Yvonne Gaston: And relax – alternative therapies can help many troubled children

A growing number of ­children are entering the care system ­having been subjected to trauma and are ­additionally dealing with the ­challenges of a learning disability.

Yvonne Gaston, Manager Davidshill Farm, Spark of Genius, member of the Scottish Children's Services Coalition

This situation highlights the need for professionals and care providers to have a greater understanding of these increasingly complex needs and what children need to feel ­supported and develop accordingly. It includes the importance of identifying a diagnosis to provide the most effective care.

A young person’s transition into care can be incredibly ­traumatic. Time must be allowed for children to adjust and settle in to their new home before any true ­analysis can commence. This is in order to determine any significant behaviours and concerns other than those ­arising from the settling in period.

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For analysis to be effective the care provider must ensure observations are monitored and recorded in order to measure the content accurately, providing key professionals with ­sufficient information.

The intention is quite the opposite of wishing to ‘label’ ­children but to gain better insight into their complex needs in order to provide appropriate diagnosis and identify relevant supports. This includes resources, specific ­training for care services and ­families, ­external support from professionals, addressing financial needs and ­providing support packages for young people moving on.

This process can only reduce the likelihood of fatalities, which we have sadly witnessed all too often in the care system. Children being undiagnosed further increases ­mental health issues and creates reactive support packages costing time and money at crisis point.

Time is precious when we explore young people’s lives and their development, yet time is often spent on waiting lists for referrals to child and adolescent mental health ­services for diagnosis and support. Hence the need for care services and professionals to enhance their knowledge of alternative therapeutic strategies.

There is also a clear requirement to provide children and young ­people with the tools to support resilience, self-esteem and self-regulation, ­enabling them to manage mood and decisions in their daily lives.

­Meditation, yoga and mindfulness are all practices that have been around for some time, mainly associated with adults. In recent years these practices have been proven to achieve successful outcomes for young ­people with learning disabilities. Therefore, it is important to ­recognise these are not opinions but proven strategies and theories. To date evidence highlights improvements in specific areas such as mood, communication, concentration and a general sense of calmness.

Many young people diagnosed with learning disabilities have co-occurring conditions such as ADHD, ­sensory issues, epilepsy, mental health problems and physical impairments such as balance and motor skills. These particular ­therapeutic interventions also ­support ­movement and flexibility.

Leading relaxation training provider Relax Kids was created in 2000 to support children to feel happier, ­positive, recognise their potential and support general wellbeing. Relax Kids reflects a combination of mindfulness, yoga, play and relaxation, designed to improve attention, mood and reduce stress in both young ­children and teens.

The approach draws on techniques such as cognitive behavioural ­therapy, mindfulness, ­positive ­psychology, play therapy and an understanding of trauma. It is widely recognised as a child-friendly model with activities and resources for both home and school settings.

The highlight is that we, as workers, parents, teachers and professionals, can be as creative as we wish, which should be empowering and it supports the challenges of engaging young people and teenagers by creating an individualised tool bag. This could simply be breathing exercises to address a state of anxiety.

One thing we can be certain of is that mental health issues are on the rise, which in turn pushes our health services beyond capacity. Let’s use the supports identified as constructive to potentially reduce the ­reliance on our health boards and offer young ­people support that we can be ­confident is effective.

Care sectors and professionals must continue to develop and use ­relevant supports, particularly within the area of learning disabilities. In ­addition to therapeutic interventions lie a diverse range of communication aids. These range from using technology to providing extreme impairment support through the use of Makaton and visuals, ­further supporting young people to have a voice. This can potentially reduce child ­protection concerns and ­promote ­safeguarding.

Fortunately I am in a position that I can steer my service in this very direction, which allows me to comment on the effectiveness of these tools and support young people to thrive and cope with the world around them.

Yvonne Gaston, manager, Davidshill Farm, Spark of Genius, ­member of the Scottish Children’s Services Coalition.