A Delicate Situation

On Friday morning one of my parents brought one of her children to school in a very bad mood. The child had obviously been crying and was clearly distressed. My Pupil and Family Support Worker picked up the child and took her to her class where she went straight to the back of the room and sat on the sofa in the book corner. In the meantime I was at the main doors alongside my Assistant Head welcoming the children to school and chatting with the parents and carers, running messages to class teachers and generally picking up ‘stuff’ that needed dealing with.

The parent came out and as they have recently had a new baby I asked how they were getting on and congratulated them. This parent has an interesting relationship with the school. She has worked really hard to get herself into a situation where she can apply for work. She has aspirations for her children. She cares passionately about the school. But there is also a strange dichotomy in that she is also deeply unhappy with us as she feels her children are bullied and unhappy here.

She told me that her child had had a tough morning and hadn’t wanted to come into school. I said that it might be as there was a new baby in the house, but she answered that she was adamant that it wasn’t. I told her that I would talk with her daughter to see if she would tell me what the matter was.

I went into her classroom where she was sitting on the sofa, crying. With a bit of gentle cajoling I persuaded her to come up to my office where I would read her a story. We read A Chair for Baby Bear together. She read really well and was engaging in making predictions and making links with Goldilocks and chatting away very happily. She had stopped crying. Once we had read the book I began to ask her what had happened that morning and why she hadn’t wanted to come to school. It was fascinating. She did want to come to school. She loves school. She doesn’t want to leave and her mum has said that she is going to move her. She fights with her elder sister and that upsets her. Her little brothers get her into trouble and that upsets her. She feels her mum hates her and that upsets her. I asked her if there was anything in school that was worrying her (she has told me before when she has had an issue with another child). She was adamant that school was fine but that she was very unhappy at home.

This morning she had had a big row with her mum about putting her coat on. That was why she didn’t want to come in. She had said things to her mum that she didn’t mean. I asked her if she could make everything better, what she would do? She said that she would want her sister and herself to stop being ‘rude’ at home. She also said that her little brother sometimes lied about children in school hitting him. All the time she was talking about home and her family she was in tears. Sometimes hiding her face behind the book, tentatively reaching out for the odd tissue now and then. We talked like this for a while and although she was upset, she seemed relieved to talk, smiling across the table at me through her tears.

Once I felt we had talked enough, we read another couple of books together, had a bit of a laugh about how much water had leaked out from her (and so she needed a drink) and what it would be like to have a Gran who was an alien, as we had read The Trouble With Gran.

For me, there were two important things about this conversation: firstly, she was able to tell me what was upsetting her and secondly, it was clear that her perspective on things was very different from her mother’s.

Earlier in the week a similar situation had occurred when a parent talked to my Assistant Head about her child being bullied but it turned out that her social worker hadn’t been in touch and she was in a bit of a state herself. When the ‘bullying’ was unpicked, there wasn’t really an issue there but things at home were in a bit of a mess.

The challenge for myself and my PFSW on Monday is to try to help this mum to see that school is not the issue for the child. This is going to be particularly hard as mum is so adamant that there are no issues at home. She would not accept that a new baby might be upsetting for her daughter, or that her relationship with her sister might be hard for her. She is in the middle and it seems that she is simply not sure where she fits in.

It feels as though school sometimes receives the projections of overwhelming feelings within a family that the family can’t manage. These feelings seem to manifest themselves as the parents complaining about issues in school. We then have to find a way of managing this so that the parents are able to work with us in order that we can both do the best for their children.

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They say it as it is…

Some of my older boys can be a tricky bunch to manage, they are a very needy group. Among them they have suffered sibling bereavement, parental mental health issues ranging from Bi Polar disorder to long term depression, parents who have shared their miscarriages with them, parental separation, alcoholism – the list goes on. Their teacher is brilliant and manages them beautifully. She is such a natural that she is not always aware just how skillful she is. This is brought sharply into light when she is not teaching them. They give her replacement a VERY hard time and can be completely outrageous, which they have done on a number of occasions recently.

Instead of telling them off I asked them to come and meet me in my office as I wanted to talk to them about their behaviour. What I wanted to do was to get their perspective as to why they think they are so rude to and difficult for adults other than their class teacher. It was one of the most interesting conversations I have ever had with a group of children. They were very articulate and able to tell me precisely what they felt and why they behaved in particular ways.

They said that unlike their teacher, other adults who teach them are too ‘harsh’ – whereas their teacher would understand that they need a gentle, sometimes humorous, ‘warning’ before a more serious consequence, which they would respond positively to, other adults gave them an immediate consequence which made them feel like they may as well carry on misbehaving. They said that their teacher ‘understands’ them and that her gentle cajoling or teasing if they are making poor choices helps them to then make the right ones. They made it clear that they felt other adults were sometimes unfair or too quick to jump on them. They said they found it hard to adjust to other adults’ ways of doing things and were ‘used to’ how their teacher does things. They also know that she really likes them.

