For those of you who have watched my Free Video series on how to manage challenging behaviour in the classroom you will know the importance I place upon skills such as compassion, patience, understanding and nurturing as educators.
This especially true for our students with behaviour challenges or Social, Emotional and Mental Health issues (SEMH). They are all vital for making our most vulnerable youth feel safe and therefore able to learn (see my blog Safety First (Learning Second)).
However, a recent incident re-highlighted for me the importance of boundaries, consistency and being able to say no, i.e.
Working in an Alternative Provision for SEMH pupils, I had been asked to start giving homework to a year 8 pupil. With a very patchy education before secondary age, this pupil had never had homework before – and gosh did they let me know about it! What I thought would be a simple conversation turned into an almost abandoned session as we worked through the pupil’s resistance – and my insistence on the homework happening. The concept of homework – or being made to do things ‘before playing’ – was a scenario that triggered trauma for the pupil. They could not understand why I would want to enforce this upon them. The pupil regressed drastically as they kicked, screamed, cried – they tried every method they knew to get their own way.
This is where the Tough Love comes in, and it can be challenging.
I was able to keep firm due to some key preparation. Firstly, I knew that from the following year all pupils would have homework – this would become normal. I knew that the homework had in fact come as a request via the pupil’s IEP meeting (Individual Education Plan) from the pupil’s social worker and carers. I had also liaised with the pupil’s form tutor, Key Adult and school Therapist before the discussion with the pupil. All adults had agreed that the pupil needed to start building more independence around their own learning, and that homework would be a way to begin this process.
This meant that once I was in my one-to-one session with the pupil, who was communicating such discomfort “Miss, you used to be alright but now you’ve become evil.” “ You are ruining my life.” – it was my job to firmly but kindly insist on the homework. To tackle this situation as smoothly as possible I:
- Allowed space for the pupil to express how they felt about it and why – expressing understanding about their emotions
- Explained the benefits of working independently through homework
- Referenced the other adults who were also on board
- After sufficient time and space was given, whilst there was no resolution at that point, I insisted on closing the topic of homework for the final part of the session and focusing on the work planned – giving the message that the learning is the focus
- Afterwards, I reported back to all the adults concerned, who continued to support the action. As a team we slowly got the pupil used to the idea. I left it a day until re-mentioning the topic, I offered the pupil options about reward systems/timing/types of homework etc. Eventually they came on board enough to give it a go. Is the homework consistent yet? – not at all. Is it done to the best of the pupil’s ability with joy? – not at all. But have we re-enforced that sometimes adults know what is best for a pupil’s learning? – yes. Have we held a boundary securely so that the pupil feels safe? – Yes. Does it mean we can stop working on this now? – no way.
In the intense moment of distress and emotions from the pupil, especially in a one-to-one situation, it can be so tempting to give in, but as educators we also need to use our expertise, experience and foresight that a pupil may not have. If the pupil were allowed to not do the homework in year 8 – was able to manipulate the situation by displaying challenging behaviour, what lesson have we taught the pupil? There are many debates about the fruitfulness of homework itself, but here the issue was about us holding a boundary and expectation firmly so that the pupil would learn that independence they would need increasingly for KS4. To do anything less would be a disservice to the pupil’s education in the long term.
As challenging as it can be, Tough Love has the word ‘love’ in it – if we can help the pupil see this, whether in the moment or in 10yrs time when they remember, then it makes our intentions and actions powerful.