I have an idea.
It’s a way to help improve children’s mental health…
It is something that could happen in schools, especially primary schools…
It would cost, …. ummm … £0.
Yup. Zero. Nothing.
I can just imagine all the cash-starved Head teachers out there, sitting up and starting to pay attention 😉
If you were to survey 100 children between the ages of 5-10 it would be really interesting to see what they think about themselves. If anyone has already done this please let me know. I have a theory.
The thing is that mental health is often related to body health (which is why so much can be improved through optimal nutrition, movement and sleep). It is also shaped by life experiences and rooted in subconscious beliefs.
In my experience of working therapeutically with children, coaching parents and supporting adult clients for many years, there is 1 belief that seems to be present for so many:-
“I’m not good enough”
The seed of the belief that we are not ok, we are not enough, we are not good enough and what we do is not good enough, can be sown in us in so many different ways. That seed will be nurtured, fed and watered by future experiences.
I was speaking with a lovely mum recently. She told me how her daughter, a bright, sunny girl, started to develop a shadow over her a few years ago in school. She had a tricky time in Year 2. Don’t get me wrong, she was a perfect student, great behaviour, trying her best, lots of friends so it was not ‘that’ kind of tricky. Nothing was ‘really’ wrong – yet she started to feel the weight of self-doubt. She started really questioning her self, her abilities and whether she was good enough.
The reason? The school changed their marking system and were now using the ‘developmental marking / feedback marking’ (Assessment For Learning or AFL to some).
What that meant in plain English was her work got marked by the teacher and beside the smiley face, and maybe a positive comment, she always got a suggestion of what she could do to improve her work next time:-
“Next time try…. ”
“When you do your next …. Can you…”
“Have a go at ….”
“You could make this even better by….”
Many teachers love this marking. It gets results. I can understand why. Children pay attention to their personalised comments (don’t you remember devouring every word personally written to you by your teachers as a child?). The majority of pupils try their best. They want to get better. They want to make their teacher / head teacher / parent happy. Most of them will do whatever it takes to work harder and do better. It’s all looking good. Work gets better, marks go up, levels go up, Ofsted is happy, SLT is happy, everyone’s happy…
And yet this system held within it the power to erode a child’s self confidence and self esteem one tiny bit of work at a time.
Can you imagine someone, who’s opinions of you matters, constantly telling you to improve?
Can you imagine how it might feel if your success is never really celebrated but always pushed into second place by a suggestion for ‘better’?
Can you imagine how the seed of not being good enough gets sown and/or nurtured faithfully, diligently by those guiding your development?
Can you remember the last time you did something out of your comfort zone (presentation, speech, blog etc) and you got feedback – some good, some not. Which are the comments you heard the loudest? Can you imagine that feeling for a child?
I am obviously not saying that this is the only factor in a child’s mental health. I’ve worked therapeutically with children for so many years now, and I know very well that it’s not. However, in a time when so many of our young people ARE struggling with mental health issues, and schools ARE struggling with budgets shrinking – isn’t it a good time to look at everything we are doing (however, well established) that might not be helping?
I wonder how many schools could help support / improve the mental health of these children by changing how they use this marking scheme?
I wonder what might happen to how children feel about their work – and themselves, if more of the time the comments coming back were just highlighting the positives?
“I loved your adjectives. I wanted to keep reading.”
“You have got full stops and capital letters nailed! Well done.”
“I can tell how hard you worked to get these words down today. Well done on not letting yourself get totally distracted. That’s a great skill to have.”
“You come up with such great creative ideas. I love reading your work.”
Please hear me on this. I am not suggesting we stop this feedback / developmental marking altogether – clearly we ALL need to have help to see how we can grow and what our next step could be. I am just talking about using it more sporadically. I wonder how much more effort you would put into noticing and implementing a suggestion for improvement if it came once in a while rather than every piece of work?
I also wonder how often teachers let pupils know what they are currently working on improving themselves – so children see it as a life skill, not something they have to do (directed by a perfect teacher) just because they are children and not good enough…yet?
I really don’t think that tweaking this approach to marking would cost any money… and yet could have a significant impact on the children trying their best to be good enough… before they grow up bringing those beliefs into their tweens, teens and adulthood.
I’d be curious to know what you think… Is this idea good enough to be considered?
“Look at me…”
…are 3 words you wont hear me say.
