First published on the Contextual Safeguarding Network – see: https://www.csnetwork.org.uk/en/blog/2021/joining-up-the-dots-using-non-violent-resistance-nvr-and-contextual-safeguarding-cs-to-strengthen-adult-and-community-guardianship

My name is Tony Meehan. I am a practitioner of Non Violent Resistance (NVR) with PartnershipProjects UK. NVR was developed by Dr Haim Omer and introduced to the UK by Dr Peter Jakob.

 

My introduction to NVR and, separately, to Contextual Safeguarding (CS) came in 2016, the year before I retired, after almost nine years, as head of an inner-London Pupil Referral Unit (PRU). My experiences working with children excluded from mainstream school convinced me of the urgent need for alternative approaches to managing behaviour that are not rooted in traditional behaviourist models so common in practically every school in the country – including in many PRUs and alternative provision (AP) schools. On their trajectory to permanent exclusion, these pupils are often subject to a raft of exclusionary “behaviour management” approaches; even detentions – excluding young people from socialising with their friends in breaks and after school – or afternoons or days spent in isolation booths for example. This was particularly so for many young people with a history of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and a range of other risk factors identified by Dr Kiran Gill in the “Making the Difference” report:

  • Poverty
  • Unsafe family environment
  • Special educational needs and disabilities (SEND)
  • Poor mental health
  • Low prior attainment

(Gill, 2017, p. 14)[1]

[1] Gill, K. (2017, October). Making The Difference: Breaking the link between school exclusion and social exclusion . London: Institute for Public Policy Research

Additionally, the disproportionately high exclusion rates for certain ethnic groups leaves them more at risk and more exposed to extrafamilial harm. Black African Caribbean pupils face exclusion and education in PRUs at 2.5 times the rate of the national pupil population. Gypsy Roma travellers and Irish Travellers, although making up a smaller proportion of the school population, are also excluded more frequently, at a rate of 3.9 and of 2.9 times respectively (DfE, 2020)[1].

[1] DfE. (2020, July 30). Permanent and fixed-period exclusions in England 2019. Retrieved from GOV.UK: https://explore-education-stat…

 

What is NVR?

“Non Violent Resistance (NVR) is a multi-modal systemic, family and community-based form of intervention for serious behaviour problems in young people, for harmful and self-destructive behaviour, for self-harm, anxiety disorders and for entitled dependency of younger adults upon their parents.”

(Jakob, 2018a)[1]

[1] Jakob, P. (2018). Executive Summary: Non Violent Resistance – a systemic treatment for harmful, destructive and self-destructive behaviours. Retrieved from Partnership Projects: http://www.partnershipprojects…

NVR is highly effective in supporting parents and/or caregivers to strengthen and rebuild their relationship with young people who present with challenging and often violent behaviour within the family (Weinblatt & Omer, 2008)[1]. It does this by adopting approaches designed to mitigate aggravating factors in troubled child-to-parent/carer relationships and raising parental/adult presence; these include:

  • De-escalation – avoiding becoming engaged in escalatory power struggles;
  • Delaying responses to child provocations – “striking when the iron is cold”;
  • Prioritising behaviours;
  • Taking pre-planned and determined action;
  • Developing a support network;
  • Using reconciliation gestures – unconditional gestures of love and care
  • De-accommodating controlling behaviour of young people – “breaking taboos”
  • Raising adult presence in dangerous environments: telephone round, tailing, forming alliances with other parents of young people at risk and their teachers or other adults and taking shared action.

[1] Weinblatt, U., & Omer, H. (2008). Nonviolent Resistance: A Treatment for Parents of Children with acute Behavior Problems. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 34(1), 75-92.

NVR is not a parenting programme. Parents/carers are encouraged to build alliances in order to create extensive support networks around the child and the family. They are neither blamed for their child’s harmful and destructive behaviour nor left to deal with it in isolation. Instead, they are supported to build alliances and raise their ‘parental presence’ around the child by changing their own responses to the behaviours, that frequently result from extra-familial pressures, and often manifest as violence in the home towards the parents or siblings. I work with families in which child-to-parent violence is often a feature. I also work with schools supporting them to develop alternatives to traditional, behaviourist approaches to ‘behaviour management’. I see NVR as a powerful alternative to “zero-tolerance” approaches adopted by a growing number of schools as a response to challenging behaviour, but which fail to consider the contexts of a child or adolescent’s behaviour and therefore more likely to lead to permanent exclusion.

“… nonviolent resistance begins where words stop being effective.”

