The Cayman Islands Department of Education and the Alex Panton Foundation are on a mission to improve the mental health of children and young adults in the Cayman Islands. Their aim is to teach children social and emotional skills for life. Sunshine Circles is an adult-directed, structured play therapy that incorporates playful, cooperative and nurturing activities that enhance the emotional well-being of children. Learning takes place on a non-verbal level, and instead of talking about positive social behaviour, the group leaders and children do positive social interaction.
Modern brain research, and the field of neuroscience, have shown that a strong attachment between a child and the important adult in their life is the basis of lifelong good mental health. A strong attachment to a kind, loving and patient adult is the path on which children come to understand, trust and thrive in their world. Over 50 years ago psychologists recognised that parents who played with their children and initiated developmentally challenging but also tender and nurturing activities, helped their children form an attachment and feel secure, cared for and worthy. If an adult actively engaged with their child and communicated love, joy, and safety to that child, then it taught the child resiliency in the face of adversity.
Psychologists also realised that if children were unable to meaningfully connect with a caring adult in childhood, then it led to a catalogue of social, emotional and educational issues later on. The name they gave this important development was Social and Emotional Learning (SEL).
Educators, who are on the front line of seeing how children regulate their behaviour and learn, saw that where some children could recognise and manage their emotions, and demonstrate caring and concern for others, other children could not. They realised that without social and emotional learning some children could not establish positive relationships, make responsible decisions and could not handle challenging situations constructively. This led to children exhibiting challenging behaviour, not engaging in school, not being motivated to learn and succeed, and this led to self-destructive behaviours and the child’s mental health deteriorating.
Our emotions and relationships are absolutely crucial to how we learn, and how we use what we learn to influence our work, family and lives. Emotions enable us to generate an active interest in learning and help us sustain our engagement in it. However, unmanaged stress, and poor regulation of impulses, can interfere with our attention and memory, and contribute to disruptive behaviour and learning. Moreover, learning is an intrinsically social and interactive process: it takes place with the support of one’s family in collaboration with one’s teachers and in the company of one’s peers. Hence, the abilities to recognize and manage emotions and establish and maintain positive relationships impacts both preparation for learning and the ability to benefit from learning opportunities. Because safe, nurturing, well-managed learning environments are critical to the mastery of SEL skills, they too are essential to children’s school and life success. SEL skills and the supportive learning environments in which they are taught contribute to the resiliency of all children—those without identified risks and those at-risk for or already exhibiting emotional or behavioural problems and in need of additional supports.
So in a move inspired by Theraplay, which was developed over 50 years ago, and has countless studies proving that its method has a way of reaching children and teaching them how to develop resiliency and form stronger attachments, Dr Stephanie Edwards, an Educational Psychologist who works for the Cayman Islands Government’s Department of Education, sought the collaboration of Dr Lam and the Alex Panton Foundation and to partner with them. The APF has helped fund Sunshine Circles and the training of 34 teachers and therapists across Cayman’s public schools.
Whereas many other therapies and counselling are very verbal focussed, this does not work for all children. Sunshine Circles is a play-based therapy and it is based on four criteria: Nurture, Engagement, Structure and Challenge. The lessons are 99% play and 1% verbal and include touch, food, games and rhythm, and they help children feel safe and gives them the confidence to regulate themselves. It also helps them feel like they are being nurtured and that they are good at something.
The goal of the programme is to help those children in need learn how to socially and emotionally connect, and by doing so, they will do better in school and with their academics. Sunshine Circles can be used with children of any age.
The Cayman Islands Department of Education, in collaboration with the Alex Panton Foundation, will continue to support mental health programmes that help reduce stigma and promote the emotional wellbeing of children. For more information on the core concept of Theraplay see https://theraplay.org/what-is-theraplay/core-concepts/ and for more information on Sunshine Circles see https://theraplay.org/training/training-programs/sunshine-circles/. For teachers who are interested in the Sunshine Circle training, please contact The Alex Panton Foundation on email@example.com.
