“On a Saturday?”
Another one of those Fridays where I mentioned that I was getting up early to drive and watch an inspirational lecture.
The songs on radio 1 that inspired me on my drive yesterday included this:
Just by Loch Lomond I also turned over the Radio 4 and heard Gove’s Weinstein comment. I almost pulled over to tweet my rage but was glad I didn’t, as the traffic then snarled up around Dumbarton and nearly made me late.
And so to Ardrossan to watch the film Resilience and hear Suzanne Zeedyk and David Cameron.
As usual, I am using my blog to record some notes and sound bites from what I heard and experienced.
If you were not able to make it, these notes may give you a flavour and encourage you to find out more. But I write and encourage you to read with the proviso that others in the room may have heard things differently.
The event started with an introduction from Suzanne Zeedyk and David Cameron.
Suzanne – her team have been working for some time to bring awareness around Adverse Childhood Experiences to the UK. The team is her, Tina Hendry, Pete on the door and Brett on the camera.
This summer their work has involved bringing the film Resilience to Scotland after it was shown down in London.
There were 25 screenings over the summer.
2500 people saw it.
By Dec this may be 10000 people.
It has had huge impact.
Vincent Felitti from the film was here in Scotland 10 years ago – but there was no revolution then. Why now?
Now we are seeing a revolution in kindness to children.
Production team in US feel that something different has happened in Scotland and want to know the strategy.
“2 crazy women with no money.”
Revolution happens because individuals want it to happen.
There is an interest in this from the govt; there is an ace website
ACES feature in the govt Nation with Ambition document- pages 71 and 73.
Lots of our communities have adults and children who have been damaged by trauma.
But there are still situations where schools make it worse for children
and some social work systems do.
How do we have more awareness and kindness?
“Only doing this cause he wanted to be in Ardrossan on a Saturday and see a movie.”
We have raised awareness but not made a difference.
Still the same for most of us.
Danger is that SG focus is now raising attainment and social mobility – these are the new “initiatives” that we will try and paint on the wall before we properly embed GIRFEC and CfE and trauma-informed practice and allow the paint of those important systems to dry.
Painting on wet paint,
Getting 5 highers and going to uni is not all there is. Leaving Ayrshire is not all there is.
Need to get it right for ALL kids.
Need to take control and do what we can where we are.
David wants us to walk in in the morning and say “that’s brilliant” and mean it.
“Campaign for brilliant”
Us being here in a Saturday will change this.
Suzanne agrees- needs to be grassroots.
Investment in the denial of the impact of trauma is so high.
We need to address people not wanting to talk about it.
We then watched the amazing, moving, life-affirming film Resilience. YOU NEED TO SEE THIS FILM IF YOU HAVE NOT AND YOU CARE ABOUT CHILDREN. (I’m not shouting but I am stating this emphatically.)
The film features a number of child specialists, paediatricians and medical professionals from the USA who have, over the last 20 years or so, been working in a way that is attachment and trauma informed and recognises the impact of adverse childhood experiences on both mental and physical health.
Robert Anda MD talks about the fact that this information needs to get to everyone not just the smart people. Vincent Felitti explains how when he first started talking about trauma informed practice and adverse childhood experiences he was called crazy by his colleagues.
The film shows how the two men had initially been working on different projects in different parts of the countries before they came together to realise that their conclusions were parallel.
Some of the work came from discoveries in an obesity clinic where the prevalence of childhood sexual abuse amongst those with obesity was striking.
Both men had worked on small studies on the impact of adversity childhood experiences but realised that the study needed to go bigger.
A study was then carried out between 1995 and 1997 amongst 17,000 middle-class adults. They completed a survey on their health but also answered on questions around separation, divorce, parenting, aggression and abuse. Out of this there then came a list of 10 adverse childhood experiences around which the research continued:
Prior to your 18th birthday:
1. Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often… Swear at you, insult you, put you down, or humiliate you? or Act in a way that made you afraid that you might be physically hurt? No___If Yes, enter 1 __
2. Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often… Push, grab, slap, or throw something at you? or Ever hit you so hard that you had marks or were injured No___If Yes, enter 1 __
3. Did an adult or person at least 5 years older than you ever… Touch or fondle you or have you touch their body in a sexual way? or Attempt or actually have oral, anal, or vaginal intercourse with you No___If Yes, enter 1 __
4. Did you often or very often feel that … No one in your family loved you or thought you were important or special? or Your family didn’t look out for each other, feel close to each other, or support each other No___If Yes, enter 1 __
5. Did you often or very often feel that … You didn’t have enough to eat, had to wear dirty clothes, and had no one to protect you? or Your parents were too drunk or high to take care of you or take you to the doctor if you needed it No___If Yes, enter 1 __
6. Were your parents ever separated or divorced No___If Yes, enter 1 __
7. Was your mother or stepmother: Often or very often pushed, grabbed, slapped, or had something thrown at her? or Sometimes, often, or very often kicked, bitten, hit with a fist, or hit with something hard? or Ever repeatedly hit over at least a few minutes or threatened with a gun or knife No___If Yes, enter 1 __
8. Did you live with anyone who was a problem drinker or alcoholic, or who used street drugs No___If Yes, enter 1 __
9. Was a household member depressed or mentally ill, or did a household member attempt suicide? No___If Yes, enter 1 __
10. Did a household member go to prison? No___If Yes, enter 1 __
The results of the surveys were shocking:
28% of those surveyed had suffered physical abuse, 27% had experienced substance abuse, 13% had witnessed her mother being hurt, and one in five had experienced sexual abuse.
