Anyone who has picked up a child from nursery knows the rowdy atmosphere of a room full of high-spirited wee ones. But not every child thrives in that environment, and for some children it is hugely challenging.
Opt-In Early Years Transition Worker Elizabeth Logan says “Children struggle for different reasons. They may be dealing with big issues at home, some may have English as a second language. We see children with selective mutism, which is often a result of trauma. We work with these children.”
“After the lockdowns, nursery staff reported a much higher number of children with poor language skills and lack of social confidence. We knew there was a need for something to specifically address those issues.”
Elizabeth and her colleague Catherine Hunter got to work devising a new programme to help the quiet child – the child who doesn’t speak up, who plays alone, who sits back from the group. The programme has a focus on empowering children to find their voice and their confidence to take part and is called The Quiet Mouse.
The mouse in the title is a cuddly toy that Opt-In workers bring into the nursery, alongside a story and a programme of interactive activities to help children think about themes such as shyness, social anxiety and speaking about feelings.
“The children really connect with the idea of this wee shy mouse.”
Elizabeth says, “When they are first introduced to the mouse, he is quaking and nervous – he won’t come out of his house. We ask the children to voice their ideas for why he might be feeling like that, and of course often the ideas they come up with are the reasons they themselves feel nervous and shy at nursery.
“As the sessions go on, the mouse becomes more confident. He starts to come out of the house, and the children can hug him and pat him. They say ‘He’s getting braver’, and when we ask ‘Why do you think that is?’, they say ‘Because he knows us now’. We can talk to them about the process of meeting new people, making new friends, and how everyone feels shy sometimes, it just takes time.
“Eventually the mouse brings some friends, and that allows us to talk to the children about friendship.”
All the signs are that The Quiet Mouse is working. “Official assessments are showing that children are benefitting,” says Elizabeth, “but of course the biggest sign it helps is when children feel more able to speak up and join in within the nursery environment. One day I went into the class and an incredibly shy wee girl screamed ‘It’s Miss Elizabeth, and she’s brought her MOUSE!’
“It’s brilliant to see children come out of their shells.”
The programme is still developing, and everyone is feeling more and more connected to the mouse. “He’s taking over our lives!” Elizabeth says. “I’m hoping to get him a tiny miniature hairdryer soon!”
Ada and The Quiet Mouse
Four-year-old Ada’s parents had recently broken up, her dad had moved out, and her maternal gran had died. Her mum was struggling, feeling tired and unmotivated. Ada was deeply affected by so much change and was very withdrawn at nursery. She had no interest in activities or playing with the other children, and when staff tried to talk to her she would clam up and become even more quiet.
In assessments, the nursery rated Ada’s emotional and social development as a one out of four, and as primary school was on the horizon it was a real concern.
Ada came along to The Quiet Mouse programme. Slowly, she started to open up. Sometimes she would use the mouse’s voice to talk about her feelings. Sometimes she’d put her hand up and then become too shy to speak, but then she’d get to feed, pet or hold the mouse.
The Quarriers team also made a referral for Ada’s mum for counselling and signposted her to other support, and throughout it all they gave Ada’s mum resources they used in the programme so that Ada and her mum could talk about feelings at home.
Ada started to connect more with the other children and stand back less. After the programme her assessments were revised as a three out of four for both emotional and social development.
The Opt-In Early years team carried on their work with Ada in the next programme, helping her to build her confidence and feel less anxious to make friends during the big step to primary school.
Knowing what’s going on for your child emotionally is important, and it’s never too early to start those conversations. The team at Quarriers Opt-In service has five top tips.
Asking for the thing that didn’t go well lets them know it’s ok if there are difficulties in their day, and it helps them to get used to talking about difficult emotions without it being a big deal.
It can be tempting to push for eye contact but in fact they may open up more if there’s no pressure on that. An activity like colouring in is a great chance to talk to them while they’re relaxed.
Make a drink and biscuit – we all feel more relaxed with a cup of tea in our hand, and it’s a welcome distraction. Or you could give them a favourite toy, a fidget toy or a pencil or pen.
You could ask the child to draw an emoji or look at emojis on your phone. Even asking for a thumbs up or down helps them think about their feelings.
Your child knows you! Don’t be afraid to have a laugh with them or be cheeky – just be however you are with them usually. You can’t get it wrong. As long as you’re chatting, it’s good.