Thursday, 2 January 2014

Building Relationships

Working with disruptive young people in mainstream education is a challenge, not only for the teachers, but also very much so for the young people. 

The most powerful strategy in the outstanding teacher's skills chest is developing positive relationships with learners. Building such relationships within our social settings are plentiful, but these are among our chosen friends and relations. It is quite a different task to develop positive working relationships with young people who themselves, find forging relationships difficult. A seven-pronged approach based on empathy, respect, role-modelling, consistency, flexibility, resilience and listening beyond emotions form the springboard from which the teacher can dive into the turbulent currents that are the lives of learners with BESD.

1) Empathy
There is much to say about empathy from a psycho-educational point of view. Leaders in the field of psychology, counselling and behaviour management are all in agreement that empathising with a young person experiencing emotional and social difficulties (existential discomfort) is the foundation of developing a supportive relationship with that person. This is even more true when working with young people that, in addition to their age appropriate developmental angst, experiences difficulties to associate with a community and world that they don't understand and have difficulties to adjust to. 

To have empathy with the young people we work with is to, firstly, accept that their experiences of our lessons and the relationship we have with them is as real and influencing as our own. Even more so, teenagers tend to experience all their interactions in the superlative degree, especially those that they consider to be unknown and threatening. We might allude to our own adolescence and remember that insecurities go hand-in-hand with having empathy with our students. However, time is a great eraser of emotions and we often find ourselves having reminiscing that we would never react in certain ways at school...the truth is often a combination of our own memories of our adolescence and knowing that even in the days of Aristotle youth was seen as a time of folly and rebellion. Why would ours have been different?  Also having empathy with our students doesn't mean that we no longer have high expectations of them! We still expect excellence and commitment. However, we understand that the process of achieving excellence is a difficult one.

2) Respect
Embodied in the word respect lies a myriad of assumptions and presumptions. We grow up with cultural norms that prescribe good manners, compliance and adherence to unwritten codes and we use the word respect to refer to this. However this complex set of culturally variable codes is not all that lie at the heart of respect. Acceptance of the individual as a whole, with warts and all, is key to developing a promotive relationship with the young person we are working with. Having empathy with the young person is not enough, showing acceptance (respect) of their experiences, dreams, needs, fears and hopes makes having to say difficult things about their behaviour easier for both the teacher and the young person. A conversation that I have had many a time with disruptive students sound like this: "I accept that you are finding it difficult to deal with your anger now, I respect the fact that you feel angry and confused, however, I do not accept nor respect the behaviour I have just experienced." 

However, the words we utter are only a small pat of showing respect and acceptance. Saying good morning (often first, teenagers need to experience role-modelling before they show acceptance and respect themselves), remembering something positive and specific to that individual young person or giving a garden variety complement (I like your haircut, nice trainers and the like), speaks volumes to the hyper-sensitive teenager and shows respect and acceptance.

I want to be clear that acceptance and respect does not imply that poor-to-fit behaviour is or ever will be accepted. Nor does it suggest that we do not address such behaviour or succeed to low expectations. To the contrary, having acceptance and respect shows the very opposite. We do have high expectations and are very aware that poor-to-fit behaviour will only lead to mediocrity and that is not what we want from our students.

3) Role-model
The third and often most difficult part of working with disruptive young people is being a role-model. How often do we catch ourselves reverting to the adage 'do what I say, not what I do'? The fact is that role-modelling is how everybody learns. From the very first moment in our mother's arms to dealing with immediate crises, we find that our first reaction is often instinctive, but instinct from where? We act and react in the same way we see our role-models act and react, whether they are at home, school or in the public eye.

This insight allows us to also understand why young people with BESD often act and react in specific ways. They, at the spur of the moment, react like they have seen their role-models (parents, teachers, sport heroes etc.) react. It is instinctive and often governed by the amygdala. That doesn't mean that such behaviour is set in stone. We often change our view of our role-models and with the development of the frontal lobes, the teenager is highly receptive of such role-modelling to build new behavioural and cognitive pathways. In a nutshell, the teacher's mantra should be, "do as you see me do."

