Everybody Needs Somebody In Their Corner

I love this photograph. It is of my little brother and our dog Digger; and captures a thousand tales of our childhood. The one I am going to tell is how our dog was always there for us; just as he is here when my brother felt like the whole world was against him. He often felt that way when he was little; and with the benefit of hindsight I can see why. We moved from a tiny fishing town in the far North of Scotland to Cardiff. No two different places could there be from our perspective as kids. At the age of 4 he was plucked from the safety and security of our very small world and tight knit community, and sent to school in Ely where no one could understand a word he said. He would be peeled off my mother every morning; as hard for her as it was for him.

I found the transition much easier after I got over the shock that we weren’t living in grass huts on a beach. My father, who worked in shipping, was offered two postings – one to Cardiff and one to the Christmas Islands and I got them both confused in my head. I was 7, and I was a performer (or show off as my mother would say) and so I loved being paraded around the playground and asked to say words in my strange accent. For some kids that would have been a nightmare, of course. My older brother, aged 11 at the time and starting in a big comprehensive school, coped differently again, but that is another story.

Digger had come to live with us as a puppy when I was new born. We had been visiting relatives on a farm when my mum heard that he had failed the ‘working dog’ test as he wouldn’t go out in the rain. Without further ado she brought him home; not daring to ask what might have happened to him otherwise. I realise now that far from failing, he simply knew that his vocation lay else where. He often went out in the rain with us kids. He quickly became my older brother’s shadow and could not have arrived at a more important time. Aged four and with a tiny baby in the house he now had a playmate and constant companion, and I don’t think I can remember a photograph without them side by side. It was back in the day when children were free to roam and dogs were too. Hard to imagine now.

When I grew older my brother would often be asked to let me join him with his friends, which he did reluctantly but Digger kept an eye. By ten he rejected that idea altogether and so Digger and I were left to make our own fun. Again, in hindsight, I realise that the last thing my brother wanted was a little sister telling tales; and a dog whose fur smelt of cigarette smoke. Digger coped well with the change in arrangements and new adventures emerged that often involved fancy dress or playing house or schools. I remember the pride I felt when I taught him ‘ready steady go’ and he would rush to the start line in our pretend sports day game. A classic example of a kid re-imagining through play difficult experiences in their life!

By the time we moved to Wales Digger knew it was time to move on to my little brother, as he needed him most. Constant companions, they would lie side by side as Digger comforted him in his sadness. He used to suck his thumb, and would pluck lumps of loose fur from Digger and roll it with his finger tickling under his nose as he sucked. We knew if he was having a particularly bad time as there would be a black fur moustache stuck to the tears and snot. As he settled and made friends Digger became their play mate too, going out for hours on end and only coming home before dark. On days when friends called and he didn’t feel like going out, Digger would go anyway. It kept that connection and meant friends didn’t give up on him. When he was at school, Digger still had work to do. He befriended an elderly neighbour and would spend all day at his house, scratching the door at three so he could be let out to wait at the bus stop for my brother’s return. It does make me wonder what our dogs could contribute to the loneliness epidemic if they were free to do their own thing as Digger was. His intuition and ability to attune was extraordinary. It’s a shame we have medicalised even this with ‘therapy dogs’, hugely valuable as they are.

Digger died when we were both 16 years old. Tuned into our needs to the very end, he waited until we were all awake and able to say goodbye before he took his last breath. By this time my brother had discovered his passion in music – first as a trumpeter and then as a drummer. Never comfortable in more formal music arenas he gave up the trumpet when he was asked to play solo in a concert that required him to wear scratchy clothes. He now works as a very talented musician, composer and producer, together with his wife. They work from home and he rarely wears trousers – and definitely not scratchy ones. They have a dog, of course. There is still a painting of Digger on the landing above the spot where he slept. Even now, nearly 40 years later, if I rush down stairs at my parents house auto-pilot kicks in and I step over him.

I tell this tale firstly to honour the dog who gave our family so much; and secondly to recognise that my own children will have their own tales to tell about how our dogs have got them through tough times. Thirdly, and most importantly, I tell it because it makes me think about the qualities we all need in being there for children when they are struggling most. Let’s not make this more complicated than it is. Digger’s rule of thumb was that he kept an eye out for whoever was most vulnerable; and made sure he was always in their corner.

An observer perspective on the polarised debates in education…..and plucking up the courage to share it

I am fascinated by the sudden awareness of whole new worlds that I didn’t realise existed until I fell into them. I distinctly remember the time when, at the age of 21, I bought my first car. It was a yellow mini and I called it Lemon Pie (do people still name their cars these days?). As soon as I got behind the wheel I started noticing yellow minis everywhere – and they started noticing me. I was part of a club; and one that clearly had always been there, but that I had never been aware of before. I felt a bit guilty as my membership had been bestowed upon me accidentally really – it just happened to be the car that I bought. Other members were obviously completely committed, and had probably striven hard to join. Was I really a bona fide yellow mini owner? Did I really deserve to belong? I would wave back, of course, albeit tentatively, but I never waved first. Furthermore I had no idea where yellow minis stood in the pecking order of other car clubs on the road at the time….who was looking down on me and who was looking up?

