'We talk a lot but say very little'

28 January 2020

One in four children report being victims of bullying, and are at greater risk of experiencing anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicidal thoughts. Educators are at the frontline of supporting both victims and perpetrators of bullying, so it is important to understand the extent to which schools receive support from psychologists, and what more can be done. In this interview, Hayley Gains – one of our Voices In Psychology winners – discusses these questions with children’s author and Vice Principal, John Callaghan. John’s latest book, The Girl with The Zipped up Lips, is a heart-warming exploration of serious themes, such as bereavement, bullying, diversity and the education system. Hayley was taught by John and is currently working on a NIHR funded, UK wide randomized controlled trial to assess the effectiveness of KiVa, an anti-bullying intervention.

Could you tell us about St Benedict’s Catholic College and your role here?

I’ve been the Vice Principal at St Benedict’s for the last two years, and I’ve been at St Benedict’s for ten years in all. I started off as an English Teacher and then was head of english for six years. I still love my teaching but I only teach maybe seven hours a week now. I do miss that interaction. I’m around at break and lunch time and I still love listening to what the kids are talking about and what they’re interested in and engaged in. I think that as educators that’s the key thing, or as anyone who works with children, it’s to try and make it relevant to them. I think that’s the biggest thing that we forget, that they are children. 

You recently published The Girl with the Zipped Up Lips. Could you tell us about the book?

The idea came to me about three years ago. When I do assemblies I always think, you have the eyes and ears of 400, 500 children and you have an opportunity to say something, showcase something, or just ask even a question that could prick their ears, widen their eyes and open their hearts. But too often, I watch the children in assemblies and I see how disengaged they are.

So, I visualised this little tiny head teacher dunking 80 odd basketballs in under ten minutes and I started writing this silly, fun assembly which I visualised from the point of view of the child watching it and thinking, 'what a great day to be alive, and thank god I went to this school'. So with everything in the assembly being visual I arrived at the theme of 'actions speak louder than words', and other ideas of be careful what you say, are words always the best way to communicate, are they necessary? Because I do think we talk a lot but say very little. That was the key theme.

I thought, well who would benefit most from a headteacher who arrived, did these five amazing assemblies and didn’t talk? Well, what about an elective mute. A young girl, who for some reason decided to stop talking and through these five amazing assemblies, found her voice and found everything that she had missed. That’s where I came up with the idea of Willow.

One of the things that I really like about the book is that it helps you to understand why Willow doesn’t talk, it helps children who read it to empathise with her character.

And understand that it’s okay. I’ve come across many students, I don’t know about other counsellors, psychologists or teachers, I always gravitate towards them because they’re sitting on their own and they’re quiet and I think, I’ll save their day, I’ll be the kind person. But the worst thing I can do is sit there and force the way I think, or to try and reappropriate their behaviour.

Willow can talk, she just decides not to. And there’s a very specific reason in the book to do with the loss of her mum. When I researched about elective mutes, there’s lots of reasons for it, and one of the things was a trauma, an early childhood trauma. 

Having worked with counsellors myself, I’ve often gone in and expected them to tell me how to fix things or how to get better, and they don’t, they listen and they guide you to figure things out and build language around your own issues. That’s what I was trying to feed into the book. There wasn’t one thing that Mrs Mayhew said, it was just that Willow found the courage and felt that love through the friendship she made as well, to then find her voice. 

Willow sometimes snaps and has aggressive outbursts, and she’s been expelled from three schools because of that… do you think that the line between victim and perpetrator is blurry for her?

Well, she’s only aggressive when she’s pushed to it. With bullying or issues of violence, we often punish the incident. But, what’s the aftercare? Why does this child all of a sudden hit out, or has fits of rage? Clearly there’s a reason for that. Imagine a teenage girl going through that trauma, that loss, and she’s trying to keep her mum's song in her head which is a comfort to her. Every time she gets into a conversation she’s afraid of losing that, so she can’t use language to make sense of the world around her. When these other people use these nasty words they’re just triggers. She’s still around the age of processing the loss of her mother, so when somebody says something, it’s not really about what they said, it’s just that she’s so bereaved that it’s a small trip up. 

