The trouble with schools is that as educators, we all too often forget to accept that we are working with young people. They are still developing, physically, mentally and emotionally.
Apologies, I’ve been caught up in all the furore surrounding the launch of the new draft Curriculum for Wales and as a result, lost my thread by writing the last two blogs on the curriculum and thus jumped the gun a little. So, let me go back a few steps. Just to recap, I wanted to develop some imperatives we must address if we are to meet the needs of all 21st Century learners. Really, they are a set of values or things I hold dear in relation to education; imperatives for schools, we must take forward with us, as we progress through this century.
21st Century Imperative No. 2
The last blog in this series discussed the necessity to develop a sense of belonging in schools. This leads me to the second imperative which if we were to create a sense of belonging in a school, then it is essential that we respect and accept who and what young people are and develop the skills, knowledge and resources to work with them effectively. Young people will make mistakes or errors of judgment; at times, they will lose their self-control, their neurones are not yet fully connected, and their hormones are flying all around. To put it bluntly they are not yet fully formed and some less so than others, through no fault of their own. It is essential, therefore, that we accept this.
Research into neuro development and learning
Since the nineties, there has been an explosion in research related to neuro development and how we learn. Many of us will have experienced and will still be experiencing in schools, some of the outcomes of this research related to education. For example, Thinking Skills; Brain Gyms; Preferred styles of Learning. Some of it has moved pedagogy on in the classroom and some has probably done more harm than good (we’re terrible in our profession for latching on to the next big thing), by diverting us from the task at hand or confusing the picture.
Talking of next big things, while all the research concerning learning was going on, at the same time, quietly in the background (at least from a schools’ point of view), there was also an explosion of research into infant neuro development and the impact of adverse childhood experiences on future emotional and physical well-being, as well as the capacity to form healthy relationships with other people. This research, in my opinion, has the potential to take schools to another level if we are to meet the needs of all young people.
Now I’m no brain scientist and rely on my wife to put me right on this, but this is my (very simple) interpretation of where this research should lead us:
“1001 Critical Days” (A cross-party report outlining the importance of acting early to enhance outcomes for children) is an excellent place to start if you want to know more. The report not only highlights how the ‘attachment’ patterns a new-born child can develop in the first 1001 days, but also the potential damage caused to the connections in the brain mentioned above. New synapses are being formed continuously in the brain:
“From birth to age 18 months, it has been calculated that connections in the brain are created at a rate of a million per second! The earliest experiences shape a baby’s brain development and have a lifelong impact on that baby’s mental and emotional health.”
(1001 Critical Days)
While all these connections/synapses are being formed, those that are not needed or being used, are being ‘pruned’ away, to make room for others. Thus, creating a ‘use it or lose it’ scenario. Babies are born with higher numbers of defensive synapses, however, if a child in their early years becomes regularly hyper-vigilant due to neglect or household violence, then the reasoning centre of their brain is not given the opportunity to develop.
Whilst these connections can become hardwired there is a small window of opportunity in adolescence when there is a degree of ‘neuroplasticity’ in the brain. This creates opportunities where we can affect positive outcomes on the teenage child’s neuro development and promote their capabilities to form positive relationships with other people.
Why is this a 21st Century Imperative?
The first reason relates to the greater understanding of the effect of adverse childhood experiences on brain development. This has led to increased identification of variations in the needs young people will have. With this comes a greater moral responsibility to address these needs.
One of our primary roles as educators is to accept that these needs exist and learn how to weave emotional intelligence into all the various aspects of our working week. We need to be equipped to manage the different emotional states and subsequent errors of judgment a young person can make. We should also be able to take advantage of these mistakes, highlight them and turn them into learning opportunities for young people. It is only through positive interactions with young people and reactions to their behaviours, that we can hopefully bring about change in patterns of relating to others and in raising self-esteem.
In this way, we can perhaps counter the effect of the lack of ‘reasoning’ connections, possibly even promote the development of new connections by developing coping strategies and therefore build resilience in adult life.
The second reason relates to finance and resources. In addition to training our staff to manage children who may have high levels of adverse childhood experiences, we need to consider ways we can restructure our schools (staffing, curriculum, pedagogy and spaces).
