Unsentimental compassion: Our gift to our children, our need throughout life

In her KCA blog on 7 February, Sally Poskett commented that

“… we are blessed with a workforce of people driven by authentic, unsentimental compassion who are willing, in the face of increased levels of toxic stress in our communities, to work doggedly to bring about transformation.”

Since Sally wrote this, toxic stress has certainly not reduced in our communities, and I share her sense of awe and gratitude towards the people who continue to provide services to children and families facing all the challenges of life in the UK in the twenty-first century: people who day by day expose themselves to the ravages of toxic stress, knowing that their own capacity to absorb and transform this toxicity will protect vulnerable children and families from future harm and promote recovery from past harm.

What is toxic stress in the community?

Let us take a scenario. Here is a 13-year-old child who lives at home with a younger brother who is at primary school, a two-year-old sister, a mother who works in a nursery (also attended by the two-year-old), and a stepfather who drives a lorry. They live in a rented two-bedroom flat, and they have been given notice to leave as the landlord is selling up. At the same time the owners of the nursery have lost some sources of funding and are recognising that their business may be hitting insolvency.

The 13-year-old attends a local comprehensive school which has recently become an academy, with substantial changes in the senior leadership team. The school has instituted a new behaviour policy in line with recent Government guidance on behaviour and discipline. Staff are struggling to adjust to these changes, and there has been a rise in staff absence for sickness and also a rise in turnover of staff at all levels.

Everyone in this scenario is in a state of stress. It may seem exaggerated, yet the chances are high that the equivalent or worse is happening in a community near you.

When we are able to regulate stress it does us no harm, and can be a source of energy and motivation. But when stress is at a level we cannot regulate, it becomes toxic. Toxic stress puts our brains and nervous systems into survival mode. Reactions speed up and we lose the ability to self-regulate, to stop and think before we act, to share our thoughts and feelings with others or to care for their well-being. Toxic stress leads to chaos in the community, as Bessel van der Kolk, Alexander McFarlane and Lars Weisaeth noted as long ago as 1996 in their ground-breaking book ‘Traumatic Stress: the effects of overwhelming experience on mind, body and society’.

What is unsentimental compassion?

Neuroscience in recent years has been adding astonishing dimensions to our understanding of the importance of human connectedness, with authors such as Louis Cozolino and Daniel Siegel making the research accessible for us to apply to our own communities and work settings. They make it clear that being able to connect to other mature humans is a fundamental need for developing and maintaining healthy brain function. In this context we suggest, following and expanding on the work of John Gottman on Emotion Coaching, that compassion and reason can be seen as the key attributes of a mature human.

Developmentally, compassion begins with our innate physical capacity to attune to others, mirroring the stressed state of their nervous system. Then we develop the ability to process and make sense of this incoming information so that it is clear to us that the stress originates in the other person and not in us, and we begin to have empathy. And finally as we continue towards maturity we develop the capacity to set all this attunement and empathy in the context of a caring relationship, and we experience compassion.

The other axis of the power of relationship is reason. This begins as we acquire from other mature and compassionate individuals the ability to self-regulate when our nervous system is affected by stress. This settling of the nervous system enables us to think about what is happening. Then we develop the ability to communicate about these experiences, so that we, having been helped and guided by mature people are in turn able to help and guide others. And finally we develop mature reasoning capacity in which we can set such experiences into a wider context of meaning and purpose.
It is only when we can exercise both high compassion and high rationality that we can safeguard our children and young people and make decisions that protect and do no harm.

What happens to compassion and reason when stress is at toxic levels?

Toxic stress is biologically linked to intense fear, and fear disturbs our balance, destroying the capacity for unsentimental compassion. Relationships, the core of healthy development and function, then change.

Sometimes we lose the ability to self-regulate when attuned with the stressed person. Then our capacity to reason is disrupted although we still experience compassion. This compassionate unreason manifests itself as sentimentality at best and as panic or paralysis at worst. So, for example, our stressed 13-year-old reacts to being corrected by losing control and the stressed teacher panics. Instead of being able to connect to the child and enable them to calm down, the frightened teacher summons help, setting in motion a potentially unstoppable train of events.

Or toxic stress may destroy both the capacity for compassion and for reason, and the cold unreason that results is evident all around us wherever people show disconnection from others and unpredictably changeable responses based solely on self-interest and survival. This disconnection can be seen in services for children in which the adults feel vulnerable and afraid. It can be seen in policy-makers and leaders who produce reports and guidance based on narratives of fear. The help the teacher summons will be guided by a behaviour policy that may have no link with the needs of children for connection and co-regulation.

