Breathtaking – learning from experience about the child mental health pandemic

Breathtaking – learning from experience about the child mental health pandemic

For one ten year-old boy it’s another school day.

As usual he’s walked in with his mum but when gets to school door he just can’t go through it. He does everything he can to prevent it, punching the wall, digging his heels in, clearly distressed but not running away or hurting anyone else.

No-one knows what to do for the best and every time it happens it leaves everyone exhausted, feeling stuck. The school’s doing what it can. He’s on a part-time timetable for when he does get in, following a set routine for getting into class, leaving early, hoping to increase gradually to full-time in line with his Education, Health and Care Plan.

I’ve been reading through a survey of parents and carers of distressed children who are finding going into school a huge challenge and there are many other stories like these in the press. There’s a new term to describe it – Emotionally Based School Avoidance – EBSA. It’s a big problem nationally.

The question is – how can we solve the problem of EBSA, which is just one aspect of the current mental health pandemic in the UK, this one centred on children’s education following on from the huge disruption caused by the twin disasters of the Covid pandemic and the gross underfunding of mental health services. Mental health services have always been very poorly resourced relative to physical health services, with the whole health field coming under sustained pressure. The Government response is always quick to quote the billions paid out and to side-line the main issue – are the services sufficiently well-resourced to meet the actual needs of the population? Are Government strategies in place and working? When the Covid pandemic hit, they clearly weren’t working when seen from street level and the result was breathtaking. The same is true with regard to the current mental health pandemic, as evidenced by the experiences of parents, carers, children, school staff and health professionals themselves.

Suppose the million-strong school staff in the UK were trained and supported to provide rapid early help for children and young people struggling to attend and succeed in school, what difference would that make? Is there an existing model that schools could adopt to do this work as an integral part of their daily educational activities?

I worked with this child and his family and it went well, he began to flourish, to feel more confident about coming into school, less anxious and more engaged in lessons and social time.

What worked? Solutions Focused Coaching. Together with its sister practice Solution Focused Brief Therapy, Solutions Focused Coaching is widely used internationally to support adults and children who find themselves caught by seemingly intractable problems, to break free and move towards a better future. I’ve been helping schools develop this work for themselves for over twenty years and have seen the simple successes that meeting needs early on can bring, before they develop into something more serious and debilitating. It’s an educational, non-normative process (it doesn’t involve problem analysis and diagnosis) and is ideally suited to the development of effective skills in non-medical staff, in schools and in the wider community.

“There’s only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve; the fear of failure”
Paulo Coelho de Souza

Children like predictability and going to school is a predictable routine. Every day school offers children happy experiences as they meet their friends and new challenges, coming up against things they don’t already know, socially and academically – that’s the purpose of education, it’s intentionally risky. What protects a child from fear of failure when presented with risk? Their realistic optimism, knowing that change happens and building a sense of security that comes from the experience of meeting challenges and overcoming them.

What builds a child’s sense of realistic optimism and secures their attendance? Experiencing their own agency, the fact they have influence in their the world, learning by building on successes and bouncing back from failures. What we shorthand as competence and resilience.

How does Solutions Focused Coaching build children’s sense of realistic optimism? When something goes wrong the common response is dig into the failure in order to pin down the cause. That’s focusing on the problem and it risks making the problem seem bigger. The child develops an expectation that every conversation with an adult professional will focus on the failed past. Solutions Focused Coaching does the opposite, looking for successes and the  child’s resources that build them, creating a new experience of safety an accomplishment, capitalising on the fact that rewards are motivating. By asking “What might change a bit for things to go better for you?” and “What might you be doing a bit differently?” and taking the child’s responses seriously sets out goals in the child’s own terms, freeing up their sense of their preferred future. By asking “What’s your best thing”, “What’s going well?” and “What’s your best hope?” the conversation leaves failure behind and to look towards the expectation of achievement and success.

This shift from negative past to positive future began in the 1980s, with Martin Seligman’s work on Positive Psychology, Steve de Shazar and Insoo Kim Berg’s development of Solution Focused Brief Therapy, and Mihailyi Czickzentmihalyi’s discovery of the Flow state, and it’s been growing slowly but surely ever since.

“Simply experiencing a negative event is not sufficient for learning. ….The event alone is not enough to change behaviour. That can only change when individuals choose to learn from an event. This learning requires individuals to change their beliefs and attitudes so that, in turn, their behaviour is altered. Sitkin, S. B. (1996). Learning through failure: The strategy of small losses.

The negative event, the sanctions and consequences of behaviour management can interrupt unwanted behaviour but doesn’t teach anything new because it doesn’t say what the child should do instead of getting things wrong. But the positive event of Solutions Focused Coaching does lead to new learning because of the description of self-set goals and the child’s growing awareness of their resourcefulness, hopefulness and success as they work towards them.

Schools mark out their boundaries to behaviour with low-level ‘consequences’, a raised eyebrow, a frown, a verbal reminder – and it usually works in stopping misbehaviour. But where this routine clearly doesn’t work, as with the boy I told you about earlier, the use of more serious sanctions is ineffective. That’s where schools can be enabled to do something else because doing more of the same and expecting to get a different result is pointless.

For me this ‘something else’ is Solutions Focused Coaching.

As a practical approach Solutions Focused Coaching engages staff in a process which can benefit children and adults alike. It’s the way to offer early help for children, all of whom need more than rules and reminders to find success in life.

I hope you’ll find it as useful as I do.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.