The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Fiona Carnie

Caring for vulnerable children: put listening at the heart of schools

Fiona Carnie draws on examples from practice at home and abroad to explore the vital role of listening in pandemic recovery, for children, families and staff.

Many children – particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds – are suffering deeply through this pandemic. Increasing numbers live in families where there is unemployment, food poverty, abuse, addiction and/or mental health problems.

As we approach a winter of further restrictions, partial school closures and more suspected outbreaks, it is crucial that schools and local authorities prioritise the needs of the most vulnerable. We cannot allow them to fall through the net.

Priorities in the pandemic

The first priority is to ensure that these children are in school. This requires close collaboration between schools, families, children’s services and social workers.

Secondly it is important that they are given the kind of support that they need. Schools are seeing significant mental health needs amongst their pupils and these have to be attended to.

Barry Carpenter’s work on a Recovery Curriculum details the five losses that children have experienced and the levers to address these. This does not just apply to children from vulnerable backgrounds – but it is of particular relevance to them.

Thirdly, a national tutoring programme is being launched to help children – particularly the vulnerable and disadvantaged – to catch up. The focus is on academic skills. But this will be ineffective if children’s broader needs are not attended to.

So, what can be done?

A personalised approach

It is time to develop a personalised approach for every child, based on strong relationships and a clear understanding of needs. It is important that schools and local authorities identify their vulnerable families and have a clear plan for each.

This work takes time and is not easy.  It requires that education leaders use creativity and imagination, and are prepared to do things differently in order to build a response that meets the scale of the challenge.

Listening in practice: phone calls and trust building

Staff at Thorntree Primary School in Glasgow phone all their families regularly and speak to children as well as parents. The leadership team takes responsibility for contact with the most vulnerable families. Senior staff ensure that parents are put in touch with organisations and services that can provide support. Teachers work closely – and share information – with social workers which guarantees a joined-up approach. Trust and care – in the fullest sense of the words – are centre stage.

Listening to children and young people

Key to providing the best support for children is to listen to them – to give them a voice.

Teachers need to hear and understand what their pupils are going through. The next step is to involve them in discussion and decisions about what needs to happen to help them recover. The Mental Health Foundation has produced a pack of activities to support such discussions.

It will be important for teachers to make time for one to one conversations with each of their students. Asking open questions, giving time to respond and deep listening all help in building nurturing relationships.

Circle time activities where pupils talk about the challenges they are experiencing together are also valuable. These can take place outside to provide space and the opportunity to get outdoors. For older children, extending tutor time to enable whole group discussions about what is going on can help.

All children need to know that there is an adult at school whom they trust and who will make time for them. At primary school this vital role is the responsibility of the class teacher. But what about secondaries? Are schools clear about who is listening to students? It might be the tutor; it might be a member of the pastoral team or it may be a counsellor. But everyone needs someone they can turn to. Is sufficient time being made for this to happen?

Voice and agency have been shown to be key to recovery from trauma

Oxfordshire School Inclusion Team has put together a useful resource focusing on the needs of vulnerable learners. It foregrounds the importance of kindness, compassion and the need for communication and connection.

Research from the Education Endowment Foundation indicates that effective feedback helps to improve outcomes for vulnerable children. But the ability to provide such feedback is predicated on teachers having a deep understanding of their students. As American education reformer Ted Sizer said, 'I cannot teach a child that I do not know'.

Now more than ever, making time for talk is critical. Oracy skills enable young people to articulate their feelings and experiences. Voice and agency have been shown to be key to recovery from trauma.

The arts and the restorative power of the natural world can also help children find ways to cope. Learning through Landscapes helps schools take learning and play outdoors to support the recovery process.

Listening to parents and families

In-depth work with each family is also crucial. Time must be made for teachers to work with parents and carers, family by family, to get the best for each child. A collaborative approach, founded on agreement about how best to support the child together, will help forge this alliance. Such work is an integral part of the role of the teacher, not an add-on.

A number of schools in Carmarthenshire are prioritising the conversations they have with families as they recognise that getting the best for their students requires ongoing home-school communication. Schools have busy schedules and teachers have multiple demands on their time. But such conversations are vital.

Listening in practice: investing in ICT skills

At Ysgol Y Tymbl teachers phone their families weekly and staff are always on the door to talk to parents in person. Time has been invested in upskilling parents around the use of ICT to support learning at home. Staff recognise that schools cannot educate children on their own.

Shockingly, the all-important home-school partnership is underplayed or neglected all too often. Scandinavian schools make time for this work. If there is to be a chance of addressing the educational inequity in the UK, schools here must follow that lead.

An inspirational project in the Netherlands focuses on how schools can work individually with each family. Parental Involvement 3.0 takes the notion of parent participation way beyond providing information to parents and responding to their questions. The aim is to share responsibility for a child’s learning and development from the start of their school journey.

Schools make time at the beginning of each school year for teachers to meet each student along with his or her parents or carers. Together they agree what the aspirations and goals are for the child. They discuss how they will collaborate to achieve those goals. They plan how – and how often – they will meet and communicate throughout the school year. This helps ensure that everyone stays on track.

Parents receive bespoke advice and support, relevant to their own family circumstances and their own child’s needs. Where necessary, teachers help parents to access other services. Schools here can learn from this approach.

Listening in practice: parents as mentors

At De Bussel school in the Netherlands, parents come into school regularly to support their own child. This makes it possible for children to have individual support with parents becoming their personal mentor. Teachers focus on observing and coaching students and their mentor-parent. Together they decide what to aim for and how to reach the student’s goals. In this way parents and teachers co-create education for subjects like maths, spelling and reading. Students of all different levels have been found to benefit.

Listening to teachers

In the classroom, therefore, business as usual is not an option. After all the disruption schools cannot just return to a delivery model of education. Staff are going to need support and encouragement to work in different ways. Specific training may be required for this enhanced work with students and their families.

Now is not the time for teachers to be left on their own to deal with the complex challenges they are facing. They need opportunities to discuss what they are experiencing with their colleagues. Sharing ideas and strategies – within and between schools – will be key.

Going forward

There is an opportunity now for schools to “build back better”. Priorities for schools have changed. Literacy and numeracy still matter, of course. But they must be underpinned by approaches that foreground the individual needs of every young person. Teachers know only too well that an unhappy child is not a learning child.

We cannot ignore the chasm that is widening between advantaged and less advantaged children. Innovative school leaders across the world are looking at how they can use time, space and resources differently to respond to the deep educational challenges presented by the pandemic. The voice and participation of all partners are being shown to be critical.

These are extraordinary times. They call for an extraordinary response.

Accrediting partnerships

The Leading Parent Partnership Award gives schools a coherent framework to deliver effective parental engagement from early years to post-16.

To find out more, visit the AwardPlace website.

Further reading

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