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‘I don’t want to talk about it’. Looking for non verbal signs

10/10/16

 

 

As it's #WorldMentalHealthDay we've published this entry by blogger Ray detailing signs you should keep an eye out for that might suggest a deeper issue. Mental health is not easy to identify and is often something the student will find difficult to talk about or will not want to share, which is why it's important to keep a close eye when things just 'don't seem right'.

 

When students have approached me about a serious concern that they have, it is easy to apply teacher training advice, which is, explain to the student that their concerns need to investigated and that you will be notifying other people who can help them. But not all child protection issues are presented in a clear cut way and it is equally important to be able to recognise when ‘things are not quite right’ and the students do not want to talk. In these situations it can be difficult to identify the cause and in reality a classroom teacher does not have to ‘investigate’ the cause but if there is any concern for the child’s well-being it needs to be flagged up or forwarded on for investigation.

One example that springs to mind is when a Year 7 student was terrified because he had got paint on his school shirt, it was water based paint and most of it was removed with water but he was inconsolable and said that his mum will tell him off and ‘ground’ him. I spoke with his mum who was very pleasant and she could not understand why he would react this way and that she expected some paint on clothes even when wearing an apron. The two reactions did not make sense. The same fear continued and the child was monitored closely, other remarks brought to light a behavioural problem and support was put in place.

Sometimes doodles and absent writings in the margin are just as insightful, I have flagged up ‘I want to kill myself’ notes retrieved from the bin and drawings of a burning school not because I believe that these are viable threats but instead are either cries for help or a sign of unhappiness. Whatever the reason is, somebody needs to talk with the student about their feelings. It is all too easy to dismiss these as attention seeking or idle threats but in my experience it is the child that goes to lengths to conceal or not draw attention to these notes/images that is most at risk. Of the most serious child protection incidents I have been involved with; it is usually during normal conversation on a 1:1 basis that the child will raise their concern. One very vulnerable girl with mild learning difficulties was telling me about being part of a play outside of school and that she was learning to dance, I asked her if she enjoyed it and she said she did, except for one part, when her dance teacher hurts the inside of her legs when she doesn’t open them far enough and he gets annoyed with her. It might have been innocent but it did not sound right so I ‘flagged it up’.

A 17 year old boy said to me during one lesson that he wanted his project to be based on the ‘Perfect Family’ and how the façade was for the appearance to others when behind the scenes, the father was a controlling bully who kept the family living in an environment of fear and had done for many years and in particular there was physical violence towards the teenage son and the mother was powerless to stop it; at this stage it became evident from the emotion he was displaying that this was very personal to him and I asked if this was based on himself and his family and he broke down in tears and said ‘yes’ .

As teachers we rely on and need the support and service that both pastoral and student services provide. Child protection officers have a difficult ‘juggling act’ to do between protect the student’s private details and notifying teachers about any serious issues; a 17 year old girl student of mine was frozen with fear when her father turned up for an annual event showcasing some of her work; he was soon to appear in court charged with years of sexual abusing her.

As teachers we are increasingly being asked to look for any signs from students that may indicate a problem either at home or from other sources and the range has many complexities attached; the signs may well be non-verbal.

While co-ordinating a task which involved using scissors I noticed that an A level student of mine had chosen to use his left hand and was struggling, when I commented he said that he just needed to rest his right hand. After I offered to cut the artwork out and he accepted I realised that there was a problem and after the lesson I spoke with him about his hand. He was evasive and dismissive at first and then said that he sometimes loses the use of his right hand and on occasions the use of his arm. I enquired how long this had been happening and whether his parents knew this, he said a few weeks and that he had not mentioned it to his parents. He said that he had just started driving lessons and if he mentioned it they might stop his lessons; I explained that this could be an indication of something serious and that he needs to a get medical appointment as soon as possible. He was still concerned about his driving lessons being stopped and I could not reassure him that these would not be affected for now but I did tell him that if something serious is left untreated then his ability to drive would definitely be affected in the future. I also mentioned that I am duty bound to inform his parents and that I hoped he understood it was for his own benefit.

There have been many moments when I have thought that contacting a parent might make a situation more volatile, for example the Year 7 boy who feared paint splashes or the Year 8 girl who begged not to mention she was being bullied for fear of being grounded for a week by her foster parents, it transpired that both students had vivid imaginations, the boy was unable to separate his version of truth from reality and firmly believed he was the descendant of the Prussian Royal family, whereas the girl was more skilful at deflecting her bullying antics by portraying herself as the ‘victim’. Teachers are not (usually) professionally trained in psychology or social care and it is the support network as a whole which is in place to help students but we have a vital role in addition to teaching our subject and that is our duty of care.

The most rewarding words ever said to me were from a Year 7 student, who was in the care system,

‘ I have had a rubbish life so far. Bad things have happened and keep happening to me, but Sir, when I am in your class I feel safe and I want to stay there forever’

‘Safe Guarding’ is an apt phrase for what we do.


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