I feel a bit like that with #edutwitter. Suddenly I am privy to a constant and, at times, raging debate regarding practices in education that I had no idea existed. Questions and dilemmas that have fascinated me on and off for years are playing out tweet by tweet. There are strong and often polarised views; and antagonism between positions and, dare I say, factions. I am often taken aback by the tone of criticism from some strong and influential voices; and it is not a place I would like to find myself were I a newly qualified teacher finding my own way in the profession. Indeed the conviction that there is a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ way seems very present. As a child psychologist with over 25 years experience in mental health services  I know where I stand on some of the issues discussed; and others leave me lunging between outraged, perplexed, relieved and awe inspired by a profession I hugely admire. I have resisted getting involved as I know I don’t really belong. Indeed I have heard others like myself described as ‘arm chair experts’ because they have never ‘walked the walk’ and taught a class; and particularly a challenging class. Or, in that particular pecking order of credibility, those who have never ‘turned around’ a ‘failing school’. I get that.

But then again I am passionate about what happens in all aspects of children’s lives – as a child psychologist, as a parent, and as a citizen. Also, I have a view shaped by many years of studying and working with children as a clinician; and managing a service that provides psychological interventions to children from a wide range of backgrounds; and experiencing often very severe difficulties. Most importantly, I am passionate about partnership work and I believe wholeheartedly that schools should not be on their own in addressing the issues facing our children and young people, particularly when it comes to mental health. And let me be very clear, I consider behaviour to be mental health, or at least one window onto a child’s emotional world. We are all in this together. It is down to this belief that I have stumbled into #edutwitter, a bit like I stumbled into being a yellow mini owner – only this time I am daring to wave first; and I have no idea if anyone will wave back, or indeed make any sort of hand gesture…..

My first reflection is that, at the heart of the debate lies an age old dichotomy I have observed time and time again in both my professional, and indeed, my personal life. Extreme views on how things should be done when it comes to bringing up children. Most frequently in my clinical work it is a divide between two parents and their respective parenting styles (gentle/firm, permissive/restrictive, liberal/authoritarian – call it what you will) although this often plays out in teams and across services too. Children are, inevitably, caught in the middle and suffering as a result. In these situations, having been invited in, my role is to listen very hard to both perspectives, establish their origins and intentions, and help both move towards a middle ground that focuses on the child at the centre; and drawing on the strengths of the respective positions. It gets more complicated when there are sibling groups because, of course, children are unique and need different things. There is nothing more flummoxing for parents than when, for example, what worked brilliantly for one child fails miserably when number two comes along. No wonder it gets exponentially more complex when we are talking about educating an entire nation of children, from a hugely diverse range of backgrounds, and in a system that assumes they can all be treated the same. Surely this means there has to be much more nuance in this debate; and a need for much more collaborative and flexible solutions?

My second reflection is that every teacher is as unique as the children they teach. That’s how it works – children grow up into adults after all; and some of them go on to work in education. What this means is that every teacher’s way of relating to children is unique too. Surely there is not one way of teaching, just as there is not one way of being a parent or being a psychologist for that matter? Of course, there are some guiding principles and values, and key tools and strategies that are required to get the job done, but everyone has a different style. We celebrate this in our psychology team, recognising that beyond their core role, every psychologist brings unique and hugely valuable differences. We are dealing with the complexity of the human condition after all. I hear the importance of this in respect of teachers from my own children frequently – they like different teachers for different reasons; and they bring the best out of them in different ways. It is definitely not always about being ‘down with the kids’. I remember once having a discussion about a teacher I found to be a bit cold and intimidating. “Mum you just don’t get it; she only cares about us. She doesn’t care what the parents think of her.” Oh. That told me; and tells me that teachers have to be celebrated for their differences.

Linked to that is my third reflection, which is about authenticity. It was one of the strongest messages that came out of a piece of work our Community Psychology service has recently undertaken asking young people about what helps give them a sense of belonging in their school. Kids spot it a mile off when teachers are not being themselves; and what they value most is a personal connection that feels genuine. It makes me think about a discussion we had in our service meeting about the new trend on You Tube for the way teachers greet their class members at the beginning of the day. It started with examples of elaborate, high five-ing, fist pumping rituals unique to every child; and then there were examples where children could choose the welcome they wanted by pointing to a sign on the wall, including hugs and more low key waves to suit the individual. This felt like a really nice development that recognised each child was different. One of our team, who had herself been a teacher for many years, commented on how intimidated this whole approach would have made her feel, despite being passionate that a warm greeting is a key priority. “There is no way I could have done that – it just wouldn’t feel comfortable”. My point is that that is absolutely fine, and doing it self-consciously because it was seen as something everyone should do would be worse than not doing it at all. I know for certain she would have greeted every child in a welcoming way – just not that way.

