Support …….. now!

I am writing this in response to an article by ‘Bergistra – “Headteacher on a Knife-Edge’ in the Education Guardian of May 28 2013. She said ‘I have a reception child, aged four, who desperately needs some serious long-term therapy. In school she is unmanageable.’ She goes on to talk about the difficulty of keeping this child in school and her deep commitment to fulfilling the broad needs of her community of children and their families. She talks about the length of time to get support from outside agencies and says ‘It feels awful not being able to provide this little girl’s family with the support they need now. Not in six weeks, or six months or next year.’

‘Bergistra’ has systems in school to support children. She said she recently reintegrated a year 4 boy whose ‘behaviour was so extreme I seriously considered a permanent exclusion.’ When he returned to school ‘he seemed to be stuck in a tornado of rage and fury that swept him along, trying to destroy everything in his path.’ She made alternative provision for him, but his behaviour deteriorated there and when he was back in school she excluded him again. She said neither his mother nor herself knew what to do. ‘It felt hopeless.’ But she’s taken him back again and hopes to find a way to get him back on track.’

In the context of the new approach to special and additional needs of children, with more responsibility being put on school staff to identify and meet these needs, the tension is obvious and growing. If only the school could have an educational approach to meet the needs of the relatively small number of children who experience the greatest difficulty.

I work with children like the two in Bergistra’s article in my job as an Advisory Teacher. I take referrals where things look hopless, people feel stuck and children are at imminent risk of permanent exclusion. From finding myself in Bergistra’s situation fifteen years ago, I have developed my use of the solution focused approach to problem-solving. If what you’re doing doesn’t work it’s a good idea to do something different and this is certainly different and produces remarkable results. The following two case reports are illustrations of this approach. The names are locations are fictionalised to protect identities.

On a Thursday morning two weeks ago I was driving away from a primary school where I’d been meeting a boy and his mum, when I got a call on my work mobile. As soon as I could stop the car I checked the voicemail. An infant school SENDCo had called – “We’ve got a serious problem with a child and we’d like your help with an intervention – we’re in the danger of exclusion zone – so if you’d get in touch as soon as possible ……thanks Geoff.”

At the primary school I’d been holding a review meeting of the solution focused programme I call VulCAN looking over the work I’d been doing with nine year old Chris over six weeks. Chris had been seriously bullied in his previous school, to the point where his Mum had decided to move him to another school in the hope he could make a new start. He had been very unhappy, his behaviour had become difficult and he had been very aggressive with other children. What we call here a managed move was recommended and supported by the Local Authority Behaviour Support manager who requested my solution focused work with Chris as a key part of the process. Until I could report a successful outcome Chris would not be put on roll in his new school. If he failed he would have to return to his original school.
My first meeting had been with Chris and his Mum, when we’d agreed the purpose of our work together. I’d asked the SENDCo to come along but he wasn’t able to. Chris had been in his new school for three weeks and he told me how he knew things were going well. His Mum agreed to a point but felt he needed to do more about getting angry with other children and this would be central to his success at his new school and Chris agreed with her. His being calm was our project.

I asked Chris to scale himself on what he called the “Calm”/ “Losing it” scale and he put himself at 5. He hoped to be at 7 when we met next time. Over the first weeks Chris noticed himself being calm; after three weeks with this going well we refined the focus to ‘Staying calm even when people annoy me’. At the last-but-one meeting I asked Chris if our project would be complete when we met the next week to review things with his mum and we could finish. He said maybe we could meet for a few more times, maybe fortnightly rather than weekly as we’d been doing. I said we’d check this out when we met to review our work.

When we met for the VulCAN review both Chris and his Mum felt that we had done what we set out to do, Chris was securely in school, he had friends and was keeping calm even when he felt a bit angry inside. Again the SENDCo couldn’t attend but I spoke to him after the meeting. Later I called the LA Behaviour Support manager to say our work was complete. He said that Chris’s move was completed in his view.