Relationship Enhancing Activities
There are some fun, joyful and simple activities which are based on the principles of Theraplay® that you can do at home that will create an ‘in the moment’ connection and help develop closeness. The activities themselves are just vehicles to help with this connection and, through the process of sensitive ‘here and now’ interaction, the child is able to relax and be a child. The activities are led by the adult and are varied, some lively, some quiet and they require few or no materials. There are four main themes that can be seen in everyday ‘good enough’ parenting which lead to healthy development: Structure, Engagement, Nur-ture and Challenge. Here are some activities which fit into each theme. Do each for a couple of minutes and try to do them every day at the same time in order to form a regular routine.
1) Cotton Ball Blow – an adult and child cup hands, touch fingers, and blow a small ball of paper or a cotton wool ball from one palm to the other.
2) Cotton Ball Hockey – sit opposite each other at a table, create a goal with your hands, and try and blow the ball into the other person’s goal. Blow back to try and stop the goal!
3) Mirroring – Play mirroring each other’s actions. Stand opposite each other and take turns mirroring the other’s actions.
4) Pop the Bubble – Blow a bubble and catch it on the wand, then have the child pop it with a particular part of the body. eg finger, toe, elbow, ear
5) Stack of Hands – Place your hand palm down in front of your child and have them put their hand on top. The alternate hands to make a stack. Vary the speed.
1) Hand Clapping Games – play a clapping game.
2) Row, Row, Row Your Boat – sing this song with your child and do the actions. Try other songs.
3) Create a Special handshake – make up a special handshake together.
4) Beep & Honk – Make a special noise when you touch a specific face or body part. Try and remember which noises go with which body part.
5) Check-Ups – Check body parts, such as nose, chin, ears, fingers, toes and see if they are warm or cold, hard or soft, wiggly or quiet. Count freckles, toes, fingers.
1) Cotton Wool or Feather – Ask a child to close their eyes and ask them to guess/tell you what you have touched their hand with – cotton wool or a feather?
2) Cotton Wool Touch – Have the child close their eyes and then touch the child gently with the cotton ball. Have the child open their eyes and indicate where they were touched.
3) Pizza – Draw a pizza on each other’s back. Pretend to knead the dough, spread the tomato, sprinkle the cheese, add the toppings of their choice, cut the ‘pizza’ with your finger and pretend to take e a slice to eat!
4) Weather – draw the weather on each other’s back. Draw the sun for sunshine, tap the rain with your fingertips, sweep your fingers for the wind and zig-zag them for lightening.
5) Trace a Message – Using your finger, trace shapes or a simple positive message on your child’s back for them to decipher.
1) Balloon Tennis – keep a balloon in the air using specified parts of the body, e.g. head, shoulders, elbows. Choose a gaol and count how many you can do in a minute.
2) Bubble Tennis – Blow bubbles between you and the child. Choose one bubble and blow it back and forth between you before it pops.
3) Cooperative Cotton Ball Race – Get on your hands and knees and take turns blowing a cotton ball from one side of the room to the other. Time yourselves and see who can do it faster.
4) Straight Face Challenge – The child has to try and keep a straight face while we try and make him laugh by making funny faces.
5) Karate Chop – Hold a length of toilet paper or newspaper in front of the child and have him/her chop it in half when you give a signal.
Socially & Emotionally Competent Skills
According to research, socially and emotionally competent children and youth are skilled in five core areas:
a) They are self-aware. They are able to recognize their emotions, describe their interests and values, and assess their strengths. They have a well-grounded sense of self-confidence and hope for the future.
b) They are able to manage their emotions and behavior. They are able to manage stress, control impulses, and persevere in overcoming obstacles. They can set and monitor progress toward the achievement of personal and academic goals and express their emotions appropriately in a wide range of situations.
c) They are socially aware. They are able to take the perspective of and empathize with others and recognize and appreciate individual and group similarities and differences. They are able to seek out and appropriately use family, school, and community resources in age-appropriate ways.
d) They have good relationship skills. They can establish and maintain healthy and rewarding relationships based on cooperation. They resist inappropriate social pressure; constructively prevent, manage, and resolve interpersonal conflict; and seek and provide help when needed.
e) They demonstrate responsible decision making at school, at home, and in the community. In making decisions, they consider ethical standards, safety concerns, social norms, respect for others, and the likely consequences of various courses of action. They apply these decision-making skills in academic and social situations and are motivated to contribute to the well-being of their schools and communities.