Behaviour – a dirty word?

Around this time last year, I wrote this post – High School Visits – about our experiences of looking around high schools for BB, and how, although it wasn’t about him, I began to think about LB’s future needs and how they would be supported by the schools on offer. I drew the difficult conclusion that the boys may well end up at different secondary schools.

BB – my first born, my baby – is approaching teenage-hood fast. He’s officially in the final year of primary school and now we really do have to choose a high school for him despite this all having happened far too quickly (and me not being ready and wanting to weep into my cup of tea). We are re-visiting schools A and B from last year’s post as well as adding school C into the mix, to help us choose before the October deadline.

It’s looking like a choice between B and C for BB but in reality, he could go to any of them and I’m sure he’d be fine. Although we are going to have some worries about catchment areas and places filling up, the reality is that the world is BB’s oyster. All options are open to him and its largely going to come down to preference.

However, the more schools I view, the more concerned I become that LB will not have such a choice. The picture I’m getting is that schools are inclusive to a point, but not beyond. None of the schools we have visited are ‘selective’ though one is independent. They are all therefore, theoretically, inclusive. However, when you scratch even lightly at the surface, you soon realise that they are not. What they are is inclusive with exceptions, which is pretty weird when you start to consider it more deeply.

What I feel they’re really saying is that some special educational needs are more acceptable to them than others. That if your child has Dyslexia or Dyscalculia or Autism (certain presentations only), or a physical disability, perhaps a mild vision or hearing loss, they’re ok. They can come in. However, as soon as there’s a whiff of the unspeakable ‘b’ word, no thank you very much.

I touched on this in last year’s post – that some schools see behaviour issues as selfish, disruptive to others, and stemming from a flaw within the child displaying them. I can tell they do, from the way they lean forward conspiratorially when they mention it, lower their voice slightly, just automatically assume that you will agree with their view point that we don’t want Them in This School. It is always delivered in such a matter of fact way that you know the deliverer can’t possibly envisage a scenario where the child with ‘the behaviour’ is anything other than a huge problem, to be avoided at all costs.

Today, we presented smartly, we talked about BB with his good academics, his good social skills, his extracurricular activities, his all-round sunny disposition. We must have seemed a safe bet for the ‘not in our school’ behaviour chat. We evidently didn’t present as the sort of people who would have another child with behaviour challenges. But we do. That’s because there are many reasons for a child to struggle with their behaviour and generally it is not that they come ‘from a bad family’ or whatever it is people assume.

I get that schools want to cultivate a certain image and maintain certain standards. I get that if it is a fee-paying school, other parents will expect certain learning conditions for their children that perhaps don’t involve disruption from a classmate.

However, as a parent of a child with behaviour challenges – which, incidentally, he gained from having a really shitty start in life (very much not his fault) – it all feels pretty exclusionary. The reality is that neither school B, nor school C will be welcoming towards LB and his specific set of needs. Grizzly assures me it’s fine, because we will consider each boy individually and attempt to get them into the best school for them.

While this is all well and good, another part of me wonders why it is ok for BB to have three good options available to him but LB, so far, has one. It makes me feel that his background continues to limit him because as hard as we work to improve things for him, and as prepared as I am to fight for his needs to be met, he isn’t going to have the same choices. For me, a school that talks about behaviour like it’s a dirty word is never going to be appropriately understanding of it. Those schools may be inclusive on paper but they aren’t in reality. And if they’re not truly inclusive, they’re not truly an option.

Wouldn’t it be refreshing if you went to view a school and when they talked about behaviour they said something along the lines of being committed to understanding the underlying roots of it? Something about how they see the potential in every single child, no matter how they present? How they are committed to tailored approaches and working in partnership and thinking about the things children can excel in, rather than excluding them for the things they can’t help? What if they said every child is a success waiting to happen?

What if it wasn’t just the occasional school, but every school which had that opinion?

What if, and imagine this, children with any additional need could be supported to have an equal chance at life?

What if we ditched this weird concept of a hierarchy of acceptability of need? Stopped thinking that struggling with literacy was in some way more okay than struggling with emotional regulation. As a society we don’t appear to blame children who can’t read – it’s pretty obvious to most that it’s due to brain differences or lack of appropriate support. Why, then, do we think it acceptable to pin the blame for a children struggling to regulate their behaviour on the child themselves? Why don’t we think it’s due to brain differences or lack of appropriate support for them?