Being a role-model is not hard work. As a matter of fact, it is the most natural position we could take in our relationships with young people. How do we deal with stress? How do we motivate ourselves? How do we relate with others? Our young people watch what and how we do things as a matter of their natural state of being.

4) Resilience
A scraped knee is more protective than all the kneepads in the world. The irony of the way that we as a society try to protect our children is that we often do them more harm through over-protection. To develop resilience the young person must experience both risk and protective factors. Resilience develops when there is a balance between these factors, however, if any of the factors (either protective or risk factors) outweigh the other, resilience does not develop. Thus the young person that grows up in a overly protective environment is less likely to be resilient than the young person that has faced poverty or even neglect, but has had significant protective experiences to balance the risks out. Another aspect of the phenomenon of resilience is that it is closely related with time. The longer the risk factors have had an impact on the young person, the longer the protective factors will have to be in place to help the young person become resilient. This is often where behaviour intervention strategies fall short off the mark. Too often we say too soon that this is it. There is nothing I can do for this young person any more...

How does resilience influence the way we work with young people with BESD? In two significant ways: the first is that we must often take the role of a significant adult in the young person's world that acts as the counter balance for the risk experiences. Some times we as the significant adult must communicate our disappointment with him if our expectations are not met and some times we have to enforce sanctions for poor-to-fit behaviour - no matter how much empathy we have with the young person. Facilitating the young person to develop resilience is not an exact science and as teachers we often have to depend on that 6th sense we have all developed (the eyes in the back our heads) to know when to intervene and when to all the young person to find a creative way to deal with the risk experience.

The second and very significant way to support the young person through resilience is by having balance in our own lives. It is important that we as teachers too have an outlet, work-life balance and clinical guidance. The concept of clinical guidance is not foreign in therapeutic environments, however in teaching the expectation is that we keep a stiff upper lip, keep calm and mark our books. This is not realistic and an over-worked dissatisfied teacher can make irreparable damage to a young person's self concept and beliefs. The reality is that "sticks and stones may break my bone, your words will seriously harm me."

The managing support structures for those teachers who work with disruptive adolescents (pastoral leaders, SEN teachers, school counsellors and learning mentors) should include an opportunity to discuss their experiences and concerns. We must be very clear that such guidance does not enter the performance management procedures and that the same confidentiality afforded by a counsellor is part and parcel of the clinical guidance for the teacher. There is still much research to be done on the impact working with young people with BESD has on teachers.

5) Flexibility
The teen brain develops from the back (amygdala) up and forward to the frontal cortex, where thinking takes place. This seemingly trivial piece of knowledge plays an important role in our everyday interactions with young people. The amygdala is where our fight or flight instincts are seated. The emotions that are as basic as breathing, eating and our drive to procreate. The frontal lobes, which develop later in adolescents, is where our ability to reason, interpretation and show empathy comes from. During the first few years of adolescence the injection of testosterone (contributor to aggressive behaviour), the lack of developed frontal lobes and a myriad of social and developmental factors give rise to more aggressive behaviour in teens. Understanding this neurological process is the first step to being flexible, thus allowing ourselves as the adult in the room to put our own emotional responses aside and evaluate the unfolding situation in terms of the developmental stage of the young person - in balance with the sustained high expectations. The second step to being flexible is planning ahead. Take for instance, Abbi, a 15 year old lad that should have been diagnosed with ADHD or Executive Memory problems: he cannot remember what to do in lesson one simple step to another and naturally this causes him to be in trouble more often than not. In addition to not coping with the pace of the lesson, he has sudden outbursts of "remembering" (I need a ruler or where is my behaviour report) and reacts to these instincts without consideration of time and place. To make life as Abbi's teacher even more interesting, he has an internal drive to have his book in a perfect state and often takes an hour to get the date and heading perfect rather than doing the work in class (some might call this OCD). This has left Abbi labelled with the lay diagnosis of acute "That Child!" syndrome.

