It was Friday afternoon. After an intense week of fractions and persuasive writing, I decided it was time to down pens and do some PSHE.
The children eagerly rearranged furniture and we were soon sat in a circle. A few minutes in, they reminded me that our worry monsters needed checking so I dutifully unzipped their mouths to see what lurked inside and found – nothing.
“This is great!” I told them. “No one has any worries this week.”
A hand shot up. “I’ve got a worry,” said Olivia. “I just didn’t have time to write it down and put it in the monster.”
“That’s fine,” I reassured her. “We’ve got time now. Tell us what’s bothering you and we’ll see if we can help.”
So she did, and we helped and suddenly every hand in the class was up and frantically waving for attention.
I immediately realised my mistake. I had unwittingly turned my lesson into group therapy but cans of worms, once opened, are an unshuttable entity. Anyway, how many problems could one class of upper-key-stage-2 children have?
The answer, as it turned out, was “rather a lot”. We went from Tommy’s missing pencil and Chloe and Kyra’s friendship squabbles to absent parents, deceased pets and a few issues that I cut off mid-flow to be continued when I had another adult and a safeguarding form to hand.
“That was a great lesson,” said Tyler cheerfully as we put the classroom back together. “Can we do that again next week?”
“Maybe not quite the same,” I told him. Problems for children are like stickers. You put a couple on display and suddenly they all want one.
But while I have no plans to turn full-on agony aunt, what was interesting was how much I learnt about my class in just 40 minutes. I now understand that Tommy’s concentration went Awol this week because he’s currently sharing a bedroom with his three older brothers, I know that Poppy’s worried about her grandma in hospital and that Matthew wants to move tables because Kayleigh’s whispering unkind things to him.
You hear a lot these days about children’s mental health and its decline. While for some, childhood might be a largely happy and carefree state, for others it is boredom, fear, or much worse. But do children really have more problems than they did in the past? Do mobile phones, increased testing and a growing expectation that happiness should be our default position exacerbate this?
I really don’t know but I do think it’s true children don’t have the time to talk to adults in schools in the way they used to. When I started teaching, children chatted to me all the time – as we sat sewing, in guided reading groups, in art lessons. This definitely happens less now that every minute spent in idle conversation is a minute lost to learning and so many of the teaching assistants who were always there to lend an ear have been swept away by funding cuts.
Ironically we’re now in a situation where we have to go through referrals, waiting lists and costly visitors to recreate the kind of unstructured one-to-one chat with an adult that children were already getting.
Obviously, that’s not to say some children don’t need expert intervention but I do wonder if having more time simply to listen to children tell you what’s on their mind would benefit everyone and help teachers see off bigger problems at the pass. At the very least, it might help Tommy find his pencil.
Jo Brighouse is a pseudonym for a primary teacher in the West Midlands