down at her dining table and she explains why, after 20 years in the teaching profession, she made the switch from teaching to coaching – and what it all means to her.
As a child, she insisted that when she grew up, she would be a teacher. Despite their disbelief due to her young age – “lots of people laughed about it because I was so little” – it never left her.
After obtaining a Linguistics degree from York University, she applied for a Post Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) in primary school teaching at the University of Cambridge, focusing on the social and pastoral side of education. She had a “fantastic career” in her 20 years of teaching: both in England and overseas, as a team leader, Deputy Head and Head of School – but she was ready for something new, and kids’ mental health has always been her passion.
Emma’s words are often punctuated by laughs as a sign of her cheerful personality. However, she becomes serious when describing the moment when, as a teacher, she was first concerned about children’s mental health.
A young girl was self-harming at the age of 10 and was unable to access any immediate help, as she didn’t meet the thresholds. She remained on the waiting list for 6 months.
The referral guidelines for Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) can be found here. In 2016, a Children’s Commissioner Lightning Review revealed that 79% of CAMHS providers imposed restrictions and thresholds on children and young people accessing their services – meaning that unless the case was sufficiently severe, they were unable to access their services.
Emma grew frustrated when she was told the girl would have to wait, as there weren’t enough people available.
“If you’re self-harming, a week is a lifetime. 6 months is not good enough.”
Last year, both the government and the Times Educational Supplement (TES) discussed the problems surrounding children and young people’s mental health. In July 2018 the government published their green paper, Transforming children and young people’s mental health provision. It reported that “around 1 in 10 children had some form of mental health disorder.” The paper outlined plans including a mental health lead in every school and college by 2025, and reducing wait times to 4 weeks for those in need of urgent help. In their issue on the 30th of November, TES published an article beginning with a statistic from NHS Digital’s survey revealing that “on average, three pupils in a class of 24 will be struggling with poor mental health.”
Children’s mental health has never been more important, says Emma. They are our future adults who will be “running our jobs and running our country – so why aren’t we chucking more investment at them and helping them now?”
Following her initial concerns as a teacher, Emma knew she wanted to get involved with children’s mental health – but how? She didn’t want to return to university or have to retrain.
“I found out about Ollie and His Superpowers, which was a real turning point for me.”
Ollie and His Superpowers by Alison Knowles.
Photo: Emma Smith
Ollie and His Superpowers is a book by Alison Knowles, who developed the Ollie Coaching programme to help children and adults develop good mental health habits. Ollie has smaller versions of himself for each emotion – such as Happy, Sad, Scared or Excited. The main aim of the coaching programme is to reduce the number of young people getting to crisis point, through group and one-to-one sessions as well as school visits. Emma works with children between 4 and 11 and recognises the Ollie programme won’t solve everything, “but if we save one child from self-harming, to me that’s a win-win. Every one of those statistics is too high in my view.”
She says many parents struggle financially and logistically with accessing the mental health services available, and as an ex-Headteacher, her main difficulties were how high the thresholds were and finding the money to fund the services. Along with two other Ollie coaches, she is currently designing “plans, assemblies, parent workshops we can roll out for our under 7 year olds, in the hope that we can get in before there’s a problem.” Getting mental health introduced into the curriculum from age 4 and up wouldn’t need much, she says – it would only “need a few key lessons fed into what you’ve already got.”
She has always used stories as a way to open up difficult subjects for children, as asking them directly can be too much. She says when reading a book, a child may start talking about the character in the story, but often they are talking about themselves – which works with the Ollie technique of disassociating a feeling or an event from a child. The concept of Ollie is about children “controlling their emotions and learning to self-regulate – and help them identify what a feeling is.”
Ollie and the “Happy” version of himself.
Photo: Emma Smith
One book in particular – Granpa by John Burningham – helps to discuss bereavement. At the end of the book, Granpa’s chair is empty. Emma says this image is important because for “some little ones, it goes over their head – the kids who are ready, who clock it, say “he’s dead”. It’s opening up conversations about bereavement when they’re ready.”
To become an Ollie Coach, the training takes at least 6 months. One weekend a month in London for face-to-face training, as well as reading, essays, case studies and a practical assessment. Emma’s group of 15 were the first to take the Ollie course from scratch, as the training was previously used as an add-on for counsellors and therapists.
One of the main Ollie Coaching techniques is “anchoring” – finding memories of when the child felt happy or confident and drawing on those.
