Individual versus group demands.

A straightforward way of thinking about the education needs of the population of a school is through the lens of economics. For example there are 1000 pupils in the school. What is the best way to educate 1000 pupils? The obvious answer is to split them into groups of similar age and abilities and then you are able to teach a subject to 20-30 pupils at a time.

We are aware that it is not so straightforward. In a class of 30 young people of a similar age and abilities, there are 30 children with different personalities, social constructs, emotional intelligence and resiliences.

In any group setting it is important to have a shared direction and social construct. The constructs include recognition of a teacher who is teaching a group of children a specific subject, and also set rules for this class. Rules cover when the lesson starts, when it finishes, acceptance that the pupils are to listen and be in a state of engaged thoughtfulness. There is also a construct requiring respect for the teacher and other learners.

I could extend to other layers of complexity. Each child is part of a family or care system who have their own family-centric beliefs about schools and learning, represented to varying degrees by each child. There is also the ever shifting social demands on teachers, often portrayed through media, of a need to provide ever improving exam results, whilst also being shamed for not meeting the individual  needs of some young people.

This depicts a highly demanding landscape in which a teacher must reach for the highest academic development of each child, whilst also maintaining an education environment which is the appropriate environment for every personality in the teachers care.

Unfortunately for even the most experienced and skilled teachers there will always be young people who have times when they are not in the emotional place required to engage in learning. The message given by society is that if schools and individual teachers are failing to educate even one child in their care, then they are failing. The danger is that feelings of failure and fear of failure can build up feelings of resentment.

The emotional challenge to a school and individuals within it can be considerable.  Schools have made considerable adjustments to provide a consistent predictable and progressive environment. The sense of a concept of success or failure is intrinsic to the school institution as the school is progressing its young people towards their GCSE’s and academic achievement. This could create a polarised view of the ‘right’ and the ‘wrong’ way of addressing things. When it comes to the personal relationships involved in a pupil teacher relationship there needs to be space for failure and difficulty that can be endured as opposed to changed. It is important to understand that for all individuals there are certain personalities in children and in turn in teachers that mean that their teaching relationship is not going to be fully successful. Rather than starting from a place of, “I need to be a success with every pupil,” consider that it can be healthy, helpful and appropriate for me to struggle with some children; this struggle may be what that child needs from me and serve benefit. Rather than fighting this insight the relationship is likely to be more successful if it is accepted that it is not ideal.

I have been privileged to hear teachers share their vulnerability and insecurity with each other about situations and then be amazingly understanding towards each other.

Schools have many structures to support children who are not able to engage in learning due to personal difficulties. These school services, however, are still usually validated through the lens of the academic achievement of the young people involved.

If a school is able to recognise its own intrinsic limitations and provide an environment which is able to recognise and process the complex emotional feelings of uncertainty and vulnerability both on an institution wide and individual basis, then this is likely to be a school which will provide an environment which is more containing for an individual child who is in their own place of emotional distress.

In short a school that is able to recognise and manage its own limitations in an understanding way is going to be far more equipped to help the children in its care to be accepting of their own limitations and vulnerabilities.

Nothing seems to be working!?

Nothing seems to be working!?

The stability of the parental couple around a child is key.

I have been puzzled by a number of young people whom I have been asked to meet and who are struggling within the school structures.

They seem emotionally able in many ways and yet the usual support structures are not providing containment; there does not seem to be any mental health illness, though the child is clearly existing in a fight or flight state more than is understandable.

I have found that the key to helping these young people is often in engaging with their parents.

Schools know a great deal about a child but less about their families. In meeting with parents of such young people I have repeatedly found that one of the parents is struggling with their own mental health issues or there is some marital discord effecting the parents.

A child’s safe place is their home where they go to process their world and day. If this safe space is going through a period of instability it will effect the child’s ability to feel grounded in their world and will make other interactions more precarious and unsettling.

In giving parents the space to recognise this challenge it can help mobilise them to face their own issues and therefore provide the containment their child needs.

An obvious question would be, ‘Is this part of a schools role?’ Many would say, ‘No.’

However to the question, ‘Can the school’s provision of an appropriate intervention with the family have a positive impact on the child’s education and the class room environment?’ The answer would undoubtedly be, ‘Yes.’

Outside the norm.

The school social peer group can provide a hugely unforgiving context. Between the ages of 11-14 this construct is at its peak. Young people are starting to negotiate the complex transition from their identity as a child to their identity as an adult. In primary school children are much more adult-centric in their identity. They want to get things right for their parents and teachers. With puberty and the shift to secondary school this necessarily changes to a much more peer-centric identity.

Some young people are well equipped for this change when they have enough internal resilience or social ability to manage this new world view. Often the ‘popular’ children shine at this new challenge. Other children can see this is the case, but do not understand it. The popular children are often loud, can be cruel to peers, are skilled at pushing boundaries and creating positive dialogue with their teachers.

It can be a highly challenging time for other personalities who are not valued by peers in this peak time for the perceived importance of social success. These are often the ‘odd’ or ‘quiet’ children, or the children who seem to be engaging in bizarre behaviour which is not aggressive but it is considered to be unusual. Such children often make comments which are outside the social norm of the current dialogue.

What these children often learn is that their contribution is not valued and their contribution creates the unpleasant, ‘awkward’ feeling of being excluded from current accepted social dialogue. If this is a repeated experience it can have a lasting impact on these individuals which continues into their adult lives.