From my car I called the Infant school and asked for the SENDCo. I was put on to the Deputy Head teacher – he told me that the SENDCo was teaching her class – and arranged to go in to meet the boy, Tom, his mum and dad and the Teaching Assistant working closely with him the following Tuesday afternoon.

Then I drove on to meet a year 10 boy at an Academy, who had been urgently referred to me because he was at the point of exclusion and his school had ‘tried everything’ and were stuck.

The following Tuesday, when I arrived in school the SENDCo told me that Tom lived with his Mum and spent weekends with his Dad. Both his parents were coming to the meeting and were happy for any help we could offer. Tom is five. After introductions, I asked Tom if he knew we were going to have this meeting. He said his mum had told him. I said that if we were going to do something useful we needed to agree what our work would be about in this meeting. After a bit of talk involving all of us he said it could be about him being calm in school. So I said if we did some work on that it would be ok? He said “Yes”. I said we’d talk about that later.

I asked Tom what were his best things, what he liked doing, what he was good at. We talked about this for twenty minutes, Tom answering questions and thinking about his strengths and his best things, often sitting on his chair or coming back to it after he’d done some thinking and playing. He talked about Scooby Doo and rattled off the names of a lot of Scooby videos. He told me that in school he stayed with his friend Carrie and helped the girls get away from the boys when they were playing outside. He liked reading time and the story they had in class now, “Rat a tat tat”. He said his Dad would say when he was at his house he liked to watch TV and running and shouting. Mrs. Brett the TA would say he was good at making Lego models and picture drawing.
When we’d done a lot of talking about what he liked and was good at, we moved on to how things were going in school. I checked out his understanding of a number line and I wrote the numbers 1 to 10 on a line I drew in my notebook for him. I gave him the pen and he drew a number box across the page and wrote 1 to 10 inside the box. I told him we’d call his ‘calm’ scale, where 10 was him being calm in school and 1 was him not being calm in school. He drew another number box as before which he left blank. I asked him if he wanted the numbers inside. He said ‘yes’. I asked him if he wanted to write them. He said ‘no’ he wanted me to do it. I wrote them in and said that 10 would be him being really calm and 1 the opposite to that. He told me he wanted 1 to be the ‘calm’ end and 10 to be ‘really crazy stuff’. I asked him where he’d put himself now and he put a circle around the 1. I asked him where he thought the others in the room would put him and he said 1. I asked him where he hoped he would be at the end of the same day and he said 1. I gave him a job to do – to notice things going well and him being at the 1-end of the scale. I asked the others if we could give Tom a compliment about the meeting he had just been doing and asked him who would go first. He said mum, then dad, then Mrs Brett, then me. I asked him to give himself a compliment. I asked him again what his job was. He went back to his class to get his things as it was going home time.

In a few minutes I explained the purpose of what we’d been doing to Tom’s parents and outlined the solution focused approach. I asked them if they needed anything else. They said they were impressed by how well Tom had concentrated and stayed on-task in the meeting. He usually couldn’t do this. They left and I asked Mrs. Brett if she could make a scale with him as a reminder – which Tom was calling his number line – maybe he could choose the colour of card and they could write the number line together. Perhaps they could laminate it and agree where to keep it so it would be most useful to him.
We had a plan, the meeting had taken 30 minutes and Tom was fully engaged throughout.

I’ll catch up with how things are progressing when school restarts after the holidays.

An important aspect of this solution focused approach is that schools can do this work for themselves – it’s an educational approach to a child’s learning needs, and if it’s school based it’s highly responsive. Provided it lies within a rigorous framework of action and review, where appropriate and timely referral to outside agencies, like mental health or social services, is made to ensure the safety of and appropriate support for children who have needs additional to their learning needs, it’s useful for a school to have this resource in-house. A few do already.
It strikes me that Bergistra is doing all she can, following the established routines in her school. She’s not giving up – and that is the most common reponse of teaches in this situation. They don’t want to give up on children but they don’t know what else to do. If like Bergistra you feel you’re stuck, get solution focused. It’s the difference that makes a difference.

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