This article was written by Pooky Knightsmith for SecEd and originally published on their website.
We can change a child’s course without even knowing – and it might only take a moment
A shortage of time is one of the reasons most often cited by school staff as to why they cannot do all that they would hope to do when it comes to young people’s mental health and emotional wellbeing.
Conversely, when I talk to young people who have worked through their difficulties and are reflecting on the good and bad times during early adulthood, the pivotal moments they point to as making a real difference to them are often the work of just a few minutes. These transformative moments often pass without us even noticing, I am sure. But their ripples are felt for weeks, months or years for the young person we reached out too. It is remarkable to think that we might change a child’s course without knowing we have done it, but we do. Often.
“I felt alone, unloved and uncared for. I was one of those kids who just quietly got on with it at the back of the class. I tried to keep out of people’s way. I remember one time the teacher asked the class to work in pairs; instead of letting us choose, she chose them. She put me with a girl who became my best friend. I don’t know if she planned it but I didn’t feel alone after that.”
“I was literally walking past him in the corridor and he pulled me to one side. I thought I was going to be in trouble, I usually was, but he looked me in the eyes and said ‘You’ve been on my mind. If you’re ever not feeling okay I’d be happy to listen’. Each time I saw him he’d give me this little nod and a smile and it was like a little boost that helped me manage.”
“It was a five-minute chat, but it was the first time I ever felt like I mattered to someone because she stopped everything she was doing and just listened and I realised she cared…”
I could cite hundreds more of these transformative moments which demonstrate the difference that you can make in just a few minutes, as you go about your usual teaching day.
These moments won’t happen every day. The child might not acknowledge them, neither of you may be aware of the magic that’s happened until a long time later, but it is possible to help a child to cross the line from feeling unheard, unsupported and uncared for without investing hours of your time. Some tips to help you create transformative moments:
Follow your gut
If you know a child relatively well and you feel that things aren’t quite right with them, try to find a quiet moment when you can let them know you’re worried about them and that you care and want them to be okay.
Stop and listen
Even if you only have a few minutes to listen, listen mindfully – keep the child who is talking at the very centre of your attention with all other interruptions gone. For just a few moments, let that child feel at the centre of your world. It might be the first time this has ever happened for them.
Be clear about time boundaries
If you only have a limited amount of time, let the child know. A lot can be covered in a short time, and five minutes is long enough so long as the child knows from the outset that five minutes is all you have right now.
Care out loud
If you’ve been thinking about a child, tell them. If you care about them, let them know. If you want to support them or feel sad that they feel this way, say those words aloud. Children are poor mind-readers and anyone of any age who suffers with low self-esteem is unlikely to assume that others are having kind thoughts about them, so spelling them out can be a real boost.
Hold a child in mind
Every child deserves to be held in mind and cared about by at least one good adult in their lives. For many children, this comes from home – but consider whether there are any in your class for whom this may not be the case and make a conscious effort to hold them in mind – and let them know.
Let them tell their story
When a child talks, listen. Do not guess what they will say next or the reasons why they feel the way they do. Forget all that you knew and allow them to paint on a blank canvas, then between you think about the next steps.
Remind a pupil that you care about them by asking “how are you?” and meaning it when you see them, or simply look for their face among the crowd as you go about your day and give them a nod and a smile. These tiny reminders that they matter, that someone cares, can help them to manage on more difficult days.
You will have created many of these moments without even realising it, and will go on to create many more. Even when time is short, never underestimate the power of a moment or two when you really listen, or really care. It makes more difference than you may ever know.
Pooky’s other articles for SecEd include: