Don’t catch kids out: instead, catch them when they fall

1st June 2018 at 00:00
Teachers need to reassure children that ‘failure’ is not to be avoided at all costs but is actually a chance for them to learn and grow, says Jarlath O’Brien

The late Donald Winnicott (1896-1971) was a paediatrician who did influential work developing the concept of what he called “holding environments” – that is to say, caring and supporting environments that lead to a firm sense of trust and safety.

Winnicott suggested that it is a duty of parents to slowly but surely disappoint their children; knowing when to say no and teaching their children that they are not their friend. He suggested that emotional problems develop when a person had been deprived of such holding environments in childhood.

Meanwhile, Wilfred Bion (1897-1979) spoke of “containing” – that infants become overwhelmed by experiences as they lack sufficiently well-developed internal control and that a parent’s function involves assisting the child to develop a capacity for self-regulation.

There is much for us, as teachers, to take from this. We are not in this job to indulge our students’ every whim but nor can we ignore their feelings entirely, as I did at times in my early teaching life, when I ham-fistedly used public shaming, thinking I was incentivising children to behave better. They didn’t.

Early years teachers regard Bion’s view as obvious, but those of us who teach teenagers could benefit from thinking more deeply about this area, too.

Work-avoiding behaviours

A central part of our role as educators of still-developing young people is to make sure that they can thrive when we’re not around. Stifling school policies or practices of individual teachers, where having a go or risking failure is a high-stakes affair, or where getting into trouble results in public shaming, risk hindering this quest for independence and may not, to borrow Winnicott’s term, foster good holding environments.

In such environments, failure avoidance can become a goal in itself. “Failure” is not seen a chance to learn, to develop, to grow; it is something to be ashamed about or to avoid at all costs, even in the full knowledge that it will result in consequences of a different kind, such as punishment.

When I was headteacher of a secondary special school, all of our students had been to a mainstream primary and around a quarter had been to a mainstream secondary, usually having to leave early because of their behaviour. Many displayed work-avoiding behaviours and it took a sustained effort from all of the staff to reassure them that making a mistake was not a failure and that, instead of criticism, they would be met with support. We needed to communicate to them through our actions and our words that we were there to catch them, not catch them out.

Jarlath O’Brien works in special education in London. His latest book, Better Behaviour: a guide for teachers, is published by SAGE

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