Gathering and sharing our ‘inside perspectives’ can be the antidote to fragmentation.
Children with social, emotional and mental health needs seldom have a realistic understanding appropriate to their age of themselves or others as unique individuals. As a generalisation, they do not see others as individuals with distinct personalities worth getting to know.
They present different sides to different people - a strategy designed either to ward off imagined threats or to meet their basic needs especially for security and belonging. These differences are nuanced and emotional. A child may express dependence and anxiety to one teacher, and defiance and hostility to another.
As these conflicting presentations become entrenched, adults around the child develop ‘fragmented’ perspectives on the child. When these perspectives are brought together, the conflict surfaces in the dialogue between adults around the child. Worse still, the emotional content of their narratives can surface, too.
The staff group can itself become fragmented, with other staff drawn into taking sides.
An ‘inside perspective’ is an unexpressed narrative (and its emotional content). It may be: -
a part of the picture which is known to only one person
something the person finds hard to put into words.
thoughts and feelings which ‘cannot’ safely be expressed (‘I feel like slapping her’, ‘His mother is hopeless’).
Restoring a unified perspective
If we are to truly understand the situation and intervene effectively we need to bring these inside perspectives into the open in a safe way, and 'de-fragment’ them using a restorative justice approach.
Getting the inside perspective becomes easier when a relationship of trust has developed first.
Teachers are repeatedly having to sanction student A because of his use of abusive language. He has got into two fights with class peers, hitting them hard enough to bruise. He also encourages friends to misbehave when he is refusing to work, shouting at the teacher that he is not teaching him properly.
Student B told his class teacher that he had no friends because he was shy and often tired because he found it hard to get to sleep. Home life is difficult and when he is upset by things that have happened he gets a funny feeling in his tummy. He would like to run away from home because he doesn’t think things will ever change.
Lives at home with his parents, four sisters, and two brothers. His mother says he often doesn’t understand instructions and frequently gets confused. One problem is that, apart from basic words for food and domestic activities, there is no common family language. His father and mother only speak Tunisian Arabic with a smattering of English words, whereas the student was brought up in the UK and only speaks English. His eldest sister acts as a family translator, having lived in both countries.
Each of these narratives is based on a genuine case but it is not obvious (though you may have guessed it from context) that these three descriptions are of one student – Younis – a ten-year-old boy whose family came from Tunisia.
In this case, the problem was that the school only saw Student A. When someone talked to the boy, with his sister in support, student B appeared. And when mother’s version was obtained with the help of an interpreter (again, the sister) we had all three versions. With this information, the school took a completely different approach. Instead of pushing for his assessment and transfer, they implemented a home school liaison plan via the sister, and with her support Younis was able to remain in mainstream.
This is also a real-life case. The two perspectives on Chico were both held by the same teacher! One is her formal account for school records. The other is her rather more frank admissions made to me confidentially.
Mandy’s formal statement
'Chico would not settle down at the beginning of class and open his book. I asked him again and again but he still did nothing. He was distracting the other pupils. When I spoke to him he started to argue and refused to go to the withdrawal room when asked to do so. I called the Head of Year who took him to out of class’
Mandy’s confidential admissions and insights
‘He drives me mad. I feel myself being drawn into this role of the 'bitchy teacher'. I try to stop myself, but in the end I cannot. It's as if he wants to force me to do this. One time I gave him a real dressing down and he collapsed like a balloon and got on with his work. I could see his feelings were hurt, and it made me feel so guilty. I know I can crush him, but I won’t do it. On the other hand, … he’s driving me mad!'
I had talked to all the teachers who taught Chico. Some had much more positive perspectives to share. They shared powerfully emotive vignettes which cast Chico in a different light, and Mum had shared her story of family poverty and deprivation, and a violent father. As Mandy shared her story with me, I shared these inside perspectives with her.
Chico’s now conduct seemed more understandable. I suggested
always talking to the deflated and anxious boy, regardless of the face he was showing her at the time.
giving him less attention (if possible) when his conduct was disruptive during class and instead...
talking to him before and/or after the class for a minute or two, to give reassurance and encouragement and discuss any issues 1:1.
(Chico was the sort of boy who could never back down in front of his peers, but 1:1 would be much more approachable).
This strategy, together with shifts in outlook by other staff, changed the social environment for Chico. Over time, he came to feel he belonged in the school. He could still be a pain but the more tolerant and empathic reponses by staff shifted the trajectory in a positive direction.
When a practitioner is presented with a child communicating in a distressed state, the important aspect is the distress rather than the way it is being expressed.
We can ‘listen to’ the feelings the child is expressing, and empathise with the needs which these feelings reflect - and sometimes we can overlook the content. The content of the child’s communications may often be misleading because children who cannot express their emotions directly (“I am angry”), may often do so indirectly (“Fxxxxx cow! I hate you!”).
If we treat the content of this ‘indirect’ response as a breach of social boundaries, then we are missing the point. We can instead recognise the statement as a poorly formed communication of feelings and try to understand the root causes.
Four communications modes
People communicate verbally and nonverbally, and they can use those methods to express their feelings directly or indirectly (also known as ‘refractively’).
Child says, “I feel angry!”
Child says, “you’re stupid and ugly!!”
Child shows angry face, turns away from teacher, sits with crossed arms and hunched shoulders
Child damages teacher’s personal property (to make the teacher feel what they are feeling).
Children with social emotional and mental health often find it hard to communicate feelings verbally and directly. Nonverbal refractive displays are particularly difficult to manage – when a child kicks over the waste bin or throws books the teacher must respond but has limited personal investment in the books or the bin. But what if the child scratches the teacher’s new car with a coin?
Ideally, we learn to communicate our concerns including any negative feelings back to the child in a safe way. Even the kicking over of the bin will have had some personal impact on the teacher – some additional stress - irritation that the lesson is disrupted and raised anxiety about delays in whole class progress, perhaps…
 Because the response comes back at an 'odd angle' (as through a prism) rather than reflecting what went before.
CPD activity (download and use for free).
60-90 minute small group activity for teachers and managers with pastoral responsibilities including SEND and SEMH staff.