This is interesting for a number of reasons. Other staff are aware of how tricky this group of children are and so are anxious about taking them and therefore more rigid in their approach to behaviour management. This in turn makes the children feel hard done by and elicits a defensive response. This then makes the member of staff respond in a more ‘strict’ way. And so the cycle continues. I have spoken to the children about giving other people a chance to show them how good a teacher they are and I’ve spoken to the staff to try to help them be less anxious about the class in the first place.

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Cultural ties…

This has been a hard week for the children in the support group. One of them, who had been doing well back in class, has been very disruptive again lately. He poked his head round my door one morning at breakfast club, looked at me with a wry smile, and asked if he could return to the group as he wasn’t managing and didn’t want to disrupt the other pupils. I was very impressed with this maturity!

However, his return to the group has caused ripples in the order of things and there has been a battle for the position of ‘top dog’. This has, in turn, resulted in the previous ‘top dog’ having a complete meltdown and temper tantrums again. The social positioning is so important to these children. It reflects the culture out on the estate where your position in the pecking order is central to how you behave and how you are accepted. It also will effect how much, or not, you are bullied outside of school.

When this spills into school it can be very hard to manage as tempers flare and the staff and other members of the group try to mediate. The staff do an incredible job but at times the cultural imperative is just so strong that there is little that they can do other than involve parents and carers, which is what they did this week, with varying success.

The rhythms of the term are re-establishing themselves and the Senior Leadership Team are back on track with their monitoring timetable. This week we were looking at topic books. It is very revealing looking at books. You can see the expectations of the members of staff and how the children feel about their learning. It is clear what we have to do to improve even further. It is also striking how little language our children have, how they are limited in the linguistic structures that they use and just how important it is that we continue to try to develop these.

I also had the first part of my own performance management this week. I love the opportunity it gives me for reflection with an external partner. We spent much time discussing the OFSTED report, which has now been published. It has left me feeling somewhat numb. A bad dream. It has changed nothing. The ‘development points’ were those we already had. My challenge, our challenge, is how to reassure the community that this is the good school that we know it is.

There are some very inspirational Head Teachers out there and I was fortunate enough to spend Friday with three of them. It really made me think about what I do and how I am doing it. It also amazes me just how different schools are from each other. Each has its own feel, its own shape and personality. As a Head the school becomes an integral part of you. When I show people around my school I feel very vulnerable and I am always thankful when others allow me into theirs. It is a real privilege.

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Back into the swing of things…

It has taken a week or so but things are really getting back to normal now. One of the interesting elements of my job is that occasionally I have the opportunity to play a small part in the reshaping of services to vulnerable families and young people. I have been involved in a series of interviews for a strategic post, something I found very interesting, especially as my experience is of a complete disconnect between Social Care and Education most of the time.

School yesterday was calm. My vulnerable children are wobbling however, and their teachers and learning support assistants are doing their best to hold them together and keep them learning. Our LAC child really struggles with Monday mornings. Her carer is amazing and the progress she is making is better than I could have hoped for, but every Monday she manages to lose the plot and becomes very disruptive. I spent some time with her after school in ‘payback’ where she was catching up with the work that she had missed. Some people disagree with payback but it seems to work for us as the emphasis is that the children ‘pay back’ or complete the learning that they missed.

Usually this child resists this vehemently but yesterday was lovely. She had ripped up her handwriting book so I sat and put the ‘teacher’ bits back into a new one while she sat and did her literacy. It was amazing, she has been a child who completely refuses to do any learning, but here she was, beside me, writing away quite happily, commenting every now and then on this pop star or the other while I practised my best handwriting. In fact, the time went so fast that her carer was at the door ready to collect her before we even realised.

Her carer is special. She has managed to make such a difference to her, I feel she really has a chance to succeed. The changes in her attitude and her understanding that there are ‘consequences’ are huge. She has enough resilience now to accept her mistakes and the consequences of her actions. She has learned that we are fair and her carer has helped her to trust us.

There are two more of the children that are having a hard time at the moment. Both of whom have parents with mental health difficulties. One was in tears in my office at the end of the day as her dad and stepmother are in the process of splitting up amidst rows and shouting and aggression. What she was upset about in particular was the possibility that her baby sister might not have her dad there for Christmas. This child is wise beyond her years at times, and at others regresses to being a toddler. She is very astute. Once I was talking to her after I had completed a lesson observation and I asked her what she had thought of the lesson. She told me that she thought the teacher talked to much and should just let the children get on with it. I laughed as that was exactly what I had written down and when I shared this with the teacher she laughed too and agreed that she needed to talk less!