(Omer, 2004, p. 7)[1]

[1] Omer, H. (2004). Nonviolent Resistance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

How does one “punish” a young person whose very existence constitutes a punishment in itself, for whom an exclusion, or even a detention in the context of their lived and relived experiences of trauma does nothing more than reaffirm their beliefs in their low sense of self-worth; where their difficulty to self-regulate, as a result of trauma they have suffered, is classed as “rude”, “challenging”, “aggressive”, “defiance” or simply as “persistent disruptive behaviour”, the most widely used reason for permanent exclusion? (DfE, 2020)[1]

[1] DfE. (2020, July 30). Permanent and fixed-period exclusions in England 2019. Retrieved from GOV.UK: https://explore-education-stat…

 

In 2016 Dr Carlene Firmin introduced an approach to safeguarding in a “MsUnderstood” presentation offering a more nuanced and thoughtful approach to safeguarding, particularly for those same vulnerable young people with whom I worked in the PRU who are often subject to extrafamilial pressures such as child sexual exploitation (CSE) and child criminal exploitation (CCE). I was particularly taken by her view that attention be directed to the wider context of where the abuse took place and not just towards assessing parents’ capacity to parent effectively. In the case of Aubree (see below – not her real name), a pupil at my PRU, this would mean addressing the areas – the streets, the stairwells – where this pupil would gravitate towards when she found herself once more staying away from home.

 

Let me tell you about Aubree. Pretty regularly she would, in a state of high anxiety and distress, come to find me, begging me not to exclude her for something she had just done, but of which I knew nothing. Nor was she able to explain clearly what it was she had done. She would simply pace up and down in my office, promising that she would be good from now on, would never, ever misbehave again, pleading with me not to exclude her. My usual approach was to help her calm down as best I could. I learned not to try to work out with her what it was she had done, as she simply could not articulate it; such was her level of distress. Eventually a member of staff would follow to explain what had happened. Usually, it involved something with another pupil or member of staff, may have involved verbal abuse or threats, though rarely violence; sometimes it was quite serious, but these things are not unusual in a PRU. While I had no intention of excluding her, options were limited in terms of how to manage her. I won’t go into her background, suffice to say it was far from ideal and involved domestic abuse and alcohol.

 

Where we had success was working with both her and her mother, someone who had severe alcohol problems and who struggled to manage her volatile child; there was also heavy social services involvement. We took the view at the PRU that we could not work with children unless we had the support and backing of the parents, but that meant often finding ways to support and help them to manage their own children. Taking an NVR approach with her mother helped her to prioritise and address the behaviour most likely to lead to harm – the staying away from home – and avoid the arguments over trivial behaviours that risked escalating and driving her on to the streets where she was extremely vulnerable. We became part of her wider support network.

 

We knew Aubree was a victim of CSE, being on the fringes of gang activity and used and abused by other young people caught up in gang culture and serious youth violence, who capitalised on her vulnerability. For someone like Aubree, any and all attention, positive or negative, was welcome. Undoubtedly, she felt safe within the school, but we were only enough during school times. When she went out onto the streets, she was vulnerable to the vagaries of the gang. Exclusion from the PRU for her would simply mean losing that vital safe space where she had shelter and attention during those times.

 

How do I know our approach worked? Well, at our end of year 11 presentation for our departing pupils, Aubree sat with her mother, both full of evident pride as, probably for the first time since primary school, Aubree’s list of achievements was read out – including attendance in excess of 80% and a report on her plans for the next stage of her education.

 

Presence

I found the CS framework (see figure 1) such a compelling model because it considers the social context of the extrafamilial pressures that lead to abuse in a dynamic way, by interrogating the responses of support agencies, asking the questions, how, for example, a young person’s experiences of being targeted and groomed in “…a takeaway shop affect their relationship with their family? And in what ways might the relationships with peers in this context undermine parental capacity?” (Firmin & Lloyd, 2020, p. 5)[1] or exploring how better to make stairwells and sports cages safe for all young people (University of Bedfordshire, 2021)[2], places where there should be an automatic assumption of safety for everyone; for vulnerable young people they are often places of danger.

[1] Firmin, C., & Lloyd, J. (2020). Contextual Safeguarding A 2020 update on the operational, strategic and conceptual framework. Luton: University of Bedfordshire.

[2] University of Bedfordshire. (2021, March 18). Sports Cages: Places of safety, places of harm, places of potential. Retrieved from Contextual Safeguarding Network: https://www.csnetwork.org.uk/e…

 

It is the interplay of its various elements that helps practitioners gain greater insight into how the extrafamilial abuse affects a child and how to respond. In a similar way NVR takes account of the intrafamilial pressures – often caused or exacerbated by extrafamilial pressures – and addresses these by helping raise parental presence. As with the CS model, it is the interplay between the components of NVR that helps parents raise their presence and regain their effectiveness as parents. With the telephone round and tailing, parents/carers are trained in how to raise their presence even when the child engages in dangerous and risky behaviour outside of the home, beyond their supervision.

