Extract: Playing with Fire – Mike Fairclough on moving children out of their comfort zones

In this extract from Playing with Fire, Mike Fairclough writes about how children are commonly being labelled with various mental health issues and limiting traits and how we, as teachers, can help them break out of these restrictions.

More than fears of what the HSE will do or what Ofsted might say, the biggest barrier to children having magnificent experiences is the low expectation teachers and parents have of the children in their care.

I recently drove my mud splattered Land Rover to the far side of the marsh where we teach our children shooting, fishing and beekeeping. It was raining hard and the ground was heavily waterlogged. A group of 16 children aged nine were lighting fires, gathering wood and erecting shelters with sticks and tarps. I joined them by the fire to have a chat and for them to make me a hot cup of coffee. Despite being wet and cold, all of the children, most of whom were girls, were smiling, happy and getting on with the job at hand. This may come as a surprise, given the harsh weather conditions, but we have come to expect this positive attitude from our children at West Rise. This is because, as a school, we have taught the children to be resilient and to venture out of their comfort zones.

The concept of people having a “comfort zone” was first conceived by psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John Dodson more than a 100 years ago. After many experiments, they concluded that “a state of relative comfort created a steady level of performance”. This state of relative comfort is the “comfort zone”.

However, if a person wants to increase their performance levels and to develop personally they need to step into a state of relative anxiety where their stress levels are slightly higher than normal. The psychologists labelled this state, “optimal anxiety,” which lies just beyond our comfort zone.

Since becoming the Headteacher of West Rise Junior School, as well as the Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator in 2004, I have observed a steady increase in discussions amongst professionals and parents about children’s perceived limitations, often sighting that they are anxious or lacking in self-esteem. I have also seen an increasing number of parents “diagnosing” their children with various disorders using internet questionnaires, simply because their children do not like change or they struggle in certain situations. The discussions have largely depended on what has been shown recently on television and therefore sparking people’s fears and influencing their views. This is not to say that some children do not suffer from anxiety or struggle with change, but it is definitely the case that some parents and professionals project their own limiting beliefs and traits on to the young people in their care.

I recognise that this may be controversial for some people to read, however I have had conversations with teachers and educational psychologists from across the country who have felt the same way but are too scared to talk about it. I am convinced that in the future adults will be seeking compensation from local authorities and external agencies for inaccurately labelling them with debilitating traits when they were children, which have then negatively affected their lives.

I believe that there is currently a trend for some parents and education professionals to interpret the effects of life’s challenges on children and label them with some sort of problem. This is in contrast to a culture where adults expect children to overcome their fears, build resilience and exceed expectations. An attitude to life fostered by my parents’ generation and of those before them. My parents, both of whom are in their 80s, grew up in the war years. My dad, the son of working class Irish immigrants and living in Manchester, was never evacuated from the city and remembers the Germans dropping bombs on his street in Droyslden. My mother was from a more affluent background and was evacuated to Canada, although this didn’t stop the Germans from trying to torpedo the ship she was on. Similarly, my great grandfather on my father’s side lied about his age during the outbreak of the First World War and found himself fighting in the trenches at the Battle of the Somme at the age of 15. I often wonder how the younger generations would fair in the face of such adversity. I am not saying that children should be made to struggle, but I do feel that we should have higher expectations of them and of ourselves.

There is no doubt whatsoever that some children do suffer from anxiety and depression and many children are accurately diagnosed with Autistic Spectrum Disorder, among other significant disorders. These children are then given the extra support that they need at home and at school. There are also other times when it is the parents themselves who don’t like change or who are anxious or depressed. Fuelled by misinformation on the internet and television, they then project these dynamics and fears onto their children. This dilutes the focus away from the children who genuinely need their support.

Throughout my years of teaching, I have seen many children who have been labelled with some kind of mental health issue or limiting trait, from anxiety through to lack of self-confidence, fear of change or depression. I have then observed the same children working outside in nature, in which they are not being labelled and where they are expected to rise to a particular challenge. More often than not, these children have demonstrated skills and attributes which were previously unobserved and shown confidence and courage, exceeding their own and others’ limiting beliefs.