Today though, she just sobbed. At times I am aware that children just need some space. So I left her be at my table and I got on with my work. Eventually the sobbing stopped. I asked her if she was ok now and she said she was and could she go back to class, which she did.

Children have an incredible sense of injustice and fairness and for children who have low self esteem this sense seems to be magnified. The other child who is having a wobbly time at the moment is feeling persecuted by all the adults around him. Even the slightest chastisement goes in and he crumbles. The result of the crumble is a massive kick-back and that is when things go flying. Needless to say, things went flying today. Given time and space he too calmed down and was able to go back to class. Sometimes staff forget just how vulnerable some of these children are and when you have a class of 30 that’s easy to do.

My Pupil and family Support Worker and I have also been dealing with an exceptionally difficult situation between two warring parents. Unfortunately for us this has culminated in one of them making a complaint against the school – for something that actually is not within our remit, however much they would like it to be. These parents are unable to be in the remotest bit civil to each other and so use the school as a battleground. Stuck in the middle, coping amazingly well under the circumstances, is their child. What is so sad is that we have completed,very successfully, our support work with him, but his parents won’t do their bit. And so it rumbles on, exploding into conflict every now and then and we do our best to pick up the pieces.

I spent this morning working with the children in the support group as their teacher was on a course. It was lovely. Calm and purposeful and they all engaged with their learning. About halfway through the morning though a child from another class, who has been on the verge of joining the group for a while, was brought into the room kicking and shouting, by my SENCo and his class teacher as he had been trashing his classroom. When they got him in he started picking up chairs and throwing them around and being very dangerous so I had to restrain him in a ‘wrap’. As I held him I explained that I would let him go as long as he didn’t throw anything or do anything that would put anyone in danger. He didn’t really struggle much, I let go very quickly and he didn’t throw anything else. In fact, he calmed right down. Holding him had made him feel safe I think, and contained, and this enabled him to regain some control.

It is noticeable though, just how delicate the calm is. Chaos is only just under the surface with these children and it struck me again just what a skilled job my staff do in enabling them to learn anything at all. They are studying Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and they love it.

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Magic moments…

Things are slowly getting back to normal. This morning was spent trying to catch up on paperwork, talking to staff about various issues and an interim review meeting with the local authority about the placement of a child with a statement. All ordinary and comforting in their ordinariness. As I stepped out of my office the children were coming up for assembly. One of the teachers told me that a child in her class was taunting the new child in her class, and his class mate who had befriended him. I called the child aside and talked to her about what she had done.

Her behaviour has improved incredibly since she has been here and now incidents like this are very unusual. I suspected she was ‘showing off’ or ‘throwing her weight around’ in front of the new child. There is a distinct pecking order out on the estate and this is mirrored in class and across the school. A new child in a class upsets the balance and there is a period of muscle-flexing and showing off until the new order is established. She seemed to respond to what I was saying and we left it at that and she went back to join her class before assembly started. The fact that she sat and listened and owned up was a major step forward and I was proud of her for that as I know just how difficult that has been for her in the past.

There are some moments in my job that are incredible. Sometimes, a child really opens up and talks to me. There is a very special child who I always look out for. He has had terrible things happen in his life and considering these things, he has coped remarkably well. His parents are very supportive but they have had their own issues in the past including the death of a baby.

I was talking to three boys about some silly behaviour, two of them went back to class to get on with their learning but I sensed that this child wasn’t ready. His ‘silly’ behaviour was hiding something. We sat and chatted for a while. He talked about his mum and how she had had a hard time at school, and had been beaten at home. He told me he feels that his mum and dad think he is rubbish. (I know that they don’t.) He says he feels he is rubbish. He then told me that he thought it was really unfair that one of the children in his class had a 1:1 support person and he didn’t. Despite the fact that he gets lots of extra help, his perception of the support he gets is very interesting. He doesn’t have this 1:1 and he is very envious. He just wants to be special to someone.

I listened to him for a while and then asked him what help he thought he needed. He was very perceptive. He asked if he could have 1:1 support for his maths. ‘I can’t understand it when it is at the front of the class, I need someone to explain it to me next to me’ he said. Although his class teacher is excellent at matching the learning to his needs, and I have seen from his books, what was important was his perception that he wasn’t getting enough support. It is special to me that he was able to tell me how he felt. I told him I would see what I could do…

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After the Storm

I don’t really know what I was expecting when I went to work this morning. We had an incredibly difficult week at school last week and I was anticipating fall out today. There was none. Staff and children were happy and confident. There was a distinctly lighter air about the place, despite the grey, wet, miserable day outside.

Last week we were inspected by OFSTED. We had been waiting for the call since September and today was the first time that we weren’t all ‘waiting’. Even though we try to get on with things as usual, when you know you are waiting for ‘the call’ it’s always on your mind, somewhere. It felt lovely knowing that it wasn’t going to come today.