I recently finished working with a young man, age 16 who was finishing school. He communicated his fury at his school and his peers and even now struggles to feel that his contributions would be valued by others. It took me knowing this young man for six months before I began to realise how intelligent he was in certain ways. His particular intelligence would not be detected in academic tests. He was also funny, thoughtful and able to understand himself in ways that were highly emotionally intelligent. If I described to any of his peers or teachers a boy who was intelligent, funny, thoughtful and self-aware, however, I believe they would never have thought of the young man I am referring to.

We are aware of the quote that there is a thin line between genius and insanity. This could be considered in many ways. It is not always, however, the person who is able to be most ordinary and able to fit in, who will find the most novel thought processes and ideas. It is through diversity of thinking that innovative progress is enabled.

There is an important developmental task in this 11-14 age which is working out how you fit in and how to manage. This stage brings some understandable and necessary emotional upset. It seems important to bear in mind, however, that there are some individuals who are so outside the developmental “norm” that responses to them can have a huge potential for detrimental impact on their development. This is because they experience that one of their most useful individual qualities when shown engages negative reinforcement from those around them. This leaves the young person to doubt the value of what they have to offer.

So when the ‘odd’ kid comes to tell you something that just baffles you, if you attempt to engage with his thinking and understand what he is saying you may find more sense than you would initially expect.

Can helping young people to recognise the value of difference enable more success in their adult life?

In popular films and media there are recognisable characteristics of social groupings portrayed in secondary schools. These are often formed around groups of young people who have similar personalities or sense of self-image.

Though these tropes are highly delineated within films, they exist because there are recognisable social groupings within secondary schools. In popular culture, the classic delineations are of jocks (confident sporty types), lovees, (theatrical extroverts), geeks (intellectual extroverts), nerds (intellectual introverts) and the more niche groupings such as the goths, (more outside the box thinkers).

Each grouping finds it easy to identify the failures of the other groups. The jocks are shallow and uncreative, the lovees are too emotional and attention-seeking, the geeks are immature and unrealistic, the nerds are boring and insular, the goths are just ‘weird’.

Can the same groups recognise the strengths of these other groupings? Is there value in supporting them in such questioning at this age?

As an adult I know exactly which of my friends and colleagues to go to if I need advice or help with something. Some of my close friends now were at my secondary school with me but I would not have had many conversations with them in secondary school. We were comfortable in different social circles. It took many years as an adult to work this out and value our difference in an explicit way.

If I wanted to sell things I would want the jocks on my team; they are socially able and goal/success orientated. If I wanted to create a platform which will engage a large number of people then I would approach the lovees. If I wanted someone to bring enthusiasm to a topic I would approach a geek. If I did not understand how something worked or the nuances of something complicated I would approach a nerd. If I needed some innovative no nonsense thinking, take me to the Goth!

Often in adult life it is as important to have realistic valuations of others as it is of yourself.

The young people I have worked with are all very aware of these groupings. I worked with a ‘popular’ girl who easily identified with the character Regina George from the film, “Mean Girls”. Regina is a character who is controlling, deceiving, belittling and mean, capable of doing everything in her power to get what she wants. Through exploring the resiliences and challenges this character presents in relating to the world, this girl, my client, was able to be more accepting of who she is and more able to think in a more generous way about some of the other girls in her year whom she had previously experienced as provoking.

I can see huge value in supporting young people to begin to reflect on the importance and value of difference. If an adolescent is able to recognise how their peers value their own individuality, it will make it easier for the individual to value their own differences.

Accepting what you can and cannot affect.

If someone is working in education or support services it is likely that they are a caring person. It seems a key personal attribute. Consequently it is difficult to see a young person who is distressed and not be able to affect change for this young person. It forces us to face our own lack of omnipotence.

I have met a number of young people within school who present this dilemma. Sometimes the ability to affect a catalyst for change around a young person seems beyond the ability and remit of a school. These are the same young people who also do not reach the threshold for external services. They are young people whose parents have limited emotional resources, yet these limitations do not reach the threshold for social care intervention. There are young people who are unsettled in their world by their mental health but do not reach the threshold to access CAMHS.

Schools work hard to care for and safeguard children in their care. Pastoral services support young people through their emotional development and help effect change in that young person which will enable them to engage in their education. It is, however, important for a school to recognise when they are presented with a young person whose ability to engage is affected by factors which are outside the remit of the school.

It can be distressing for staff to constantly work with a child who continues to struggle day after day to engage within the schools ‘expectations’. The caring staff members do not feel they are having any affect. This can be draining for the adult and stimulate the adults sense of failure.

Not meeting the school education expectations, however, does not mean the school is not providing something important for that child. An institute that can recognise a child is in distress and continues to provide mature adult thinking for the child is offering something of huge value. A childs experience of a safe place where adults are willing to engage with the child’s emotional state is going to pay dividends in that child’s future. It may, however, not affect any external difficulties that are unsettling for a child in the present.

A considered shift in the schools expectations around a young person will help to ensure the school feels they are meeting the needs of this child. The adults ability to be with a child without the feeling that the adult is not succeeding will provide a more contained and less threatening space for the child.

I often use this cartoon when thinking about children who are struggling in their education. That goldfish is not going to climb that tree. The fish may well benefit from a pool and to understand it is a fish.

Talk to Kate.