Reframing conflict

Reflections on returning. Anticipating and reframing conflict.

NB – in writing today about our family decision to allow our daughter to return to school, I am very aware of many anxieties and conflicts around the emergence from lockdown and the very different family circumstances we are all in. In writing about our experiences today, I am hoping to reflect on what it is to make the return to group life, more expansive working lives again. To think about the likely stresses and strains that will accompany the various transitions ahead. I’m not trying to promote our own decision to return as a ‘right’ or wrong thing. In the bulk of this edition, I’m going to think ahead to some potentially important and difficult conversations between parents, school and children, as we look more clearly about the reality of where our children and pupils are at – and what their needs may be. SO often, the more crucial and high stakes that conversation is, the more difficult it is. So often when circumstances call on us to be at our best, our worst – and most reactive and defensive side shows up first! So today I’m going to think about how we stay in touch with our best side when the growing gets tough. And my god, it’s been a tough few months!

Walking back from taking our Year 5 daughter to school today – her 3rd day back in morning school – has put me into quite a reverie. It struck me how, after the wrangling over whether she should return or not, the risks, the rewards, after the separation anxieties at the weekend and the start of the week, the dust is now settling on new realisations.

  1. Suddenly I start to feel the release of not having to supervise or be on hand to help with schooling – that our child’s learning is once again ‘held’ by her excellent new Year 6 teacher. Wow! Now that is lifting away, I can feel what a heaviness it has been over the past three / four months! 
  2. Despite our closeness, having our own space in family life – some separate life of one’s own – is gorgeous, and not to be taken for granted.
  3. I feel grateful that despite being in the trenches of having to supplement the video lessons with dialogue, clarification, explanation, there has been a recalibration for me around my involvement in her work. As a working parent who in truth has not been particularly ‘present’ around what subjects she’s been doing, how she’s been getting on. I now have better ideas about how I can be more involved without intruding. And hopefully she will see both of us as being a more available resource for her when she does- or doesn’t ‘get’ it.
  4. I can see the fizz coming back into our daughter’s bottle, the fizz that comes from her feeling belonging in a group. She is no longer working alone. She may be sitting on a desk on her own, but she can look around and see her friends asking and answering questions. Even though play time is a meagre 10 minutes in a controlled zone, she finds the sharing of the learning lighter, more fun. She can benchmark herself and feel her capabilities. There is joy in togetherness.
  5. She has a firm, demanding, fun teacher to look up to – whose clear, step-by-step unpacking of the thinking process she can follow. Who after only 3 half days, she  feels she knows, she feels ‘gets’ her and holds her in mind, and whom she wants to impress.
  6. We can all see how much the children have grown! So many benchmarks. Putting on her more wintry shoes on this rainy morning – they no longer fit. They suddenly all look more like Year 6s. Many of her peers are now coming to school by themselves – in response to the roads still being quieter. Also taking on more responsibility to enable families manage the differently staggered start times and earlier school finish. No matter what the level of engagement with the work has been over time, they have all become more independent in many different ways.

So what might these thoughts mean for teachers and schools? Thinking about the big return of September.
For sure, there are going to be bumpy times ahead. There may well be disappointments, blame, shame, guilt, arising from some harsh realities that might emerge as the reality of making up from lost in-person schooling catches up with us all – children, teachers, families. Some careful thinking about how the alliance between parents, teachers, and schools can be re-built would be a good start point. 
For some parents, the experience of crisis schooling has been precisely that – an ongoing crisis and an overwhelming burden which at times has been too much. In my coaching practice, I have been working to support various parents whose children have struggled. Teenagers who have disengaged, disconnected from school, and from home-life. Other parents, fearful of losing their child to an endless binging on social media and gaming, for whom the power-struggles have been too too much and tactical retreats have been necessary for self-preservation. Some have been fighting for financial survival and have simply had to leave their children to get on with it. 
It has been easy as the weeks and months have stretched on, for overburdened and overwhelmed parents to create persecutory narratives. On the one hand these may spring from feeling abandoned, lessons being too thin, time-wasting projects that simply put more burden on them (eg a simple task like collecting 5 different leaves imposes an outing to the park on a day when they have X,Y,Z meetings or tasks to attend to), teachers being unavailable, and schools, uninterested.

On the other hand, where schools have continued to set and mark work and have high proportions of online directly taught lessons, parents may have felt hostile – that expectations are unrealistic, out of step, overly pressuring, insensitive to their very real struggles, as families have worried about relatives, jobs, the mental health of their children, the chasing up of missing work has seemed completely out of tune. 
How can teachers and school leaders think about opportunities to clear the air with parents, recalibrate, and invite a new alliance as we step into a new school year and come together again. Given these very varied and very strong feelings, parents may well be coming to the school year with very different emotional and cognitive legacies borne of the trials of lock-down. And their negativity bias will be tuned in for further mis-matches. 
We can, therefore expect next term to have an element of the unleashing of ‘feedback’ as those parents who have been ‘experts’ on their children’s teachers shoulders find it difficult to step back. We can also expect elements of blame and recrimination as harsh truths about what’s not in place come home.

