23 Dec Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There’s a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in. (Leonard Cohen)
Sometimes children can seem so mysterious, separate, impossible to know, even harder to help. Even to ourselves as children.
As adults working with children, whatever our role, we do our best to be present and support them, at the same time as granting them the freedom to discover themselves in their world, without running into danger.
We don’t consciously remember much of this from the earliest years of our own lives do we? When the world was new, finding our way through happy and sad days. When I meet children who have run into trouble, who seem stuck in a rut, I can empathise with them, not by comparing their situation with what I remember of my own childhood but in a more direct, human-to-human way.
As I’m writing this, I can recall myself as a ten year old in Primary school when I stopped talking, the outcome of a stutter which brought me to the point of giving up trying to force my breath to produce what my head, in its profound darkness, was clearly speaking .
I never had any kind of help, it was left to me to figure out how to get out of this bind. I loved singing in the church choir, I’d joined when I was seven, and knew when I sang I was completely fluent. I didn’t stutter. So that’s what I did, not the melodic part but the rhythm, the breath control, the dynamics. A little boy with this tucked away inside for no-one else to know. And now when I speak from what you hear you’d never guess what’s going on inside. I’d found a way through and past the obstacle.
A meeting of minds
Nearly twenty years ago, working as a Behaviour Support specialist I’d had a referral for a twelve year old girl in secondary school, which told me she was very close to permanent exclusion because of her disruptive behaviour in class. When we first met, asked her what would be useful to her for us to work on. She looked at me, looked away, I could see her straining for words. None came. And when I tried to speak I discovered an amazing thing had happened – my stutter had switched back on! We were two people with no way of talking to each other. So I did what I knew worked; I slowed down, I breathed, she breathed, we breathed together. Until we could take up our words, still stuttering but sharing our resources to make sense. Things went well, we talked about hopes and successes, she wasn’t excluded.
“And then there was laughter”. (Insoo Kim Berg)
When I meet a new person who is struggling, I don’t sympathise with their loss, but instead share our expectation of a better future through a deep knowledge that problems aren’t perfect, they’ve always got a crack in them, there are always times when the problem fails and the solutions happen. We are realistic optimists. Building from this foundation the better future we can construct together brings it alive and into focus. We’ll leave the story of darkness to itself and grow the light, by talking about hopes and successes and resourcefulness. Breathing and laughing in the face of adversity.
The brighter future
I started work at the beginning of this Autumn term, 2022, with a child (who I’ll call C) entering the last year of primary school. C was stuck in a pattern of part-time schooling, arriving in the morning and leaving before lunchtime, spending little time in class with the other children but learning separately with a teaching assistant.
The school asked me if I could provide Solutions Focused Coaching as the next step in support, given that they were stuck and were determined to find a way ahead. The SF approach generates change and movement where other ways of working get to a dead end. And laughter.
We met using online video. The first thing to do was to set our work on the optimistic platform of hope; I asked “What might change a bit for things to go better for you in school? What could we work on that would be useful to you?” “Being ready for school?” “OK let’s work on that.” The school’s best hope matched C’s, in looking ahead towards full-time attendance in the Spring term 2023.
Checking this best hope every time we met, C shifted to “Staying in school” at session 5 when we reviewed progress with C recognised things were going well and asked for the sessions to continue through to session 10. I discussed this with the Headteacher who agreed to fund them.
Solution Focused scaling – picturing change
C continued to make steady progress, hoping for more time in school after the half-term holiday. They were able to scale themself realistically for “staying in school” and to recover from minor reversals and challenges, including the additional demands of staying in school for the lunch break from session 6 onwards. On session 9 C scaled themself at 8 for “staying in class”, having had their longest week of staying four days in school until 2.15. They said “Only one lesson away from all day!” working to a plan for being in school full time following the Christmas break. We usually met with C on mobile phone, sometimes using a whiteboard to write messages for me, at home, in the car, with a parent always nearby. Always energised, ready to tell me about what worked, about challenges in the week to be overcome, about things going well. Lighthearted, engaged, independent, self-motivated.
Giving and receiving – compliments
I close every session of Solutions Focused Coaching with compliments to the coachee, rooted in the session or the immediate days before it; from parent to C, from me to C and from C to themself. The parent’s compliment at session 9 was that on the previous day “C said they didn’t want to go to school, but over twenty five minutes made a ‘pinky promise’ and went in on their own” – scaling point 9.5.
At session 10 we reviewed the SFC work with C putting themself at scale point 8 for “being in class more” with a hoped-for “at least 9” for the final week of term. C was happy to end our regular sessions, with the parent’s compliment being “I think you had a better week, run away twice, but better. It’s been incredible, amazing work because their brain’s growing – their above average on Maths!” The parent added that they felt they had learned a lot through being part of our SFC sessions too. C talked happily about being in school full time in the new term. I told C I’d be in touch with school to see what was going well and to check on continued SFC support by a member of school staff as and when needed.
We agreed to end the SFC sessions. I reminded C to notice what’s going well. And reminded myself.