03 Oct The optimistic child – making a start
It’s the start of another school day. A ten year-old boy gets to the school door but on this day he just can’t go in, it’s simply too much. He does everything he can to stop it happening, hitting himself on the wall, refusing help, clearly in distress, not running away or hurting anyone else. Family and staff are at a loss as to what they can do. Every time it happens it leaves everyone exhausted, with the child and the grown-ups feeling stuck. They don’t know how to get out of the situation to a better, happier place. At other times, when he does get through the door and into school, on a part-time timetable, he follows a set routine for entering class which works. The plan is to increase his time in school to full-time, in line with his Education, Health and Care Plan. There are many stories like this, where children are finding going happily into school a huge challenge, and people around them feel stuck and helpless.
The question is – how to solve this problem, safely and effectively?
I’m currently working with this child, the school and the family. Our work is going well so far. What are we doing together? I’ll tell you about in a few moments.
But first, here’s another question; how do we view the issue of absence, non-attendance or school refusal ?
Is it that these children and their families or carers are simply badly behaved, non-compliant, too lax about rules and regulations?
In which case is the answer stricter discipline, penalties and fines? Some authorities recommend forcing children into school until they overcome the anxiety school generates and they become compliant – in behaviour therapy known as “flooding”, direct exposure to a maximum intensity anxiety-producing situation aimed at extinguishing the undesired response, in this case school refusal. Parents or carers can be fined for their child’s behaviour.
Or should it be seen as a health issue; an anxious child with a pessimistic view of school who needs emotional support to build their confidence in facing and overcoming this fear inducing challenge? Which approach is more likely to lead to the desired outcome of getting children positively engaged with their academic, social and emotional learning, in class, with their friends and trusted adults?
Last week I wrote about the BBC Panorama programme “Mental health; young lives in crisis” which noted that “the rate of probable mental health conditions among 6 to 16 year olds was 1 in 9 and now it’s I in 6”, representing an “enormous wave of need”. How can we meet that amount of need in school?
The crisis in child mental health is exceeding the capacity of specialist services to meet the ever-increasing needs of children struggling in schools seems. Mental health awareness is a great idea but what comes first is timely practical support delivered by school staff as part and parcel of their routine pastoral work. Specialist services are one part of a range of responses across a spectrum from universal services, including schools through to inpatient mental hospitals.
Specialist services have come under increasing pressure through funding and staffing reductions and are forced to use waiting lists as a holding measure.
Schools as a universal service are different; schools don’t have waiting lists, they respond to children’s needs as they come up, day in and day out, in the best ways they can. Children struggling with their attendance or their emotions or their learning have equal priory with all the others needing timely support. Families and carers can bring their worries to schools who do their best to listen and respond positively, even when times are at their toughest, as we saw during the lockdown times in the Covid pandemic.
Schools patrol their boundaries with the ‘consequences’ we all know about, a frown, a reminder, a detention or a call home and this works for most children, without traumatising them as far as we can tell. But where this routine clearly doesn’t work, as with the boy I told you about earlier, schools need to do something else because doing the same and expecting to get a different result is pointless.
For me this ‘something else’ is the Solution Focused approach to learning. It draws on the evidence produced by Martin Seligman, Mihaily Czickszentmihalyi and others working in Positive Psychology about the central role that realistic optimism plays in enabling children to reach their best hopes in school and in life. Solutions Focused Coaching in schools engages staff with children in an optimistic process which can benefit children and adults alike as early help for children who need more than rules and reminders.
My best hope is that you’ll find it useful too.