Scores of Angus primary pupils are being helped to overcome temporary emotional barriers to learning by innovative mats designed by a local therapist.
Therapist Gail Penman is a director of North East Wellbeing Solutions CIC (known as NEWSolutions CIC) and, alongside a team of therapists and specialists, provides a mental health and wellbeing support service to pupils, parents and staff in schools in Angus and Dundee from her Montrose base as well as bespoke mental health training programmes for workplaces.
During the 2021 lockdown, a conversation with a senior leader at Maisondieu Primary School in Brechin identified the need for a portable resource to give pupils a refocussing ‘brain break’ when they become ‘dysregulated’ – emotionally overwhelmed – and therefore less able to learn effectively.
Fun, flexible tool needed
What was needed was a fun, flexible child-friendly tool to help them ‘reset’ by regulating through changing tack and being able to re-engage with the learning. Existing commercial solutions were expensive and usually fixed to a single location, such as a floor or wall.
So Gail set about designing an affordable four-by-one-metre ‘sensory trail map’ mat with games and challenges printed on it which can be easily moved to where needed and rolled out on any floorspace big enough. She also created a one-metre square wall version which is fixed on with industrial-grade Velcro.
Cognitive & physical challenges
Each can be used to set the child a creative cognitive challenge such as using a finger to follow a trail or spell out on the printed typewriter keyboard how they’re feeling, their name or what they want to do. Others are physical – such as jumping over a line. All allow the teacher to be creative in setting appropriate tasks to help the child re-regulate their emotions. Parents also benefit from the early intervention and de-escalation of the situation.
Gail has worked with the teachers at seven Angus primary schools and designer Brian Chalmers to create 12 individual ‘sensory trail’ mats, each made from reinforced flexible PVC by Montrose Rope & Sail with a bespoke design on each, including two with a requested space theme.
Since January this year, they’ve been sold and delivered to Montrose client primaries Borrowfield, Lochside, Rosemount, Southesk and Ferryden on a cost-only pilot basis not including anything for Gail’s time. Strathmore Primary, Forfar, has ordered mats for its pupils at the commercial cost of £500 and Maisondieu Primary, Brechin, is ordering floor trails and £150 wall trails, too.
While most schools have paid for the innovative mats themselves, Borrowfield Primary School, Montrose, had its four covered by sponsorship from Orchard Flooring Products and Oil States Industries UK Ltd (some of whose staff are parents of pupils there) and parent Arlene Goodwin’s hairdressing business Perfect Harmony. Southesk Primary, Montrose, had its one sponsored by a donation from beauty business Cobella, owned by Lori McMillan.
Since the mats have been put to use, teachers have complimented Gail and NEWSolutions on the difference they’ve made to their pupils when they’ve become dysregulated.
Naomi Siegert, Principal Teacher at Lochside Primary School, says: “Since adding sensory trails to our tool kit, we’ve observed how effectively they can support pupils to regulate their emotions and increase their concentration to support their learning.
“Our sensory trails are regularly used throughout the school as a preventative measure and have supported pupils who have been in a heightened state to expend their energy in a positive way. Through jumping, bouncing, bending, finger-tracing and using focused breathing techniques, pupils very quickly begin to regulate their mood and this in turn supports them to engage in restorative discussions and aids their calm return to class.
“They similarly are a great tool for engaging pupils, through the use of their senses, to get active, play and learn. A clear strength of this tool is how quickly it can be rolled out across the floor, ready for use.
“Other pupils have benefitted using the trails as a workout, which helps them to become less fidgety and demonstrate a more focused approach towards tasks.”
Cherrylynne Shepherd, School Pupil Support Assistant at Borrowfield Primary says: “They’re a good distraction to children feeling overwhelmed or anxious. They can use the letters to type out how they’re feeling if they’re struggling to use their words.
“I love how the mats can be easily rolled up and carried to different places. One of our teachers took a mat to the home of a pupil who’s undergoing medical treatment. The child thoroughly enjoyed doing his lesson on the mat.
“The children absolutely love the mats as they’re lots of fun! They’re great for movement breaks between lessons. I leave one rolled out all the time and it makes me smile seeing the children skipping, hopping and jumping on them on the way to the bathroom!”
Gail says: “We’re really pleased to be able to support local primary schools help their children, staff and parents through providing this new emotional regulation tool as our vision is to strengthen communities by empowering and supporting them at an early stage, rather than intervention in a crisis.
“It’s important children, young people and families receive the right help at the right time through early identification and intervention of any issues. We adhere to the notion ‘Ask once, get help fast’
“Our focus is on improving wellbeing and resilience by actioning evidenced-based interventions and this is a simple, cost-effective way to enable teachers and other school staff to do that.”
Previous Lockdown innovation
The mats are the second time lockdown restrictions have inspired Gail to come up with a novel design to help the children she treats. During the first lockdown she worked with Andy Simpson at Angus Solutions Group to develop a portable polycarbonate desktop screen and travelling case to allow her and other support workers to talk face-to-face with their clients without the need to wear face coverings.
It enabled better support than was possible via video calls through being more able to read clients’ non-verbal communication, allowing greater facial recognition and avoiding the distraction of masks or visors. It also allows children, or the therapist, to draw on it using whiteboard markers. The screen went on to be used by Angus community support organisations to continue vital face-to-face support sessions with the vulnerable people they serve.
To order a sensory trail mat and get more information about NEWSolutions CIC services, go to new-solutions.co.uk/what-we-do/