 

“Parents systematically map out the ecological environment their children move in and seek to raise their presence by seeking to develop alliances with other adults, communicating with their child’s peers, raising their vigilance for what their child is undertaking, and using their physical presence in protective ways.”

(Jakob, 2018a, p. 7)[1]

[1] Jakob, P. (2018). Executive Summary: Non Violent Resistance – a systemic treatment for harmful, destructive and self-destructive behaviours. Retrieved from Partnership Projects: http://www.partnershipprojects…

This is not to be confused with snooping or spying on one’s child. It is taking strong, determined actions to register one’s concern and send the message, “I am your parent and I will do all I can to protect you”. And, as with the CS model, NVR takes the parent into those areas often deemed off limits to parents, such as the stairwell or the sports cage, but with support.

TM jpeg 1

Figure 1 Contextual Safeguarding Framework[1]

[1] Firmin, C., & Lloyd, J. (2020). Contextual Safeguarding A 2020 update on the operational, strategic and conceptual framework. Luton: University of Bedfordshire.

Building a support network

Another area of mutuality between both concepts is their focus on the development of support networks. The safety mapping tool of CS references, for instance, involving the members of the wider neighbourhood, the community, in making it safe for young people, who might be at risk of abuse. Domain 3 of the CS framework explicitly calls for “partnerships with sectors/individuals who are responsible for the nature of extra-familial contexts”. These are the shopkeepers, the postal workers. This is the community.

 

This call for community involvement aligns with the NVR focus on parents developing a wider support network, identifying and recruiting supportive family and friends into the frame, in a controlled and structured way, to influence the child positively. The telephone round and tailing are designed to help parents/carers to draw on the support network to raise their presence within the physical, extrafamilial environment, to visit these sites of potentially risky behaviours, not to confront or demand their child returns home, but to register their strength and presence as the child’s parent/carer and begin to draw the child away from the risky behaviour. This is not a support network provided by professionals alone; it is an ecological support network that encompasses adults, and sometimes other young people, from the environments that the young people and the parents move in. Many parents – due to factors such as their own traumatic experiences, shame associated with these or with their child’s behaviour, parent-blaming or the overwhelming pressures of everyday life – come to feel extremely isolated, which increases their sense of helplessness. The use of the support network alleviates the pressure on parents/carers to allow them the time and resources to parent and protect their child effectively and not leave them managing the child’s challenging behaviour in isolation (Jakob, 2019)[1]. It can also help reduce risk for them in accessing dangerous places their child moves in.

 

[1] Jakob, P. (2019). Child-focussed family therapy using nonviolent resistance: hearing the voice of need in the traumatised child. In E. Heismann, J. Jude & E. Day (eds.): Non-violent resistance innovations in practice. Brighton: Pavilion.

 

The NVR process is explained to supporters in such a way so as to ensure they have a clear understanding of their roles within the process and in no way undermine the parents as they rebuild both their relationship with their children and their authority as a parent. In NVR we refrain from seeing the parents as problematic. We take the view that all parents want to do the best for their children, even if they do not feel equipped to do so. We work with them to develop the skills necessary to regain their confidence as effective and loving parents; the supporters’ network helps to do this.

 

I see CS as a very potent tool in supporting existing networks of support, such as social services, to operate more efficiently together, by critically interrogating their responses to the abuse, so that there is clarity and a reduction of duplication and redundancy in these responses. NVR equips people, the wider network, often, as with CS, including the shopkeeper, the school, the aunts, the uncles, the friends etc. to feel that they can respond in a manner that is useful. They become aware of the wider contextual factors that can lead to vulnerable young people being placed in danger but know also how to respond in a manner that supports the relationship between parents/carers and children and does not drive the child into more risky behaviours.

 

In conclusion, I see both of these concepts operating on a continuum and overlapping in many areas. Contextual safeguarding presents as being more thorough, nuanced and effective in systemically assessing and analysing the dangers young people are subjected to. NVR supports the parent, caregiver and teacher in a manner which is not evident in normal approaches. It is a careful collaboration with these parents and carers to assess the practical and psychological challenges they face as well as their potential internal and interpersonal resources, and to support them to gain strength, as much by what they stop doing – engaging in pointless power struggles with their children as by adopting approaches that are proven to be effective. Traditional behaviourist approaches are replaced with measures designed to build and maintain the integrity of the relationship. Both models go beyond the child, in effect adjusting and adapting both their physical and emotional environments to make them feel more secure.