The Power Is In Our Presence, Not Just Our Practice

My 10 year old left his school shoes at a friend’s house yesterday and had to go in his trainers today. He asked me to explain this to his class teacher, even though they have a good relationship and his teacher is kind and understanding. 

The impact of relationships generally goes undervalued and underestimated; the quality of those relationships – or lack of – can be the single most helpful, or the single most harmful, ingredient in children’s social and emotional growth, self-esteem and resilience.

And yet, for many CYP professionals, fostering strong relationships can feel like a permissive and pointless deviation from the task at hand. But here’s why they’re not…

Stephen Covey once said that “reducing children to a test score is the greatest form of identity theft we can commit”.
But as children, in secondary settings in particular, are increasingly subject to militant practices, sending them to isolation or excluded for ‘behaviour violations’ such as having the ‘wrong’ hairstyle, shoes or pen etc. the problem has become about much more than scores.

Compliance and conformity is actually quite distinct from self-control, which IMO is the real goal we should be aiming for.
But today’s musings against high-control measures – in any setting, not just in schools – are less to do with power and control, and more to do with the unappreciated damage they can easily inflict on our most powerful and influential resource: the child-adult relationship.

This is why there is vulnerability for my son is pro-actively asking for help or acceptance, despite being blessed with a warm and accepting teacher.
Not so long ago, in a different situation he asked a different adult – one who was in a supporting role – for help.
But instead of being helped, he was berated for ‘not listening’.
Most likely an insignificant remark from an overstretched professional, it still only had to happen once. From that day on, asking for help became associated with being helpless.

And this brief exchange also compounded a different memory, one that’s etched in his mind as the ‘the worst moment of his life’.
He’s a pretty resilient kid overall, and like most, is not unfamiliar being with told off, more so by me than anyone.
The experience that crushed him was not being ‘told off’ per se, but admonished by a grown-up who made a point of embarrassing him in front of other children, when they could have chosen discretion.

Trust is built in small moments, but it can be destroyed irreversibly in a split second.
Making an example of a child – or their behaviour – can seem like a good idea at the time, but it’s a power any adult should wield with great care. Whether it’s our intention or not, the wound of shame and humiliation runs deep, often with permanent effects.

Yet this brief story is pretty insignificant compared to the epidemic that’s raging in many settings, where ‘high standards’ are equating to ‘high-anxiety’, matched by soaring rates of emotionally-based school avoidance and mentally unwell children. Is it so surprising?

The moment those children arrived in the world as babies, their new-born cry signified their most primitive human need; connection. Our survival depends on it, and it’s hard-wired in, meaning it stays with us all, for life.
But instead of receiving that connection, many kids get rejection, called ‘exclusion’ or ‘isolation‘ and the like…
Plenty of young people do comply, but at what cost?

What is often mistaken for ‘good choices’ is simply fear walking, and it stands to reason that control measures which rely on anxiety and fear are never going to bring out the best in anyone, child or adult.
They also work spectacularly against Mother Nature at the adolescent stage, when she’s ensured they’re neurobiologically primed to spread their wings of independence and personal agency.

Thankfully, plenty of us aren’t practicing in these high control or anxiety-inducing environments. We may already be relationally aware, of person-centred or trauma informed. And that’s where true power really lies.
We sometimes forget that we are human beings first, and humans doing second. And this is why we must, must, must lead with our relationships.

If, somewhere else in their lives, the young people you support are exposed to measures of ‘discipline’ which seek to control or shame – even if not in your setting – it may be that your nurturing relationship with them is the much-needed antidote.
Yes, we make a difference through the quality of our practice, but we make the biggest and the best impact with the quality of our presence.
It’s as easy as ABC; Acceptance, Connection and Belonging.

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Visit this page to find out more about my CPD session “The Power of Your Presence, Not Just Your Practice”.