And finally, toxic stress and the intense fear it produces can destroy compassion while leaving people with the capacity for survival-based thinking and cold calculation. Again this cold reason is all too obvious in the world around us, resulting in services that resort to coercion and oppression in the name of order and safety, and leadership and guidance that can seem to imply that children and young people are the enemy to be subdued rather than our own vulnerable young. Our 13-year-old may find themselves increasingly adrift in such a coercive environment, and what began as behaviour showing the need for caring co-regulation becomes a young person excluded from school.

Unsentimental compassion and community resilience

If we are to support and maintain the health and well-being of our children and young people, then it is clear we must support the health and well-being of those who live and work with them. If our children are to receive the gift they need of unsentimental compassion from the adults around them, then those adults must in turn recognise themselves, and be recognised by all of us, as having the same need for unsentimental compassion.

The challenge, then, is to widen our own capacity for compassion and reason. Can we find compassion not only for the vulnerable child who has just been excluded from school, but also for the harassed teacher who disconnected from them, panicked and summoned help? Can we find compassion not only for the teacher, but also for the overwhelmed senior leaders who have disconnected from the child and from the teacher and from the parents, and produced and implemented a behaviour policy that excludes the most vulnerable? Can we find compassion for the parents whose own toxic stress has had such an impact on the ability of their child to self-regulate and manage the social demands of school? And finally, can we use our reasoning power to make sense of this whole story in a way that might reduce the overall burden of toxic stress and lead to a better outcome for everyone?

Resilient communities enable adults to maintain the delicate balance between compassion and reason that lies at the heart of well-being and health for our children and young people. We all have a part to play in promoting and sustaining this community resilience.

‘What is this life if, full of care/ We have no time to stand and stare’

By Felicia Wood, Training Director, KCA

Having been lucky enough to be on my travels in far-off climes recently, the idea of connection has had me thinking. Attachment and relationships are all about connection and it seems that we are living in a cyber world that is increasingly encouraging us to do this remotely. Take the ubiquitous mobile phones which may be seen being used for little talking, but much scrolling, texting, emailing, TV watching… I could go on. There is increased questioning about the effect this has on the interpersonal skills of individuals and communities, but it has recently struck me with some force that our addiction to social media is preventing other kinds of connections too.

Take the man who bothered to clamber up a very steep, long, rocky jungle path to reach the top of a waterfall and a spectacular view. He climbed alone in sweltering 35°C heat. Four other people (myself included) were at the top. He ignored everyone, walked to the edge of the waterfall, took a photo with his phone, turned 180°, took another photo and began his climb back down. He wasn’t up there for more than a minute. I don’t think at any point he looked at another human being or stopped to let his eyes consider the breathtaking display that nature had provided. I am sure, however, that the small photo on his phone will be shown as proof of him bearing witness to that beauty.

But I don’t think this man witnessed anything of the sort. He undertook a purposeful, tiring journey and, at the end game, missed the whole point of it. There was no connection with the environment around him. He was in a bubble of futuristic possibility which would enable him to enjoy his phone’s version of a beautiful view at some other point in time rather than living in the moment and seeing what was in front of him. Truly, a missed opportunity.

When I have the opportunity to talk to audiences about attachment and connections between people, I often use the phrase, ‘listen with your eyes’. I would argue that any connection takes a commitment to using our senses, not through a media device or electronic gadget, but in the old-fashioned, freestyle manner that involves a willingness to be aware of how our bodies are responding to an environment and, potentially, others within it. But in order to connect with others effectively, we first need to be able to connect with ourselves. It seems to me that for all the magic that media can provide, finding the time to sit and enjoy a moment wholeheartedly as an individual, unsullied by other distractions, is a gift that we would all benefit from indulging in. So I return home with a few photos, it’s true, but with also a promise to find and enjoy those unsullied, gadget-free moments much more often.

2017 – The Year of the Dad?

By Jonathan Rallings, Non-Executive Director, KCA

Few people would have failed to notice that, 50 years on from the sexual revolution, this decade is beginning to see considerable changes in notions of gender. The generation currently emerging into adulthood appears to have a much more fluid sense of gender expectations than ever before ‒ with terms such as ‘genderless’, ‘cis-gender’ or ‘pan gender’ now commonly used by increasing numbers of young people raised to deconstruct traditional notions of gender imposed by society. Gay marriage has passed into law, transgender communities are more openly campaigning for rights, and women continue to break new ground in terms of opportunities – whether it be outnumbering males in university or increasing female participation at all levels of society (albeit with still a degree of progress to be made before this is fully representative).

Yet despite a more tolerant and progressive climate, there still seems to be one area in which traditional gender roles assert themselves as strongly as ever ‒ that of parenthood. It seems that no matter how equal a partnership may be in its early stages, once children enter the picture, then many revert to a much more traditional model of man as provider and woman as carer.

