“He’s looking at me'"
“She said 'I don’t care' to me”
“He stuck his rude finger up at me”
"She said I'm mean"
And the panicked, demanding emails from some parents that make teachers sigh in desperation and waste incredible amounts of time…
“the constant harassment from that child towards mine needs to stop … this is bullying.... please tell their parents that … if this isn’t dealt with immediately….
I see this constantly in schools and I fear we may have created a generation of kids who have learned that they can get incredible amounts of adult attention (teachers and parents), through creating and maintaining social melodramas like the ones above. Perhaps people like me, and what I have taught schools about using restorative approaches, may have played a part in accidentally making teachers think that they must respond to “she looked at me in a not nice way” by always making a special time to get the children together for a restorative conversation, or some other type of peace building mission. Don't get me wrong, I'm a very big fan of restorative approaches. They teach young people a great deal. Like anything however, they can be overdone.
My gut instinct on how to react to moments like these could not be further from running a restorative. Complaints like the ones at the top of this blog flick a mental switch in my brain that says something like this: “hmmm, this child is seeking attention, and/or, has been taught to catastrophise low level social irritations”. So instead of planning a restorative, I say something like this….
“It looks as though this is annoying for you…”
“That’s a shame…”
“Did he really?”
“Thanks for letting me know…
“Thanks for letting me know… did you want help or just to let me know?
“Well it’s lucky you’re sensible enough to not let that bug you…”
“It’s lucky you don’t have to respond…”
“What are your options?”
“You’re pretty clever, I reckon you can resolve this yourself … come back and tell me when you’ve got a plan!
“If this is stull bugging you in an hour, we can talk about what you might do…”
Then, I bring the conversation to a close, leaving the ball in the child’s court for a while and swing into monitoring the situation (unless twenty-five more pressing issues pop up in the next seven seconds as they do in classrooms).
So, how’s this going down?
There’s a few possible reactions to what I’ve written to this point. Perhaps you’re a teacher reading this saying something like “I deal with every day, it’s exhausting and it stops me teaching, thank goodness that a restorative practices person is telling me I don’t have to do react to or restorative everyone of these!” Or maybe you are a parent, who is enraged at my relaxed and negligent approach to the types of issues that have been making your child’s life miserable.
I know it has not been your intention to teach your child to get their social recognition needs met through reporting every small social hiccup to an adult (and expecting they do something about it). I also know you’d be alarmed when I tell you this might be teaching your child that victimhood works for them. Actually, that’s not all you. Kids just have to watch some reality TV to see victimhood at work! I do feel for you. I know you’d rather do far more constructive things than spend your evenings writing lengthy emails to teachers and school leaders about the day’s injustices that were inflicted upon your child. It’s exhausting isn't it. The good news is that you can stop it, now. You really don't have to get involved. And when you do pull back, and after some initial push back from your child in the form of:
“You never help me…”
“You don’t love me…”
“Nobody cares / understands…”
“I hate you …”
"Everybody hates me..."
"They're always mean to me, even the teachers..."
You'll see a gradual decline in the unloading of the day's problems on you. The tears and snot will reduce and a happier kid will soon emerge. BTW, please don't fret when they drop the "I hate you" bomb. Your child doesn't actually hate you and if they say they do, your response will be "that's a shame, I sure love you!" then shut the conversation down. Here's what else you will stop doing! You'll stop those interrogation-styled questions at the end of the school day that go like this:
"Was .... mean to you today again?"
"Did .... look at you today?"
"How did it go with .... today? "Oh I can tell by your face something went wrong, what happened..."
Yep - DON'T ASK THESE because by doing so, you turn your child into a negative-tracker (aka sad-sack). Kids quickly learn to sub-consciously play the game when we hit them with these types of end-of-school-day questions. They leave the classroom happy at the end of the day, but when asked these questions by an anxious parent, they completely shift their focus to the one or two hiccups from the day and convince themselves, and you, that the day was awful and terrible. This is why when their exhausted teacher responds to your email, they say with complete exasperation that they just didn't see what your child reported to you.
I have to be blunt. If you do this (and we all have from time to time), you may have begun to create an issue here that will have long term effects on your child’s wellbeing and how they see themselves fitting in their social world. This can be stepped back. Time to back off. Do you have a friend who cannot seem to socialise without creating drama – always complaining about how someone didn’t acknowledge them, didn’t respect their opinion enough, basically didn’t give them enough attention at that last social get together? This might be what you’re making. Here’s where I direct you to a chapter in a parenting book I wrote with Mark LeMessurier called ‘Raising Beaut Kids’. It’s a $10 download from my website. Read the chapter called ‘Navigating life’s ups and downs’. Read it three times over. The repetition will be important.
derived from frenemy
Noun: a person with whom one is friendly despite a fundamental dislike or rivalry.
