You know those children that take your breath away? The children who keep you up at night with thoughts of exactly what else you can do to help them. The sort of children who require constant curiosity to unpick and unravel their unpredictable behaviour. The children who no matter what you do, and what you try, they refuse to conform to a system that is not designed for them. I’ve been thinking a lot about those children recently.
Every teacher has worked with these children. Every person working in education has a story of a child that they can’t forget after many years have passed. We have all felt the frustration of believing we are failing a child because, despite all the effort and energy, we still haven’t cracked the puzzle of the individual and unique range of needs this child has.
This post is a celebration and recognition of those children first and foremost, but also of the team of dedicated and incredibly resilient professionals who have worked tirelessly to help these children. In the time I have been teaching and working in schools I have had the absolute pleasure and joy of working with so many children whom, for whatever reason, do not fit the traditional mould of schooling. So many children who have required a creative, flexible and alternative approach to achieve progress, success and flourishment. And the successes I have observed are incredible. Heartwarming. Life-changing.
The key to every single element of success I have ever experienced with children facing challenges like this, is relationships. Strong, meaningful and at times irrational relationships. The teachers and support staff and other professionals I have worked with who have invested heavily in these relationships have made the difference. Tireless in the pursuit of helping that particular child feel more safe, more valued, more loved.
Relationships are the keystone in the bridge between these children and them feeling like they belong. Professionals who are dedicated above all else to making the child in front of them feel loved and cared for. Someone who is willing to look past the rigid and inflexible pursuit of conformity and to see that child for who they truly are; a fellow human with their own outlook and perspective of the world. From my experience, with the gifted and incredibly talented staff I have had the pleasure of working with, it is this that makes the difference beyond anything else. When you boil it down, taking away all the strategies, interventions and different approaches, what you are left with is an adult who cares enough to care.
That adult who believes in relationships is not weak. They are not simply allowing the child to do what they like. No. Because they care so much, they are relentless in their approach to helping that child do better. They are dogged in their attempts to make that child succeed despite the challenges they face. I get frustrated when I hear a focus on relationships described as a “soft” approach. It’s the hardest thing I have ever been a part of. It would be easy to let a child do what they like and not hold them to account. It would be soft to give out high fives when being met with flying chairs.
But any teacher who has ever invested in relationships knows that in order to build meaningful relationships with children like this, the key lies in unwaveringly high expectations. Difficult conversations, consequences and accountability are a hugely significant aspect of relational practice. But these are far more powerful If that child knows that you care about them, and are holding them to account because you care too much about them to allow them to fail. These practices have much more impact if they run alongside a huge level of support, where the professionals change their practices and adapt approaches to ensure that they can better meet the needs of the child they are working with. High levels of support crossing over with high levels of expectation and challenge is where you build strong and purposeful relationships that lead to a child facing significant challenges beginning to realise their potential.
As well as the child beginning to flourish I believe that relationships also come with a significant reward for the professionals involved. I say this from personal experience. My understanding of fairness and respect has been altered by my interactions with these children. I am more aware of the impact of my decisions and the unequal amount of power I have as the professional adult in these relationships. I have a better awareness of the lived experience of children who have faced unimaginable challenges, and this has fuelled a passionate desire to create a more inclusive and understanding school and education system for them. I have laughed, cried and created memories I will cherish forever with these children. In short, my life has been changed for the better by the relationships I have formed with these truly amazing, incredible and breathtaking children, and by working alongside some truly inspirational colleagues in the pursuit of something great.