I want to preface this piece with a link to this post by a young teacher friend of mine on the art of telling children off. We teachers do a lot of this, some of us indeed, seem to do nothing but, and it seemed to me, from my perspective of not only a teacher of children with SEN in a mainstream primary school but also a mother of a son with significant, if not profound learning difficulties, that I could add a little something extra, spread the light of understanding a little wider by introducing you to my ‘World of Challenging Behaviour’.
We are one of the lucky ones.
Sometimes I feel a bit sorry for the children I teach. Oh, I don’t mean that I’m a total cowbag who eats children for breakfast in the manner of Miss Trunchbull, or that I am so lackadaisical that I never bother to mark books and plan my lessons by the seat of my pants, crossing my fingers that I won’t get caught out, nothing like that. No, what I mean is that I am rarely phased by their behaviour, and it freaks them out, poor loves.
Take Jack*. The day he started biting himself and I calmly told him not to because he would get an infection and left it at that rather had the wind taken out of his sails and, after a couple of days, did. Or Tom*. His surprise when I simply stepped over his prone-at-the-front-of-the-class body and advised the class to continue working away was so great that he got up and went back to work. Or little Josh*, pulling faces and swearing; he doesn’t know what to do about me either. Apart from give me cuddles, that is. You see, what none of these children realise, is that there is very little they could do that would rival in any way the bizarreness, or the constant nature, of challenging behaviour that I live with. None of them has met Sam, and so, consequently, I sail serenely through their lessons, amazing them with my non-reaction.
I don’t want to do Sam a disservice. I’d hate to give the wrong impression. He’s never smeared poo on the walls (except by mistake) he’s not a puller of hair, or a biter. He rarely gets himself into fights or shouts in public any more. It’s just that there is an element to his behaviour that needs interpretation. Take swimming. Sam loves swimming. He loves our local pool. He loves going when they have the slide on, and the ‘80s grotto has its coloured lights illuminating the plastic palms. He loves going in the toddler pool, partaking in the warmer temperature of the everso-slightly cloudy water. The difficult thing is getting him out. He is never quite ready for the session to end. There he is, clinging to the furthest edge of the pool, and there am (or rather was) I, shivering and dripping, trying everything from threats to begging to get him out. Even the sure knowledge that a detention is on its way has little effect.
What Sam needs is time to come to terms with the end of the fun. He needs fair warning that getting changed and going home for tea must happen because his slower processing brain takes time to change track. I had one of those moments the other day where I felt inordinately proud of my younger son. At eleven, he is growing (a little) away from the idea that Sam is the most annoying brother ever towards an understanding that his older sibling, despite his age, needs a helping hand. It breaks my heart that he crouched at the side of the pool, a soft, encouraging voice reminding his brother that it was time for tea, but it makes it swell too.
Or take the way he behaves towards his younger siblings. The vast majority of the time they rub along together, with the occasional flare-up over who ate the last roast potato, but every so often something happens, something out of the blue, something that needs a little thought. Here’s an example: every so often one of the younger ones has a friend round who is terribly exciting. There is charging up and down the stairs, lots of shouting, cuddly toys flying off the banisters, and all of a sudden it descends into chaos, with Sam at the centre, pushing and shoving, sweating, yelling, red in the face, some sort of improvised weapon in hand.
I could charge in, parental guns blazing, fly off the handle for beating up his little sister, letting me down… but I was there, pottering around in the background, pretending to do the housework, and I know my son. I know that he struggles when there is lots of movement and shouting in the house. I know he gets overexcited, but that there is a fine line between excitement and distress. I know that he wants to be involved in play, but doesn’t quite know how, and that he doesn’t know how to defend himself when everyone seems ranged against him; when they shout, he shouts too. I know that what he needs, right in that moment, is not a telling off but a calming down.
The thing is, though, that there isn’t just Sam involved. His little sister, the one who got bopped on the head with a plastic van, after the screaming stops, she needs to know that she is safe from an unpredictable brother, the little brother, he who had his railway trashed and smashed into bits, he needs to know that his needs and welfare is important too. When L was a baby it was easy. She spent the vast majority of her first four months of life in a baby cage for her own protection (I learned, after Sam kissed his new brother in welcome, and left teeth marks, that older siblings do not necessarily appreciate the arrival of new babies), accompanied by the instruction, ‘don’t step on the baby’. But now she is older, now they are all older, rubbing along together, rubbing each other up the wrong way every so often, not only does justice need to be done, but it needs to be seen to be done.
It’s a balancing act, and one that teaches me a salutary lesson. A good telling off is never a simple thing. And it never serves just one person.
*These are not real names.