And the direct correlation between the ACES experienced and physical symptoms such as heart disease, strokes, addiction, depression, suicide and even cancer was striking.
The findings caused a huge amount of shock as previously researchers had had no idea about how much abuse there are is in our communities. The conclusions also found that with ACE score of 4 out of 10, participants were three times as likely to have experienced depression. Initially Robert Anda was faced with disbelief and was told he must have done something wrong in his investigations. However they went back through the research and the statistics and realised that there was nothing wrong. Anda stated “this is real but no one wants to know about it.”
10 years after the initial case study Dr Nadine Burke Harris was working in clinics with children in San Francisco. She became aware in the work that she was doing that adverse childhood experiences were absolutely crucial to child development, child health and adult health. She explains that she had never trained in any of this during medical school but it was obvious to her in her practice about the impact of ACES on child and later adult physical health. She discovered that in poor communities the average life expectancy was 67 as opposed to it being 78 in more wealthy communities. The key factors in the poorer communities that led to increased heart disease, obesity, depression, suicide, cancers, strokes and early death were:
mental health issues, violence, the death of friends and drug and substance abuse.
In 2007 she found out about the ACES study and found that it gave her total validation of what she was saying in the community she was working.
She realised first and foremost that one of the key things in tackling the impact of adverse childhood experiences is to be honest about the situation: children need to be told that hearing gunshots and seeing your friends incarcerated on a daily basis has an impact on your life and your feelings And that these things are not okay. She explained that in her practice lots of parents were coming and asking for help with ADHD and problem behaviours. However when she looked she realised that the behaviours were not caused by ADHD but rather by trauma. Symptoms such as impulse control and hyper activity can be just as much of a symptom of trauma as ADHD. She explained that there is a real danger in giving a traumatised child a stimulant, as it will not help. She went on to explain the power of brain scans in this work as they show quite clearly the neurological changes that are caused when children experience trauma.
With a score of four or more ACES of child is 32 times likely to have behavioural problems. Which ACES a child has experienced is irrelevant.
Vincent Felitti goes on to say “we divide the world of mental health and physical health but the body does not do that.”
ACE screening has now become an important part of child health care in many parts of America. There was acknowledgement that it is not easy work to do as it requires people to be open and honest about to traumatic events that have happened to them and their children.
The film also talks about the concept of toxic stress. There is an explanation of the fact that some stress in our lives is necessary, for example we need a bit of stress when crossing the road so that we act quickly and alertly. However exposure to early trauma effect affects the structure of children’s brains and means that they live in a state of high undifferentiated stress at all times. which leads to poor mental and physical ill-health.
Dr Burke Harris goes on to say that you can give people things to mask symptoms for example if someone has a cough you can give them cough serum which will suppress the cough but may also mask tuberculosis or cancer while the disease process continues to fester. The same is true with adverse childhood experiences.
Jack P Shonkoff MD speaks about the fact that children who are born with a poor start in life are not doomed. The science shows otherwise. He speaks about the term toxic stress stress which is the chronic activation a stress reaction with no support to manage that stress.
He talked about the fact in school we often say that children with toxic stress should just suck it up and be like the successful kids. He points out however that the baby can’t just pull itself up by its bootee straps and suck it up. We would never say to a cancer patient that they need to suck it up and we should not do the same with children who have experienced trauma.
Resilience (the ability to survive and thrive in spite of trauma) is learnt but you cannot learn it if you are living in a culture of fear. A child cannot learn conflict resolution if his parents are constantly fighting.