My fourth reflection is around the concept of intention – something I believe is essential to establish in any strategy that is employed in a school. Let’s take as an example, the intention of ‘silent corridors’, something I have to say I was shocked by when I saw it in a headline (which, of course, is the point of headlines). However, when I dug a bit deeper there is a rational that makes a lot of sense in some contexts. Corridors can feel the scariest place in schools for some young people, especially those who are anxious or sensitive to noise and crowds ( I have heard this from many young people over the years) and transitions can be the hardest part of the school day. If the intention is to create a safe and relaxed space for children to get from A to B then that is very different to a dogma that children should be seen and not heard. Of course, silence is extreme, and impossible to achieve for some of our more impulsive and often more vulnerable children, but if it is explained and encouraged with a warm and smiling face, and acknowledged that it can be hard, then that is very different to failure being punished with an inflexible consequence. Indeed, the intention of any strategy needs to be reviewed if children are consistently failing, especially if it is the same children who are consistently failing. Also, what are the unintended consequences and who is impacted by these the most? In ‘zero tolerance’ environments it will be our most vulnerable kids who don’t have the support at home to have the perfectly turned out uniform, or equipment or who are regularly distracted by worries outside of the classroom.

To conclude my first tentative wave at #edutwitter, there are, of course, far better qualified people who are bona fide members of the club, and who have written far more extensively and eloquently about the essential qualities of psychologically minded schools than I ever can. However, for what it is worth, my top three would include a feeling of belonging for everyone (students, staff, parents), a feeling of efficacy for everyone, and a feeling of autonomy for everyone. If these are in place then the rest will follow; including the holy grail of achievement. This draws on the growing evidence base that we cannot think and learn unless we feel safe; and we cannot feel safe unless we feel valued and of value. For this to be achieved in something as big and diverse as a school; especially a secondary school, needs strong leadership.  This leadership can take many forms, but in my opinion it needs to acknowledge nuance, embrace difference, model and celebrate authenticity; and have at it’s heart a belief in the power of relationships to make a difference. Most importantly it has to be reflective; recognising that sometimes there are unintended consequences despite the best of intentions. Talking of which, I hope that my reflections will be received in the way that they were intended – as a supportive guest member of the #edutwitter club.

“Don’t medicalise growing up” – words of wisdom from children and young people who are brilliantly ‘blind spot’ free.

It’s been a little while since I’ve written a blog. Mainly I’ve been too busy with the day job and family life; and partly because I was running out of rants that other people weren’t already doing a far better job of raving about. And then I found myself getting all ranty about children and young people being ‘prescribed surf therapy’. Here we go again, I said to myself, ‘othering’ the children who either can’t afford, or are unable to access, or who just hadn’t had the opportunity to try surfing as an interesting and fun thing to do; and only getting a chance when they are desperate for help. Oh and squeezing through a medicalised gateway to access things that make all kids feel better if only they had been encouraged by a kindly and supportive coach. It is why I get so frustrated with the whole concept of ‘social prescribing’. Let’s make these things part of everyone’s lives and cut out the ‘middle-medic’. Or at least let’s stop thinking we are being innovative when all we are doing is recognising and facilitating the things in every day life that keep us all mentally well. Nature, community, arts, sports, activity, healthy food…..encouragement, kindness, persistence, belonging, a sense of achievement……

Then I remembered our Biblio-therapy Scheme – ‘Books to help’. As a service we were so proud of this initiative over a decade ago. Inspired by the adult Book Prescription Scheme that had been the brainchild of Dr Neil Frude, we bid for some under-spend that gave us just 3 months to develop an entire scheme for parents from start to finish. The whole team pulled together; we employed two utterly brilliant psychology assistants for just twelve weeks (that’s how desperate these fantastic folk are for the experience and a foot in the door), along with a wonderful locum psychologist prepared to roll their sleeves up for an intensive burst of activity. Determined to stick to our values and use a relational, developmental and contextual understanding of children’s distress they chose the books and the language they used carefully. They set up a systematic reviewing system including parents, psychologists, and other professionals and settled on the books that evaluated the best by all three groups across a range of topics families wanted most help with. They developed a website and a range of publicity materials and ensured there were copies of all the books in every library. The art work was by a child, of course, and even if we said so ourselves, it was utterly brilliant and evaluated very well.

In hindsight, of course, although we purposefully avoided the word ‘prescription’ we were drawing on a medical model whereby parents turn to their GP or other service provider for help; and one whereby we all feel better when we can ‘give something’, whether it’s a pill, a referral, or a ‘recommendation slip’ to take to the library. We had fallen into precisely the medicalising trap I was ranting about.  I still think it’s a great scheme, although sadly we never had the money or time to keep it updated.  Good quality, accessible and evidence based information is essential. But if we were developing it today what would we do differently? I like to think we would have the courage to step outside the power of the medical model we were trying to influence and expand from within. I like to think we would ensure that books (and apps and films) are equally available in local shops, leisure centres, community centres alongside our health, education and social care settings. I like to think giving and receiving sound advice about bringing up children is something our communities take ownership of and we contribute to; and not the other way around. It reminds me of the brilliant booklet about attachment I picked up at Timpsons when I was getting a key cut. Just out there and ‘free’ for the taking.

