Ideas about agency

Ideas about agency

I’ve been reading though a lot of comments and tweets from people interested in children’s behaviour today. There’s a theme about the motivation of children who come onto the ‘behaviour’ radar.

This is how I see it.

I am a solution focused practitioner. The solution focused framework for my work is very clear.
I’m interested in where the child says they are hoping to get to, in hearing the stories about their success and what was it about them that this success happened. Within this paradigm I’m not interested in what their problems might mean to me, or anyone’s guesses about what might have caused them. I’m curious about what their world would look like with the problem gone away and I’m curious what might change a bit for the solution to get stronger. I’ll ask directly about the times when the solution has already happened, what’s already working, because this is the exception that breaks the rule. I’m told a child is always fighting in the playground, the rule, so I’ll ask “Tell me about a time when things were looking like you could have had a fight in the playground, things were building up to it…….. and you didn’t?”

These are questions you can find in any guide to solution focused work in any context, because they form the strong framework for the solution focused inquiry process. Equally strong is the solution focused facilitator’s conception of the person they are working with, in our context children maybe with their parents or carers, school staff, or other involved adults. I call it ‘The Three Beliefs’, that people are resourceful, successful in their past and hopeful for their future. This is in agreement with Steve de Shazar and Insoo Kim Berg’s earlier ‘assumptions about children’, that we hold in mind as we operate within the solution focused paradigm.

“Working Assumption about Children until proven otherwise

We believe that all children want to:

• have their parents be proud of them

• please their parents and other adults

• be accepted as a part of a social group

• be active and involved in activities with others

• learn new things

• be surprised and surprise others

• voice their opinions and choices

• make choices when given an opportunity

For my better understanding of what underlies the activity and success I join these ideas together into one concept – agency. A person’s agency is expressed through their effectiveness in the world. It’s appositive attribute in this sense; within the solution focused paradigm, I conceptualise children as people growing to the best they can be in the best world they can make, through their own agency in relationship with others.
When I meet someone to do work on change, I hold this characterisation in my mind as a belief, of the person having agency, being resourceful, successful and hopeful. It’s an uncompromising position and it has to be to be effective, because if I were to slip into holding a different and unhopeful characterisation, I’d fall back into being problem-focused, which I am prepared to do in a planned way as a strategic choice not by default. I’ll explain this point in a later blog.
Two things come out of this in terms of the potential to facilitate changes.
Firstly, I’m often told by other people who think they know, that this solution focused characterisation of a child isn’t true. I’m shown a stack of incident slips, which one school I know calls ‘Records of Harm’. I’m told about non-professional diagnoses of disorders and syndromes as deficits – I’ll talk about this too in a later blog. Individual Education Plans and the written requests for my involvement all tell me the child is failing, hopeless, helpless. When I take the child, and maybe some relevant adults, into the solution focused paradigm I put all this aside in a disciplined way and in effect communicate in the solution focused language. This refocusing connects directly with the ‘child at her best’ – that’s an aim of solution focused work – and when a she starts to recognise some of her strengths she will tend to see more of them as a natural consequence. I’ll say more about this in later, as a blog about linked multidimensional (ecosystemic) change rather than step-by-step (transtheoretical) change. Within the solution focused conversation the change is happening as you talk, building greater reflectiveness. resourcefulness, competence and agency.
Secondly, it seems that one person may be able to determine the beliefs another person is holding about their interaction, even when it’s not spoken about (link to Goldacre). If the facilitator believes the work is going to fail, it’s likely that it will. If the conversation is about failure of course there’s nothing implied and the failing child, being asked the question ‘You’re here because you refused to carry out your teacher’s instructions – why did you do that?’, knows the beliefs of their interrogator. But even when the facilitator is doing his best to help, but feels things are hopeless, this also may be communicated in some way. Hence the need for discipline in holding the belief

In schools that I’ve worked in there’s a general consensus that children with difficult to manage behaviour need to be propelled less or more strongly into doing something different. This is reinforced by the official emphasis on the necessity of discipline and the authority of the teacher in order to maintain control. The control and punishment approach makes the assumption that children;
1) don’t know the rules so need to be taught them, by rote if necessary.
But how many children who break rules don’t know what it is they’re breaking? In my experience working with children from year 1 to upwards, infant to ‘A’ level, rule-breaking children always know the where the boundary is, it’s just that they go over it. And children in secondary school have been to primary so it’s quite likely that after five or six years of schooling they would have got to know what school rules are – and they’re not much different across the phases. Schools have reminders of the rules around the place, children know what they are without looking.
2) are trying to be bad and need to be stopped. This assumes that a particular group of children wake up in the morning and think “I’ll break the rules in school today, that’s my best hope.” In my experience working in PRU, special school and L.A. educational psychology support service when I ask children who’ve been referred to me because their behaviour is out of line what their best hopes are for school, they say the ordinary things like ‘Meet my friends’, ‘Play football.’ ‘Not get into trouble’. I have never met a child who said their best hope was to get told off, get detention and have their Mum brought into school for a serious meeting. Stopping children who are breaking the rules they already know about is usually done by punishing them. The early psychologists who were interested in the effects of reward and punishment and were clear about one thing; punishment interrupts existing behaviour, it does not promote new learning. Skinner boxes with rats running mazes are ancient history but most school educators are misled into thinking that reward and punishment are a matched pair of motivators to make children learn to behave differently. Yet the same children if they move onto work-related learning or college are assumed to be self-starters – maybe a bit tired by their obligation to live life at the same time, but not rewarded and punished into compliance.
This approach to behaviour management from the outside in does not contain the intention to work cooperatively with the child to engage children’s agency, it assumes a powerful position over the child. It you look at this from the perspective of the intended learning outcomes of the behaviourist encounter, children will learn that they are relatively powerless, that compliance is the way to a better life in school. The children who can’t or won’t comply will resist and as the pressure from outside increases they’ll resist more strongly, until they’re removed form their community and permanently excluded.
The solution focused approach engages the agency of the child, by taking an inquiry position asking questions like; What are you good at? What is it about you that makes things go well for you? What’s your best hope for school over the next week? Suppose your Mum noticed things going better for you, what would she notice that you were doing? Suppose things got better what would you be doing a bit differently?
And once started on the path, the child carries on with the work whether you’re there or not. In Carl Roger’s terms the child is self-actualising, through the action of their own agency. My role is to act as a guide, maintaining the possibility of hopeful change and this is what children have reported back to me. When I ask the question ‘What is it about this work that’s been useful to you’ children say ‘When I see you it reminds me…….’

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