It’s taken me nearly 300 pages in a book to capture a character like Willow… how can a teacher with 30, 32 students in a class really get to the core of every individual, their domestic situation, their primary school life, what’s going on now, what might come on in the future? 

At St Benedict’s because we’re a relatively small school, and we have the Catholic ethos and a real sense of community, we are in a position where we are more adept at that, but again, children will invariably slip through the net because we just don’t have that time. Quite often it’s the noisier ones that do get our attention, and those quiet students, like Willow, don’t get that love and attention they need. It’s quite sad. So, perpetrator in the first instance but I think victim in the overall sense. 

And I think, someone like Willow, if Mrs Mayhew didn’t come along, someone who just wanted to listen and just wanted to make sure that everybody was loved and children were allowed to be children for as long as they could, she would have slipped through the net, easily and her silence would have been prolonged far far beyond her childhood. 

And in terms of the number of students that teachers have to try and understand, I suppose that’s where psychologists hopefully come into the school system to support you. Does the school receive support from professional psychologists?

Every Wednesday we’ve got a team from Prospect who come in and work with, generally boys, disadvantaged, who mainly don’t have a solid foundation at home, and try to talk to them about raising their ambitions, their motivations. That’s more of an informal mentoring support. 

We then have Brentwood Catholic Children’s Society (BCCS) in once a week. Not only do they support our students, but they do supervision with our staff as well. Our staff have the stress and strain of line management, issues to do with work life balance. Especially our pastoral staff who day in, day out, take on board the stories and the issues of children and they need somewhere to vent that. So, this year in particular we’ve put a great emphasis on wellbeing of staff and I hope that will trickle down into the wellbeing of students. 

With BCCS at the moment we’re exploring art therapy, which we’re hoping to bring in. Certain students will respond well to opposing chairs and they’ll sit and talk, but other children not so much. So we want to look at all the different ways of supporting them. BCCS are also offering exam stress group and support with poor sleep patterns. So in a small group of targeted students, one of our counsellors from BCCS will work with those students for two 90 minute sessions. 

I think the important thing for us with counselling or any of that kind of support is that it’s timed and it’s measured. You identify the issue, you look at impact. Because, children can have therapy, support and supervision and become dependent on it, but it’s not really getting anywhere. There’s so many children and some will just need two sessions. They’re struggling in the moment, they can build language around that, they can process it and then get back to learning. But it’s those that really, the domestic issue or whatever it might be is sustained, and isn’t going anywhere and it’s how you support them so that they’re not becoming fully dependent on it. 

Okay, do you monitor impact yourselves or have you ever had research psychologists come in?

The educational psychologist comes in quite often. That can be the starting point, they will observe a child in the classroom and obviously see the interactions there. Their report will give us give us a starting point, in terms of what we can do to support that child. Then we make all of the stakeholders aware, put the intervention in place, and you might set a time for them to come back in again. The counsellors will write regular reports, liaise with parents. We have even done parent and student support counselling sessions together so that there’s a joint thinking. Sometimes parents are quite dubious about it because they feel it’s almost like social services or something getting involved and the child might reveal something personal or private for them so, sometimes that can help. 

Is there anything that stands out to you as missing, that you think needs to be there that isn’t currently there? 

I think that schools lack a real champion. Our SENCo will be our go to person, but I think there’s such a depth to the potential range of psychological issues and such a wide diversity in terms of the domestic issues that are affecting children. I’ve been in education for 15, 16 years and every year, every six months I hear of a situation or something and I think, I think I’ve heard it all, and then all of a sudden you realise what these children are having to go through. 

Any good school, department of education or education secretary, will always have to be on its toes, it will have to be looking at different possible solutions. Yes, some would argue that there is a strain on schools to be guidance counsellors and educators and we feed them and we do medical things and all that stuff but ultimately, we’re the best kind of access point. I think we need to really upskill some of our key staff, not just the SENCo, so that they’re fully aware of just the range of different conditions and the range of possible interventions outside of just chair to chair talking. 

So do you think that teachers currently feel prepared when a situation arises with a child?