I first heard this term when a nine-year-old boy I was mentoring in my private practice once told me “He’s my frenemy.” I knew immediately what he was talking about. Those two kids who swing between being bestest of besties to sworn enemies, often two to three times a day! They innocently convince their parents that they are both the continual victim of the other’s oppressive and cruel tactics and tie teachers, school leaders, their other friends and their parents up in knots.
Here’s the thing you need to know about frenemies. Their on and off again alliance is less about companionship (although in the good times they do genuinely enjoy each other’s company), and more about the payoffs in excitement and attention that come from the times when they are bitter enemies. Here’s my advice. Try giving them more attention when they are in besties mode. You might comment on how considerate they are being toward each other. You could mention it when you notice them sidestep a conflict by one of them conceding. Make sure you praise the one who backed down and mention how not having to always win shows maturity. Don’t throw a party, just make the odd relaxed observation. When the storm arrives, please use the scripted statements above (again and again) when they try to draw you in and do not let their issues control the weather in your classrooms. If their conduct causes disruption, deal with them as you would any other child who has broken class norms. Please do not allow them special treatment. They need to learn that if the issues between them negatively impact the rights of others, then it will be dealt with.
These issues are often amplified when one or both students are on the Autism Spectrum because students can become completely fixated on one another. This is a by-product of the social communication difficulties, mind-blindness and rigid (blinkered) thinking styles that come along for the ride with these kids. The management doesn't change however, it will just take longer and be more exhausting for the adults involved.
Teachers - please do not be harassed by parents into reacting immediately. You will set up an unhealthy cycle that has driven many teachers from the profession. Remember, their parents are also exasperated about the situation, and need some calm and sensible coaching in what I talked about above. But this will be when you are able, not when they demand. Will parents hear your wise advice? Maybe not straight away because they'll be stressed by the constant barrage of reports about mistreatment and injustice coming at them from their child. Keep trying to earn their trust, this will be a long(ish) game. Please remember, you're not a servant to your students' parents, you are a professional with many demands on your time. And school leaders, you must back your staff in doing holding this professional line.
My apology to teachers
So, in case some of my twenty years and four books as a trainer in restorative practices in schools has teachers and parents believing that they have to insert themselves, and some form of restorative intervention into every incident of “she said” and “I don’t care”, then it is time I set the record straight. Getting involved too often has very serious implications for kids’ resilience and long term happiness. You will do far better not to become immediately involved. I give you permission to use the scripted responses above (please say them empathically). And teachers, I don’t have to tell you to keep an eye on the situation, because teachers just do this anyway.
Please be mindful about the amount of time and effort you put into these minor social issues because at the very least you’re feeding an attention need that should not be fed, or you’re becoming the adult weapon that children sometimes use against one another when they don’t get their way. Both of these are unhealthy dynamics and rob children of the opportunity to deal with social hiccups on their own. Building kids’ resilience to be able to sensibly and calmly navigate the many bumps in the friendship road is tricky business and it certainly takes a village to raise a well-adjusted child. We must remember that this road is indeed bumpy and kids learn more from the bumps than the good times. When the bumps come, well-meaning adults can sometimes be way too hands on. Stepping back is no easy task in the context of what experts call a mental health crisis in children. I get all this and we all need to be vigilant. However, over involvement has its own special set of nasty consequences for kids’ wellbeing and we need to be vigilant about not being over-vigilant.
I wish you, your students, your kids and your staff all the best in building resilient kids and leave you with this interview excerpt from an interview with Australian author and School Principal John Mardsen:
...our problems…include parents who think that school is utopian and are shocked if their child is insulted or hit... (I would like to tell prospective parents)...Whilst your child is at school there is every likelihood that he or she will be bitten, kicked, hit, sworn at, abused and insulted (and that’s just by the teachers). Just joking. This will happen because we are a community of normal people, and normal life includes moments of friction, anger, tension, jealousy...It's likely that your child will bite someone, kick someone, hit someone (etc.) at some stage too. We do not provide a magical oasis of beauty and peace. We do provide an environment where people can learn to cope with the vicissitudes of life. Every relationship has some ugly moments and some difficult aspects. It's never too early to develop an understanding of that and acquire strategies to keep moving forwards.
School News, Term 3 2016 pp 10-11