I believe that getting children outside in all weathers, giving them new and expansive experiences, having high expectations of them and demanding resilience is what many children want and need. Having an aspirational “They can do it!” approach rather than a weak “they are unable to do this” attitude, helps push children out of their comfort zones and towards fulfilling their potential.

The culture of expecting every child to have some sort of psychological problem has got to end, especially if it appears that it has more to do with their parents’ or teachers’ fears and obstacles. What is even more worrying is when the concerns raised are the result of the media playing on people’s anxieties.

For those children who are accurately diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorder, ADHD or are depressed, West Rise has integrated and worked with these children too. I can recall several examples of children who I have been told will “not be able to cope” with working outside in the rain because they are autistic or cannot be trusted with a knife or a gun. These children in particular exceed everyone’s expectations every time. With appropriate support and a watchful eye, but even more importantly with trust in the young person and with high expectations, these children are able to enjoy learning which has an element of risk and danger just as much as their peers.

It is interesting, as I wrote earlier, that people generally assume that I am the headteacher of a nice little private school for middle class kids when I tell them about the activities I do with the children at my school. The school is populated primarily with children from working class backgrounds and every year group has children within it who are accurately diagnosed with ASD. Yet we engage in activities with an element of significant risk and danger with every child in the school. As a result, the children achieve, thrive and succeed.

After three hours of hard work in the rain and while completely wet and muddy, my Year Four children were still smiling after my visit with them. The long walk through the marshes back to school still lay ahead of them, but those children all had an aura of achievement and power about them. They had adopted attributes which, if encouraged, will serve them well throughout their lives in a world full of change and uncertainty. They had stepped out of their comfort zones and into that place where they can grow and achieve. A place where they can ultimately live their dreams and go beyond the constraints of others’ beliefs about them. Two of the children in the group were officially diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum, although the parent helpers who did not know them could never have known that.

It is important that we have high expectations of the children in our care and have a positive and aspirational outlook with regards to what they can do. I have had children with ADHD handle guns proficiently. I have had children who are low-attaining writers suddenly write magnificently after being immersed in nature. I have had girls who have run away from bees in the playground have thousands of them crawling all over them after lifting the lid off a hive, whilst wearing protective clothing. People have limitless potential and children deserve to be seen as capable of reaching their potential and then exceeding it.

Carefully managed exposure to risk and danger will enable children to have new experiences and to move beyond their comfort zones. Like a flower opening up, once they return to normal life, they will have expanded that little bit more. Each time they step outside of the comfort zone they expand again, building on their confidence and enthusiasm for life. It isn’t always easy, but that is the whole point.

Ideas for Teachers

There will always be a child in every class who the teacher feels will not be able to handle risk or be able to be trusted in a dangerous environment or situation. Assuming that the teacher has positive behaviour management skills, is well organised and takes full responsibility, there is no barrier to that child engaging in “dangerous” activities. The best way is to simply do it. Trust and high expectations must come first and must not be waited for. A child will know if they are trusted or not. The power of that trust, or lack of it, goes a very long way indeed and will often dictate the outcome.

Choose your groups carefully and have a balance of children who are known to be capable and responsible, with one or two who you have to keep a closer eye on. Usually, the “naughty ones” are thrown in to a group of their own and as everyone predicted they mess around and are told that they can never be trusted again. This is an example of poor management and a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is important to be one of those parents or teachers who believes in the child and is willing to give them a chance with the best possible conditions for success.

If it is a child on the autistic spectrum, pair them with an adult who enjoys being outside and wants to be there themselves. Prepare the child by telling them what they will be doing and show them photographs and videos of what they will do. Most of all, be really positive about the activities and tell them how brilliantly they are doing and have the highest possible expectations for success.

However, before you can expect children to move out of their comfort zones you need to be willing to move out of your own one first.

Mike Fairclough has been the Headteacher of West Rise Junior School since 2004. The School became the Times Educational Supplement School of the Year in 2015, in light of these achievements and does very well in the eyes of Ofsted, the Health and Safety Executive and in Statutory Tests for children.

You can watch his interview on ITV’s Good Morning Britain

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