By Deirdre McConnell on 08 Mar 2021
Let’s choose to challenge each other when we fall short of respect for the full humanity of all.
A former headteacher told me about a time when a teacher complained about a child’s behaviour. Intuitively the head recognised the emotional needs of both the member of staff and the angry child. Reassuring the teacher who then returned to class, the head remembered some jobs that needed doing and walked calmly with the child to the staff room. Together, they washed up a mound of dirty crockery. After some time, the child was ordering clean cups by colour, in rows. Emotionally regulated, the child chatted about other things then returned happily to the classroom. The child had been treated with understanding and helped to calm.
For reasons I will clarify let’s consider three different meanings of the verb ‘to treat’. It can refer to the act of relating to others as in the attitude of the headteacher towards the child. Secondly it can mean to offer medical or clinical help for a physical or mental health problem. Thirdly it can mean to give ourselves or someone else an experience that is pleasurable, perhaps a reward.
Thinking along the lines of the first meaning, we all know that too many children have been maltreated earlier in their young lives. The result may be persistent patterns of reacting that served to protect them in the past from danger. Their nonverbal survival responses rooted in fight, flight, freeze or flop can be confusing for their peers and staff in school. After all, the child should know how to behave. In the present moment however, they may perceive threat unapparent to others. No-one can get it right all the time. We all have emotions and good days and bad days. However, many of our children in school rely on us to show them compassion and understanding even when they get it wrong. A sense of curiosity: ‘What just happened to you now?’ will work better than: ‘Why did you do that?’ Emotion and anger may have had its origins in what happened early in the morning before school, or way back in implicit memory as an infant when unable to control anything in life. The child is not choosing their reactions consciously. In those tricky moments, the child requires empathy. Criticism, correction or punishment will only entrench the reactions further. Soothing relational activity that gives a message of belonging, allowing the body to calm and the nervous system to regulate, de-escalates the situation and buildes trust. This requires teamwork and a compassionate system encouraging all staff and pupils to treat each other with dignity and respect.
When children have experienced complex developmental trauma we may need to consider ‘treatment’ as in the second meaning given above. Qualified arts therapists, registered with the Health and Care Professions Council offer such clinical treatment, and many now work within the SEMH provision in schools. They help the child learn to process emotion in new ways and they provide children with opportunities to make sense of their experiences. The child becomes aware of their own reactions, emotions, thoughts and memories in micro-moments. Using creative methods children can be supported to connect with their resilience (capacity to bounce back) and their personal growth processes. The more complex the situation the more time is needed.
Trauma-informed approaches support children. What was offered to the child by the head in the anecdote above was not a treat, in the third sense of the word. It was time spent with an adult who understood what it is like to feel angry and upset, and had knowledge of the link between wellbeing and readiness to learn. Arts therapy sessions are not ‘treats’ either. Certainly, they may be filled with activity, creativity and fun but they are also simultaneously in-depth emotional and psychological support.
I related the true story about an adult’s empathy, fairness and decision-making to highlight how the same initial scenario could have led to a very different outcome. I purposely wrote few details about the persons apart from them being a child and two adults. If we add other layers of detail to this scenario, for example a child being of LAC or PLAC status, identity, gender or race, it might be possible to predict a less happy resolution. If a solution had been reached that was perceived as unjust by the child, it does not take much to imagine what might have followed. The situation would possibly escalate sooner or later. Even a brief look at the statistics of children who are excluded from school highlights the need to address these issues. For instance, if children have interacted with social services they are twenty times more likely to be excluded. Like all children, these need to feel understood and that they belong.
Should we not choose to challenge assumptions we may have about what people feel and why? Can we take the time and space to listen and learn? Can we look together at implicit bias over a number of issues, in a spirit of learning and mutual understanding? We might have little experience for instance, of what it feels like to be judged daily, in the street, in the city, in school, by what we look like, according to our colour. Do we not need to learn to understand each other better? The Lammy report gives detailed and extensive information and reasons why. I believe we need to be open and acknowledge our differences, celebrate them, and ensure that wherever discrimination rears its head, it is promptly challenged. It makes educational sense.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child, which underpins the Children’s Act, reminds us that as adults we are duty-holders and children are rights-bearers. Children have a right to be heard. We have opportunity now as education resumes after this third lockdown to reconsider what education is all about. How do we listen to children and young people and respect their experience and their innate intelligence? The Recovery Curriculum offers much information and insight.
The child is the expert in their own thoughts and feelings. We need to understand the ‘innate systems intelligence’ that children have, pre-verbally, from infancy. If we meet them in right relationship, they will give us clues about what they need to grow, to learn. Above all they need positive learning environments where they feel they belong, and that their uniqueness is respected, valued and affirmed. In turn, we may even learn from them.
I’yana, a 10-year old child who has been deeply affected by what she sees happening in society has illustrated and written about her thoughts and feelings. She has ‘Chosen to Challenge’ and not keep silent. She expresses herself with an eloquence and talent that is to be celebrated. It seems appropriate to listen to her voice during this year’s International Women’s Week.