A child cannot plan for the future if she lives in a culture of fear where the future seems frightening. A child cannot learn to delay gratification if she is constantly mixing with friends who do drugs. The key to learning resilience is the presence of stable and caring adults. In order for adults to be caring and stable they need to acknowledge their own early experiences and transform their own lives. Adults need to build their own capabilities in planning, monitoring, and impulse control. This is about more than just reading to kids.
It is absolutely crucial that we treat the family rather than just the child and help the family to learn successful strategies. And there are lots of really good programs out there. There is a need to break the cycle of adverse childhood experiences and the impact of trauma. The importance of visiting families in their own homes cannot be underestimated. It makes the families feel as if they matter. We all need to consider the impact of our early experiences if we work with children. There is always a reason why we do what we do in the here and now.
The question has to be why are we waiting. Adults often do not recognise that kids have stressed because they do not seem as important or big as adults stresses like having to pay the mortgage or support the family. But this work shows that small stresses matter and do have impact on children. If children act out there is a reason but often children do not have the skills or vocabulary to manage the stress.
The film shows an incredible primary teacher at work in a school using the legend of Miss Kendra. This is a story which enables children to talk about the adverse childhood experiences that they may be experiencing. Miss Kendra’s list is a list of affirmations that children repeat on a daily basis so that they are able to use the right vocabulary when they need to. They repeat phrases such as “no child should be punched or kicked” “no child should be touched on their private parts”. Lots of children think what they are going through is normal but the mantra helps them to understand that it is not. The children regularly write a letter to Miss Kendra where they can talk about things that they may be experiencing. These are then answered by a drama therapist. Studies have found that this type of work is most effective when done with pupils in their third year of primary school. Naming the scary thing helps us feel safer. The teachers then spend less time managing scary feelings and more time on teaching.
The film also looks at schools which adopt a so-called no excuses policy. This takes the approach that teachers say “yes you may be being beaten but it is not an excuse to do badly at school”. It is based on an idea that we are trying to ensure the same standards of achievement for all children and be aspirational…But it will not work unless we deal with the causes of trauma as well as acknowledging them. It is not enough to say “yes I understand your situation”; we also have to address the situation. The only effective approach is not to use things as an excuse but to deal with them. To talk, to act and to help children develop resilience.
Toxic stress is a neurological issue,
it is an endochrinal problem, it is a problem of chronic inflammation in the brain and it is a problem that we can address and deal with. We need universal screening for ACES. We need to reduce experience of adversity. As Nadine Burke Harris says, if a child has lead poisoning we reduce the amount of lead. If a child is experiencing trauma, we need to reduce the amount of trauma.
We need to ensure that there is strong parental buffering and we need to help parents to find their natural strengths as parents and build on them. All parents want the best for their children. The answers include mindfulness, meditation, therapy, good nutrition, exercise, sleep, and education. Parents need to understand all of this.
It’s crucial that those involved with the children are trauma informed. We should not talk about what is wrong with children. We should talk about what has happened to children.
Getting adults who work with children to do a screening is very important.
The highest ACE scores ever were in an audience of psychotherapists!
We are the sum of everything that we have lived.
In 2000, Laura Porter, Senior Director of The Learning Institute at the Foundation for Healthy Generations, invited Robert Anda to her community in Washington. She was a very impatient person and wanted to change things straight away. She worked for 10 years on a trauma informed model. Policies and practices were all changed and it had a huge impact on youth crime suicide incarceration and health. And it also saved a huge amount of money on health care.
“You can lead a horse to water and not make him drink but you can make him thirsty”.
As a community of individuals we can change the world.
Following the film, Suzanne and David spoke further and facilitated discussion around how educational leaders can bring about change in their settings to allow the culture to change.
Suzanne shared examples of schools and groups who have been successful in bringing about changes.
If we close the attachment gap we will change the attainment gap.
Voices of Chris Kilkenny and Jaz Ampaw Farr are very important.
Don’t let ourselves be defined by our worst moment.
The alternative to hope is despair.
We need action.
We need to focus on and develop what we do well. We need family care not child care.
There is a new breed of school leaders.
The more we label things, the more we get away from connection
We have a curriculum that allows us to do better, even in secondary.
We need to be confident.
Use the breakable plates graph:
Put the things you do on post it’s. Then put them on the graph. See what you can do less of because it does not have impact.
Lots of the things we do in secondary schools are about habit and not structures.
How people make you feel make the difference.
Often when we need to change practice we do not ask the right questions
Eg exam analysis-
We look at what was rubbish for kids last year, try and apply it to different kids this year… and wonder when people get annoyed when we focus on the negative.