It is why I was so inspired by the research Hafal did when they asked young people in 2016 what they wanted from children’s mental health services. “Don’t medicalise growing-up” they said, and “help the adults who are closest to us like teachers to know how to support us”. Their ability to cut through the barriers and unnecessary layers of professionalisation that has influenced how services are accessed is so refreshing. Indeed, this ‘starting from scratch’ view is so essential if we are to truly co-produce services. We thought we were doing our bit by involving parents so heavily in the design of our scheme but we were already ‘in too deep’ to notice our blind spots. We were letting the dominant model; and our desire to play it at it’s own game, dictate our approach and trick us into thinking we were being innovative. Without distracting from the hard work and value the scheme added, and how it has helped many families, the whole idea of basing a scheme about parenting on a model of prescribing is something the wisdom of young people has made me reflect upon…………..what other blind spots will they help us uncover?

Two Heads Are Better Than One–In Celebration Of A Generation Of Job Sharing

In children’s services we tend to think in childhoods. I was nine months pregnant when my Job Share Partner Rachel Williams and I first had the conversation about jointly applying to lead the Child Psychology Service. It coincided with the retirement of our predecessor; and a desire to maintain and develop the creative and supportive culture that we both loved working in. Fast forward the clock over 17 years and my son is learning to drive – the first of many steps on his journey into the adult world. That’s a whole generation since we set out on this endeavour. It feels timely, therefore, for Rachel and I to reflect on our own journey, and what job sharing has meant to us.

Work/Life Balance

First and foremost it made the onerous leap in role from clinician to leader feel possible when we were both at such an early, and busy stage in family life. I was negotiating a return to work following the birth of my first child, and Rachel was balancing her career with three children under the age of five. Ordinarily this is not an easy time to contemplate the added responsibilities that go with the territory of managing a service. However, doing it together made all the difference, both to our confidence in our abilities, and to the day to day practicalities. It meant that we could both work part time, and share out the duties. When I was at home Rachel was in work and vice versa, enabling us to ‘switch on’ and ‘switch off’ – something that can be hard to do in such a broad and responsible position. It also opened up the opportunities for seamless holiday cover, and subsequent maternity leaves for both of us. More recently I took a career break of nearly three years and lived abroad. That was only possible as a result of our trusting partnership, and commitment to support each other at various stages in our lives.

Courage

There is no doubt that job sharing has made us braver. The less than optimum timing meant that we were very focused about why we wanted to take on the role, and that has not wavered over the years. We were explicit both about our goal – to promote a more relational, developmental and contextual understanding of children’s distress – and the core values that underpin this endeavour. They have not always been easy to uphold, and an ever changing organisational, financial, and political landscape has posed various threats over the year. However, together we have been able to stand our ground, supporting each other to be resolute when pressures came down to bear. Often we have felt as though we were swimming against the tide, and if one of us has needed to pause and tread water, the other has paddled harder.  At the times when our ideas and service models have found more support we have encouraged each other to think bigger and bolder in our developments and innovations.

Shared Responsibilities

The tasks involved in managing a large Child Psychology Service are many and varied. Some are exciting, others are mundane and others are highly stressful. By job sharing we have been able to share out these tasks fairly, supporting each other as and when demands have peaked for either one of us. Indeed, when we first applied to job share the concept was relatively new. By way of compensation we put considerable effort into defining the roles, and offering absolute clarity about those we would lead on individually, those that were interchangeable between us, and those we would undertake jointly. Over the years, as job sharing has become more common place, and we have become more confident, we have been able to relax and there has been greater fluidity in our arrangements. So far so good, and in over 17 years no issues regarding role confusion have been raised – with us at least – and we often seek feedback. We have swapped things around from time to time, for example, firstly organising line management by geography before moving to more function based arrangements (e.g. early intervention, social services, CAMHS, Community Psychology etc). Generally our team and our key stakeholders seem clear about who to go to for what, and those situations when either of us will do. Excellent administrative support has been invaluable in ensuring this runs smoothly.

Creativity through Conversation and Difference.

This is, of course, a key concept in therapeutic relationships but it is also the case in management and service development that creative ideas are generated through dialogue. Many times we will start a conversation with a dilemma or tricky scenario and a solution will emerge during the process of talking it through. We can really check out the robustness of a plan in a way that is much harder when you are on your own. Often we may offer very different perspectives, but again discussion and compromise can lead to more rounded solutions. We help each other to notice our blind spots and our personal hobby horses. Indeed, job sharing offers built in peer supervision and support, and we are sure that it helps to prevent burn out. Occasionally we do disagree and that is fine. We model to our team that difference and challenge is okay, and indeed in a profession as broad as psychology it is to be welcomed and celebrated.

