We manage children’s behaviour; setting important limits, expectations and boundaries. And yet for some of our children, the boundaries and consequences do not seem to show either the results nor the compliance needed to do well in school. As educators, we scratch our heads and wonder why. Why do they not seem to care? Why do they seem impervious to the consequences of being in detention, being on the sad cloud or excluded and unwelcome in our schools? Why do they return and do exactly as we have told them not to do? Why can’t they just behave?
It is the frustration of teachers and headteachers around the country. The increase in exclusions should be enough to show us all that what we are doing is not working. Yet, we are lucky. We live in a time where neuroscience can give us the answers and where psychology is not a subject derided by the general populace. We know that some children are arriving in our classrooms not ‘school ready’. We know that the funding means we have less resources available for pastoral support. We know that the cuts to social services and early intervention are leaving the problems at the school gates for under-resourced schools to cope with. We know this and yet even given all of the above, I know it can be different.
I stand here and hold hope for all the weary educators squeezed and impacted by all of it. In therapy one of the main jobs – apart from unconditional positive regard – is for the therapist to hold hope when the client has none. Just like flowers, we naturally wiggle our way to find light, even in the darkest days. The science shows us now that the pre-frontal cortex, so very much needed for a calm and thinking mind in the classroom, needs to be connected. And we know that the impact of early life experiences (Adverse Childhood Experiences and beyond) has re-shaped brains to be connected more to flight, fight, freeze, flop or flock than to the thinking and learning part. Compounded with that, the lack of ‘good-enough’ relationships in their family lives has meant that those very children we so wish to help are so far from feeling safe in relationships. Yet, in the face of all of this, I hold hope.
Imagine a school where educators put this knowledge at the forefront of their minds and in every decision because they knew that when they did, brains would be settled and therefore grades would rise. In alignment with holding firm boundaries with children, tidy environments and high expectations for children and parents alike, that educators placed emphasis on restorative practices and teaching emotional literacy as key priorities. Giving words to children as the armour they needed rather than the actions they use. That every adult knew that their relationship with children can be the bridge educators can co-create alongside children – to help repair and grow brains into a better place.
That it was understood that to connect first with children was vital to redirect and teach skills to regulate and that sometimes that means we would use play with the child to have that conversation. To accept that not being ‘school ready’ was not too much of a burden as it was easy to create even more reliable, repetitive, rewarding and respectful processes in our school day that research tells us settles our brains into a calm state. That with very little effort, the adults could increase the level of security, allowing the building and the rhythm of the school day to be the container in which developing brains can settle and start to learn safety.
Imagine a school where children all knew which days their teachers were not in and where any changes to the normal schedule were introduced that all children were informed way in advance. That timetables and movements in the day, term and year were always on show so that children could see when changes were happening. That children were prepared for the transitions of home, holidays and returning to school. That endings were given time, priorities and place. That if children were excluded either internally or externally, that adults from the school visited them on a daily basis to work with them in their homes on the various issues that kept them out.
I imagine a school where the United Nations Children’s Rights Charter was the base of the School Development Plan and we worked collaboratively with, rather than had power-over, children. I imagine too a school where we spend at least 20% of the time not reacting to situations but being proactive in our approach in Year 1 so that eventually by Year 6 we would not see the behaviours which have aided survival becoming part of the child’s ‘personality’ and the small human within. I imagine a time when we screen for vulnerability carefully and sensitively and provide early emotional literacy interventions to support these courageous children who have more resilience than many of us.
I imagine a school where all job descriptions include a thorough understanding of attachment issues and neuroscientific development and where the word trauma-informed does not just belong to the Inclusion Manager and the Support Staff. I imagine an interview that involved a deep exploration of this and carried as much weight as an outstanding lesson. I imagine a school in which sad clouds, detentions and exclusions do not exist. I can see this school so very clearly. I have created some of those structures and interpreted them through policy, practice and curriculum. And the children thrived – they told me so with their voices and behaviour. For the children are the teachers; it is their behaviour which points us in the direction of how our systems and processes need to change, to make room for the new knowledge in the room alongside the goodness of a firm and loving stance.
And I know it can be different. I know it can. I know we can.
* Vicky is hosting a screening of Paper Tigers in Bristol on Tuesday 13 November 2018. A film that shows how one school radically changed its approach to disciplining its students, becoming a promising model for how to break the cycles of poverty, violence and disease that affect families. Please book tickets here.
* Vicky is available to work with senior management and staff in an advisory capacity. to make this happen. Please contact her here