‘He wants to be here’

August 13, 2006For many reasons, children in care are excluded from schools at a much higher rate than their peers. Malcolm Downes recently visited a small primary school to distil inspiration and some lessons from their work with a boy we will call Carl.

When 12-year-old Carl joined Rick Whitehead’s year 6-7 class at Gumeracha Primary School at the start of 2006 some things were going to go right for him for a change. But it didn’t seem likely at first. A traumatic personal history and some bad experiences at previous schools had left him perpetually anxious and angry, prone to walk out of class when asked to do school work and colourfully abusive when confronted.

Angela

Rick and Principal Angela Clacherty were not unprepared. They knew something of Carl’s history and just two weeks into the term met with Families SA and Education’s Student Inclusion and Wellbeing and Behaviour Support Coordinator to work out what could be done. A small table in a corner of Angela’s office became a refuge where Carl could safely work out his anger and frustration by pounding plasticine into extreme and sometimes beautiful shapes when tension in the classroom became too much. Fortuitously, Carl shared two of Rick’s passions, sport and music.

Rick

‘His eyes lit up when he saw the drum kit set up at the back of the class,’ Rick recalls.

The start of the football season also saw Carl playing for Gumeracha juniors wearing the same black and white club colours that Rick had worn a few years earlier.

Carl has developed a good relationship with Kassie Wildman, the energetic School Services Officer who works with him as a consequence of that first meeting. The four hours per week of support she provides has enabled him to tackle some tasks and situations that would have previously sent him racing outside.

He is enrolled in the music program, doing guitar on Monday and drums on Wednesday.

‘Occasionally he says he doesn’t want to go to music but after a bit of encouragement he usually does,” observes Rick, ‘but I think he just wants the extra attention.’

Still, Carl’s integration into the school community has not been smooth or easy and is far from complete.

‘Carl has good days and he has bad days and sometimes a bad day will be triggered by something outside of school,’ says Angela.

‘Tomorrow is a new day’ has become something of a mantra for Carl and those working with him, she explains.

The school has an excellent relationship with Carl’s carers, an aunt and uncle who are willing to provide the time and the commitment that he needs. There is trust and a sense of partnership that makes sure that issues that cross the boundary between Carl’s home and school life are supportively addressed.

Talking to Rick and Angela it becomes clear that their own close communication and shared willingness to work creatively and flexibly with Carl is one of his major assets in the school. Angela admits that not all teachers, including some on her own staff, would accept or be comfortable with the latitude that Carl is shown. A photo of Carl proudly holding up a school project beams down from above Angela’s desk and Rick comments on his great sense of humour. They clearly like Carl.

For Carl’s classmates too, these two terms have been a journey.

‘It became clear to them right from the start that Carl was troubled. There were questions and some resentment with a few kids asking why he got favourable treatment, why they had to do work and he didn’t,’ said Rick. He and Angela explain how these questions led to challenging discussions about rules and fairness and also about Carl’s needs and place in the class. Carl is now a part of the class. The minor disruptions are tolerated, his achievements are celebrated and some members of the class even take special pride in looking out for him.

Even with all that has been achieved, the future presents some challenges for Carl and his school. Rick estimates that he is at year three in his school work and admits that, with 24 other children to teach, he cannot put in the one-to-one tutoring that is needed. Carl’s emotional state still limits his ability to concentrate and academic progress is slow.

Next year he will go into year seven and beyond that there is the major challenge of high school.

For the time being, the immense achievement of his teachers, principal, carers classmates and support agencies to date are eloquently summarised by Angela Clacherty when she is able to say of Carl, ‘He wants to be here.’

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