"Hands up who has a brain?" Laura McMurray asks. A forest of hands shoots up in the class of 6-7 year-olds at Wheldrake with Thorganby CE Primary school. Some of them wave wildly to emphasise the point.

Laura smiles. "Well, today we're going to be learning about our brains," she says. "Have you all got your listening ears on?"

"Yes!" choruses a sea of small voices.

Welcome to the latest attempt to tackle the growing problem of stress, anxiety and other mental health issues amongst our children.

There has been professional wellbeing help available in York schools for children who are anxious, depressed or struggling to learn, make friends or fit in for a while now.

But in a new approach first trialled in 2017, City of York Council's school wellbeing service has now developed an 'early intervention' programme aimed at all young primary school children. It is designed to help the children understand from a very young age why they sometimes feel upset or worried - and to teach them some simple calming techniques that they can use when they do.

The aim is to build 'resilience' in children and young people, says Emma Hughes, leader of the council's school wellbeing service.

But since the children are still very young, it has to be done in a way they can relate to. Which is why the programme has enlisted the help of ... meerkats. Or at least, a book and video about meerkats.

Laura and her colleague Victoria Wall are two of the council's school wellbeing workers.

They have been running the 'how to tame your meerkat' sessions (based on the story Little Meerkat's Big Panic by Jane Evans) at primary schools across York since 2017 - first training school staff in the approach, then teaching a session to children to demonstrate how it works.

And today they've come to teacher Kate Ollerenshaw's class at Wheldrake.

Laura begins by introducing three different parts of the brain - using animals all children know and love.

First is the meerkat brain. "Have you seen meerkats?" she asks. "What kind of things do they do?"

There's a forest of waving hands, and some excited answers, before she gets the answer she's looking for - they stand up straight and look around them.

Laura shows them a short video of a meerkat on the lookout, standing tall and flicking its head from side to side.

"Why do you think they do that?" she asks.

Hands wave. "They're looking out for predators!" a little girl says.

That's right, says Laura. "So the lookout meerkat has a very special job." She pauses for a split second. "There's a part of our brain that helps us to look out for danger," she says. "We're going to call it our meerkat brain, and it does a really important job."

The children bob their heads and look about, pretending to be meerkats on the lookout for danger themselves.

"But sometimes our meerkat brain gets a bit over-excited - or even a bit worried," Laura says. "Then it needs help to calm down."

She introduces the elephant brain. Elephants never forget, she says - and because they don't forget, they can always recognise the signs when someone is upset or worried.

"If someone in your class is upset, how do you know?" she asks.

"They might be crying!" a girl says.

"That's right," Laura says. "So if you see one of your classmates crying, your elephant brain will tell you 'they are upset'."

Which is where your monkey brain comes in, she says. It is very clever - so it can often work out what to do. She shows them a David Attenborough video of an orangutan sawing a piece of wood. "So clever!" a little boy says.

"Our monkey brain is our thinking brain," Laura says. "When might we use it?"

"When answering a hard question!" a little girl says.

"When doing DIY!" says a boy.

Laura hands over to her colleague Victoria. "Vicky is going to tell you a story," she says. "She's a better story-teller than I am!"

The story is Little Meerkat's Big Panic. Victoria sits in front of the class, shows the children the book, and begins.

Little meerkat is learning how to be a lookout meerkat, she says. And today is his first day of doing proper lookout duty. It is an important job, because he's responsible for the safety of all the other meerkats. "How do you think he might be feeling?"

"Worried!" someone says.



"That's right," Victoria says. "His neck and shoulders feel really tight and stiff." She runs her hands over shoulders and rolls her head on her neck to demonstrate. The children do the same.

Victoria continues. Little meerkat falls asleep on his first lookout duty - and when he wakes up, all the other meerkats have gone.

He panics. What's happened to them? Where are they?

Then little elephant comes along. He recognises that little meerkat is upset, and helps him to calm down. But they still don't know where the other meerkats are.

It takes mini monkey to work that out. He spots a pile of rocks in the distance and leads his two friends over to look behind them.

"And what do you think is behind the rocks?" Victoria asks.

"The meerkats!" the children chorus, delighted at the way things have turned out.

Yes! says Victoria. They saw a big bird flying overhead, and all hid behind the rocks. It's their usual hiding place - but in his panic, little meerkat had just forgotten...

The moral of the story is that it's OK to feel upset or worried sometimes - we all do. But things are usually all right in the end.

"What do you do if your meerkat brain is making you upset?" Victoria asks.

"Scream!" says a girl.

"I go to my mum for a hug!"

"Hug my teddy!"

The session ends with Victoria and Laura teaching the children some of the techniques small elephant used to help little meerkat calm down.

They teach the children to take three deep breaths - in through the nose, out through the mouth.

Then they ask them to imagine they have a flower in one hand, a candle in the other. "Sniff the flower, blow the candle!" says Victoria. The children do so. "Sniff! Blow! Again: sniff! Blow!"

Much sniffing and blowing, accompanied after a while by a few yawns.

"How are you feeling now?" Victoria asks.

"Sleepy!" one of the children says.

Cue smiles from the adults in the room. That's one calming technique that has certainly done the trick...


The 'how to tame your meerkat' programme has been introduced at 18 primary schools across York so far, and continues to be rolled out at others.

It's a universal programme, says Emma Hughes, leader of City of York Council's school wellbeing service: the aim is to teach all children to be more aware of what makes them and their friends upset, and to give them some simple calming techniques to use if they are feeling a bit down.

The programme is a response to the increasing level of mental health issues among children and young people that has been recognised across the country. It aims to make all children more aware and more resilient.

Alison Shaw, the headteacher at Wheldrake with Thorganby CE Primary, says that the school had already been working with the council's wellbeing service to work with individual children. But this programme is very different, she says, because it is designed to include all children.

But does it work? Will it help children to develop the ability to deal better with negative feelings?

It's early days yet. But many schools have really engaged with the training, says Victoria.

And the calming techniques they are teaching can only be good. Using the characters from the story is a helpful method, says Laura. "If someone gets that 'meerkat brain', you can say 'feeling a bit meerkatty?' and that defuses it!"