In the past much of this lack of progress has been put down to a male-dominated society. But in the 2010s this theory no longer holds as much weight. For one thing, women have far greater autonomy in the workplace than previous generations – indeed recently it was reported that women in their twenties have now not only closed the gender pay gap, but overtaken the earnings of young men providing more impetus for them to become the ‘breadwinner’ after having children. At the same time the appetite of young men to play a bigger role in their children’s lives is clearly growing in the UK – the amount of time the average father spends with their child has risen sevenfold since the 1970s, whilst the number of fathers who act as primary caregiver has quadrupled in just 25 years, albeit from low initial levels.

But still so often fathers report feeling out of place looking after their children in public, from having to field patronising comments like ‘it’s so nice to see a man looking after a child’, to more worryingly being viewed with suspicion, usually by women, as a potential threat to their own or other children. Similarly, as the workplace has become more flexible, many men are now facing their own form of discrimination through being refused part-time hours or flexible working by ‘old-school’ male bosses who would not dare to impose such restrictions on their female staff for fear of discrimination. Perhaps a particular gap is that there is a still a dearth of literature and support available for dads during pregnancy and in the early years when compared to what is targeted at mothers. At KCA we have found, for instance, that our Five to Thrive approach seems to receive particularly good feedback from dads who welcome some basic principles of how they can parent effectively and learn what they can do both to enhance their child’s development and play a role in reducing the stress of their partner who often takes the role of the ‘primary’ caregiver.

Perhaps these are all reasons why the issue of fathers has been rapidly rising towards the top of the political agenda in the last few years as policy increasingly looks out of step with the wants and needs of families in our age. Although David Cameron’s Life Chances Strategy, which had promised to prioritise fatherhood, has now been abandoned, it is known that Whitehall has spent much time in the last year looking at the issue. It would be a surprise if Theresa May’s government did not include at least some of this learning within its forthcoming Social Justice Green Paper. Elsewhere the Women and Equalities Committee recently announced a new inquiry looking at whether fathers are being treated equally in the workplace. Whilst at the same time a new coalition – the Fathers Development Foundation – is set to shortly bring together interested parties from across the sector to help provide a measured voice advocating for fathers and fatherhood. Dads are becoming a hot topic in Westminster!

It’s clear that there is much work that can be done to better support fathers. More and better information and guidance for one – particularly that which gives dads the tools to understand how they can develop their own bespoke role as parent, rather than prescriptive materials which try to mould them into ‘mini-mums’. But to achieve cultural change we also need to create an environment which facilitates a more equal approach to parenting. Perhaps one initial step towards this might be to include ‘Paternity’ as a protected characteristic in the Equalities Act 2010 alongside ‘Pregnancy and Maternity’? This would help set a tone for public services and employers alike to consider their practice towards fathers to ensure they are not discriminated against.

Ultimately, though, it is only through mothers and fathers seeing the benefits of equality and working together that real advances will be achieved. When asked to show cultural change as being possible most policy makers point to drink-driving, wearing seat-belts, or the smoking ban as concrete examples. I would proffer that the proportion of men now present at the birth of their child constitutes a positive revolution for those of us raised just a few decades before on the stereotype of men sitting anxiously in hospital waiting rooms. Now it’s time for both parents to demand a society which values fathers retaining that presence right throughout childhood.

A Day of Contrasts

By Sally Poskett, Business Development Director, KCA

Last Wednesday I travelled with a colleague to Uxbridge to speak at the Hillingdon Designated Teachers Forum. Organised by Hillingdon’s Virtual School for Looked After Children the agenda was to explore effective and appropriate use of Pupil Premium money. KCA had been invited to share information about our work on attachment awareness in schools.

On the way there, I receive an email from our Training Director, Felicia Wood, that included this link.

The news item was that a secondary school in Brent was looking to recruit a ‘Director of Discipline’. The advert for this position included three questions:

Do you like order and discipline?

Do you believe in children being obedient every time?

Do you believe that allowing children to make excuses is unkind?’

As I read on my heart sank. Images started popping into my head: Miss Trunchbull from Roald Dahl’s Matilda; disturbing images of 6-foot-tall, 3-foot-wide men in combat fatigues sanctioned to abuse children in American boot camps.

With these thoughts bubbling away, I delivered my 10-minute presentation on why attachment awareness in schools is so important and how current findings from neuroscience about the neurophysiology of relationships are helping us to find new ways to think about how we respond to behaviour and close the attainment gap.

