Tuesday, November 12, 2013

'She attacked her teacher and children in her group. Then came a heart-wrenching cry'

'She attacked her teacher and children in her group. 
Then came a heart-wrenching cry'
A headteacher writes: Even after a violent outburst, we never give up on a troubled child

Excluding a disruptive child to keep a calm and safe classroom is generally only a temporary measure. Photograph: Guardian
As a primary headteacher working in an area of high deprivation, I find it hard sometimes not to get swamped by feelings of desperation and hopelessness about the situations we face on a daily basis. We just keep going because we have to, as do the children and families that we and our staff work alongside.

The first term of this year has been no exception. There have been changes at school that some children, families and staff have all found difficult to manage. New teachers are treated with suspicion by children and their parents. It takes a long time to earn the trust of our community, and even then it is never guaranteed to last.

One year 6 child in particular, aged 10 – let's call her Emily – has been finding things especially difficult. She is learning in our nurture group as she doesn't manage in class at all. She dominates and intimidates the other children. She bullies them. She tries to hurt them. When she enters the classroom you can see the other children in the group stiffen. They play to her; wanting to impress her, to be seen as strong and not weak, as they know weakness is what she will target.

The staff in the group are skilled at protecting the other children and supporting Emily, but she explodes on a regular basis and managing her is very tricky, like walking on eggshells. If she perceives that one of the other children is getting more help or attention, or is better at something than she feels she is, she releases a torrent of verbal abuse, furniture throwing, aggression and violence. It often takes two of us to get her to a safe place where she can do no damage, nor hurt herself or anyone else.

Recently, during one of these incidents, she seemed even more out of control than usual. She attacked the teacher and children in her group; then she went for my deputy (who is a very large man) and me as we tried to calm her down and keep her safe in my office.

After a while she started to cry. A heart-wrenchingly deep, despairing cry. Through her tears she shouted that her life was shit, that we hated her and were bastards; that no one cared. Eventually, the eruption turned to feelings about her mum. She didn't see enough of her, less than her sisters did. At this point Emily's anger subsided and she just sobbed.

I excluded her as she had hit two members of staff and a child before my deputy and I were called in. I don't like exclusion, but she was just too dangerous to have in school. Her mother, when she came to collect her, could hardly bear to speak to us. Telling a parent about their child's violent behaviour is never easy.

I arranged a meeting with Emily and her mother on her return. These meetings are often very difficult and this one was no exception. After a discussion with Emily about what the expectations were in school, and reassurances that we were going to do everything we could to help her, she went back to the nurture group and so I was then on my own with her mother. Her default position was that I was telling her she was a bad parent. She was aggressive and suspicious. I told her I wasn't going to permanently exclude her daughter, and would continue to work with other agencies to do everything we could to keep her in school.

I then asked her if she was OK. I've worked with her for a long time and we have previously tried to support her through some challenging times. When I told her what her daughter had said about spending time with her, she started to cry. I gave her a hug. I was now just another mum who's also had experience of having a difficult child to manage as a single parent.

I listened as she told me about her worries and problems. She suffers from depression. She has no one to help her with her children. She is anxious about money and changes to housing benefit, which she didn't understand. We talked about some options that might help her and we came up with a plan of support for both her and her daughter. This was a real breakthrough as she had been so resistant to help in the past. Accepting help is not easy as, in order to do so, we have to acknowledge our own vulnerabilities.

At the end of the day we met again. Emily was told that we would work together to support her to help her succeed, that we understood how desperate she was to stay in school, and that I would touch base with her every day.

Since then, Emily hasn't had another outburst and has even managed some time back in her class. That's why we do this. That's why we don't give up on any child, or parent. Things can change.


Then I sobbed.
At the end.
But also several times as I read this.
I identify with this so much.
I feel the hurt of the child.
The hurt and desperation of the Mother.
Lord have mercy.