Slow down and listen up

19th May 2006 at 01:00
There are some excellent lessons to be learned from behaviour improvement teams, writes Kate Spohrer

Every Child Matters has provided interesting and exciting times for children's services and school leadership - but also confusing ones.

Schools are being expected to work with families within a multi-disciplinary format, which means an unprecedented sharing of information and expertise. But it is not completely uncharted territory.

Multi-disciplinary teams were set up under the behaviour improvement programmes around the country. They have experimented with a new way of working, and learned a great deal. Your school can get to grips with the Every Child Matters agenda by sharing some things learned by these teams.

Changing speed Different agencies work at different speeds, with different priorities and methods. Education is very fast, which often leaves not enough time for listening.

Health professionals, especially those in mental health, take much more time over preparing and listening. It can seem to those of us from an education background that other professions have no sense of urgency.

If you take a step back, and remember the story of the hare and the tortoise, you may be able to get a different angle on this one. Some of the anxiety and panic can be taken out of situations if we can just slow down and, even better, keep quiet so the other person in the dialogue - parent, child or colleague - has time to express their view.

Author Michio Kaku tells the tale of when Einstein was asked for his formula for success. After a second or two of thought he replied: "If A is success, I should say the formula is A = X + Y + Z, X being work and Y being play."

"And what is Z?"

"Z is keeping your mouth shut."

It is understandable that schools panic. We have these young people every day. As teachers we cannot stop for a coffee break and an informal supervision session. But maybe we can learn from Einstein: keep mouth shut, reflect, discuss in structured way with peers, come to conclusions, then act on conclusions.

That is a nice, scientific way of doing things, which not only relies on our own ideas but uses the brains of our colleagues. Using a collective brain, drawing from different professions, may take us a little nearer to genius.

New dialects One of the steepest learning curves has been the familiarisation with new ways of communicating.

Daily work with other professions helps you realise that the meaning attributed to words can be worlds apart. Melding together languages, or dialects, used by social workers, police, psychologists, educationists and nurses is no easy task but it is a rewarding one.

Getting the thoughts of these professions has always been good for helping with families' problems and schools in the course of educating children.

But only recently has there been good multi-disciplinary discussion and problem-solving, where different professions put their minds together for the child's benefit.

I have witnessed some great meetings where practical solutions were explored with families. I have also seen how the stance of schools is gradually moving towards a more listening approach, where parents and children feel they are communicating with schools, rather than being talked at.

Doing "good listening" I have also been amazed at the assertiveness of social workers, and the skill with which the police handle people. Both professions use a lot of psychology and common sense, acknowledging the rights of the other person and showing respect.

If time is taken to consider why agencies do things differently, everyone learns something, not just about each other but about the child. The new Common Assessment Framework, which is likely to be a widespread requirement to access children's services, requires listening to the child, and completion with the family in more depth then we have been used to before.

Kate Spohrer is a teacher, author, parent and multi-disciplinary worker

TIPS FOR SCHOOL LEADERS

* Listen actively - this is the most useful tool for anyone who works with people.

* Take time to step into the shoes of other professionals - you might be surprised by the way other people do things and it could work for you.

* Model other professionals and bring their thinking into the school arena.

* Always remember the child is the client. Get a good critical friend who understands the machinations of multi-disciplinary working.

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