Family health: the monkey method

Tuesday 12th August 

When her young daughter faced surgery, Helen Sadler created a storybook character to help her cope. Now Monkey is changing the way children learn about health. Lucy Dimbylow reports.

As a parent, there comes a time when you have to speak to your child about health – whether you’re explaining the need for routine immunisations, helping them live with a long-term condition like asthma, or discussing a family member’s illness. These conversations can be far from easy. Talking openly can help your child feel reassured and in control, but it can be hard to be honest without being frightening.

This was the situation that primary school teacher Helen Sadler found herself in when her daughter Josephine, now six, faced major lung surgery at 18 months old. “I was terrified but knew I had to avoid transferring my fears to her,” explains Helen, from Lewes, East Sussex. Her solution was to use her teaching skills to create a handmade book to explain the process to Josephine, in which the protagonist – a toy monkey – had an operation. Helen used photographs of Monkey in the actual hospital rooms that Josephine would visit, surrounded by the equipment she would see, and read the book to her daughter over and over again in the run-up to her treatment.

Her approach paid off. “The medical staff were amazed by how well Josephine coped and asked if they could share my book with other families,” Helen says. And so a 100-mile walk by her husband and a friend raised enough money to print 10,000 copies of Monkey Has an Operation; a second book, Monkey Has a Blood Test, followed. 

Empowering children

With Monkey helping many families to talk to their children about health, Helen was asked by Kath Evans, NHS England’s head of patient experience, to write NHS Explorers, a resources pack that has been distributed to all 19,088 primary schools in England.

This is a first for the NHS: previously, all that existed was a single lesson on emergency and urgent care, aimed at 11 to 14-year-olds. In contrast, NHS Explorers includes a term’s worth of lesson plans. “Young children need to be drip-fed information, rather than having it thrown at them in one go,” explains Helen.

Suitable for children aged four to 11, NHS Explorers is delivered during personal, social and health education (PSHE) lessons, and includes Monkey’s Guide to Healthy Living and NHS Services, DVD resources, stickers, a poster and a puppet. There is even an accompanying song. The materials can also be purchased online at www.monkeywellbeing.com, so that parents can use them at home to prepare their child for procedures like blood tests and operations.

The aim of the Monkey resources is twofold. Firstly, it helps adults – be they teachers, parents or healthcare professionals – to talk to children about health in an age-appropriate way, such as through storybooks, role play and film clips. “It’s important to be honest, concise and positive and try not to transfer your own fears, and Monkey helps in all of those areas,” says Helen. This is not just empowering for children, but a basic human right: the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states that all children should be involved in decisions that affect them, and have their opinions taken into account.

Equally importantly, the materials educate children about the range of NHS services and how to use them. For example, Monkey’s Guide to Healthy Living and NHS Services helps children to understand whether an illness or injury should be dealt with at a walk-in centre, by their family doctor or in hospital. This is a valuable undertaking: if just one child from every primary school avoided an unnecessary A&E visit, the NHS would save £1.4 million. And teaching children how to access the right service has a knock-on effect. “We’ve had feedback from a grandparent who had never heard of walk-in centres before reading the book with her grandson,” Helen explains. “They went out together to find their nearest centre and now know where to go if they need help.”

Telling the truth

Monkey is earning respect among professionals across the board. “The storybooks are so effective because they tell the truth,” says NHS England’s Kath Evans. “Showing real doctors, nurses and equipment, they help children identify with healthcare environments when they visit them.”

Gianni Bianchi, who used to be head teacher at Firle Primary School in East Sussex, agrees. “Teaching children how to keep safe and healthy is a really important part of education,” he explains. “We used the resources in all year groups. They’re colourful and inviting, and initiate lots of discussion around physical and emotional health.”

Feedback from families is positive, too. Children describe the materials as “brilliant and fascinating”, while parents say that the books help their children progress from terror to excitement. And with research showing that Monkey is actively improving children’s health, there are more titles in the pipeline, covering subjects from injections to mental health. “I am delighted that Monkey has been so well received, and hope he continues to educate children about health, wellbeing and NHS services,” says Kath.

“Monkey helped my daughter through her operation”

Psychologist Jenny King, 37, from Brighton, used Monkey Has an Operation to reassure her four-year-old daughter Maisie ahead of surgery.

"As a psychologist, I think it’s really important for children to know what to expect, so when Maisie had to have cleft palate surgery, I wanted to prepare her as best I could. The story helped Maisie to understand what was going to happen, and helped me to see what I needed to explain to her. Until we read it, I wasn’t aware that Maisie hadn’t realised she was going to go to sleep like Monkey. It gave Maisie a sense of mastery over her hospital experience.”

This article first appeared in benhealth (issue 28, autumn 2014), 

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