By Rosie and Jo’s mum.
“When she’s in school, she’s fine…..”
“Once you’ve dropped her off, she’s fine.”
“She’s been fine all day.”
I’ve probably heard these phrases and other variations of them hundreds of times over the years.
When I had watched the 12 year old Rosie grow progressively more pale and anxious as the morning progressed, coaxed her to eat a couple of mouthfuls of breakfast, seen her struggle to gather the courage to get into the car, sat in the car park for two hours until she could force herself to get out of the car and go into school, someone in school would look me square in the eye and tell me that she would be ‘fine’.
I knew she wasn’t ‘fine’. I knew she was going through a tough time but they chose to see only the mask and declare her to be fine.
Even when the CAMHS psychologist was telling me and the school that she was stressed and anxious in school, they declared her to be ‘fine’.
When her seven year old sister was running away on the way to school and would be non-verbal, throwing her shoes and bag across the kitchen when we arrived home after school, the school declared her to be ‘fine’.
When she had to be peeled off me hysterical in the school doorway, they would call me ten minutes later and tell me she was ‘fine now’.
Professionals made recommendations about how to support them in school to reduce their stress and anxiety but the teachers often didn’t see the need to implement them because ‘She’s fine in school.’ There were clear and sometimes recorded assumptions that the problem must be at home.
My children weren’t ‘fine’ – far from it….
The professional’s reports undertaken for our latest appeal to the SEND tribunal all agreed that Jo couldn’t communicate her distress in school but that it was significant. They also agreed that the trauma of the year of having her needs ignored is serious.
I did my best. I told staff verbally, daily at the school gate and in meetings. I emailed descriptions of the distress I saw at home. I recorded the girls’ thoughts and wishes and sent them to school and CAMHS. I helped them to talk to other adults and explained the things they couldn’t say for them.
Jo is now in a school where they choose to see behind the mask (see ‘Masking’ and ‘Blending In’). Where they believe me when I tell them she is upset or anxious about something. Where they can see that looking fine just means she is unable to communicate. Where they welcome the sad faces and reward her for telling them she can’t do something.
They can see that looking fine doesn’t mean she is fine and they understand the harm that chronic stress and anxiety cause to children.
“She is fine in school” means:
- She isn’t causing the staff a problem
- The signs of her distress are subtle so easy to ignore
- She isn’t causing any disruption to the class
- She is managing her anxiety by copying her peers and trying to blend in
- She can’t communicate her emotions
- Her attempts to communicate can be attributed to bad behaviour
- The staff can’t/don’t want to see what you are telling them is there
- School staff can assume that you must be doing something wrong at home
- She doesn’t feel safe enough in school to be herself
- She is causing herself harm by holding in her distress for hours on end
- She will be exhausted by the effort of holding it together
- She is making acceptable academic progress
“Fine in school” means that the teacher’s needs are being met by the child and nothing more. Teachers should be taught to clearly differentiate their needs from those of the child and understand that, if they start focusing on the child’s needs, then their own will probably be met too.
I would like to make a rule that no adult is ever allowed to use the word ‘fine’ about a child again. They should be taught (and expected) to properly describes what is actually happening for that child in that situation (see Professionals in Education make Too Many Assumptions?).
Fine is a cop-out and often completely wrong.
If this relates to your situation then this post may help you to think about how to approach the situation – It’s not fair but I hope this will help to make it easier.
If you would like to understand more about why teachers seem to lack insight into their poor understanding this may help: When Professionals are Incompetent.