In the spring and summer terms of 2022 I ran an NVR programme for a new SEMH (Social, Emotional and Mental Health) special school in the area where I work as an Educational Psychologist and Systemic Family Therapist. The funding for this was from the COVID Recovery fund. I ran this programme with two colleagues, one of whom joined me for the parent / carer group and the other with whom I co-facilitated the school staff group, who met separately. Most staff sessions were in person, but some sessions had to be carried out online due to COVID 19. The parent sessions were run online exclusively from the beginning. The school had opened in 2020 during the pandemic and staff turnover was high
In this blog post I describe my learning from the NVR school staff group.
Self-care: the tree of life
Members of school staff working with children presenting with SEMH are experienced in responding to unmet needs and facing dysregulated behaviour daily. The staff at the school we worked with came to the sessions often exhausted and wanting to go home rather than spending two extra hours in the setting at the end of the school day. Initial attempts to discuss feelings about the work were met with scepticism or outright hostility, often followed by a clear demand to the facilitators to ‘get on with it’ (‘it’ referring to the content part of the programme). On the second session one member of staff walked off when we invited the group to share how their day had been, as though the question had overwhelmed their already limited capacity to settle in the room. Self-care and grounding techniques cannot be imposed from outside but need to be carefully introduced once a safe therapeutic environment is secured. To engage in self-care, we need to get in touch with our vulnerability, which is not easy for anyone, but in particular for members of school staff and a special SEMH school at that. Just like in the caring dialogue (Jakob, 2018) between practitioners and parents and between parents and child in child-focused NVR therapy, a caring dialogue between practitioners and school staff can only take place when staff can allow themselves to engage with their vulnerabilities. Only after this is the transition from erasure and (vicarious) trauma to a more present mind possible.
The ‘present mind’ is needed for adults to strengthen their sense of self and their values and act in unison with other adults (Jakob, 2018:44). Only then can staff challenge safely the destructive behaviour of their students. There was an understandable tendency within the staff group to believe that all incidents had their origins in the students’ past trauma or were the result of students not being able to control themselves due to their diagnoses (ADHD, PDA, ASD). Compassion and acceptance were the overwhelmingly supported responses among them, especially when students had caused harm to themselves only, not other students. Some staff described their way of dealing with incidents of violence that revealed a tendency to understand or ‘harmonize too quickly’ (Jakob, 2018:45), or literally ‘taking the punches’ on their bodies, and actively rejecting support offered by senior members of staff when they were being verbally or physically attacked; almost as if believing that abuse was part of the job description for special school staff. This caused difficulties, because staff appeared to not be able to validate their own feelings following the harm they sustained, and therefore did not give the opportunity to recover from it, finding it difficult to engage in the self-care and grounding needed to develop a present mind rather than a fragmented, disconnected mind (Jakob, 2018: 22-23). Another difficulty caused by this immediately compassionate behaviour is that it carried the risk of creating a passive response by the adults, a ‘standing by’ (Jakob, 2018: 44) attitude that only reinforces the behaviour and prevents the student’s needs from being understood, because these needs are obscured by the aggression. It also forewent the possibility of reparation from the student.
It was very important for us to listen carefully and empathetically to their understanding of their students, as well as their positive intentions when dealing with aggressive behaviour in this way. Feeling understood in this way allowed the staff to discuss violence and all the forms it can take, as well as the fact that even when anger is traumatic or the result of a condition, the young person has the responsibility to manage themselves.
Helping staff to connect with themselves, so that they can continue or develop their connections with each other (interpersonal presence-Omer, 2021) was an important first goal of this NVR programme. But this required a different approach than that used often with parents and carers on individual NVR therapy. Rather than grounding techniques for de-escalation and reconnection with themselves, we used the ‘Tree of Life’ (Ncube, 2006) approach, by asking participants to write anonymously their responses to the different parts of the tree on post-it notes that were collected after the session and helped create the staff’s own Tree of Life. This Tree of Life became a symbol of their strength, as the Headteacher took it to be framed and placed in their staff room. This group were not ready to think aloud about their roots, strengths, and vulnerabilities, but writing about these anonymously was their collective act of care for themselves that helped create a story of unified strength.