We need to give children opportunities to achieve success. Look for the gifts in the child – Amjad Ali.
Give them open tasks and allow them to surprise us.
Allow kids to rehearse and redraft- failure is only temporary
What conversations do we need to have?
We need to train early years staff and pay them better. We need training on brain science absolutely attachment.
Children 1st has a kitbag – like Miss Kendra’s list. It is very good. We can get them to bring it to us.
Those on Suzanne’s list are not experts but they gave it a shot.
We should do mindfulness and yoga every day but we don’t and this does harm.
The impact of teacher behaviour on a pupil and the ability of a teacher to cause trauma cannot be under-estimated.
Voices from the floor spoke of the following:
The need to be human
The need to value families
The importance of relationships and connection.
And although I was nervous and incredibly stressed and feeling like an imposter and hardly able to do it, I took the microphone and heard my own voice. And it said:
– Too many in secondary schools still want discipline, compliance and children who “know how to behave”.
– My blog is full of thoughts on how we can change things and reflections on why change is hard.
– We cannot allow the fact that the revolution has taken a while to stop us keeping on with this work.
– Some teachers may feel that they are not qualified to do this work as they are not therapists But this is not about therapy. It is about life. It is about us adults being honest about the ups and down of life but showing up and being role models. It is about the assembly I gave yesterday: https://lenabellina.wordpress.com/2017/10/28/fairness/
– And no matter how jaded we feel, we can’t give up.
Thanks Suzanne. You are astonishing.
Thanks David. You are amazing. And your commitment to yoga is exemplary.
Thanks to the makers of Resilience.
Thanks to all those in the room who get it and showed that by being there.
We need to keep going.
My assembly from this Friday to my S3 and S4 pupils.
RESPECT | FAIRNESS | ACHIEVEMENT | HAPPINESS
Today we are going consider the second of our school values, that of Fairness.
I often hear people declaring that “it’s not fair” when they are disappointed or frustrated or feeling resentful about something that has happened.
But one of things we have to accept as we grow into adults is that life is not always fair.
I know from the feedback you gave recently that some of you feel it’s not fair that learning is interrupted for some of you because of the disruptive behaviour of others. And that is probably a fair thing to say.
But it’s also not fair that Prince George’s dad lost his mum at an early age and had to grieve for her in front of the world.
It’s not fair that children in our country are subjected to sexual, physical and emotional abuse on a daily basis. These things can cause people to suffer for the rest of their lives if we don’t talk about them.
It’s not fair that Laura Macintyre from Barra went to an Ariana Grande concert and was injured in a bomb attack. But it is amazing that she has gone back to school this week.
It’s not fair that her friend Eilidh Macleod did not go back to school because she was killed in the same attack.
It’s not fair that some of us are born with brains that worry or stress or think differently to those of other people and that some of us experience poor mental or physical health.
Life, by its nature, is sometimes unfair. We are not robots made in the same mould and in the same factory and of course this is what makes us unique and wonderful and interesting.
But it also means that life presents different opportunities and challenges for all of us.
As humans, we try as hard as we can to make life fairer. There are some unfair things that we can change:
Maybe by giving money to charity.
Maybe by taking action and speaking out when we see people in our community being treated with disrespect or hatred.
Maybe in school as teachers by finding out about who you are as individuals and making sure you get extra help if you need it. It is not about treating you all in the same way but about treating you in a way that meets your individual needs. Sometimes that might not seem to make sense to you as you may have grown up thinking that equality is about treating everybody in the same way.
But I find that talking about equity is more helpful talking about equality and this picture can help us to understand what that means. All of these people have a right to watch what’s over the fence. Because of their differences some of them have barriers that get in the way. What we need to do is make sure that each one of them is given the assistance …or a box.. in order to be able to see and to have the same opportunity as others.
Sometimes the fairest thing can be to treat everybody differently.
Sometimes it may seem to you as if things that I do are not fair. “She lets him or her get away with things that she would not let other people get away with…..” I hear you cry.
But you can trust me that there will be times when my unfairness is part of making life fairer. Because there are things that you may not know about that mean that some people in this school need to have a box or a different approach in order to be able to have the same opportunities as others.
Sometimes though, you can … and do…help me see when things aren’t fair for no good reason and could be different and I listen to you and learn from that. Your voices are so important to me.
Hopefully you can see that life sometimes is not 100% fair, even when we try to make things as fair as we possibly can.
If you are someone who often sees the unfair in life more than the fair, it might be helpful for you to try and shift your thinking a little bit.
Now I have to be honest and confess I am probably somebody whose brain likes to focus on the unfair more than the fair in life. If I am asked whether I see the glass as half full or half empty, I tend to be a half empty type of person. If we look at the story of Winnie the Pooh and the characters in it, I guess I’m more of an Eeyore than a Tigger.
I have spent time trying to work out why this is and I have found out that it’s probably to do with some of the things that happened to me my childhood. But I’ve also tried very hard to change this way of thinking and to make my brain focus first on the positives and the fairness in life, rather than the opposite.
A really helpful way of doing this is to use a technique from the practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness is something that many people have found useful in helping them to become more in control of their thoughts and their lives and to give them more of a sense of contentment with the world.
There are lots of parts to mindfulness and some involve physical techniques. For example as I came up to do this assembly and my mind was feeling anxious and nervous and stressed, worrying about what I was going to say, I focused on putting my feet flat on the ground and taking some deep breaths. It helped.
But another really useful tool is to find three positive things about your life that you focus on every morning when you wake up. This means that before your negative brain can start shouting about the unfair things in life….like the rain and all the things you have to do, or the fact you have no want to go to school disco with…..you get in there with three positive things that set your frame of mind for the day.
You know but I’m very enthusiastic about brain science and what’s great about mindfulness is that neuroscientists have proven that it makes a difference. They have found that people who do mindfulness and remember three positive things each morning, gradually begin to feel more positive in themselves. Mindfulness can help you shift a bit more towards being a glass half empty person to being a glass half full person.
So here are my three positives from this morning:
1. Living in beautiful Argyll and having the most fantastic drive to work, watching the colours and the mist hanging over the fields and celebrating the fact that it wasn’t raining.
2. Having the technology to connect with my dad every day. You will know that he has cancer and lives very far away and that my first thought after his diagnosis was that I was going to have to move back down to live near him. But the ability to text or phone or FaceTime him every day means that I feel connected to him in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to 20 years ago.
3. Working with amazing young people every day (yes, you) who all have something to teach me.
Life will not always be fair.
But we can work together to fight unfairness whenever possible and to focus on the best in life and on sharing that best with others.
Last night I took part in a fantastic pastoral chat session with Jill Berry via UKPastoral Chat.
We were debating various matters pastoral, both in relation to pupils and staff.
I said that I feel that a different model of pastoral support and staff training is needed, if we are to move forward in terms of education and provide genuinely supportive education.
In fact, on reflection, I don’t think that what we need is new, since much of it is going on already, some of it in our own schools and some of it elsewhere.
Many school leaders and politicians would benefit from reading this when considering what we want our interactions with children to be like:
I also wrote this over a year back and still hold that the 10 questions need to be asked by anyone who chooses (and please remember that it is a choice) to take on the responsibility and privilege of shaping young lives:
10 questions that you need to answer ‘yes’ to if you want to be a teacher/stay in teaching.
1. Do you like children and are you able to love each one as if they were related to you?
2. Do you like hard work?
3. Do you like working in a team of adults?
4. Are you self-aware and self-reflective?
5. Do you understand your own behaviour and its impact on others?
6. Do you genuinely value inclusion and equity?
7. Are you able to see beyond fads and trends and stay committed to your values and evidence based research?
8. Do you understand that the long holidays are not really all holidays? See here for more excellent reflection on this: http://www.teachertoolkit.me/2015/08/02/what-do-teachers-do-for-the-summer/
9. If you have never worked outside of education, are you willing to work hard to research and understand other ways of being?
10. Are you able to say sorry?
And this post that I wrote last week is pertinent to some of the issues raised last night:
I believe above all that a commitment to caring and to allowing the time and space to give pupils individual attention are absolutely crucial, if our schools are to be genuinely nurturing.
Our Scottish Curriculum for excellence recognises the need for personal support:
“Children and young people are entitled to personal support to enable them to
* review their learning and plan for next steps
* gain access to learning activities which will meet their needs
* plan for opportunities for personal achievement
* prepare for changes and choices and be supported through changes and choices
All children and young people should have frequent and regular opportunities to discuss their learning with an adult who knows them well and can act as a mentor, helping them to set appropriate goals for the next stages in learning. This provides opportunities to challenge young people’s choices, which may be based on stereotypes. Young people themselves should be at the centre of this planning, as active participants in their learning and development.”
Yes, we are teachers of subjects and specialisms in secondary education but we are also teachers of children and role models in how to live. We should all be able to provide personal support to children.
As a valued colleague Mandy Davidson noted as part of the debate on Twitter this morning, “My concern of separate path is that others may then see pupils as “not my area, I am subject specialist”.