I have heard them so many times in classrooms, corridors, playgrounds, school gates, offices, restaurants… etc, etc. Sometimes said gently, sometimes forcefully; always a command. I know I used to say them to my class when I was a teacher. It was a long time ago and I didn’t know back then what I know today. In this day and age, when we are all aware of the desperate need for mental health awareness in schools, offices and homes… the dynamics of eye contact is something that needs to be understood, especially for 1:1 situations.
It Still Happens…
Recently I was hearing about someone (a grown-up) who was in a meeting with a Mental Health Professional who said these 3 words to her. She was looking away at the time…at her shoes… and had been for most of the meeting.
Hearing this really saddened me. This lady, the client (or ‘patient’ depending on the situation and service) was left feeling like she had done something wrong in not having given the eye contact and been found out. Now she also felt like a failure that she couldn’t do it, even though she was being asked to do something she found next to impossible at the time. This was a meeting with a professional who clearly didn’t understand the impact of what was going on, what she was doing, or how best to connect with someone not giving eye contact.
In a trauma-aware school or any other setting, where the aim is to keep people big or small emotionally safe and understood, these are words that will be redundant. If adults really learn how to keep others emotionally safe, these words just wont feature. It doesn’t matter whether the condition is anxiety, depression, autism, or just plain fear or shame.
If a child is not looking at an adult in the face it is because they do not feel emotionally safe to do so.
If an adult is not looking at an adult in the face it is because they do not feel emotionally safe to do so.
Really looking at someone in the eye is an incredibly vulnerable thing to do. Have you noticed what happens in your body when you try to do this? With some people it will be easier – with others more uncomfortable and with others, at times, impossible…
and what directs our ability to look someone in the eye is within us.
Our state of confidence, openness, assertiveness. Our sense of safety in that moment.
What actually directs this is our nervous system.
If we are in a state where our ventral vagus is operating, then we are able to make full use of our social engagement system and connect with people around us. We feel safe and we can easily read people around us.
If we are feeling anxious, angry, fearful or overwhelmed, misunderstood or unsafe in anyway, then our nervous system changes, and our dominant drive becomes one to find safety. Our body changes as we are feeling vulnerable and looking at people in the eye in this state is not safe.
IF you have ever been around dogs or horses you will know they will give you the deepest, longest, ‘I really see you’ gaze when they feel safe. They will also give you regular eye contact at a less penetrating level if they want to and feel safe to. If they meet a person or animal they don’t feel safe with they look away. If they know they have done something wrong they look away.
This is biological, survival wiring. It happens to us all when we feel unsafe.
When we ask, direct or demand that someone look at us in the eye – or even look at our face, when they would rather not, then we show them we do not understand them, we do not notice them, or we do not care about them. We communicate we don’t understand them and therefore they are not safe with us. If we do notice and continue to demand their gaze, then we are potentially manipulating a power dynamic – and not in their favour. If there is a power dynamic anyway (e.g. adult telling a child, or professional telling a client) then the dynamics of survival kick in further and the child or client will feel compelled to do what the ‘bigger power’ demands of them…for their survival… and yet their physiology can’t help as it needs to stay safe…it needs to keep looking away.
When I have worked with teachers and parents around this, they have been able to feel in their body the incredible resistance to looking someone in the face/ eye when you don’t feel comfortable with them. “I would rather have looked ANYWHERE other than actually at you at that moment” is common, and appropriate feedback of their short experience of being put in that uncomfortable, pressured situation. [NB: and they say it whilst voluntarily giving me full eye contact and a smile again ;-)]
How to respond when someone isn’t giving you eye contact:-
- notice their lack of eye contact and acknowledge to yourself they are not feeling so safe with you (or this conversation) or themselves right now
- ask yourself if you are doing something that is overwhelming (speaking too fast or too loud, standing too close, moving arms too close, shaming/blaming language)
- change yourself to become less of a threat – this really requires YOU to have a sufficient level of self-awareness and a significant level of desire to bring the best out of the other person
- if the changes you make don’t seem to help them feel safer, ask them gently, if there is anything that would make them feel more comfortable right now.
- do all the above without drawing attention to the fact they are not looking at you.
Schools, families, meeting rooms, offices, well-being clinics, will be safer if those ‘in charge’ can notice the level of eye contact they are being offered by those they are with, as indicators of the level of emotional safety at that time.