I suspect it’s just more convenient this way. Children who can’t read impact other people a lot less than children who struggle to regulate their behaviour. That’s an unpalatable but true fact. Children with behaviour challenges can disrupt classrooms, they can be hard work, they can hurt people, they can turn people grey, but do we really think that they are less deserving or worthy of the right support than a child with literacy difficulties? And if we do, what exactly is the justification for that stance?

Our recent visits to schools would suggest that the prevailing viewpoint is just this: that children with behaviour challenges are less deserving of a good education. As a society, we seem to think it’s acceptable to keep them away from others, to isolate them, to exclude them, to send them to schools where restraint is regularly used and when all that fails, lock them up in an Assessment and Treatment Centre (ATU).

I’d say we’re failing them.

We’re thinking of the majority and excluding those who don’t conform enough. Shouldn’t we be thinking of each child as an individual? The herd mentality is not really any good for anybody – just one approach is never going to work for all. But if we had many approaches that could be moulded and tweaked for individuals as needed – might that not be inclusive?

It’s really about a shift of attitude. These children with behaviour difficulties aren’t at fault – they have neurological or emotional or sensory or psychological reasons behind their behaviour. We are not affording them empathy. We are not getting things right for them. Schools are not getting things right for them. Inclusion is not including them.

These children are some of the most vulnerable in our society. They are already at risk of poor life outcomes so why do we think its ok to alienate them further?

I don’t know the solution but I know I’m pretty fucking mad about it.

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Behaviour – a dirty word?

High School Visits

It’s very hard to believe the time has come for me to be thinking about this but now that Big Bear is in Year 5, apparently it has. The deadline for completing the high school preferences form is early in the autumn term of year 6 so most high schools recommend you look around in year 5. So despite the fact that Big Bear is only 9 years and 1 month old, we have visited two local high schools this week. It has been enlightening to say the least.

I have had many chats with other parents in similar positions and have asked them their thoughts. A common theme has featured in the conversations: parents are keen on discipline in high schools and look for those where lessons will not be disrupted by the behaviour of others. They want a strong focus on academics and opportunities for extra-curricular activity. Apparently performance in GCSEs is also important.

When I think about my own education, there was a strong focus on academics. We sat exams twice a year, every year from year 7 onwards. Exam results were impressive, ranking well in comparison to the rest of the country. I was a diligent student and placed a high level of pressure on myself to achieve. My academic performance was important to me and I set exacting standards for myself.

Why then, when other parents were describing the education they wanted for their child, an education not dissimilar to my own, did I feel a sense of discomfort and dissonance? What was it exactly that I wanted from a school for my boys, if it wasn’t that?

We visited the first school. I’ll call it School A. I tried to assess it objectively – what did I like about it? What didn’t I like? I liked the building. It was clean and fresh. It had good facilities. The staff were friendly. We wandered around and there wasn’t anything especially wrong or right about it. It seemed fine but I had no idea at all how we were supposed to make a decision. Big Bear didn’t look too comfortable though. He looked like a rabbit in headlights. Observing his reaction was important because it would be him going there every day, not me.

The Head was doing a presentation in the Hall so we went to listen to that. She began by saying, “We are not an exam factory. That is not what we are about.” She went on to describe a very well-structured and comprehensive pastoral care system. “If children don’t feel safe in this school and they don’t feel valued and they don’t feel loved, we know they won’t be able to learn,” she said. She went on to talk about the importance of building self-esteem and giving children a belief that they can achieve. She talked about personalised learning journeys and matching support to need. She spoke passionately, saying that when these fundamental things are in place, the academics will naturally take care of themselves.

Feeling a little tearful, I had a mini-revelation. I looked between Big Bear sitting beside me, pale with anxiety, and the Head extolling the virtues of pastoral support and I thought: I have two very different children and one school may not meet both of their needs. School A didn’t seem a good fit for Big Bear, but it was hard to imagine anywhere better for Little Bear.

We should keep an open mind but now it would be really interesting to see what School B was like. We went there this evening and the first thing we did was listen to the Head speaking. We had been given an information pack on arrival. We flicked through it while we waited for the speech and noted there was a leaflet about how they extend learning for those who are gifted and talented. I asked Grizzly to pass me the one about SEN. He couldn’t because there wasn’t one.

