How do you work with a permanently excluded student in their own home?
I am privileged to be invited into the homes of young people whose world has collapsed, so I tread gently. I am the professional and I am there to help but I am mostly working with people across a table or side-by-side on a sofa, so I must set aside any judgemental voices about ‘failings’, ‘difficulties’ and ‘lifestyle choices’. I must dig deep into my reserves of resilience and adopt the mindset of a teacher and a life coach; I must adopt the empathetic determination of a UN peace negotiator, with the compassion and self control of a Zen master and do my best to make a difference.
I am clear why I am there – to get the child to connect with learning and to get them back into school – no matter how unlikely it seems at the start. This gives a clear direction of travel and, as I go along, I can be open and discuss my values and attach them to this purpose. Over the time working with the student, I will establish my professional credentials and maybe trust, without ever getting on a high horse. I can offer hope immediately by starting with “I have done this before, in really testing circumstances and we can do it again…” Still, while I inevitably do plenty of talking, I actively listen more – I pick up everything that is said and unsaid, communicated verbally and non-verbally in order to help me make a connection and to build a sense of trust, shared ambition and belonging.
Whatever I feel about the family circumstances and the often acrimonious events leading to permanent exclusion I remain impartial – schools do what they do and make mistakes…so do parents….we all do! I always acknowledge the difficult context schools are working in and accept that parents do the best they can. They need to hear this and it gives me the chance to suggest different approaches later. I keep the focus of my work on the child and improvements in their situation, at all times. However, being in their home and around their family I inevitably end up involved in wider family issues where I try and offer a non-judgemental view, with the intention of helping the family find a solution. If you establish trust, shared objectives and clear values the most difficult conversations are possible and an agreeable way forward found.
Once the sessions are up and running I take every opportunity to acknowledge the child’s positives, in work or behaviour, however small…even when they don’t! I throw a wide circle to catch them behaving and working well…even helping around the house or trying to get along with siblings! This all helps to build connections between me and the family, leading to eventually building bridges between the family and school. Furthermore, I have learned to show vulnerability –I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve said “I’ve made mistakes…” so that we can talk about ‘learning from them’ and ‘clearing them up’. Aside from the subjects I teach, I speak about potential, responsibility and resilience. To illustrate this, I talk about my running; how it is a challenge, how it doesn’t come easy, how I’m not the right shape etc. not to brag or sound like I’ve got everything sorted but to show how there is a stoic satisfaction in taking on a challenge and trying to work through it. This helps to establish some common ground with their challenging situation and the regular daily challenges we all face.
When you work so closely with children and families that have been wounded by the system, it takes a great deal of flexibility, compassion and nuance both in my approaches and responses – I often find myself in a grey area where 99% of what I say is prefixed with ‘it depends…’ – but there is a strength in this vulnerability that helps to win the small gains that can lead to a child’s transformation and a return back to school.