Relative Strengths and Weaknesses

Inevitably Rachel and I bring different, and often complimentary strengths to the role. Interestingly, one of our first training courses we attended as managers was about systemic practice applied to leadership. A helpful concept that emerged was about the need for leaders to sit on the periphery – keeping one eye on the internal functioning of the team, and one eye on the external influences, threats and opportunities. When you are new to leadership it is easy to get pulled in one or other direction depending on the issues that are dominating at the time. Job sharing meant that one of us could focus our attention on the team, and one on the more strategic aspects of the role. Of course, there is considerable overlap and again this has become more fluid over the years, but at the time it helped us to hold onto to both perspectives according to our relative strengths.

Fun and Friendship

Last but not least job sharing is definitely more fun! Away Days, lunches and team gatherings are easier when the responsibility you feel as Head of Service at these events is shared. Having moved into the role as clinicians from the same team we were quite taken aback when we were no longer invited to certain social gatherings because we were now ‘management’. That must feel quite isolating and lonely as a single leader. We would make our own fun and go out together anyway! As in all work contexts life intertwines and we have been through many experiences, highs and lows, both individually and as a team. Having someone to share that journey has been invaluable, and an enormous privilege for us both. We are grateful to each other and to our team and the wider organisation for the support we have received over the years.

 

Dr Liz Gregory and Dr Rachel Williams

Joint Heads – Child and Familiy Psychology and Therapies Service

Aneurin Bevan  University Health Board

Weaving well-being into the fabric of secondary education–starting where schools are now

Psychologists are pragmatists  – or at least they should be. Applying theories, models, the emerging evidence base and clinical judgement to the unique circumstances that they are presented with – whether that be an individual, a family, an organisational or societal dilemma. It is all about goodness of fit; and as Bateson said in respect of systems theory, introducing a “difference that makes the difference”. Too much and the ideas will be rejected. Too little and they are lost. I have been thinking about this in respect of the ‘whole school approach’, and how to achieve that sense of safety and belonging that is critical if we are to promote the emotional well-being of all children in our education settings. In primary schools it is much easier, and already many are a warm, happy place where children thrive. Sometimes this is as a result of the conscious efforts of the staff team, inspired by the knowledge that children can only learn when their basic need to feel safe and secure is met. For others it is the natural position adopted by the leadership team that promotes, supports and attracts this culture. Others still, of course, have a long way to go – but lets hope they catch on. The momentum is certainly growing for a more nurturing environment in our schools.

In secondary education the task is much harder, and it is in this transition that many of our most vulnerable children lose their way. Comprehensive schools are big and unwieldy, and they have a specific job to do. The piece of paper that a young person leaves their gates with at the end of year 11 is the measure by which they are judged. Their modus operandi is competition – top set, student of the term, inter-form netball, most money collected for charity, prizes for the best results, the best sportsperson, the best musician, ‘A’ Team, ‘B’ Team, no team– you name it kids are pitted against each other and there are winners and losers at every turn. Some children thrive in this environment – especially those who are well supported at home and excel (or are heavily tutored) in some or all of the qualities valued in this system. Others survive, keeping their head just above water. They find ‘their place’, albeit slightly depleted by the knowledge that they will never be ‘top’. Others fail miserably, and school is experienced as somewhere where they are never good enough. If they are lucky they go on to find their niche in adult life, but for many this feeling doesn’t leave them, especially if they were never good enough at home either. Of course teenagers are already adept at doing this with and about each other anyway – with the in groups and the out groups and the ‘tiers of popularity’ as my teenage daughter describes it. Just being in a group helps, of course, even if it is the ‘lower tier’. Often our most vulnerable children have no group at all.

So what is the solution? How can we weave emotional well-being and self-belief into the fabric of the school when so many of the practices and internal and external pressures work against this? We should, of course, look at the growing knowledge that is amassing about child development, and what children need to thrive, and design an education system around this.  It is basic evidence based practice after all. However, this would pose such a huge challenge to the status quo as it would mean starting from scratch. I wont give up trying though.  Especially having experienced Canadian schools with my own children, and knowing that many of our inherent assumptions about how education needs to be are simply not true. I have written about this in previous blogs. But being a pragmatist let’s start with the strengths of the current UK system and build on that, asking the all important question: What is the difference that can make a difference? As a psychologist, emotional well-being is all about relationships, and the ‘form’ system lends itself beautifully to nurturing this. Children start high school in one form, and usually they remain in that form for the next five years, often with the same form tutor. In some schools they have mixed year group forms, and, in my opinion this is even better. The youngest in the school (who are often terrified of older children) join an established form. They can look up to their role models, and see how they negotiate the challenges that each stage brings; and become those role models of the future. And of learning can go in all directions, with younger children gaining confidence and realising they have something to offer too.