Emma tells me: “When you say to a young child, ‘where’s your heart, where’s your toe?’ they know all those things. When you ask them, ‘where’s happy?’ it’s a bit grey, it’s a bit muddled. Some children say happy is in their tummy, it’s a hot feeling, it’s the colour yellow. Once it’s tangible, you have more chance of working with them.”
One young boy was worried about playing football at lunchtime, so Emma helped him to find moments where he felt calm and confident and develop a method of tapping his pocket to anchor himself when playing.
As Ollie Coaches work closely with children and their mental health, Emma’s main responsibilities are child protection and safeguarding, which she takes very seriously. A child may say something during a session that Emma has a responsibility to pass on, “because I always say that in a community you need to be the ears and eyes if you see something that doesn’t look right.” An agreement with the parent is always set up, due to the child’s young age and because “you’re dabbling with someone’s wellbeing, and that’s quite a fragile part of themselves.” However, Ollie Coaching is not always appropriate for everyone. As part of the training process, Emma had to read potential emails from parents and assess which clients she would take on. For example, she would not do Ollie work with someone who was suicidal. For those higher need issues, Emma says, “they do need to go through the medical profession.”
The issues Emma deals with most are family bereavement and illness, bullying and anxiety. She was surprised at how much low-level anxiety she would unearth. She says for some children, “everything looks okay, they’ve got nice friendships, they’ve got hobbies – but there are some things that really stop them in their tracks, getting a bit paralysed with fear.”
“Why is there more anxiety? I’d love to know the answer to that.”
I ask her what she thinks might be causing these issues. She says that for whatever reason, we’re seeing more cancers and medical conditions, a more pressured school system and parents are also finding life difficult: “I met more parents than ever as Head who were stressed, were depressed, suffering from anxiety themselves, and we know with children that they pick up on that, as much as parents don’t want them to.” Children are under more pressure to perform well at schools. One child in Reception showed her his work and was already thinking about he could improve it.
“At the age of 4, do we really need to be that hung up yet, on how to make it better next time?”
Emma often sees children becoming more aware of their feelings, recognising that all of them are needed and can be regulated. “Feelings aren’t scary anymore – we take these feelings out to talk to them, you see.”
“Do you mind if I just take out Worried?”
She stretches out her hand away from us, as if she’s holding a tiny person in it.
“Suddenly, Worried is over here and he’s only a little part of you, because you’re a whole big person.”
Ollie and the “Excitement” version of himself.
Photo: Emma Smith
Since becoming a coach, one girl has made the biggest impact on Emma. “I had the biggest change with her, it was amazing.” During her first session, she refused to sit at the table and kept asking when she was going home – but eventually, she learnt to regulate her fear enough to visit a family member who was going to pass away. After the sessions had finished, the girl’s mother rang to say she had been teaching her friend some of the techniques.
Helping children learn to manage their anger is another important part of Emma’s work. She doesn’t tell them anger is bad because “that’s not real life.” Instead, she works with them to take away any fear and figure out what they are feeling. When identifying anger, “you’re not saying being angry is wrong, what you’re saying is when Angry takes you over, and you hurt somebody, that’s the bit you get in trouble for.”
“We help them think of ways to shrink Angry, or let Angry out of their body in a way that doesn’t hurt somebody.”
Has becoming an Ollie Coach made Emma more aware of issues her own child might face?
Completely, she says. It’s already helped her be a better parent. “From having done the course, I can look at my son and almost predict some future hotspots, and I get a chance to get alongside him, maybe even before it becomes an issue for him – which is such a luxury.” For Emma, being a mum is a huge part of her life. Being an Ollie Coach allows her to make a real difference to other families, whilst also focusing on her own.
“Parenting is a rollercoaster and it’s wonderful. Being a mum is my greatest achievement.”
Her roles as a teacher, a mum and as an Ollie Coach are all extremely important to her. In today’s world, she says, “you see a lot of families are battling losing people to cancer, you hear of horrendous attacks, assaults, suicide. Life is turbulent for families, and that is going to knock on to our little people.” Working with the Ollie programme allows her to help children affected by those issues, and in turn, their families. “We can’t shield them from it, we can’t bubble wrap them – but we need to try and give them the tools to navigate it.”
To find out more about Ollie and His Superpowers and the Ollie Coaching programme, visit: https://www.ollieandhissuperpowers.com/.