The power of being heard

The outpouring of media cover after the death of Dr Oliver Sacks made me curious.  What was it about this man that had so many media outlets reporting on the passing of a ‘remarkable man’?

I was surprised at the amazing observation skills and compassion that this neurologist brought to his work. Stories, such as his treatment of Mrs OC, a nursing home resident whose ‘mini stroke’ had triggered music in her every conscious moment, demonstrated his uniqueness. Careful diagnosis, and thoughtful consideration of her case, led Dr Sacks to believe that she was re-hearing very early memories of her mother’s singing voice, memories reactivated by the damage from a minor stroke.  This insightful diagnosis calmed the patient’s overwhelming panic and placed a new frame around the experience, so that she was sorry to have the voice fade again over time.

The stories I’ve read and heard about Dr Sacks all carry common themes: deep compassion, careful listening, keen observation and heartfelt respect for and curiosity about others’ needs and perspectives.  He was keen for those he treated to be depicted, not as scientific curiosities, but as real people with challenges and strengths. What can we learn from these characteristics in our work as teachers and leaders, who work with young people from diverse social, emotional and cultural backgrounds.

I’d like to tell the story of Jackson – a self-proclaimed “Red Room King” to illustrate some of my insights about the importance of bringing these characteristics to the relationships we develop with the young people in our care. I was the new principal in the school at the time, and we were dealing with dramatic numbers of students receiving time outs in the ‘Red Room’ for a range of diverse, inappropriate behaviours.

Jackson (not his real name), an upper primary/elementary school student, was very much ‘at risk’ and his dramatic turn around highlights the impact of our school wide culture changing processes and reforms.

In the past...

Jackson argued with most adults, disrupted classes and was generally pretty good at losing his lunchtime to the riveting activity of sitting cross-legged facing a wall in the “Red Room” (lunchtime Time Out).

Jackson hated school. He hated teachers. He hated almost everything that happened at school.

A year later...

Jackson was mostly polite, generally involved in academics, a keen volunteer, a leader and an emerging reader!

A Reader? Well yes, it turns out that once we really got to know Jackson, his strengths and challenges, we discovered that he was a great camouflage artist. He generally blended in if he could, copying others’ work, avoiding written tasks and working hard to ‘be cool’. Unfortunately tasks arrived that he ‘knew’ he wouldn’t be able to avoid, so he’d cleverly create diversions, mouthing off or behaving in such a way that the ever-reliable discipline policy ‘steps’ would be used, to get him out of the classroom and away from a learning challenge he was ill equipped to meet. 

The “Red Room King” knew how to be shown the door. He had to sacrifice his lunchtimes, but there was a certain prestige in being known by every other misbehaving student in the school and a great deal of shame to bury under this camouflage.

Jackson publically accredited his ‘turn around’ to two things…

Learning to read

The first intervention process we put in place when we realised that almost every student, regularly in lunchtime time out, was a non-reader or at best, a beginning reader, was a reading program. Jackson was one of many who had his confidence restored as a result of carefully scaffolded reading progress, two and a half years in less than 12 months in Jackson’s case.

Being heard and understood

Jackson was responding to our diligent efforts to make major shifts in our efforts to build a positive, supportive school culture.

We embraced the challenge; ‘punishment doesn’t work’! We recognised that really all punishment does is influence other students to avoid the cause (sometimes!). Students often punished, like Jackson, just become more angry and disengaged, and they learn to ‘work’ the system to meet their needs.

We began the culture change process, from an ‘assumption of positive intent’. All behaviour is purposeful, and, like Jackson’s, had a purpose. He was determined not to be shown up as a non-reader, no matter what!! Keeping face was all important!

We reworked our Behaviour Management Policy, at least four times, introduced school wide social skill and values programs, worked with students to identify Anti Harassment and grievance procedures and focused on them until we were sure they had worked, engaged students in peer mediation and a strong citizenship focus and more! Progressively increasing whole school and teacher interventions and individual students’ programs to delay using steps and time out. Our most successful work, in all of these initiaives, were planned with the students themselves. Their input dramatically increased our success rates.

Alongside these school wide processes, we introduced specific literacy or other interventions negotiated with each student, according to their needs. We wrote dozens and dozens of ‘Behaviour Agreements/Plans’ using progressively more and more creative strategies with the students themselves, to engage them in taking responsibility for the change processes.

And most importantly, we began to learn to listen to kids more effectively!!! We attempted to practise an “I see you and you matter to me” philosophy. We were determined to understand each student, especially those experiencing challenges, as an individual; being clear about their motivations, strengths, interests and hopes.

Jackson was not a ‘one off’ success story. There were many! 

Jackson enjoyed his new found confidence and success – as a reader and equally importantly, as a valued citizen of our school. Jackson’s unique skills and innate ‘goodness’ emerged, and were acknowledged. Over time, they appeared more consistently.

What did this look like in practice?

Well into the process, Jackson was caught riding his bike in the school grounds, AGAIN!!! A rather unhappy relief teacher confronted him about this behaviour. Jackson listened quietly. He nodded when the consequence (bike to stay home again) was announced. He went off to class.

This seemed to be a minor miracle – no ‘mouthy’ behaviour, especially as it was a casual teacher who addressed the inappropriate behaviour.

In fact the real miracle came two hours later.

“Excuse me Ms Karen”, he said around my office door, “Can I talk to you about the bike riding thing this morning?” 

Can you?? Absolutely.

The short version of the story was that Jackson believed that the school rules only applied on the primary school site. He was caught across the way, on the high school site. He thought that the rules needed to be clearer. After some discussion, he volunteered to draw up some proposed changes to the ‘bike contract’ that another group of students had developed to help address the bike riding in the school problem. Jackson led a consultation process, and he and 7 other ‘regular offenders’ were more than happy to sign a contract that explained that they knew the rules and they went on to follow them for the rest of the year. Those bikes successfully and safely made their way into the bike racks each morning.

Jackson was acknowledged for this use of the virtues “Co-operation” and “Politeness”. He thanked me for listening. Win-Win!!!

There is a lot to be learned from the skills Dr Oliver Sacks brought to his work: careful and respectful listening, seeking to really understand others’ perspectives and compassionately looking to solve the problem (rather than punish in my story). If ‘student voice’ is to be a successful innovation, these principles must apply.