‘People are not listening if they are not giving me eye contact’. This is utter untruth. Seriously. This is just conditioned belief and is wrong. It is totally possible to hear what people are saying whilst not looking them in the eye. Read a story to children while they draw and ask them questions about it afterwards if you need proof – and can handle the lack of attention focused on you 😉
If we think we need eye contact before we have someone’s ears then we are sorely mistaken.
“Look this way…”, “look to the board…”, “look over there…” “can you see…” are all great alternatives that help direct vision, without manipulation of power dynamics that make things worse.
In a nut shell
When someone gives you eye contact acknowledge it as the gift they are offering you.
If they can’t give you eye contact then they are not feeling safe with you, or with themselves.
Telling / asking / demanding they give you eye contact is the worst thing you can do to someone feeling unsafe.
Understanding this helps children and adults.
Not drawing attention to it helps children and adults.
Diverting effort into helping them feel less threatened helps children and adults feel safer…
… which naturally in time will enable them to change their internal neuro-physiology and look you in the eye… if they want to.
So the end is nearly here. And, predictably, the end of term phenomenon is in full swing.
What do I mean? The end of term craziness that sets in every year, about 2-3 weeks before the final day in school. The increase in energy, incidents, accidents and disclosures. Yes I know many, many children are super excited about the holidays. They are strong and solid and giddy in the affirming knowledge that their adults are equally looking forward to spending more time with them, and have special things planned. There will be fun, adventure, good times and lovely memories…
It is the other children I am talking about. The ones who do not have any sense of the adults in their lives longing to spend more time with them. These are the kids whose adults may actually be dreading the school holiday.
Whether they are some of the many on free school dinners – and parents are honestly not sure how they are going to feed their kids enough over the 6 week break, and aren’t living near a MakeLunch kitchen.
Or maybe theirs are parents who have to keep working and are stressed out trying to figure out childcare options that they can’t afford, mixed with guilt they should be – or want to be – spending time with their child.
Or maybe they have adults or older siblings at home they don’t feel safe with – or they do most of the time, apart from when they are on their own with them… or at night…
For these children the thought of the holidays does not fill them excitement. In fact it is the opposite. They are filled with dread. They probably couldn’t tell you why, but these are the kids who just know they feel horrible in their body. These are the ones who would, honestly, rather keep coming to school. Keep being safe every day. Keep being fed everyday. Keep being with adults who keep them safe and help them grow.
So what happens when children are anxious?
What happens when they are living with the lead weight of impending dread in their stomach? What happens when they feel the threat of the ‘holiday’ everyone else seems to be excited about, growing bigger and closer like a monster coming for them?
They survive. Some do it by increased flight, and literally use the school corridors as their race track. Others increase their capacity to fight. They might not be physical (although many do at this time of year) but they will fight with their words and try to make things be the way they want them. Others may totally shut off and shut down. These are the easy-to-miss silent ones I worry about the most.
When you put 2 children who are struggling on the inside – with different survival patterns – together it gets interesting. When you put many in a classroom of 30+ kids it can get crazy. When you put them with adults who are burnt out, exhausted, and mentally and emotionally already on a beach somewhere, it can get ugly. And the kids get the blame.
The children who are struggling need grounded, attentive, calm, adults around them now more than any time in the year. They need understanding to get through these weeks the best they can.
5 Questions for School Staff to consider
- Do you know any children who might be struggling?
- Where are you at? Can you see a pattern in your level of tired and your amount of smiles or your speed to snap?
- Are you coping by dissociating and not really engaging emotionally or mentally, with them any more – after all it’s nearly the end now…just a few more get-ups?
- Is it wrong for children to feel scared about their impending summer?
- How do these kids need you to be – how can you effectively support them? (Clue: it doesn’t involve getting angry, shouting, or isolations).
Many schools know this phenomenon to be real. Teachers are aware of it and work to keep everyone, including themselves, calm. They pull their pastoral staff off all regular groups at least a week early to have them be more available for responding to the end of term crises. They re-deploy these staff as a focused emergency response support team, without trying to squeeze these kids into an already full timetable which only increases staff stress and makes them less effective in helping these kids.
The best teachers in my opinion, are the ones who can be honest. School’s not out yet… there is still time for some learning – even if it is about ourselves and how we might be responding to these extra tricky kids at the moment.
How do you want to teach your children to deal with their monsters when they are on their own ’til September?
Other blogs for this time of year
Endings before they happen
Transition – What Does It Really Mean?