Even though staff members knew each other well and supported each other every day, a different, new and incipient sense of ‘we’ started to emerge more strongly, around NVR. The Headteacher later said that he appreciated not being the person called to deal with all difficult situations because the group as a whole started using the NVR tools together, consolidating their inter-personal adult presence and helping them move away from the position of ‘I must manage this behaviour on my own’, so often encountered in schools, to a more focused: ‘we are a team, and we support each other by using our interpersonal presence’. In the feedback session, the Headteacher highlighted how the group sessions had helped staff feel more secure in the notion that they were not alone in their classrooms.
‘Tell us what to do!’…’But don’t try to teach us to suck eggs’…
Rebuilding de-escalation and prioritising behaviour
On session number 1 a member of staff who had had a stressful working day offered the following expectation for the programme: ‘we want you to tell us what to do’ (during incidents). They added that they wished practical strategies to deal with the aggression they encounter daily and less discussion of their own feelings. When we started discussing de-escalation, they said they felt we were attempting to ‘teach them to suck eggs’. Attendance was significantly reduced and from an initial group of approximately 25 members of staff teachers, 12 remained and saw the programme through. The original group had been told by the Headteacher that the ‘training’ was mandatory. In session one following the request to ‘tell them what to do’, I stated that we could not do that, and that I suspected they knew it. But I also said that we were going to share a model of responding to young people’s violent behaviour that has been helpful to many adults, and it may be helpful to them too. I also said that the programme was not mandatory, and they did not need to attend unless they wished to (to the Headteacher’s dismay).
We persisted. Progressively a core group of 12 members of staff remained and became increasingly engaged and curious about NVR. I was keen to offer all the pillars of NVR, adapted accordingly from the parent to a school programme. I resisted the idea of only working on de-escalation, support, and presence discussed with my colleagues and supervisor. My instinct told me otherwise, since I thought it was important to validate their perception of what they already have and their undeniable existing skills, to build from this pool of resources rather than from an expectation of lacking these resources. With perhaps the exception of the present mind, as described above, and a need for developing more focused and pre-emptive interpersonal and systemic presence, staff were already experienced in de-escalation and supporting each other. Most felt a deep sense of emotional connection with their students, which they related to their adult presence. In addition, I have come to understand de-escalation as a two-part process: 1. The lowering of heightened emotion and arousal, as well as 2. A planned, calm, and deliberate act of non-violent resistance sometime after the incident. The second part of de-escalation required a consideration of resistance in its whole spectrum: from resisting comments to the sit in. If we were to reinforce only the first part of de-escalation (which the staff were already carrying out every day) we were not going to do justice to the approach. Indeed, it was the second part of de-escalation which was often either overlooked or carried out within a behaviour modification framework, common in many schools and based on rewards and punishment. In NVR all pillars work together, each embedded on the others: de-escalation carries with it the concepts and values of active resistance. This needed to be made explicit, and practised. I continued to persist.
From session 1 we built a graphic wall of de-escalation (with thanks to Jackie Lindeck for offering this idea in supervision), with each brick representing a de-escalation (part 1) technique that they already use. We began each session with the wall, by asking them whether they had tried any of the techniques that week, or whether they had thought or tried a new or different one to add to the wall. At the end of the programme, a graphic facilitator from our psychology team created the final graphic wall, as well as the final Tree of Life graphic, both currently waiting for framing and placement on the staff room.