So, starting with the basic form structure, ideally in mixed age groups, how can we use this to nurture emotional well-being and create a sense of safety and belonging for all children and young people? The Head at the High School my son attended in Canada said at a welcome evening ‘We get them through the door in the morning with something they love, then it is our job to keep them interested in the subjects that may have less appeal for some’. Granted it was a publicly funded arts school and my son’s major happened to drumming, and his form happened to be a band but…..this is a great goal for a form to aim for. And with the resources of thirty kids of all ages and abilities to draw on for ideas surely it stands a chance? If the form tutor were to ask the class how to make registration as much fun as possible what would they say? Music? Dancing? Rounders? Joke telling? Board games? Thirty kids generating as many ideas as possible and each having a turn to give theirs a go would be one way of starting the morning on a high. There would of course need to be some limitations – but please, for twenty five minutes of the day, don’t let noise be one of them. Unless of course any of the young people are sensitive to noise – in which case the form need to think about how they manage this.

If we were to go a step further, and make fun AND well-being the focus of those first twenty five minutes of the day how might that look? Rather handily there are five days of the week, and five ways to well-being. What if a day a week was dedicated to each one? Monday could be connection day – especially important for children who have had a difficult weekend. How could they welcome each other and create a sense of belonging and ‘family’ to start their week? What might become their unique rituals and traditions? Tuesday could be giving day – what is the forms chosen cause? They could give their time, their skills,  or raise money or simply give to each other. Compliments go a long way to getting your day off to a good start. Wednesday could be about getting active – to tackle that mid week slump. A brisk walk? Stretching? Dancing? Simon Says? Body popping? The ideas would need to come from them of course. Thursday could be taking notice – there are lots of great mindfulness exercises as well as an opportunity to reflect on how they are in the moment – noticing their feelings and, over time, practicing expressing them in a safe and supportive way. And Friday would be learn a new skill day – now that could be really fun. Bagpipes? Slime making? Pom Poms?. I appreciate all of these ideas would flop because they are mine not theirs but hopefully you get the drift…..

So, if we had mixed aged forms, with names chosen by the young people, and a sense of fun, belonging and well-being as their central goal how might that make a difference? Well, for a start new students in year seven would join an existing family rather than having to create one on top of everything else. Indeed in primary they could receive a letter (or a video of course!) welcoming them to Hufflepuff or whatever their form happened to be called. Imagine how exciting that would be! They could be allocated an older buddy to help them settle and tell them what to expect. Indeed one theory about bullying is that it is reduced when children are given the opportunity to give care.  Younger children would have role models to look up to who they would see around the school throughout the day. These would be real people with stories other than the ‘cool kid’ or the ‘scary kid’ or ‘the geek’. The form tutors role would be to help facilitate participation so that everyone in the class contributed in their own unique way and were encouraged to find their voice no matter how quiet. They could keep an eye out for the vulnerable kids who never felt a part of things no matter what was tried. Everyone would have an equal responsibility for what happened during form time. If it wasn’t fun why not? What should they do about it? The five ways to well being would be experiential rather than taught, and embedded over five years of the young person’s life. It would also become a way of life for the teacher for as long as they held that role. Most importantly there would be no evaluation, assessment or competitive element to what happened in the form time – the one place in school where young people and teachers could just be. If this was working well then every young person would think that their form was the ‘best’. Now that would be worth getting out of bed for.

Hope and the Silver Bullet

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

Once upon a time, long long ago and in a land far away there was a little girl called Hope. In the town where she lived everyone was worried. A monster had been troubling them for some time, but now it was looming larger in all of their lives. Some people had seen it and could describe what it looked like – although it was hard to get an exact picture because it seemed to be a little different depending who you spoke to. Some people had heard it and could describe how it sounded – although it was hard to get an exact idea because it sounded a little different to everyone you spoke to. Some people had felt it brush up against them, and others had sensed it looming large in the background, it’s breath on their neck. Hope would worry day and night about the monster – wondering when it might be her turn to come across it. She would look out for it walking home from school and she would try to spot it from her bedroom window before she went to bed. She would ask her mum and dad every day when it might come, and what might happen if it did. They could offer no reassurances because, quite frankly, they were worried too.

One morning Hope woke up very early determined to find someone who might help. She had heard about a silver bullet – a magic answer to end scary things once and for all and so she set out on a mission to find it. Her first stop was a wise woman who lived down by the river. She was nervous, but she remembered the saying her grandmother had taught her many years before. “Just a few moments of fear might change the course of history” She wished her granny was still alive, but even so the memory gave her the courage to knock. She waited and waited until eventually she heard foot steps. When the door opened the woman looked a little cross. “I’m sorry to disturb you” Hope said “but I wondered if you might have a plan to catch the monster”. “Well I am very busy” she said “ but yes, I have a plan. In fact I’m working on it right now”. She quickly told Hope what it was before closing the door so he could get back to her thoughts. Hope scribbled the ideas down in her note pad and went on her way. “It’s a good plan” she thought to herself “but I’m not sure it’s the silver bullet.”

