In our previous blog, we began exploring the benefits of a strengths-based and solution-focused approach to pastoral support, describing exception finding and the use of rating scales to promote reflective thinking and reframing thoughts.
In this article, we further develop this knowledge, incorporating two more tools for our solution-focused toolkit and recognising the importance of how we frame our questions.
Action and consequence
The third strategy looks across all domains of the pupil’s progress and functioning, and attempts to identify what is going well and why, so that it may be utilised to provide a launchpad for success in other areas.
At our pupil referral unit (PRU), when we are praising pupils’ efforts – whether academic or social – we try to make it explicit and as easy as possible to replicate. If the pupil has done something well and has shown that they are capable of success, they may first require help in recognising this but then also need support in replicating this skill or action in a different domain.
We all need to feel secure that our successes are not simply a fluke but are instead a direct consequence of our actions. Through breaking down the steps and being explicit, we are enabling the pupil to incorporate this scaffolding into their own metacognitive processes, helping them to fine tune their planning and goal-driven behaviour in the future.
The final strategy that we employ revolves working with the pupil to envisage a preferred future. This classic pastoral technique asks pupils who are struggling to manage a situation or are perhaps frustrated with themselves in some way to imagine what change they would like to see, working backwards from this to form a clear pathway to success.
This doesn’t have to be an unrealistic utopian vision of success; in fact, the changes are often most productive when proposed in smaller, manageable chunks.
Staff members can support the pupil to scaffold any goals, while offering tangible and practical interventions to help. We have successfully utilised this approach from something as big as planning for a career (supporting the pupil to identify a particular career and then picking the right options and work experience) to the much smaller-scale example of helping a pupil to modify their actions within a social context, supporting them in their desire to make friends and developing relationships with their peers.
In order to maximise the effectiveness of all of these strategies, as with all aspects of learning, we need to ensure that dialogue is underpinned by a foundation of effective questioning.
We emphasis the use of Socratic principles, most pertinently the “six honest men” espoused by Kipling:
“I keep six honest serving men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When,
And How and Where and Who.”
The Bean Dad incident earlier this year highlighted the potential fallacy inherent in using such an investigate approach across certain contexts; it was clear that the daughter would have been able to cook the beans much more promptly had he chosen to pass on his “expert” knowledge, firmly couched in notions of direct instruction.
However, while this analysis could be transposed to other such academic learning, with relatively clear success criteria, it is much more problematic when utilised in a more pastoral context.
When we instigate dialogue to support the pupils in such matters, we feel it is really important that they are provided with agency to modify their thought process and decision making.
Our aim is to build up a concise narrative of the situation and then provide scaffolding within which they are able to reflect, spot patterns (when do you notice this happens?), identify emotions (how does that make you feel when they talk to you like that?) and consider antecedents (what happened in the lead up to the incident?), among many others.
As staff, we understand that, although we have our professional opinion on the situation, it is essential that we consider the pupil’s input, too; we cannot ever assume we know what they are thinking or feeling, but can only ever offer a guide to the consequences of their actions.
The only one of the honest men we use sparingly is “why”. Often, pupils (and people in general) can’t or are not willing to offer details as to why they acted in a certain way.
Ego and emotion
The prevailing discourse in education tends to emphasise the positivistic aspiration of being objective in our practice; while perhaps appropriate in an academic context, this is simply not possible in social matters.
It is important to maintain reflexivity and recognise the impact that pride, ego, lack of emotional literacy, unconscious biases, assumptions and values have in our ability to provide an “accurate” account of a situation.
One easy way to support this is by ensuring that we double-check what people mean and repeat back any key information, to develop a shared understanding and thus provide a much more robust foundation from which to offer the most effective support we can.