How can we as professionals reach out and reset the dial for a ‘new deal’? Why might that thinking about bridging be so important?
How can we have crucial conversations about where each child is at – in order to support and move on – creating a collaborative alliance around what the needs are? 
How can teachers check-in with parents and find their take on what lock-down schooling was really like – what were the struggles, the feelings as this extraordinary school year closes – and how that will set up the fresh start of the next academic year? 
Certainly there is fertile ground for a better coming together – crisis schooling has perforce brought learning into the home one way or another. 
Why is this so important? To preserve morale, hope, and agency in teachers. Many of whom have felt close to burn-out with managing change and keeping on top of changing demands. Many of whom have also struggled with looking after their own children whilst schooling others from their homes. Many of whom have been operating with their hands tied behind their backs technologically and spatially. Teachers not being known for having the salaries to fund houses with spare rooms to convert into offices, or cutting edge technology – and schools not having the budget to support each teacher having the right infrastructure to deliver a top quality on-line experience from their homes. Many of whom have also struggled with being cut off from their supportive professional network at schools. And been deprived of access to line-managers and leaders – many of whom have been almost completely occupied by risk assessing and risk managing the moving target of unclear and changing government directives.

Self-compassion, empathy, and generosity are going to be needed in abundance to move us forward into the most productive alliance in the service of our children’s needs. 
When next term reveals points of concern and disquiet, we need discussion and dialogue – not defensiveness. And we need to discuss in order to learn, not to argue in order to win. I was lucky enough to catch a great podcast with Martin Richards, a hostage negotiator – because I am doing a lot of research on handling difficult conversations with more skill and less stress (something tells me this might well be in demand!!!). He referred to the Trust Equation, something for both parents and teachers, and school leader to hold in mind, as we step up to advocate for action where we see the need.
(Credibility + Reliability + Intimacy) divided by Self Orientation = Trust

Self-orientation is so often that defensiveness that prevents connection and bridge-building. The inability to admit to flaw, the insistence on your own essential rightness, your story, your point of view, your ego, the school’s ego. All of that will work against  your reputation (credibility), your past track record (reliability), and the quality of discussion that has built up in unfolding interactions.
Whether you are a parent, having a hard-hitting and courageous conversation with your intransigent child, a teacher whose efforts are backfiring, a school leader who you want to understand and address a problem, you will undo progress, by the quotient of your own ego, the amount of ‘me, myself & I’ you bring, the rigidity of the solutions YOU think are right. You will increase your own stress, and decrease the possibility of connection. 
Whether you are a teacher or school leader, having a conversation or a communication with a parent or child who has struggles, and may be expressing those struggles in an angry and combative way, remember the Trust equation. That’s what you want as a bottom line. Eyes on the prize, as educators we are far far better working with difficult pupils and parents than trying to control them in an adversarial relationship. 
Rather than escalating up the disciplinary or complaints procedure, you want to talk this down, build rapport by showing they will be listened to, their perspective valued. Know that you may be seen as the institution, the enemy, you need to build credibility as a facilitator- someone who cares for the progress of the child. You need to show that you are a reliable resource – who knows that child, who can hold the detail in mind, who will follow-up. And you want to develop intimacy in order to rebuild trust. This means an understanding of where that parent / child is coming from. 
Anger, provocation, accusation, are often the tip of the iceberg. Beneath is often a much larger and more significant vulnerability. A procedural response, a defensive response will be a disconnector – a message that the school simply isn’t there for them. You’ll have issued a statement that comes from professional and institutional self-orientation. But you’ll never get to the bottom of what’s really going on – and you will miss the opportunity to re-form something more creative and resourceful out of the embers of conflict.

Potential action and support.
If you are a parent, working though the emotional, educational and parental legacy of the lock-down. Maybe you are looking to put together a plan of action, and want some support to go about it effectively, with some reflective support, consider getting in touch. I can offer either a one hour ‘mentoring’ consultation – where you might send me information in advance and we discuss in a very focused way. Or you might want to try a package of 3 30 minute coaching sessions spread over 6 weeks to explore, implement, and reflect over time. 
As a parent, you may be part of other parent groups – the PTA at your school – or you may want to gather a group of friends and have a really rich and interactive online-meet with me to look at an issue on your mind – eg thinking about secondary school transition post-lockdown, for parents of Year 5, 6 children, or the emotional aspects of starting school / nursery for parents of under 5s.

Potential action and support Teacher Professional Development, Pupil and Parent talks or webinars.
If you are a teacher, or school leader, you might want to consider 1:1 coaching around the impact of conflict at work and developing personal skills around having difficult conversations. 
As a head of year or school leader, you might want to consider booking me for training sessions for teachers around handling conflict with more emotional intelligence, greater skill, and less stress. I have also done these very successfully for pupils, thinking about assertiveness with friends and how to re-orient family conflict, also for parents around handling conflict in family life.

Some changes – newsletter structure. As we move into the summer holiday season proper and out of lockdown frenzy, I am going to change the structure of my newsletters – reverting to separate formats:
‘Parenting with Purpose’
‘Teaching with Traction’
This means you’ll get a shorter article, fortnightly rather than the combined weekly. If you are a teacher AND a parent, you might want to check that you are subscribed to both if you still want both elements. If you are a parent who might be interested in educational matters, you might want to subscribe to the teaching element – or not!
Do you have a burning topic you’d like me to write about? Let me know! Jot a wish list of key words or bullets and send in!
Do you have a current story or scenario you’d like me to anonymise and write a reflective piece on? Again, get in touch. Simply writing about some of our stories gives our breaks a decluttering and create sense of order out of the chaos of feeling.
As always – with love and gratitude,

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