Phone calls from residents living next to the school – to raise the issue of pupils fighting in their driveways – is not great for school/community relations. Fifteen year-old Abby was frequently involved. Feisty, vocal Abby – at the centre of everything and spiraling down a risky road….
Abby disrupted lessons, failed to complete work, fulfill her potential or to comply with rules.
Concern was rising that Abby was hanging out with a group of older friends, involved in drug-taking.
Staff were exasperated and exhausted by her and much time, understanding and patience was invested in trying to encourage her onto a better path.
Abby was refusing to engage with this path. She would retaliate, blame others, storm off, leaving a sweet scented trail of hopelessness in the air. At other times, she would apologise, listen to her Head of Year and try hard to improve – and she would – for a week or so. But she would slide back in to old ‘habits’ and the lure of the ‘drugs’ gang was strong. Abby was struggling to take responsibility.
I was struck by the care and support that Abby’s teachers, counsellor and family gave her. Supporting the mental health of young people amid the challenges of large classes and the complex demands of the education system is exhausting for all. As a teacher in this position once, I remember it. Thus, working 1-1 with a young person is a privilege. When a school asks for my help, it is an opportunity to enhance the existing support, to be another member of the team around the young person. One of the first things we say to the young person is that this is a positive step, that they matter, not that they have failed.
So, to walk in Abby’s world here…When I first met her, this was how she viewed herself. This was her identity, as revealed through the initial Strengths-Focused Coaching (SFC) activities:
I fight a lot.
I don’t enjoy school.
I don’t try in lessons, I don’t understand my lessons.
I’m a waste of space.
I don’t do what I’m told. I’m always in trouble.
I like my friendship group – they’re older than me.
I take drugs.
I’m no good.
When she completed the SFC ‘Self Survey’, it became apparent to me that her self esteem was rock bottom. Becoming pregnant and undergoing a termination a year earlier had taken its toll on many levels. She was struggling to address her negative self image, and her behaviour.
Imagine being at the bottom of a very deep hole. If you look up, you can just about see daylight. A voice floats down:
Please get to the top of this hole! It’s a bad place. Look, there are some places to put your hands and some footholds. Come on. You can do it! Oh, and can you do it soon, please, the light’s fading….we’re running out of time.
Gripped by anxiety, you try to use the hand and foot holds. Hooray! – you get a little way up but then you slip back. You feel tired, lonely. The darkness confirms what a bad place this is, but hey, it’s familiar. It seems easier to stay here than climb. And besides, what will it be like when you get up there? The unknown scares you. So you decide to stay. You learn to blank out the voice too.
But what if someone:
- climbs down into the hole and sits next to you?
- brings a light?
- makes you feel less worried, less alone?
- enables you to discover how to stand up and climb?
If self-esteem is low and identity is as negative as Abby’s, then making a change for the better feels daunting. Deep down you would like to change, but you feel so rubbish about yourself, it’s just too hard and what’s the point?
And if you managed to change, what would you change into? You might lose your friends as a result!
When I was researching the process and content for Strengths-Focused Coaching, I found that even if young people were getting superb encouragement from staff, they kept sliding back into old habits. Some brilliant support was being given e.g. how to deal with anger. But I realised that many of the young people were not truely OWNING the process, nor did they feel confident. The responsibility was actually sitting with the teacher or parent, whose own confidence levels in supporting this person varied greatly!
It’s like trying to learn to drive, without being given the steering wheel.
Due to traumatic experiences such as abuse, illness, bereavement or bullying, a high number of young people feel that they have no control over their lives. Thus…
The first steps to enabling change is to build a foundation for it.
The foundation includes:
a) increased confidence
b) feeling in control
c) feeling consistently supported by someone they trust
How can we help our young people to take ownership of change?
I will use YP for ‘young person/people’ here.
- Employ the engagement tools outlined in Posts 2 and 3 of this Blog Post 2: From Defensive to Open. and Post 3: Engagement and Beyond.
- ‘Step back’, look at the bigger picture and let the YP take hold of the steering wheel. Show gentle curiosity about the YP. Devise or seek out some enjoyable activities that facilitate this.
In SFC, we use the ‘My World’ and the multi-tasking ‘Self Survey’ in these first steps to success. We gain a holistic view of the YP, focusing on ‘what are they getting right?’ They unwittingly identify their positives, and the wry smile that I get when they realise this is priceless. The ‘Self Survey’ enables the young person to identify possible areas for improvement (rather than an adult telling them).
And, thanks to the Coach employing their own key skills, the YP tends to identify areas for improvement that are already familiar to staff!
- Accept ‘their truth’. Employ Active Listening and accept who they are and what they are feeling right now. (Perhaps re-watch the short clip on Empathy: https://youtu.be/1Evwgu369Jw ) This does not mean condoning challenging behaviour. That is dealt with outside of a coaching session. Just as Abby had been when she first told me about her abortion, some YP are poised, waiting to be judged. When this doesn’t happen, when they are simply accepted as ‘this is how things are for you at the moment’, it may feel odd to them. – They may push against it and try to shock you, to get the response that they are familiar with, to confirm a negative self belief – In my experience, the majority feel reassured and begin to relax and enjoy the fact that someone is taking time out to get to know them….
When Abby started to realise that she was steering her journey, whilst being supported, she began to settle: her brain allowing her to learn now that she wasn’t in ‘Fight or Flight’. She relaxed and gradually learned to know and like herself. She remembered good traits that she had, that had been crushed by trauma. Each week, she seemed to soften and her face brighten. From a vocal girl, there were moments of silence, whilst she gazed at the evidence in front of her, provided by some powerful, visual activities. It was a privilege to be part of this.
But she was still clinging to the highly influential ‘drugs group’. Would she ever be able to break free?
Next time: Post 5: The Power of Learning about Self and the conclusion of Abby’s story.
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