When faced with neglect, we fill with a plethora of emotion: anger, disgust, pity, sympathy, sadness. This response is natural. Feelings exist to activate a response to circumstances that need to change.
There is a wealth of recent literature regarding adverse childhood experiences and the healing effects of relationship and ‘being seen’ by at least one adult champion. Likewise, we know that disadvantaged children do less well at school and that social and emotional learning can help close the educational achievement gap. The Education Endowment Fund (EEF), set up to raise standards in challenging schools inspired by the Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative in the USA, claims that social and emotional learning can improve progress by up to four months on average.
The EEF say there are three “broad categories of Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) interventions can be identified:
universal programmes which generally take place in the classroom;
more specialised programmes which are targeted at students with particular social or emotional needs; and
school-level approaches to developing a positive school ethos, which also aims to support greater engagement in learning.”EEF 2020
Experience has taught me that teaching self-regulation and self-awareness to both children and adults can certainly have a profoundly life-changing impact.
Are we missing something more simple?
However, in lieu of interventions and programmes of support, it is the simple, everyday things that we as adults can do that affect lives. And it shouldn’t take any more training than being an empathic, non-judgemental person.*
When it comes to supporting disadvantaged children, we must not assume we know what it is like for them. Sympathy, as Brene Brown advocates, is not supportive and can lead to further isolation. Let me illustrate.
As a child of the 70s, I started school at five years old. I lived at home with just my mum, who had her struggles with addiction and at times, mental health in a council flat ‘on the social’. The toxic trio of mental health, addiction, and violence was part of my everyday experience, as was true for almost all of my friends where I lived.
I would pass school every day with my mum on the way to Mecca. Although a pilgrimage of sorts, Mecca was the bingo hall and not the religious centre of Islam. “There’s your new school – remember where it is,” she would tell me each time. After an afternoon sat on the bingo steps with crisps and lemonade (and a Twinkle comic depending on cash flow), she would repeat the instructions on the way home. I could have walked it blindfold.
On the first day, I took myself to school.
I was a confident, independent if ‘spikey’ child. Mouthy. Although I could be considered disadvantaged, I could look after myself, and I was genuinely happy enough in myself – I knew no different.
I can remember groups of adults waiting and children playing and feeling unsure about what I should do in the playground. But I was ok. I hung about by the door that I knew I had to wait by, slowly becoming aware of confused stares. Then whispers and disapproving tuts.
‘Who’s she with? She’s not on her own, is she?!’
Heads were frantically turning, looking around, up and down. Frowns. Indignant mouths open. More whispers. Disapproval.
Thinking back, this was probably concern. But concern is not what I felt.
I took myself away from the staring faces huddled in cold shoulder groups, hand-skimming the wall until I turned the corner and found myself under a lean-to outside glass sliding doors to a classroom, held up by three poles. Yes! Children’s minds move quickly, and I forgot about the disapproval. One hand grasping the bar, I enjoyed spinning around using gravity to speed me up until I twisted around the pole to the ground. I was happy and unconcerned.
Lost in the game, I failed to notice the playground emptying.
Now, through the glass doors, I realised the classroom was full and became aware of two adults, heads huddled in discussion and looking out at me. I pretended not to care and tried to look like I was enjoying myself. (I wonder why I felt the need to do that?)
Moments later, the door opened.
‘Are you Shelley Murphy?’ the lady asked kindly.
‘You’re supposed to be in here with us.’
She held out a hand that I took and allowed myself to be led inside. I found myself in a purpose-built cloakroom. Saying nothing, I can remember looking around at the coats, the pegs and the pictures that identified which hook belonged to whom. (I guess you weren’t expected to be able to read your name at that age back then.) She appraised me silently for a while. I stood there silently and held my breath. Awkward.
Finally, she said, “This is where we hang our coats. This one’s yours,” pointing to a square, sticky-backed label depicting primary coloured shapes, a trapezium and two triangles, put together in the form of a boat. ‘Can you remember this? This is a sailing boat,’ she declared slowly and pointedly. I looked at the label, then back at the teacher.
‘That’s a yacht,’ I said.
What happened next is imprinted on my memory with crystal clarity, in slow motion. The lady’s face began to light up in a smile of surprise and awe as she crouched down to my eye level. With joy, she breathlessly declared, ‘A yacht! Yes! That’s right! I can tell you are very clever!’
With a smile and care, as if I was precious and full of wonder, she began to unbutton my coat from the neck down.
I had never felt such …. what? Care? Love? Wonder? Someone had seen me and found me delightful.
Someone had seen me and found me delightful.
This can be all it takes. My potential and not my situation was what she saw. The sympathy and pity of the parents outside, although from a well-intentioned place, left me feeling shameful and isolated. To invoke that reaction, I must be unlovable, odd, flawed; a ‘misfit’. Likewise, a judgment of my mum left me feeling the same way: inadequate, ashamed, unworthy and wrong. The same feeling would be invoked when trip or photo money was not forthcoming, or if I turned up in grubby socks. It is probably related to belonging: created for connection, ostracisation is one of the most painful emotions we feel.
Sympathy, according to Brene Brown, is a judgement and distancing. A ‘thank God it’s not me; I must be better’ type of reaction. Only relationality and empathy can support those who are less advantaged.
Take care not to assume how people from different cultures or lifestyles feel and become outraged on their behalf.
‘See’ them and their potential; communicate and connect.
That is all that is needed.
(* I think for many adults, being empathic takes, not training in the traditional sense, but a programme of psychoanalytical self-exploration and healing, but that is for another blog!)