Kindness in schools – the key to learning and success for 2021
I support children who struggle in school, and their schools, in a practical, evidence informed way, by increasing the capability of school staff to respond to children’s needs at the earliest opportunity, before turning to outside specialist services. Intentional, structured kindness is at the heart of what I do, and what I offer to schools as continuing professional development with my new online course – Solutions Focused Coaching in Schools.
I’ve been reading a lot over the last months, adding to my understanding of children’s behaviour, what it means, what drives it and what can be done to help, when behaviour causes problems and sets limits on children’s lives.
As a biologist I know about the science of behaviour and the huge development in understanding in the field over the last thirty years. As a practical and research educator, I’m interested in what influences children’s behaviour and how we can use this knowledge to teach the essential social and emotional skills children need to develop to flourish in society. As a researcher, I spend my time connecting the principles developed in these two fields and as an educator putting the principles into practice.
The standard Behaviour Management approach, as promoted by government, is based on the overarching idea that children always make a conscious choice over whether to behave or misbehave. There are no unconscious factors that need to be taken into account in setting out the universal strategy – these are only paid attention to after the general BM strategy has been applied, for example where a child has an identified disability that affects their behaviour.
This way of thinking over-simplifies things in school to the point of making behaviour two dimensional – good or bad. It means that other factors (such as the effects of stress, trauma and fear) which are beyond the child’s control and part of their biology, don’t have to be taken into account. By making their ‘choices’ more or less attractive by reward and punishment, their behaviour can be nudged towards doing what we want them to do. The claim is that If all children are treated the same way, with a high degree of consistency, this approach will work to control behaviour and will identify those who are controllable from those who aren’t. It acts as a kind of triage, identifying and removing those children who resist punishment to another place, alternative education.
This management approach to behaviour change acts in apparent ignorance of the enormous growth over the last 30 years in our understanding of the causes of outwardly challenging and inwardly withdrawn behaviour in children, and what we can do about it to help them recover and succeed in school and in life. This approach sidelines the effects of children’s life experiences, and the knck-on effect these have on children’s inbuilt safety systems, which cause the well-known ‘fight, flight or freeze’ reactions that are very familiar to us in school.
This sidelining goes further, one senior government adviser’s recent response to calls by well-informed people for the elimination of exclusion on the grounds that it is discriminatory, as shown by the exclusion data, was this; “at least (it) had the effect of exposing the extremist, anti-child ideologies that trouble mainstream discourse around school behaviour. Put simply; some people really do believe every child just needs a kind word and everything will be ok.”
Far from the placing kindness as anti-child extremist ideologies, we now have clear evidence supporting the claim that the empathetic ways people connect to one another and establish effective relationships is the essential first step in teaching children to behave in order to ensure their inclusion in school and in society at large. Mainstream discourse is as a matter fact changing to incorporate new evidence and building this into new practices which are essential in the current climate of fear and stress caused but the viral pandemic and in the world beyond C19.
It’s not easy to get to grips with this new work, maybe because these are relatively new and challenging ideas, coming from fields of activity unfamiliar to many, drawing together findings from neurobiology, molecular biology, and neuroscience and their applications in psychiatry, psychology, psychotherapy …… and education. To help out with the transfer from clinic to school, many people are working hard to bring to people’s attention the impact of unmanageable and toxic stress on children and how it acts biologically and unconsciously, with the aims of raising trauma awareness and mental health awareness in schools and improving children’s wellbeing and achievement in schools.
To return to the idea of kindness being fundamental to learning, there’s general agreement by medical experts in extreme childhood trauma that the first step to recovery is for children to experience empathetic, consistent relationships with others. As teachers we’ve always known this to be true, that first and foremost schools are human communities, and humans have a built-in drive to relate to one another
My particular interest is about increasing the capability of school staff to respond to children’s needs at the earliest opportunity, before turning to outside specialist mental health and psychological services. It has become clear that the instantaneous, unconscious connection that humans establish in the first seconds of contact underpins learning and cooperation. When children detect safety, their alarm systems switch off, they become able to hear, think and act in ways that draw on their strengths and resources to meet community needs. This is the kind of support staff in schools already provide, in their own ways, drawing on their own reserves. What’s needed now is targeted whole-school training and regular supervision to capitalise on this massive potential – over one million staff in schools in the UK – providing Early Help, meeting children’s needs as expressed in their behaviour, improving children’s life chances and reducing the demand on specialist services.
Solutions Focused Coaching in Schools is already working in many schools. It could be working for you.