Managing the ‘fall out’ after an inspection can be tricky and needs careful thought. The elation at it all ‘being over’ that we are all feeling won’t last and we will have to get down to the nitty gritty of ensuring that our school continues to improve. We don’t do it for OFSTED, we do it for the children. The impact of an inspection is enormous. Whatever the outcome. As the adrenaline subsides there can be a ‘lull’, where things slow down, which we can’t allow to happen. It’s a natural response when pressure has been great, and you are spent.

We have a new addition to the ‘group’ at the moment. A child whose behaviour ebbs and flows. He has an incredibly difficult older sibling. Over the last few weeks there has been a significant deterioration in his behaviour which has been quite bizzare at times. He will wander round the classroom singing nursery rhymes interspersed with swearing, trying to get the attention of his classmates buy being rude and silly. Refusing to comply with anything anyone asks. I read a brilliant paper this morning about Attachment disorder and although I don’t think that this child has attachment issues, he does have extreme anxiety levels and his bahaviour seems to be a manifestation of those. He had had a very settled start to the term and we have been trying to figure out what was happening as clearly something major has changed. Mum has been in and met with us, and said that everything was ok but today she told us that her partner has left, and won’t be coming back. Suddenly all the pieces fell into place. He was very attached to his mum’s partner.

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Taking it all in…

This weekend I have been trying to digest the past 8 weeks. In many ways the first half term of the school year is the most difficult, with relationships being re-established and new relationships being developed; new routines implemented and adults and children trying to find their way in the middle of these; data sets interrogated and re-interrogated, new timetables and interventions established and new data sets released, measuring ourselves against our own previous performance and against the rest of the country. Staff appraisals completed, lesson observations undertaken in order that we have a clear benchmark of where the school is, and what we need to do to improve on our developmental journey.
For no academic institution stands still, or is satisfied with its current performance. We constantly strive for improvement, whilst celebrating what we do well already. Sometimes the pressure is so great and I am so focused on what we still need to do that I forget to celebrate our success enough and my Senior Leadership Team have to remind me! Sometimes, the reverse happens.

And at the heart of all this data and measurement are the children. The individuals who make up the majority of the school. One of the characteristics of my school is that we are so focused on the data for individuals that we sometimes overlook the larger picture. We know each and every child in the school really well and I think that this is what makes my staff so special.

It has not been an easy half term. Whilst some of the children have settled and are thriving already (you can see the progress clearly in their books and in their attitude in class and around the school) some are still struggling. The things that they are struggling with are things that are external to us. Things that are happening to them at home and that they have no control over. I have been thinking a lot about this. Quite a lot of the challenging behaviour that we have seen this half term, and that I have previously blogged about, is to do with children trying to exert some control over their lives. ‘No’ seems to be a manifestation of this. Ironically, these children settle more when we take the control back and hold the boundaries safe.

One such child was the one whose behaviour had been spiraling due to the break up of his parents’ relationship. it was only as her behaviour became totally extreme that we found this out. We dealt with it by keeping the boundaries firm and not giving in to her demands in the way that her parents were. As a result she is fully back in class and engaged in her learning.

The support group is also serving its purpose. It enables the rest of the school to function normally as it provides containment for the most challenging children, without us having to exclude them. This group is very challenging to manage and teach in and it takes a huge toll on the staff running it. We are fortunate to have excellent support through our Behaviour Support Service teacher who is brilliant at talking things through with us. We do need a bit of a re-think though, in terms of how we are managing the children in the group. It is clear that some now need to move to a more appropriate provision, while others are nearly ready to be reintegrated into their class and the rest just need a bit more time.

School this week was surprisingly calm except for Wednesday, when it felt as if the wind outside was whisking the children into a frenzy and the atmosphere was quite manic. Where children usually walk calmly down the corridor they were running and skipping and twirling and whirling and it took some firmness to calm them down. Classrooms were chattier and noisier than normal and at lunchtime tempers frayed. It is very unusual for us to have fights but on Wednesday there was one started, as usual, over football. It was very easily resolved.

On Thursday a group of boys deliberately frightened another child with a spider, when they knew full well he was terrified of them. I told them I was shocked at their lack of rights respecting behaviour and they were suitably penitent. Children can be so cruel and sometimes they forget all that we have taught them.

Thursday was also our parents evening, which was brilliant. The staff were buzzing as a result of the positive feedback that they were getting in response to the positive feedback that they were able to give. It was quite a good turnout too, though there are still some parents and carers that we will follow up after half term who didn’t show up. Interestingly these were mostly ones that we are worried about, or have concerns about their children, or who are very needy and demanding the rest of the time.

Friday brought with it two crises which our pupil and family support leader dealt with: one of our most vulnerable parents needed some serious support in terms of her mental health and one of our families were about to be evicted from their home and they didn’t know if they were going to have anywhere to live. We won’t know how they managed until we get back after half term…

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