Next, she called upon a young boy who lived near the woods. He was known to be good at making things, and sure enough his garden was filled with beautiful wooden carvings of animals and toadstools, and benches and swings. “How clever” Hope thought to herself. “I bet he has a good plan”. It took a while for Hope to find him as he was up a tree, but sure enough he was working on an idea. He didn’t have time to come and tell her, but he threw down a piece of paper with a diagram explaining it all. Hope tried to make sense of it – it looked complicated but it might work, she thought. Although she wasn’t sure it was the silver bullet. She taped it into her notebook anyway. And so Hope went on her way, calling on the Doctor, the Teacher, the Mayor, the Baker, the Farmer and just about everyone else, gathering their ideas together in one place. When her notebook was full she headed to the meadow where it was peaceful so that she could sort through everything she had written and put it in order. The ideas were as different as the people she had met along the way. As she read and re-read through the notes she could feel herself getting more and more tired, her eyes growing heavier and heavier. Eventually she fell into a deep sleep, the soundest she had slept for a long time.

Back in the town Hope’s parents noticed she was not at home. By now it was very late and they were very worried. They raised the alarm, convinced the monster had captured her, and desperately fearing the worst. Everyone in the town gathered round as fear grew for her safety. Without exception they all came out, overcoming their own worries about the monster which would usually keep them at home, safe indoors. It was a cold night and so they lit a fire, and some brought food and drinks whilst others made plans about who would search where. They worked well together late into the night, always making sure they set off in small teams; with plenty of  people back at the base resting, and there to welcome Hope in case she returned.

When Hope eventually awoke it was very dark and she felt very alone. Clutching her notepad under her arm she set off in what she hoped was the direction of the town. Somehow it made her feel a little braver. As she drew nearer she caught what she thought was the flickering light of a fire. Then she heard the reassuring hum of voices in the distance – growing louder as she moved closer. Approaching the gathering she felt a warm feeling inside; and eventually she spotted her parents and ran full pelt towards them. As the crowd realised who it was they let out a huge cheer. Hope felt overwhelmed with relief as did they all. ‘”How ever did you find us all  in the dark?” “Well first I thought I saw something, and then I thought I heard something – but mainly I just felt something – I think I felt your love” she said to the crowd. They turned and smiled at each other, a little amused but mostly touched by her childish innocence. “What’s that?” her father asked, pointing at the note book under arm. “It’s my book about how to catch the monster” she said. Everyone gathered round as she read it out loud by the light of the fire, page by page.

By the the time Hope got to the end everyone was sat on the ground listening intently. A calm had descended and all that could be heard was the crackle of the fire. Eventually the Baker spoke up. “These ideas are so good it would be great if we could all have a copy”. Everyone nodded in agreement. Suddenly the shop keeper shouted that he had a printing press rusting in his shed, someone else had ink and someone had paper, someone could help with diagrams and someone could help with binding. Before long there was a plan to turn Hope’s notes into a proper book that every family in the town could have a copy of. They would start the next day. Everyone joined in and after a lot of hard work the book was finished. Bound in leather it was called “How to Catch the Monster” by Hope and the Townsfolk and it took pride of place in everyone’s home. Just having it there made a difference to how people felt.

After that people set about their business as usual – but they somehow missed the industry of the day before. The Farmer had an idea – now it was out and cleaned up they may as well put the printing press to good use. “Let’s start a newspaper for the town” he suggested. There was immediate agreement, and an army of volunteers to help. As Hope had started this all off in the first place they asked her what the newspaper should be called. “The Silver Bullet” she declared immediately, and everyone agreed. No other name would do. And that is how it started – “The Silver Bullet” delivering weekly news to everyone in the town, and keeping them in touch and up to date with one another. It is still printing to this day. In addition to local news, there are items for sale and adverts for events and gatherings. Hope writes a page for the children – usually with quizes and cartoons and dot to dot puzzles. Of course, there is a section in case anyone has ideas to catch the monster, but people seem a little less preoccupied with this these days. Occasionally there are stories about a sighting or something similar. They never make the headlines though because somehow the story feels smaller once it has been told.

Dear Toronto

Dear Toronto where do I start?
Thanking this city’s enormous heart
Without exception you have been kind
In these dark days; the rarest find
From the streetcar driver who took his time
To the patient folk who wait in line
Every day I have a smile
At strangers going the extra mile
The friends I’ve made along the way
I am grateful to you every day
When I glanced over and caught your eye
You paused instead of rushing by
That’s all it took to make me brave
Next time a nod and then a wave
And then a chat, and then coffee
In busy lives you made time for me
Sometimes it was just a moment or two
But a connection was there I hope you knew
We could have had more if time allowed
For that feeling this city should be proud
Openness surrounds me everyday
Trust and care is the Toronto way
When I reached out it held my hand
Nothing in return did it demand
It makes a difference to your day
(The sun helps too I have to say)
But even when it was crazy cold
It gave me courage, it made be bold
So I pushed my kids to do more too
and you embraced them the way you do
You helped them be the best they can
The only hope in a parents plan
They’ve met people here from far and wide
Sharing cultures and values with great pride
The goal is simple – to get along
And Toronto’s message is “you belong”
Why do I write this? I hear you ask
Well Britain faces an enormous task
To stand alone and turn its back
Or work together, with all its flak
My take home message is very clear
It works. There is no need to fear.
It’s not perfect, I am not naive
But together is stronger I do believe.

