Mental health, hope and action in 2017
“For action, we need hope. For hope, action.”
New year 2016
2016 began with reports of a rising tide of mental distress among children and staff in schools, sustained and rising rates of exclusion, divergent calls for draconian action against children cast as offenders on one hand and for innovation in support of the same children in response to their needs on the other. Much like any other year really.
A year ago I was writing about exclusion, the way it’s used to force unruly children to comply and the disastrous consequences for those who don’t, won’t or can’t snap into line. Applying force to children who make mistakes has other effects too. It puts their mental health and wellbeing at risk as they skid down the pipeline of exclusion and failure and it draws attention away from those other children who struggle more quietly.
But describing the glaring weaknesses in what’s become known as behaviour management isn’t enough, to have any hope for change means taking practical action.
My best hope, my New Year’s resolution, for 2016 was to make a real difference for children who find themselves approaching the boundaries of inclusion. I had long experience of doing this work and a well-grounded understanding of what it is about, I just needed the opportunity to put hope into action.
In January 2016 Lincolnshire’s county inclusion manager Mary Meredith contacted me as a result of my online writing. She was interested in Solutions Focused approach to work in her new team. The county had an ambitious initiative to drive to prevent exclusion from their schools over two years. The hope was clearly stated and needed action to make it happen.
Lincolnshire had already built the Solutions Focused approach into their ‘Ladder for Inclusion’ as a foundation of their plans. Solutions Focused coaching as a practical way to promote children’s mental resilience, wellbeing and inclusion is gaining traction year by year and found fertile ground in the County. Lincolnshire is one of the group of local authorities trialling and developing the use of Signs Of Safety, a Solutions Focused approach to work with Looked After children, matching the NSPSS’s use of the Solutions Focused approach for its work in the County. Ripples, connections.
In March my book about Solutions Focused coaching was published, doing something very different to the same old same old of pushing and pulling or ignoring children who don’t find school an easy place. The book began to find readers and make more ripples.
In the late spring I was invited to speak at the Teach First Impact conference in Leeds. Around 220 students attended my four sessions, initially planned for 100. People were excited by the idea of a kinder but clearly structured approach to behaviour and puzzled as to why they had heard nothing about Solutions Focused coaching alternative to traditional behaviour management before in their training.
In July we got started with training sessions in Solutions Focused coaching for Lincolnshire school staff, with nearly 60 staff from primary and secondary schools attending.
Around this time a university lecturer and educational researcher, Dr. Emma Clarke, contacted me. She had read my book and wanted to talk. In 2015 she had introduced Solutions Focused practice into her initial primary teacher training course at Bishop Grossteste University in Lincoln and was looking to build on it. She invited me to speak at the BGU Behaviour Seminar in January 2017. Another connection.
In September two senior secondary school staff of a Lincoln secondary school, who had been at my July SF coaching training, got in touch to let me know they had worked over the summer to rewrite their schools’ Behaviour Policy. It had struck them as irrational to be working to a school policy headed “Exclusion” when the aim of their pastoral work was to promote and strengthen “Inclusion”. Within weeks they were beginning to see the improved outcomes of their new hope and action, working to a new policy that placed SF coaching as a structured response to needs – exclusion being replaced by inclusion. They agreed to their Inclusion Policy being put onto thesolutionsfocusedcoach.com website, where you can read it now. It’s a policy for inclusion, for all children who struggle to succeed, the noisily challenging and the quietly underachieving ones.
In the Autumn a primary school head teacher invited me in for a one-day awareness-raising session for the whole staff, to embed the work being done by their newly trained Solutions Focused coach.
As before, the school’s core values detailed support for children up to the point where their behaviour became a problem and then a blank space, with only punishment as the last resort. The outcome of the one-day session? Within a few weeks the head teacher was detecting the shift in language across the school, moving away from the focus on deficits to promoting strengths and hopes in conversations with children. She could see the value of this way of working in supporting and including both those children who “act out” with challenging behaviour, and those who “act in”, expressing their distress through withdrawal and anxiety. A structured approach to the development of wellbeing as part of the routine work of school staff.
Hope in action
Improved knowledge and understanding about children’s mental health and wellbeing and mental illness, mental health literacy, is undoubtedly important. As Mrs. May will be saying today, echoing Mr. Cameron’s words of a year ago, of course there should be be no stigma attached to any kind of illness, but talking isn’t doing. The major concern of many commentators is about the lack of immediate, concrete action to make hopes become realities and they are calling for reinvestment in mental health services. But what is the likelihood of improvement when the problem has been caused in part by the depletion of specialist services such as Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services and County Specialist School Support Teams?
The big hope for the New Year
In Lincolnshire, over the last year and moving into 2017, we’re taking a different approach, by increasing the capacity of school staff to take robust, effective, high quality preventative action as an integral part of their work, supporting children wellbeing and health needs at the first opportunity. The idea is that if you’re spending time talking to children anyway, it’s no additional demand to support children’s needs by inclusion than exclusion. This provides the potential to both enable more children to participate fully in school and to accurately target the referrals to specialist services of those children who are experiencing serious health issues.
It’s a low- cost, high-impact response that is already showing positive results. It’s hope in action. We’re moving ahead.