A few new strings to a wise bow: Prioritising and Active Resistance
Participants considered, in groups, a particular student whose behaviour was causing concern and they engaged in ways to prioritise these behaviours by using the basket exercise. We observed that the teachers prioritise only behaviour that had resulted in harm to other students, but not the behaviour that had harmed them. As mentioned earlier, there was an ethos of instant compassion and staff trying to analyse the roots of the behaviour, which often led to doing nothing or little when this behaviour had immediate effects on them (staff would often come to the sessions with wounds inflicted by their students), sustaining the lack of contact with their own feelings (hurt, disappointment, fear etc.). Only by highlighting that not addressing these behaviours would give the message to the students that they are inconsequential, and therefore deprives the young person of an opportunity to take responsibility, did the staff begin to include harmful behaviours perpetrated towards themselves in addition to harmful behaviour towards peers.
Learning to engage in acts of resistance, including resisting comments, the announcement, and the sit in accompanied a period of growth for the group. Staff participants were more engaged with the Tree of Life activity and the work in general, from session 6 onwards. Each small group composed comments and the announcement for their chosen student and role-played their delivery within group sessions. It was humbling to experience the deep understanding shown by staff of their students in the role plays. As with parent groups, this was a powerful exercise and its impact is long standing both for the school (see below) and for us, the practitioners.
Staff reported a closer understanding of their students’ parents’ situations towards the end of the programme. A parent who had just completed an NVR parent group, having previosuly not been able to complete any parenting programme, visited the staff session to celebrate her achievement. She felt rather overwhelmed as this was her first experience of being in a staff ‘meeting’ and receiving recognition. She received individual support, and received a certificate and a flower gift. What seemed most powerful though, was her son’s Art teacher telling her how talented her son was in Art, and showing her some of his work, displayed on a corridor. Again, this parent said it was the first time she had heard a positive comment on her son’s work at secondary school. We supported the Family Liason Worker, who has become part of her NVR support, to build a positive relationship with this parent and to show up at the door step every time her son refuses to attend school, as an act of extended parental presence.
When working on the announcement and the sit-in meetings, staff offered and received feedback on their collegues’ role plays for the particular case study students. They highlighted that the end of the announcement should not contain a conditional sentence ‘when this is over, we will go on trips together again’, but just an expression of confident hope for the future: ‘we look forward to going to trips together again’. For the sit-in role play, observers highlighed the need for allowing some silence so the student could have an opporuntity to come up with their ideas as to how to move forward. The teachers who engaged in the role play had filled in the gaps a little too quickly, wanting it to be an easier experience for the ‘student’. This was explored by the group itself. They could see that the announcement meeting and the sit in meeting helped them move from a position of punishment intention, separation and distance: ‘you will do this’, akin to the old authority; to an act of closeness and ehnanced adult presence akin to the new authority: ‘we will do this together’. They said they felt confident to start resisting in this way. It was time for us to exit.
Three months after the end of the programme the Headteacher participated in a podcast, recorded in my service, on the use of NVR in schools and said that they use the announcement routinely with certain students. He explained that what seems most powerful in the tool is the caring, positive, non-blaming nature of the announcement, while still managing to state clearly what behaviour cannot be tolerated. Students always take the announcements away with them, and seem surprised by the appreciative comments on it, which helps them relax and engage. The Headteacher said that this was important for parents not just the students: these families have often been on a long journey of exclusion, feeling blamed, and feeling let down by services and professionals. They often expect, when invited to a meeting, to be told that the student will be excluded. He and his staff tell them: ‘we are here, we are not going anywhere, you are not going anywhere, we will sort this out together’.
Carina Embeita, Educational Psychologist and Systemic Family Therapist
Jakob, P. (2018). Non Violent Resistance (NVR) Advanced Level Manual NVR Certificate Course. Working with Trauma. London: Partnership Projects.
Ncube, N. (2006). The tree of life project. International Journal of Narrative Therapy & Community Work, 2006(1), 3-16.
Omer, H. (2021). Courageous Teachers. Developing a New Authority to Cope with Violence and Chaos. London: Amazon.