As teachers, we all have to be prepared to be specialists in educating children and in providing children with the time and space to find solutions to the challenges that they face. We have to give unconditional positive regard to all the children we encounter and want the absolute best for every one.
I disagree that external providers or ‘specialists’ are best equipped to fly in and help children deal with challenges. As adults, we are all specialists in living. We are all specialists in being mentally healthy, where we accept the World Health Organisation Definition of Mental Health as “a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”
A minority of children will need specialist support for an acute physical or mental health condition.
The majority need caring, positive adults who are solution-focused, aspirational and aware of how children grow and develop. And who work in partnership with the child’s parent or career to find the right path for him/her.
Some final thoughts:
We all need to be prepared to deliver pastoral care. A system which divides us into pastoral and curricular staff is inefficient.
We can’t be positive role models if we are worn out, demoralised and overworked.
We can’t run schools well if we don’t have enough adults in them to provide time, space and care.
We need a bit of slack in staffing so that if I am teaching French to a class of 27 and 26 of them are coping fine but one needs a bit of time out because his mum is ill/ his cat has died/ he feels angry/ he just needs to be listened to then someone can give him what he needs. This is early intervention.
This is not about class sizes per se but about the ratio of adults to children in an environment where life is happening and where positive relationships have the power to transform lives.
And I will finish with tweets from two very excellent people.
Let’s lead our schools like Chris Dyson:
And lead our lives like the fantastic Dr Mike Farqhuar:
I have been wanting to write this post for a long time.
I have a rough sense of what I want to say and I have tried, several times, to start to formulate it but I have failed.
Here, then, some unformulated
Last year I did the Scottish Into Headship course with the view to becoming a school leader. I loved the course and developed a sense of the leader I would like to be. Since doing the course, I have taken on the role of Acting Head of Secondary in the Joint Campus where I was appointed four years ago as Deputy Head of Pupil Support.
Prior to that I had been Head of Support Department and a Head of Languages Faculty in a school in the Outer Hebrides. Prior to that I had been a mum to tinies and prior to that I had taught, in various roles in schools in England.
What I want, or need, to say now, is that I don’t think most schools work.
I don’t think they can, unless we commit to a fundamental shift in what they are about.
Although they are first and foremost about teaching and facilitating learning, we also have to be honest and admit that they are about caring for and looking after the most precious things in other adults’ lives.
The care of children.
Childcare. Right up to when those big children are 16 or even 18.
And if our schools put other things at a stake above caring for children, we are getting something wrong.
We can pretend and make excuses that getting pupils to pass exams and achieve all sorts of other things that can be assessed is part of caring for them.
But I don’t really believe that it is.
I am not sure that I have ever really understood this until now.
Until now that I am in a situation where my own two children are in the school where I am a leader. And where I see every one of their peers as another child in need of care. Of love.
I currently have the privilege of working in a 3 to 18 through school.
And much as it is all it can and should be, my virtual tour of this school which is not but could be mine may give you a sense of what I feel to be wrong.
“Ah welcome, welcome to our pre-5 unit, Mrs Leader. Here we will do our best for three year old Lucy, the love of your life and the apple of your eye. Yes, fifteen other lovelies will share the attention of our two wonderful nursery nurses but she will be fine. No no, they aren’t teachers but they both studied childcare at college.
Yes, she’ll be loved and cared for and we are a hug-friendly provider (see the notice on the door and our attachment-informed policies). Well, yes, only two pairs of arms and two laps to go round but we are training them to be ready for school so we don’t want to encourage them to be clingy. At three, we need to foster independence and a more formal relationship with care-givers.
Sharing attention is an important part of growing up and becoming an independent learner, after all.
And through here is our first year class. Yes! Twenty-five in here, some fours and some fives! We are nearly over-subscribed!
One teacher, one classroom assistant and Betty, who is split between this class and the one next door because each has a pupil with a special educational need. No, no,not a teacher. Not an autism specialist.
Yes, you may recognise Betty from her other part time job in the co-op.
Here we will do our best for five year old Lucy, the love of your life and the apple of your eye.
Yes, isn’t the uniform lovely! Confirming to a dress code is an early step towards learning about the world of work.
And how time flies and already here they are in the last class of primary, ready to spread their wings and join big school. Well, apart from the ones who aren’t. And then of course there are those who really were ready two years ago. But we have to keep them together on their age groups because…. well, how else would it work?
No, Mrs Smith is a temporary teacher because Mr Brown left to concentrate on his writing. I know, such a shame.
Mrs Smith can only do three days for us so the rest of the time is shared between other staff. It is quite okay though as it will get the children used to having several teachers; they will have up to 18 in secondary!
Here we will do our best for eleven year old Lucy, the love of your life and the apple of your eye.
And now we move round to the secondary department.
Yes, isn’t it busy! Oh yes, the canteen is the hub. Too noisy? No, no. There’s nothing teenagers like more than this type of environment.
Supervision? Well, a couple of teachers do lunch duty and the older pupils look out for the younger ones.
Yes, classrooms do look a lot like they did when we were at school, don’t they? All facing the front! All doing as they are told! You remember being taught by Mrs Reece? No, I bet you never answered her back! It never did you any harm though, did it?
Yes, thirty-three thirteen year olds!! In one room. All those hormones and sensitive, imaginative, rebellious teenage brains! Yes, it takes a lot of skill but our teachers are very experienced and our results are fantastic!
Here we will do our best for fourteen year old Lucy, the love of your life and the apple of your eye.
And finally to our most senior class. Oh, no teacher in the room here. We must have needed to put him with a junior class due to staff shortages today.
Luckily they are all excellent at independent study, though. We encourage them to be so from an early age.
Lucy, tell our guest what you are working on there. French? Excellent. And you are going to study it at university? Brilliant.
You think you know this lady from somewhere?
You live in the same house?
Breakfast and dinner and the odd weekend outing?
But she gave you away to the care of someone else when you were three?
Well, Mrs Leader. The end of our tour for today.
I do hope you will choose us.”
Let’s be honest.
What are we doing?
One adult in a room caring for 20, 30, 33 of those most precious things?
This is not just about class size or individual teachers. It is about purpose and values and our fundamental understanding of what education and schools are for.
Top of my list of values as a school leader. But maybe not compatible with a system that pretends it is about something else?
On Wednesday evening I delivered a 7 minute talk at the Scottish Learning Festival Teachmeet. This is what I said.
Today I am going to talk about why I believe we need to teach about mental health in schools. Some people like to argue that mental health education should be the remit of parents or health professionals or trained staff but I would argue differently.
I’m not very good at talking concisely. But I have to do so today. So if you are interested in hearing more of what I have to say, please check out my blog Lenabellina on WordPress.
This is one reason we need to teach about mental health. I don’t disagree with reports like this when they are evidence-based and if they help raise awareness that we need to talk. But I also think that we need to be clear what we are talking about. Teenagers have always suffered from emotional difficulty; it is part of being an adolescent and it is really important that we acknowledge that and talk about it as teachers and as parents/carers. We also need to ensure that we don’t create a crisis of “mental illness” or teenage depression by somehow turning normal emotions into something pathological. In perhaps the greatest and most popular study of teenagers ever, Shakespeare presents adolescence in all its terrible, emotional beauty; “Romeo and Juliet” deals with the issue of teenage suicide.
We also need to teach about mental health because of this. Because the world is confusing and hard to understand a lot of the time, not just for children, but for us adults too. And it’s only if we talk about it, that we will be able to manage it.
So, I have tried to summarise my thoughts (aiming to be concise, remember!) in these four statements about why we need to teach about mental health.
1. Because there is still too much stigma surrounding mental health.
I did a twitter poll for teachers a while back and there clearly is still fear around judgement if you admit to sometime struggling with mental health issues.
2. Because we are role models and turnaround adults who shape lives.
When we choose to take on the responsibility of shaping children’s lives we become role models, like it or not.
3. Because by talking and teaching we can help to challenge the stigma.
4. Because children die when we don’t teach them to be mentally healthy. There is no expressing what you go through, as a teacher, when a young person in your care commits suicide.
This is the World Health Organisation definition of mental health and I really like this. When we look at this, we have to question why there is stigma around talking about mental health. How is this any different to the broadest aims for education that any of us would aspire to achieve?
And in fact, in spite of all the recent wranglings about the four capacities of Curriculum for Excellence, there is a huge resonance between the WHO definition and these capacities. I would not want to work in an education system that has anything else at its centre.
But just to return to this slide for a moment, although I love this, I do have a slight issue with one word here and that is the word “normal”.
When we talk about mental health we need to remember that there is no normal; my mental health is not necessarily yours. What is important is that each one of us understands what we need to do to keep mentally healthy.
So, where should you start if you are going to teach about mental health? Just do it! ask pupils what they think, look at the World Health Organisation definition as a starter; why wouldn’t we talk about it? Use these fantastic resources which are freely available and if you need more help, consider doing a mental health first aid training course which will give you both confidence and understanding of mental health.
Before I finish, I would like to return to the idea of us being role models. It is important that, as role models to young people, we show our own vulnerabilities as well as our strengths. All my pupils know just now that my dad is not well and that I’m struggling…but they will also see me come out the other side of it and manage the emotions around this difficult situation.
They also know that I struggled with anxiety and perfectionism when I was in my early 20s because I have told them; I want them to learn from where I went wrong.
They don’t know the full details but I can tell you that it was a pretty dire time for me and that I fought some really difficult battles to stay mentally healthy. I am 100% certain that if someone at school had talked to me about mental health I wouldn’t have had such a difficult time. When we do talk and learn about it we can feel better and children need to know that.
Working with teenagers is the most wonderful, inspiring, challenging and life-affirming privilege.
Having done it for over twenty years, I am absolutely delighted that in the last three, I have discovered research and literature that backs up my rather intuitive feeling that we need to look very carefully the way we teach and interact with teenagers.
There are five key messages that inform my practice as a secondary school leader;
1. Teenagers are not just big children or young adults. They are a valid entity in their own right. Adolescence is not something to be survived or tolerated. It is an exciting phase of development where we need to nurture and facilitate.
2. Everyone who works with or parents teenagers needs to look at latest research.
3. Schools need to accept that educating teenagers is not easy within a system where one adult who represents authority has to manage the energies, personalities and potential of approximately 30 adolescents in a confined space for around an hour at a time. But difficult is not impossible. Allowing spaces for creativity and risk-taking with safe boundaries is essential.
4. Becoming more sensitive to what your peers think and less concerned about what adults think is an essential part of attaching to the people with whom you will make your future . To tell a teenager to ignore peer pressure is to underestimate the importance of peer to peer connection.
5. We adults need to remember that when teenagers rebel, it is never personal. You can hate me for now but my continued love for you is what will help you. You can push against my boundaries but I will continue to hold them so that you better understand the world.
My thinking has been influenced primarily by the research undertaken by Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore and I have blogged about her work here:
For the last two years, I have taught a module on the teenage brain to fourth year pupils at school.
This year I am also running a workshop for parents and carers.
The work starts with discussion of words and thoughts that spring to mind when pupils hear the word “teenager”.
When I say “discussion”, I handle this very carefully. Asking teenagers to talk about personal issues in front of their peers when sensitivity to peers is so heightened can be unwise and so I seek responses in ways that make it easier to elicit honesty: for example ideas written anonymously on small bits of paper which I read and then destroy.
I ask pupils to suggest teenagers as they are presented in books, films, songs and the news and we reflect on the types or role models that these teenagers are.
I use Kevin from Harry Enfield https://youtu.be/dLuEY6jN6gY
and Lauren from Catherine Tate https://youtu.be/JpgVokQEchA
and begin to suggest that perhaps teenage rebellion against adults is not just about “a phase”.
I then talk to them about Sarah-Jayne Blakemore’s ground-breaking work and show this fantastic talk:
The drama “Brainstorm” from Company Three is a fantastic resource and script can be purchased from Nick Hern, along with a guide to making your own Brainstorm:
I also use Nicola Morgan’s excellent video:
If anyone wants a PowerPoint with links to all these resources, I can email one.
There is so much out there and so much to be excited about.
We must #CelebrateTeenSept and I will finish with Yaamin’s words from “Brainstorm”:
You say to me
Your brain is broken.
It’s like an adult’s brain but it doesn’t work properly.
It’s like you’re in a city you’ve never been to and you don’t have a map and you don’t know what you’re doing.
And you keep taking the wrong turns.
Listen to me.
One day you’ll be okay.
Your brain will start working properly.
One day your brain will be just like mine and then you’ll be okay.
But until then:
You’ve got to try and be more…like me.
I say to you
My brain isn’t broken.
I’m in a city I’ve never been to and I see bright lights and new ideas and fear and opportunity and a thousand million roads all lit up and flashing.
There are so many places to explore but you’ve forgotten that they exist because every day you walk the same way with your hands in your pockets and your eyes on the floor.
When I’m wild and out of control it’s because I’m finding out who I am.
And if I was a real wild animal
Then I’d have left by now.
My brain isn’t broken
It’s like this for a reason
I’m like this for a reason
I’m becoming who I am.
And I’m scared
And you’re scared
Because who I am might not be who you want me to be.
Or who you are.
And I don’t know why but I don’t say
It’s all going to be okay.
There are so many things I stopped saying to you.
I want to say them.
But I can’t.
Brainstorm Copyright @2016 Ned Glasier, Emily Lim and Company Three. Shared with the kind permission of Ned Glasier, who I had the great privilege to know when he was a teenager.