Due to the ubiquitous cuts/austerity that seem destined to remain with us for many years to come in this century, schools will have to cope with the rising levels of children who might otherwise have been in alternative or specialist provision. Over the past ten or so years I have witnessed a decrease funding and a gradual decline in the number of alternative providers for young people.
In addition to this many of the charities who once provided additional support to schools in deprived areas or their communities have had funding withdrawn and as a consequence their level of support has gradually declined.
Even if there were a change in policy, how long would it take to provide the support required to meet the needs of all learners? In short, schools need to re-invent themselves, especially schools in high areas of deprivation.
Courses of action
Firstly, this will require us to develop and/or recruit staff, who were equipped with emotional intelligence and confidence to work with young people. We should draw on the wealth of knowledge about the brain and the developmental process through which young people pass, on their way to becoming adults, and use this to fully train and develop our staff.
Secondly, we need to highlight to all staff working in schools the importance of accepting the inevitable mistakes and errors of judgement made by young people (we are the adults and should have the greater control over our responses) and develop and equip our staff with the emotional intelligence and resilience to manage this. This is hard. At times we all feel the compulsion when pushed to snap at a child (just ask my own children).
We should enable all staff to work with students through their emotional difficulties. In short, aiming for our staff to educate young people to learn from their mistakes and how best to cope with challenges that arise, rather than have staff reacting to behaviours in a negative and possibly harmful, destructive way.
Thirdly, we need to find a financial balance in schools, between supporting the needs of all and being pragmatic in relation to just how much we can do. Headteachers (including myself), need support with this. I could easily pour all my school resources (and still not have enough) into meeting the needs of a few and leave nothing for the majority. I obviously don’t do this, but where do I draw the line?
Do I increase class sizes in maths, employ one less maths teacher and instead employ an additional Educational Psychologist? Or do I develop a trauma room and staff it, at the expense of funding music tutors? There is no easy answer and any decisions carry with them the weight of moral responsibility. An interesting piece of research would be to analyse where that line is.
Fourthly, accepting the fact that young people are still developing enables us to look at their behaviours from a different perspective, thus opening up new ways of developing positive relationships that are conducive to learning. It is imperative, therefore, that as schools we become more research orientated (perhaps working in partnership with universities) in this field
The young people we work with give us valuable insight into coping mechanisms in a rapidly changing world. Through our own observations, we can also observe their development and progress. We can become a ‘two-way mirror’, giving pupils a voice to report on the way we are affecting them in our interactions.
I’ll put this next bit in bold because it’s sure to be the first thing someone will bring up if I don’t state it loudly: All of what I’ve said above does not necessitate us doing away with sanctions. Young people still need boundaries and have consequences for unacceptable behaviour. However, we need to ensure that young people learn from mistakes and so should provide repercussions that are not meaningless but related to the behaviours. For example:
• Restorative meetings
• Restricted or no access to an item that’s damaged
• Workshops (related to the misdemeanour) rather than fixed term exclusions
• Unconditional positive regard shown throughout any reprimand
What are the blocks?
Current systems and processes make this problematic. In addition to the obvious lack of funding, there is still a question mark with regards to the nature and purpose of schools (perhaps due to how we assess pupils at the end of their schooling). Is this our job? This, in turn, leads to a focus by schools on the delivery of knowledge first and foremost, any blocks to this necessitate sanctions. It’s time-consuming to apply some of the alternative sanctions I mentioned above and, therefore; far easier to apply an unrelated sanction quickly.
What are the alternatives to not accepting this imperative? Difficult to manage behaviours in schools are not improving, and there are continued concerns raised in the press at the number of exclusions we have and the increase in verbal or physical attacks on staff. We know that corporal punishment doesn’t work, but the policies and sanctions we have in place also have little effect.
It’s time to study the effect of adverse childhood experiences far more closely and adopt the practices which will go some way to mitigate against these in school, some of which I have mentioned above. Perhaps, we should start to ask the question ‘what has happened to this child to make him/her behave this way, in order to manage the behaviour more effectively.
We talk about looking after our staff. We can do this best by equipping our schools with the necessary resources and more so, enable our staff to develop the required emotional intelligence as well as the skills to look after the needs of all of our children fully.
A very tall order, but it’s imperative.