Jason sits in the comfortable chair at the front of school, outside the office. He was dropped into school late and is now refusing to go to class. Not an active refusal. In fact, no words had come out of his mouth. In fact, he hadn’t engaged in eye contact since the moment of arriving. Not actively trying not to engage – just staring blankly into the distance like you, and the world around you don’t exist.
“Jason, that’s the end of lunch now. It’s time for class.”
“Jason, let’s have a look in your planner and see what lesson you’ve got. Physics – brilliant, I know you are really good at building on your computer, and you’re brilliant at these equations. Do you need a hand getting up off the chair?”
“Jason, you’re going to be late if you don’t start moving now, and you know what that means – your first warning.”
This went on, from me giving him a warning to gradually getting to the point where he’d been given a two hour Friday detention and I was now facing the choice as to whether to leave him sat alone outside reception all day, temporarily exclude him, or call his parents – who in reality could do about as much as I had just attempted.
Jason could frustrate his teachers and parents, hold power through his refusal to communicate, and also could create a tension, become a magnet, for people’s desire to get him to talk. Anyone he met might be drawn into the compulsion to try and get him to talk. Alternatively in his family, he could get left alone, given up on, left in peace.
We could never really work out whether Jason’s muteness was to create the desired effect of power in a family where he could feel powerless, the defiance of silence, insulating himself. Or was it a smoke screen, a cloud disguising his real internal feelings of anger and hurt. More likely it was a combination of factors. There was no doubt Jason could live in this world of his rules but the question was could he thrive?
Takeaways for the classroom
- Avoid the temptation to think that making them speak is a sign of success, instead find ways of showing enthusiasm for just being in their company, positivity for their achievements, warmth and friendship and above all acceptance they are doing what currently feels right for them. “Thank you X for your lovely company. I have enjoyed sharing the peace at lunchtime with you.” “You have been generous giving space to others but it’s lovely to have you here in school.”
- Come alongside the young person: ” I would value knowing how you are doing /feeling.” “I imagine it has become hard to break the pattern of silence that grew because it felt the right thing for you to do.”
- Attune to the young person’s body language and behaviour -try and read their non verbal communication.
- Give a young person choices – it’s important that they don’t feel backed into a corner.
- Establish clear routines in the classroom. Most importantly, create a space where it is safe to be heard, that children wont talk over each other, where it is quiet, where young people have a chance to think of their answers, or even space to rehearse their answers before they have to give them out loud.
Relevant Teacher Standards
TS1: Set high expectations, which inspire, motivate and challenge pupils
TS7: Manage behaviour effectively to ensure a good and safe learning environment
Waking the Tiger by Peter Levine (https://www.amazon.co.uk/Waking-Tiger-Transform-Overwhelming-Experiences/dp/155643233X) In his book Levine describes this phenomenon in detail based on anecdotal experience and animal research.