Planning ahead for Abbi's lesson includes having short step by step tasks ready for him, placing him close to my teacher-station and having something that needs to be taken to Ms X urgently (to allow him to get out of his seat for a reason and not just to release his pent up energy). I also have a ruler at hand and I ask him for his report even before he enters the class. Such interventions are not standard operating procedure in schools but being flexible in a way that still upholds the high expectations we have of learning, allows Abbi to cope in lessons. Some children have an urge to hold onto an object while working, I have stress balls, a single Lego block and a tattered Sponge Bob to solve this tactile urge.

6) Consistency
On the face of it, the concepts of flexibility and consistency seem antithetic, however, these two concepts are not mutually exclusive. Consistency in our high expectations of ourselves and our students enables us to establish positive habits - the behaviour for learning. Time tested strategies such as negotiating the rules or behaviours for learning at the start of every term, expressing learning behaviour at the onset of the lesson and whole school standard operating procedures (SOPs) can be augmented by implementing Academic Mentors or Leaders (also sometimes called a learning champion) in each class and having managers to support the teacher in general tasks such as handing out books, learning equipment and updating classroom displays.  In addition, seemingly obvious actions such as meeting and greeting your class at the start of the lessons and having clear exit procedures and wishing them a good day at the end of a lesson establishes the mutual expectation of consistency and trust in the learning environment. Developing learning habits enhances the young people's (especially those with behaviour difficulties) ability to self-regulate their behaviour and internalise their drive and motivation to achieve. 

7)  Listen Beyond Emotions
When we look at teens, we often see fledgling giants towering up in front of us. We often forget that a 12 year old is not half a 24 year old. As a matter of fact the human brain only starts it second growth spurt in adolescence, when the cognitive process moves from the amygdala to the frontal lobes where rationality tries to fight its way through all the grey matter. As adults we often express our disbelief in the apparent lack of rationality of the adolescent's choice-making process: "What were you thinking?" being the mantra of any and all that work with adolescents. The fact is that they were not thinking at all. The development of the frontal lobes is a slow process and in the absence of fully developed thinking skills, the teen reacts; irrationally and emotionally at the best of times. With our understanding of this phenomenon as foundation, it is now easier to suggest that as teachers we should listen beyond the emotions that envelop the reaction of the young person.

There are two prerogatives we have to consider if we want to develop our skills in listening beyond emotions. The first is to have empathy for the individual in front of us. Having a good understanding of the home, school and community relationships the young people find themselves in, their education needs, abilities and developmental stage is a good starting point for the teacher to develop empathy. The second is for teachers to develop their own emotional awareness. Teaching is a high-paced stress-filled vocation. More often than not, if we are honest with ourselves, we engage in battles with teenagers to prove that we hold the higher ground. I often listen to an exchange between teachers and difficult students and as a result of not being emotionally involved in the conversation, I often hear a much different message than the teacher...The grand standing and refusal to comply with the most insignificant of standard operating procedures is as a result of the teen brain not knowing how to react to the conflict of embarrassment and confusion generated in the process of finding his or her place, worth and identity in this world.

Listening beyond the surface emotions allows us to access the deeper concerns and fears of the young person. It allows us to consider the correct form of action for the development of the young person and most importantly it allows us to develop empathy for his/her situation - the groundwork for developing positive relationships.

In conclusion, it is worth remembering that inclusive education depends on the full participation of all learners and to merely integration into aspects of mainstream education. Being the significant adult in a young person with BESD's life is often a role that many of us did not anticipate taking on. To be that significant adult, to be the balancing factor between the risk and promotive experiences, to be the one they may aspire to be like is a tall order, but one that now lies at the heart of making an outstanding teacher. Gone are the days when talk and chalk sufficed as a pedagogical strategy. Developing promotive relationships with the young people in our classrooms now form the basis from which every lesson should be planned.

1 comment:

  1. This was a helpful post! Thank you for taking the time to write about these seven steps and how they correspond with building relationships with teens. I plan on sharing this with my colleagues.