Do you ever stop and think about the language you use when talking about the challenging children in your school?
It was something I decided to focus on this year. Changing that language in our school would be tough – it was so ingrained and it also comes naturally from frustration – but I realised this was only half the battle.
As an Education Centre, we work closely with a number of local schools and I think we have built up some really strong collaborative working, including training, resource-sharing groups and even the green shoots of a research "club" with colleague teachers. It occurred to me that through these connections we would need to try and change the language in mainstream schools, too.
Don’t get me wrong, it is incredibly difficult to regulate your language when dealing with a heightened pupil. We have all been guilty of saying things that are not constructive, or that dehumanise the child.
I have heard teachers say all of the following, numerous times: “What will it take for that kid to actually be permanently excluded?”; “It is chosen and learned behaviour, it has to stop otherwise they cannot stay with us”; “It’s a lost cause trying to get that one to change”; “That pupil is just so vile to me and I can’t teach them when they are so horrible.”
They can say worse in front of the child: "You're not the only one with problems you know – I've got problems of my own, but do you see me behaving like that?" and, "Other people want to learn. Just because you don't care about ending up with nothing, it doesn't mean others want to go that way."
You can see the shame creep into that child once they are no longer in front of the audience.
The worst I have heard so far? "Well, I understand why your mum has given up on you. If you were my child, I would be ashamed."
This was said many years ago in a classroom where I was a learning support assistant. The teacher had no idea that the pupil had been abused by that mother for several years. That child had found out the night before that his mother had committed suicide. He had still come to school the next day. When we found out later what had happened, the teacher dropped her head. The shame crept in for her once her audience had left, too.
Even those most committed to the idea of inclusion in my school and partner schools can struggle when that heightened pupil is put in front of you. But we need to try and do better.
We have been working on some emotion coaching in the past year. As a leadership team, we have read copious amounts of neuroscience and child development papers. What we had not realised was how much practice it would take to be masters of using the right language, at the right time in those really difficult moments with children.
Some of the children who have ended up at our school have done so because one too many of these moments have happened and this has resulted in exclusions and then ultimately a relationship with school staff that seems to be untenable and irreparable. The truth is far from this.
Below are some tips that I think are useful when considering the language we use with our pupils when they are in a heightened state:
Tips for de-escalation
- Try your best not to take the abuse personally. This can seem easier said than done, but it is so important.
- It is so easy to validate emotions. This takes practice but can be done if you have a class of three or a class of 30. If you see a pupil struggling, validating their emotions in that moment will get you the space to deal with the issue later on. If a pupil is visibly angered or upset as the lesson starts, rather than quickly addressing them with the school behaviour policy or threatening them with a "warning", it is much more effective to say, "I can see you are uspet at the moment, but just give me two minutes to get the lesson started and I'll come and check in with you."
- Reduce the drama. A big focus for us has been around minimising the dramatic nature of incidents through our language and actions, rather than feeding the drama further. If you really need to "vent" about a situation with a pupil, ensure that this is done out of sight of other pupils and try to choose your words carefully. The words you use about a child can often alter your own perception of that child, especially if you do not manage to resolve the issue that you had with that pupil.
- There are boundaries around "banter" with pupils – make sure you know your pupils well enough if you are going to make any attempts to demonstrate your capabilities to "banter back".
- If you call on a colleague or senior leader to support, do not berate the pupil in front of that colleague. If you see a colleague dealing with a pupil and it is not going well, do not be afraid to offer to support. Sometimes a new face can put a whole new spin on the situation and will allow the child to connect and regulate with a new member of staff.
- Pupils will often struggle to be reasonable when they have moved outside their "window of tolerance". Timing is key when going back to a pupil to reflect on behaviour that may not have been favourable.
- Do some research around trauma-informed language. I only looked at this last year and it has changed the way I think about this topic.
- Listen to the language used by colleagues in the corridors, in the staffroom and about the school. The best practitioners select their words, tone and timing carefully and are adept at reducing anxieties and de-escalating behaviours because of how they connect with a child through the use of language.
We still have a long way to go but I think this is achievable in our school and all schools. In writing this, I am reminded of a quote that was on my wall when I first began teaching: “The way we talk to children becomes their inner voice.”
For children who have come to our school, this inner voice is already established so the journey is likely to be harder, yet the importance of that inner voice work is far greater.
Leanne Forde-Nassey is headteacher of a pupil-referral unit in Hampshire