They really care about us here

I’ve been working on a film about the impact of permanent exclusion over the past few months. Among other things, I wanted to explore how some pupils were able to succeed in their new mainstream schools, despite a history of ‘persistent misconduct’. Was it that the shock of the exclusion triggered some kind of wake up call? Or was it more that the previous school just wasn’t inclusive in its policy and practice? Of course, contributory factors will always be multiple and complex but the really interesting thing for me was that the pupils themselves had no difficulty at all with this question. 

‘They really care about us here.’

That sentence, and variations of it, was the answer pupils gave me, in a heartbeat, time after time. Sometimes ‘all’ was added, with a degree of bitterness – ‘They care about all the pupils’. Nobody said, ‘Well here, rewards and sanctions are consistently applied and that’s helped me improve my behaviour.’ Or, ‘The rewards are bigger at this school and the sanctions harsher so I make sure I toe the line.’ No, it was feeling cared about that made the difference. And I don’t suppose anyone is surprised to read that.

Many studies confirm what has always been self-evident to the instinctively inclusive practitioner; that vulnerable young people, those at risk of permanent exclusion, are more likely to be saved by an empathic relationship than a rigorously  applied behaviour management policy. Stanford University researchers found through this recent project that the exclusion of adolescents fell by half when teachers adopted an empathic as opposed to a punitive mindset. The significance of this is outlined at the top of their paper:

Stanford researchers, in arguing for a paradigm shift, demonstrate how sanctions actually worsen behaviour. In this way, the medicine of the traditional behaviour policy is killing the poorliest patients since they’re the ones swallowing most of it. 

To be clear, I’m not suggesting in citing this research that schools should abandon their boundaries, rules and the consequences for ignoring these. We can’t just have a free for all. What we must accept though, is that for a small, vulnerable minority, the traditional behaviour management approach will not work. It’s simply not the answer to a chronic behavioural difficulty and for as long as we continue to apply it as if it is, without reasonable adjustment and a focus on maintaining empathic relationships, then we will remain the highest excluder of children in Europe. That can’t be right. Especially when the answer is in many ways so simple. 

                                                   “They really care about us here.”



8 thoughts on “They really care about us here

  1. Empathy must be applied to all children including those who are well behaved. My very polite and well behaved daughter said of her primary school “they only care about you when you bleed” as the only time someone softened and was warm to her was when she had a bad accident in the playground!
    Myself as a very troubled child from a chaotic abusive home, I craved empathy and interest. The detentions and humiliating punishments did nothing for me. When you have poor role models and relationships at home it is paramount that adults at school are able to be caring and set boundaries but even when those relationships are good and healthy at home, children need empathy.
    The same goes in the work place! We all need clarity, boundaries and empathy!


  2. I tried to share this excellent post on Facebook and was told I couldn’t as someone had reported it as containing abusive or disturbing content, which is baffling. The quote about children who are loved at home coming to school to learn and students who aren’t, coming to school to be loved is very powerful.


    • Abusive or disturbing content? Blimey!
      Well thanks for at least trying to share it.
      I also love that quote. Also the idea that children who need love the most have the strangest way of showing it!


    • The quote is pithy and only there to support those who won’t educate children from challenging backgrounds. I’m from the same background as Penny but have had a different trajectory. One area that I think has never been examined is why this difference occurs as that is most likely to help. It’s not just relationships at school, they also need to be improved at home.


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