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Do adults have to jump to action whenever children experience unkindness or unfairness at school? No Way!

Updated: Mar 3

“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're creating a generation of kids who've learned that they can get incredible amounts of adult attention (teachers and parents), through creating and maintaining social melodramas. 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 run a restorative conversation. Don't get me wrong, I'm a very big advocate of restorative practices. I have lived and breathed RPs in schools for two decades. I’ve authored four international titles on the topic. I’ve run hundreds of restorative processes in schools and workplaces. I’ve seen them transform schools. RPs teach young people a great deal. Like anything, however, RPs can be poorly used and overdone.

Complaints like the ones at the top of this blog tend to 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 often say something like this….

“It looks as though this is annoying for you…”

“That’s a shame…”

“Did he/she 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 not to 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 still 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.

So, how’s this going down?

There are 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 every one 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.

Dear Parent...

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. Actually, that’s not all you. Kids just have to watch some reality TV to see victimhood at work! I 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 pushback 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 will 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? I can tell by your face something went wrong, what happened..."

STOP IT - RIGHT NOW because by asking these, you prime your child to focus on the negative. I'm not a happy clapping pos-psych type, but when we ask these questions constantly to kids, they quickly learn to sub-consciously play the game. They leave the classroom happy at the end of the day, but when asked these questions by an anxious parent, they 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 10 pm email, they say with complete exasperation and honesty that they just didn't see what your child reported to you. Trust me, they're not lying. If you don't believe me, then consider home-schooling because you've lost faith in the system, and by staying in it, you're just contributing to the teacher shortage.

I must be blunt (what's new, you say). If you do this (and we all have from time to time), you may have begun to create an issue that will have a long term impact on your child’smental health and how they see themselves 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 could 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," as we chatted about a boy he was having tensions with. I knew immediately what he was talking about. Those two kids swung between being best(est) of besties to sworn enemies, often two to three times a day! They innocently convinced their parents that they were both the continual victims of the other’s oppressive and cruel tactics and tied teachers, school leaders, their other friends and their parents up in knots.

Here’s what I 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 from concerned adults when they're bitter enemies.

Here’s my advice to teachers: Try giving them more attention when they are in bestie 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 comes, 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 home/classrooms. Teachers - 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 they will be dealt with firmly but fairly.

These issues are often amplified when one or both students are neurodivergent 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.

Parents: please back away. Listen, but like you would to that friend who you know can create their own social dramas. Empathise, tell them that it sounds hard. Ask them what they think might have caused the other kid(s) to say that nasty thing or leave them out. Ask your child what they might have said or done to make the situation worse or better. Listen hard, and you'll gain insight into how your child processes the social world. Pull back on advice giving or 'you should(ing)'. Just calmly ask them what they might do tomorrow to solve the problem. Staying clear of the kid(s) they're having the problem with might be a sensible option. It's going to be really hard, but your sensible and steady decision to not get involved will pay massive dividends down the track. I say again, this will be hard, especially if up until know you have fought your kids' battles for them. Just remember, one day, you won't be around, and they'll need to do this for themselves. Best start the training now.

Teachers - please do not be pressed 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 can benefit from some 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. This will sometimes be a long 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 holding this professional line.

My apology to the teachers

So, in case some of my twenty years and four books as a trainer in restorative practices in schools have 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 mental health. 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 hiccups 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 bumpy and kids learn more from the bumps than the good times. When the bumps come, well-meaning adults can sometimes be 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 hyper-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 forward.

School News, Term 3 2016 pp 10-11

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