The 5% and talking about strengths
Last May, as the pandemic was in full flood, this arrived in my email inbox;
I have been working from home today and I remembered the job that you gave me which was to notice when things are going well. Throughout the day I have noticed quite a few things going well, one specific time was when I was doing maths in the morning and I went to send an email to my teacher and the school emails didn’t respond and just crashed! This was the same for English where the PowerPoint wouldn’t load. During this time, I noticed that I was incredibly calm and I coped very well with this, this reminded me of our conversation about coping with changes we had a few weeks ago when we met. Also, not only did I notice the change, but I noticed it as it was happening! And I thought that this was quite terrific! Especially after the conversation we had and that I remembered about it! I hope to see you again soon,
Joe*.” (*name given with permission)
Joe is now fifteen. I’d met him online the previous week. We first met when he was five with a diagnosis of autistic spectrum attention deficit hyperactive disorders, obsessive compulsive visored and high anxiety …. and struggling to find his place in the social and emotional merry-go-round of infant school.
After we’d said hello I asked him;
“What would be useful to you, for us to work on today, Joe?”
He had a think about it.
“OK. Let’s do some work on that.”
So that’s what we did. We chatted about his strengths and resources, what it was about him that he could keep going, coping with the changes in this time of big shifts in routine. And for Joe, as a boy who has always found change stressful, to navigate the closing of his specialist school could have seemed like barrier to his progress. But instead, it has been a surmountable challenge, one he’s been able to work at and deal with by focusing on his hopes, his strengths and his resources. And his best hopes for the future.
Connecting strengths and wellbeing
In July 9 2019 Dr. Jolanta Burke, a Positive Psychologist at the University of East London wrote for ‘The Conversation’ about research she’d carried out in Northern Ireland which found that “the wellbeing of students steadily declines as they progress through secondary school, up to their final exams. And the decline is sharper for girls than boys.”
What causes the decline? A wide range of experiences – bullying, exam stress, puberty, home stresses, bereavement. It’s a long list.
And now we’ve got the shock of the pandemic to add in.
Why is wellbeing important in getting back to school?
Because distressed children express their needs through their behaviour and schools that focus on behaviour will themselves struggle to exert control. Most children cope with stress and manage their own behaviour well enough in school, to stay within systems relying on punishment to correct boundary breakers. There’s plenty of advice available on how to set up systems like this. But how do we support the struggling minority, the 5% of vulnerable children who get pushed up the ladder towards exclusion?
Here’s a clue. Ive been successfully offering Solutions Focused Coaching with Joe and many other anxious, unhappy children often mis-read as wilfully behaving badly, over the last twenty years. If you haven’t come across it, Solutions Focused Coaching is a systematic, cooperative search for successes, resources and strengths set in the simple framework of the coach’s best hopes for how things would be when the problem’s gone away.
Dr. Burke’s findings support this approach; “….. those who scored highest for using their strengths daily also had the highest scores on their levels of well-being. Our results suggest that parents and educators could help students boost their levels of well-being by encouraging young people to identify what strengths they have, and using them.”
It’s worth thinking about and then making the decision to take action, for children’s wellbeing, mental health and inclusion, right now before we hit the likely coming crisis of illness, bumpy behaviour and exclusion in the near future.