Some are and some aren’t and again some will be adept at dealing with a certain situation. Say for example, not to be narrow minded about it but, certain genders might feel more comfortable talking to a male teacher and vice versa. You will always have certain teachers that are more accessible. It’s quite often the case the children feel more comfortable with the younger teachers, they feel that they get them. But younger staff members, I’m not sure they have the experience to be able to handle that in the best way either so it’s trying to get that balance. 

BCCS is a local organisation that’s aligned with the Catholic ethos of the school, do you think that is important, do you think that it helps? 

Yeah, they work with all sorts of schools, but it goes hand in hand and they understand the faith-based nature of the college. It allows us to liaise directly with their coordinator and their director and there’s a lot of overlap with our primary schools as well. They knit us all together really. It’s reassuring that our partner primary schools are getting that support at a good age, at a formative age, and the fact that we know we can build on that as they arrive here and we can sustain that dialogue and those narratives. Because, quite often, there’s good things, good cultures and good habits being formed, but then they move from school to school and they just drop, and this is done differently here and they just reappropriate to that behaviour. Whereas, something like BCCS, because of the volume and reach of their work, I think they’re helping to connect us and have a shared narrative in terms of bullying and mental health. 

That’s interesting. Do you have any thoughts on whether bullying is dealt with best when the resources are focused towards the bystanders, the bullies or the bullied? 

Yeah I think it’s really interesting and culturally there are already examples of it. We had an assembly last year around the time of Harvey Weinstein and the #MeToo movement, and we focused on Justice League. At the time, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon were getting a lot of grief in the media because all of their movies were with Miramax and Weinstein. Not direct allegations but it was basically that they knew about this stuff and they should have done something about it, when they play the hero in all these movies. 

When we’re trying to tackle bullying, if you just tackle the one little guy who makes nasty comments, that’s not the problem, it’s those snickering in the background who are just pulling the strings and are comfortable with chaos. 

I think bit by bit we need to break down all of the players involved because it is a cultural thing and they all support and empower each other to a certain extent. I also think you have to be careful with the language because the children will sometimes mock the idea of what a bystander is, so then we’ve been talking about upstanders. So, bystander is to stand by and do nothing, but what is the positive twist on that? It’s someone who stands up. So, I think we need to get the language right. We keep telling people what not to do, what not to be and what not to say, but are we as clear in terms of what to do, what to say and what to be? So upstanders is our thing.

Would you say that the challenges schools currently face have changed over time, perhaps in relation to technology? 

Yeah, massively. The impact of technology is that quite often we’re dealing with things that have happened previously, they’re not even happening in school. It’s really difficult because if it happens on the playground, we have CCTV, it’s quick to identify witnesses and within ten minutes we have figured out what’s gone on and put in place an appropriate sanction. With technology, you can liaise with parents and ask for them to support and monitor it more rigorously but ultimately we don’t control those home conditions. 

Quite often, on social media, they have all these means to communicate but they’ve actually got very little to say. We can try and influence that through topical discussions and quizzes, but ultimately, at 13 or 14 I didn’t want to get into hot debates or hot topics, I just wanted to poke fun at stuff. That’s why I think it leads to things that are a little bit on the nose. How are you going to get likes and reactions? Well it’s going to be memes, pictures, captions or a video to shock, and that stuff will spread like wildfire. 

We have a big instagram page with a 1000 followers and we’ve been trying to reappropriate what instagram can be used for, positive self image, sharing nice ideas and celebrating success, but we find that every time we embrace a social media platform, the children will just move onto something else because they kind of go, well that’s for the old people now. So this year we’ve brought in digital technology captains through computer sciences and our safeguarding team, and those children will continue that dialogue to make it public and vibrant. I think it’s important that it comes from someone they can relate to, someone that’s likely to be using the same technology as them, rather than me saying snapbook and facechat and looking like a clown. 

I think that’s everything, it was really interesting to hear your perspective on those issues.

I enjoyed that, you’re making me realise that there’s a lot going on that we are doing, but it’s just pulling all that together and I think that’s the thing, if a school had that one person to really be an expert in it, I don’t think we have that. Because quite often if you study counselling or Psychology you go into that direction, and we have people who drop in, but we don’t have that full time dedicated member of staff.