Inside the school with the toughest kids in town

Thursday, January 24, 2019

You know them as the troublemakers. The kids creating chaos in class - ignoring the teacher, disrupting others, unable to just sit still and learn. They're the kids other schools get rid of. We see them as the kids we need to hold on to.

We are the school that takes on the toughest kids - because we're really good at it. I always say my job as the guidance counsellor is the best job in town. A lot of our kids are outside the bell curve of normality - they might have learning difficulties or social or behaviour issues. In our year sevens and eights, probably half the students need a bit more awhi [support] than the average kid. You could easily get overwhelmed by the need, but I focus on helping one child at a time. Like the boy who came to us with anger management issues three years ago. He was all over the shop. Now, he's loving it. That's a common story.

The first question we ask is, "What's going on for you?" Often you get the parents in and they're just overwhelmed - and it often stems from poverty. I'm seeing more and more of it.

Some kids come to school with no lunch - their parents just can't afford it. Sometimes if a kid is sick and you ring the parents to pick them up, but they don't have any petrol. We drop them off instead. Home might not be stable place. Rising rents have forced families to move in together. Now I always ask kids "Who do you live with at home?' Many get their fingers out and count... six, seven, eight... then they have to stop and think. In a 3 bedroom house there will be as many as 16 people. You can't tell me they're getting a good quality sleep every night.

But we're not just dealing with material poverty - it's poverty of spirit as well. You get kids who don't have that curiosity. They don't wonder about things. I think it's because their brain has been hard-wired to be in survival mode. The children have been in poverty since they were born. When their brain was forming in those crucial first 1000 days, they learn you don't need these fancy bells and whistles in your brain, you just need to be able to survive and breathe and find enough to eat. It's about just doing enough to get by.

If you ask them about their holidays, they'll say "it was pretty boring, I just stayed at home playing video games." They've spent the whole time at home, looking after their siblings, because there's no money for anything special. They don't get to go on any enriching trips to the museum or the beach or the pools, so they're just not experiencing the fullness of the world. They're happy to be back at school.

And here we can make a difference. We won't let poverty define these kids. Case by case, we look at what we can do for each student and what will keep them at school. There's an old saying that kids don't care what you know until they know you care. So we wrap support around them. We show them we care about them as a person.

Thanks to the charity KidsCan, if they come to school with no shoes, we give them new shoes. If they come to school with no jacket and they're cold, they'll come and grab a warm jacket. Hunger is a huge determinant of behaviour, so we do Breakfast Club and Lunch Club, supplemented with KidsCan food. You give them a big feed and send them off to class and they're set up well for the day.

Food helps keep them here. Our Lunch Club is cranking. As soon as the bell goes, the kids are running over from class. They wolf it down. One kid told me his lunch was the only hot meal he gets to eat all day. Often they go home to toast or noodles. But at school, they know they can come and get a snack any time, no questions asked. That's huge for them.

When we know they're warm and fed, we figure out what engages each child. We've got one student who is 14, but operating at about an 8-year-old level, but he loves cars, knows all the parts. So everything we do with him involves cars. Any kind of writing he does the teacher adapts it so it can be about cars. I can see him working in a car wreckers one day. Dismantling cars and loving it. And that's kept him in school. He could easily have been gone a long time ago.

The knee-jerk reaction is we've got to get rid of that kid, they're a massive problem, they're affecting the learning of so many other students, they've just got to go. But what are the repercussions of that? A kid who has left school at 13, facing the world on their own. Of course they're likely to fall into gangs and crime. We must look beyond that 'troublemaker' label and help them.

And we know, once we can get them into the senior school, they mature and just come right. It's astounding. We get a lot of students coming back to visit us and they're working now and you know they're going to be alright. And it's like jeez you could have easily gone the other way.It's lovely. It's really rewarding. It's what the job's all about. The best job in town

You can help kids reach their potential by giving them the basics they deserve - food, shoes, a warm jacket and health items. Support a child now