Too hurt and too afraid to learn

24th March 2006 at 00:00
If a child is brought up feeling loved, kept safe and never belittled, then a good adult will emerge. When the early part of a life is filled with fear, pain, or hunger, and the child doesn't feel wanted or valued, there will be a less successful outcome.

By the time these children reach secondary school, the damage is usually done, and we can't right the wrongs. They are too angry to care, and are too hurt to follow any rules. Often their academic achievement is stunted because they missed so much school, or because their early nurturing was so inadequate that cognitive development didn't happen. Either way, they feel stupid compared to the others, and that makes them angrier and more hurt.

So they throw tantrums and tables, they insult and provoke the other pupils, and they can't make friends. Because they are sullen and demanding, even adults find it hard to stay positive.

They have learnt that not following rules gets them more attention than being good, that answering back makes other people satisfyingly angry - it would almost be a game if they had a choice whether to play or not.

And these poor, broken spirits end up in secure accommodation, because society is not geared for dealing with people who won't follow rules. Then we hear that, in these places, the adults are breaking the rules and the children not treated with compassion and so aren't really safe there either. But the adults break the rules because these children are so hurt and broken that they can't suddenly become good people. Being locked away makes them even angrier, and even more determined to break rules and break themselves.

So we should not expect these children to survive in a mainstream school.

We need a place with small classes, with work that can be successfully achieved, that has daily time set aside to help the child recover from the traumas with trained staff.

At the moment these damaged children can't get the attention, the teaching, the counselling and a quiet space to recover. Pastoral care staff don't have enough time - and have 200 other pupils to care for. Teachers don't have the time and energy to meet a damaged child's needs and effectively teach the rest of the class.

Inadvertently, we add to the damage. It is only as a last resort - and too late by far - that we accept the school placement has failed and try to find a safe space for them. Secure accommodation should not be that safe space.

These children grow up to be costly to the state, often needing psychiatric treatment, living on benefits and not coping with their own children. It would actually be cheaper to provide the right education at the right time - which is when it becomes obvious they are not coping in school.

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