The Head began to speak and her first point was around their outstanding exam results. She talked about how they always strive for more and push students to the next hurdle where they can. She talked of twice yearly exams and practice interviews and preparing for future careers. She talked about setting aspirational targets and achieving them. I knew I was supposed to be impressed. I sat amongst a sea of other parents who were no doubt impressed and keen for their child to be a part of this educational wonderland.

I know I was once a part of this academically focussed world and I suppose it has done me well. But I find myself increasingly uncomfortable with what I now often find to be academic snobbery. Yes, it is great if you are gifted with intelligence and you work hard and you go on to achieve fabulous grades. But what if you are not? What if, through no fault of your own, you have been dealt a different hand? What if you have various life-induced hurdles putting blocks in your academic path? What about you? How do you fit into this daunting and challenging world?

I found out how you fit. You don’t.

The Head at School B said this: “I will not tolerate anybody disrupting lessons. Stealing other student’s learning time is selfish. It is selfish and it will not be tolerated here.” At this point, Grizzly and I exchanged a look. The look said, “There is not a chance on God’s green earth that we will be sending Little Bear here.” People like discipline, they do. I like discipline when it is about clear boundaries and predictability. Other people like discipline when it prevents their child’s learning getting disrupted by another child. The problem is everything feels very different when the child doing the disrupting is yours.

Little Bear would never purposefully disrupt a lesson. He would never disrupt a lesson for the pure reason of being selfish. But he might disrupt a lesson and yes, he might disrupt your child’s learning. By saying he, or anyone else who might find school difficult, disrupts lessons selfishly and then sending them to the ‘internal exclusion zone’ places the blame squarely on the child. It assuages the adults of having had anything to do with it and it suggests there is no reason to consider why the child behaved like that. They were selfish. That’s why they did it.

In reality, Little Bear would disrupt a lesson because he was dysregulated, anxious or overwhelmed. That being the case, I don’t want him to be punished by being sent to sit alone somewhere. I don’t see how that would help him or how it would make something different happen next time. If anything it would increase his anxiety or frustration and increase the likelihood of future disruption. I am not suggesting that all children are angels or that they shouldn’t be taught to take responsibility for their actions. Of course they need to learn to self-regulate and to behave appropriately but with the best will in the world, not all children can, all of the time and I don’t see how its fair or appropriate to punish them when they lose control. When it is your child who struggles with behavioural and emotional regulation, you feel very differently about behaviour policies. You also feel pretty uncomfortable when other parents tell you how important it is to them that their child’s lessons are not disrupted by ‘bad behaviour’.

As things stand, with Little Bear’s needs as they currently are, we couldn’t consider sending him to School B. I don’t think he would be able to reach his potential there because he might not feel safe and there’s a good chance he wouldn’t feel loved. Big Bear, however, was visibly happier there. He felt safe, comfortable and interested. He will cope with the academic focus. There is very little chance of him disrupting lessons or ending up in the exclusion zone. Ironically, he would cope much better if he didn’t witness disruptive behaviour, a point which ties me in complex emotional knots. We can imagine him at the school and I’m sure he would thrive. This time it is about Big Bear and we all think the right school for him is School B.

It is another 4 years until we have to make a proper decision about Little Bear. His needs could change immeasurably in that time (as they already have done over the past three) and maybe School B could be right for him by then. But maybe it won’t be. Perhaps School A’s ethos and sporting opportunities and tailored curriculum would suit him much better. It doesn’t matter because I have two very different boys, each with their own set of strengths and challenges and now I know what I want from their high school education. I want them to be happy there. I want them to have access to teaching and pastoral support that meets their individual needs. I want them to be supported to reach their full potential because I know they can both achieve great things. I’m not really interested in those achievements being measured in terms of letters or numbers but in terms of working their hardest, doing their best and being satisfied with their own efforts. I want them to enjoy learning. I want them both to gain a sense of self-belief that will allow them to go on to further education or employment. I want them to be proud of themselves.

If that involves sending my children to two different high schools, so be it. But I certainly won’t allow Little Bear to be blamed for having the needs he has. He didn’t ask for his start in life and it isn’t his fault it has impacted him. If a school can’t understand this, he won’t be gracing their corridors.

 

 

 

 

High School Visits