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Interview with SEN Head Teacher Chris Pollitt.

This interview is with Chris Pollitt who is Head Teacher at Brooke School, a Special Education facility in Rugby. If you'd like to find out more about the school, you can do so here: http://www.brookeschool.co.uk

What is your underlying philosophy when it comes to communicating with children?

There are three aspects to my underlying philosophy - I'm going to do them in reverse order actually.

There needs to be a desire, for children, they need to want to communicate, they need to be able to say that actually, if I communicate this, my life's going to change so much. The phrase is, developing the 'Emotional Regulation' so that the child can see the benefits of communication. So they can actually think, "I can see a benefit, I can see a joy, I can see that this is going to make me feel so much happier - and actually it's going to help me deal with the feeling not so happys too."

We need to give the skills to communicate, whether it's through verbal communication or a range of different ways, we need to have a strategy, to identify for the children what the strategies are. The most important thing we need to do though is that we need to be receptive to communication, and the phrase, I believe, is 'Transactional Support'. If a child wants to communicate, if a child is using all the strategies they can, both the ones they're taught and the ones they pick up themselves, then we've got to be receptive to it. If we can master that, then that's how communication happens.

So I think it comes down to the Social Communication Strategies, the Emotional Regulation and the Transactional Support, and I think that’s it. It’s not just about giving the skills, it’s about does the child want to communicate, making them sure that communication can bring so much to them, and then the other thing is being receptive to those communications. It might not be with symbols, but every single time they want to communicate, we respond.

In the years that you have spent finding effective ways to communicate with children, what would be your number one tip?

Respond. Absolutely response. Whatever a child does, however they do it, whatever the observable phenomena, it’s a level of communication. There’s a phrase which - before I started Headship - it’s linked to the FISH philosophy, which says, “Be there.” So the biggest, the bottom line, with the symbols, the signs, the language they use… it's actually being responsive. Whatever that child does, be responsive and acknowledge that communication. It’s the only tip.

When has it all gone horribly wrong for you, and what did you do to fix it?

It’s gone horribly wrong when I’ve felt and thought that the source of success in communication was just giving children the strategy. That’s when it goes wrong, it goes wrong not just for me, it goes wrong for everyone. So when we say, actually, we want this child to communicate, we’re going to give them symbols, we’re going to give them picture exchange, but we’re not going to in any way respond to them appropriately and we’re not going to in any way actually help them to be in the right place to communicate, that’s when it goes horribly wrong, because what happens then is that the child learns to hate to communicate, and they think that actually it’s more stress to communicate than if they just keep it to themselves. “What’s the point… what’s the point because I’m communicating now and I’m being told off for it. I’m communicating now and nobody’s responding to it. I’m communicating now and actually they’re not understanding at all because they’re not giving me the time to respond."

Are there any rules that encompass all age groups - if not what are the differences?

In the context of Special Education, I think 'age' is a misleading word, I think it’s probably more conceptual. I think that in conceptual groups, common factors are, as I’ve said before, a willingness to respond - and a willingness to observe as well. We almost adopt, sometimes, a textbook approach to communication - I’ve never read a textbook that encompasses all conceptual groups. It is about observation, it’s about responding, and I think that’s the key in all year groups. There are differences in conceptual stages, and that’ll come as the child develops those communication strategies, but the essence is always the same. We want to communicate, we’ve got to communicate, we’ve got to be models of communication, we’ve got to respond to communication, so when it comes down to the bottom line - that’s it.

If you could make one cultural change with a click of your fingers with relation to children, what would it be?
Just the one?!! I think there’s a lack of understanding. I think especially, there’s a lack of understanding that mental health is for all age ranges, you could have a toddler with mental health issues, but actually we assume that only adults suffer with it, but put that on a child…. the baggage that children have to carry these days - well most adults would collapse. So I think, if I wanted to make a cultural change, that actually when people are making judgements about children’s behaviour, I’d say well actually no, tell yourself, "I need to understand this more." The cultural change would be doing more to understand, and finding time to understand - it goes back to what I said before about observing and responding to children. So a cultural change - more understanding.

Something else, I love this, I share this with visitors, it’s about the notion of play.

There’s so much done, everyone says children should play through primary, they should play, they should play, they should play - then teenagers, not allowed to play. "Grow up!" Then you get to adulthood, and companies spend billions on the benefits of play for adults, but at the most crucial time for emotional well-being, it’s prohibited to play. When actually, for me, teenage years are the years where all the play has to go to - because play incurs such a therapeutic process - and actually I think that’s difficult. I think Vanessa (Deputy Head) said before that trying to explain to parents the benefits of playing is actually quite difficult, but play will help children to become strong members of society.

It’s amazing - in primary you do so much stuff around role play, you have your corners and everything, about developing early real life skills, they're developing themselves. Then all of a sudden, STOP, sit down at a desk and I’m going to teach you stuff that will never, ever be used in your life, I’m going to teach you how to sit at a desk for six hours a day. So I think it’s that lack of understanding, and I think we’ve got to be faithful to what children need rather than what a textbook, or what a curriculum says from thirty years ago. It’s what children need now and a child of today is very different from a child of 1988, that’s when I was in school myself and I think the reality of... it seems a very distant reality. For some reason we’re not understanding children as much as we used to - well, I don’t think we even used to, I just think children have so many different pressures now.

What question do you think should be on this list? How would you answer it?

I think you probably covered it in the first one, with the philosophy of communication. I’m always interested in what people’s beliefs are, if you stripped it down and took communication out, what the world would look like.

Next week, I'll be publishing a similar interview with answers given by a couple young people, the contrast and matches with Chris's responses is quite interesting!