Snapping back to safety–oysters open up when they feel safe–and that is when the pearls of wisdom come to light

I have had this blog on the tip of my tongue for several weeks, but couldn’t quite work out what I wanted to say. As ever, a space to reflect with colleagues has helped to bring clarity; and to find the perfect analogy to bring it to life. It is about the journey of transformation we are embarking on in children’s services and how hard it can be to hold onto the ideas that will bring about a real step change in addressing their mental health and emotional well-being. The energy, enthusiasm and shared commitment to do things differently is not in question. The struggle is pinpointing the key elements that will deliver a paradigm shift; verses changes that are positive and welcome but will essentially result in perpetuating more of the same.

At the core of this struggle, I believe, is vulnerability. The vulnerability of the children we work with; and our own vulnerability in acknowledging the extent of their distress and the limitations we have as individuals to help. The system protects us from this in so many ways – from the evidence base that tells us what approach to use or how many sessions to offer; to the drawing of lines around referral and eligibility criteria; to the carving up of which agency is responsible for what aspect of their lives.  The reality, however, is much more complex – particularly for our children and families who struggle the most. Often there are many layers of difficulties that families are up against; in communities that are equally depleted in both resources and, more concerning, in hope. It would be so much simpler if a referral to one service or another, or a neat intervention would sort the problem.

It is so exciting, therefore, that there is a genuine recognition locally that we all need to be in this together if we are to turn the tanker; and that this will involve new ways of working together and new ways of collaborating with children, their families and carers to find creative solutions to seemingly intractable problems. But this is also unknown territory for us all – and as such makes us more vulnerable to snapping back to familiarity and old ways of working and thinking. Like an oyster we have begun to open up – exposing the pearls of wisdom that come with trust, shared goals and compromise. But the uncharted waters we are entering may make us want to protect ourselves and snap shut.

Forewarned is forearmed and so I will try to highlight some of the threats that risk us closing up. I am sure there are many more as I will have my own blind spots; but it is a start that I hope others will join me in:

  • the threat of old narratives that place blame on one service or organisation or agency or even the children and families themselves. Whether it’s about thresholds or expectations or funding or engagement– these are common loops we have all been on. It is of course, much harder to do if we are in the same room together, but if we hear it creeping in we are snapping back to safety

 

  • the threat of unrealistic expectations about the evidence base. It has a place, of course, and informs our practice. However, the families that we worry most about across services are often the one’s who don’t come to clinic, or attend groups in the first place. We need to have confidence to draw on the evidence base to design and evaluate new and innovative services that draw on shared core values; our extensive knowledge of child development and what children need to thrive; and practice based evidence gained over years of working in the local communities. Most importantly we need to talk to children and families about what helps them most and seek their help in designing services that meet their needs more effectively than those currently in place. We need to evaluate these, of course, but if we insist on only the highest level of evidence before we even start then we are destined to do what we have always done; snapping back to safety

 

  • the language of ‘othering’ is something we need to caution against – whether that be target groups of children or families, or specialist professionals to ‘take this on’. That is not to say that we won’t be thinking about need or drawing on expertise. However transformation for children means helping everyone to be able to ‘hold on’ not ‘refer on’. If we find ourselves thinking too much about access criteria or passing problems on then we are snapping back to safety

 

  • indeed language is critical and using terminology that is straightforward, strengths based and everyday is essential if we are to break down barriers across agencies, and more importantly for children and families. Instead of ‘assessing’ why don’t we meet? Instead of ‘screening’ why don’t we ask? Instead of ‘formulating’ let’s think together? It is scary to relinquish professional boundaries, and we must always rigorously embed our expertise, knowledge and competencies in the work that we do – but how much do we hold onto unnecessarily and at what cost? How many barriers do we unknowingly erect? If we are holding on too tightly to our professional identity then we are snapping back to safety

 

  • finally, and most importantly, is the importance of basic qualities that can and do make all the difference to children and families; and are not the domain of any one profession, agency or institution. Kindness, curiosity, hope and the intention to be helpful will have more impact than any number of sophisticated models, services or interventions. If we all prioritised these basic qualities in every aspect of our work then we would achieve great things. If we minimise their importance and allow other priorities to dominate then we are snapping back to safety.

 

Equally there are many signs that we are in safe waters and can be vulnerable. This takes time, and trust, and building meaningful relationships – mirroring precisely what children need to flourish. I have been in more meetings in the last year than in my whole career where we started with a thorny and seemingly insurmountable issue and by the end had reached a positive, and at times, ground breaking solution. The pearls of wisdom that emerge as a result of these endeavours have been precious indeed; and a real privilege to bear witness to.

Thank you to the Gwent Attachement Team for some invaluable thinking space to formulate these ideas.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: