Most settings know that emotional competence would support better behaviour, engagement motivation etc., but because it can’t be measured easily, it doesn’t usually get the value it deserves.
Evidencing ‘soft outcomes’ is a problem I help lots of settings with, and I’m currently working on an action research project designed to do just that; develop simple but meaningful ways to track changes in wellbeing, and then understand the impact that has on engagement.
Two of the partner schools are already revising their behaviour management policies, so they’re better aligned to relationship-based approaches instead, and it’s making my heart sing.
Firstly, ‘restorative relationships’ are fairly easy to foster in any environment, but most importantly, they help children develop the awareness and skills to manage their feelings, thus strengthening emotional competencies, which in turn supports the learning-readiness in their brains!
Hence, they’re far more effective than the likes of ‘traffic lights’, ‘rain clouds’, ‘sin bins’ etc; deficit-based models that many settings still favour. Their opponents (me included!) not only say they’re 100% self-defeating but, while it’s seldom the intention, their ‘consequences’ can, in fact, cause deep and sometimes long-lasting harm.
This is why;
My 7 year old niece was regaling me with a memory this week; an episode in foundation where she was (wrongly) accused of throwing a doll. Even if she has thrown it, what did her 4 year old self learn from ‘going on red’ and being made to sit facing the wall?
She learned what judgement and shame feel like; which, let’s be honest, is the intention, whether we use the word or not.
Many of us can recall a memory of shame, because it creates a toxic biochemical cocktail which leaves a deep imprint in the brain. And not only does shame kill any positive feelings about the self, the environment and the other people in it (especially the adult who uses shame to control them), but it also kills learning capacity, in a heartbeat.
I recently heard a story of students being made to stand facing a wall for an entire morning… Because of their shoes. Despite being Clarks school shoes, they didn’t comply with the school’s uniform policy.
I find it difficult to believe this still happens in 2022.
Not only were these children being forced to miss hours of learning, what does this do for the child’s relationship with school?
Motivation is especially difficult to foster during adolescence, and you need far less extreme measures of ‘discipline’ to exterminate it, instantly, perhaps indefinitely. Appetite for school runs dry, apathy sets in.
There’s no escaping that relationships in any setting are the bedrock of progression. Feeling accepted and welcome meet the brain’s first and most primitive need – to feel safe – and learning will simply not happen effectively without this is place.
Relationships aren’t just about the absence of shame and apathy, but the quality of the continual exchanges and transactions we have with our young people; how they’re spoken to, and about.
We should never forget that the trust and rapport that can take a long time time to grow; especially for more vulnerable children; can be destroyed in seconds.
I’m not saying we don’t need effective systems; especially when we’re managing huge numbers of children; but there’s a well-placed adage that “you get more of what you focus on”.
So focus on these instead;
Build children’s belief that they are competent human beings. Once you’ve cultivated ego-strength, changes; in behaviour, attitudes, learning etc.; can be affected much more readily.
Young people have very little control over much of their lives; where they go, what they do, who they’re with, what they wear, even what they eat.
And yet we all do so much better when we feel like we have influence and agency. Use every opportunity to feed their desire for ‘personal power’. They need it. We all do.
Most young people, just like grown-ups, are doing the best they can. We just all have days where we struggle to show up as our ‘best selves’, or ‘fulfil our potential’ (whatever that means?!).
But we also tend to move in that direction more readily when we feel valued and validated; a smile, kind eyes, an authentic welcome can change everything.
Cultivating, not killing, the conditions for growth, do not have to necessitate intervention or programmes, more time or more money. Mostly, it is simply about treating children in the ways that we want to be treated.
How we show up as the most productive, engaged and motivated versions of ourselves, is just how children do.
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