The second presentation was from Jake Curtis, the Director of Programmes and Operations at Jamie’s Farm. This wonderful charity offers a unique combination of ‘farming, family and therapy’ that aims ‘to re-engage children with educational life, and enable them to fulfil their potential both in school and the wider social setting.’ Listening to Jake’s presentation it was clear that, whilst the team at Jamie’s Farm know that the activity and the environment they provide are important factors, the key to their success is their workforce. Jake described the team at Jamie’s Farm as ‘nurturing, warm and authentic adults’. As I listened on I could have added into that ‘assertive, confident, passionate, committed…’.

The next presentation was from a primary school assistant headteacher, who I won’t name to ensure the anonymity of the young person at the centre of the case study he shared. The case study was about how he, the school staff team and other professionals around a young person in care had worked together to prevent exclusion and respond to a recent placement breakdown. He described how he, as a school leader, had given his colleagues the support they needed to stay resilient so that they could respond to the trauma-based needs presented by the young person. He explained that they had located the effort of the team around the child on supporting the new foster carer to establish herself as the young person’s primary attachment figure. He celebrated that the adults around this young person had been able to bring her back to a secure base and that she was now expected to do very well in the next round of SATs.

I was left in no doubt that the narrative this young person was being given the opportunity to build was:

You are a bright, strong, lovable person. There are things that have happened in your life that are very painful and would not in an ideal world happen to any child, but we can’t change those things. We can, however, determine that you will not be excluded from school and that all the adults around you are pulling together to do all we can to ensure you can get the very best out of school and your new foster placement. It is not OK for you to lash out at people or disrupt other people’s time in school, so the adults are going to ensure that this doesn’t happen and, all the while, will keep you and everyone in the school community safe.’

We are facing an emotional well-being and mental health crisis in this country that is hitting our young people hardest. We do not yet fully understand how and if this is exacerbated by digital media, the politics of envy, the experience of relative deprivation and the widening gap between the richest and poorest.

However, neuroscientific findings are helping us to have greater understanding than ever about what people need to thrive and how the relationships between people are the key to turning the curve. The link to the advert that Felicia had sent me had filled me with anxiety. Listening to the other contributors at the forum reminded me that we are blessed with a workforce of people driven by authentic, unsentimental compassion who are willing, in the face of increased levels of toxic stress in our communities, to work doggedly to bring about transformation.

This day of contrast reconfirmed my belief that focusing effort on building and maintaining the resilience of that workforce is fundamental. And that if some pupil premium is used to support and develop the workforce so that they in turn are able to effectively help children and young people to develop self-regulation, then this will be money well spent.

When will the time be right to look at life chances?

By Jonathan Rallings, Non-Executive Director, KCA

As any follower of social policy will tell you, it is those times of the year when most people are winding down – Easter, Summer, Christmas – that you need to be most alert for change. For it is in those periods around a parliamentary recess where governments most often trigger unwanted policies or bury failures, hopeful that attention will be distracted or directed elsewhere. So it proved at the end of 2016 when, in the week before Christmas, work and pensions minister, Damian Hinds, admitted that David Cameron’s ambitious Life Chances Strategy, announced with great fanfare last January, had been quietly jettisoned by the government.

That Life Chances has been abandoned is perhaps less surprising than the fact that the government had adamantly stuck to its intent to publish, despite delaying the intended summer release due to the tumultuous political events which saw its principal proponent unseated as Prime Minister. But what will replace it? The present government is nearing two years in power and so far it has singularly failed to present any overarching vision for how it is going to address social mobility and poverty, which is rapidly becoming the political issue of our times. Some would say that this is inevitable in a period where Brexit is dominating the political discourse. Yet is this a valid excuse? Many, if not most, commentators believe the unexpected vote for Britain to leave the EU was at least in part caused by growing social inequality which politicians have not adequately managed during an era of globalisation.

Indeed Theresa May’s rhetoric in her leadership campaign messaging, and her maiden conference speech, has carried on Cameron’s alleged intent to create a more just society, now particularly focusing on improving life for those ‘Just About Managing’ (the latest rather distasteful label dreamt up by the political classes because it makes an easy acronym – ‘JAMS’). But so far the key material actions since the 2015 election seem to have been to downgrade the child poverty targets built into law by the last Labour administration in favour of more convoluted means of measurement, and an attempt to withdraw tax credits from millions of the most vulnerable families which was only narrowly averted after substantial political opposition.

Perhaps even more concerning for those of us in the children’s sector, though, is the inaction which is leading to potentially greater problems for the future. Even though the concept of early intervention now commands almost universal support among mainstream politicians, a report last year from the children’s sector projected that by 2020 early intervention funding is set to reduce by 71% in real terms over the course of the decade, even as we have invested in the Early Intervention Foundation to coordinate ‘what works’. A consultation on the future of children’s centres was announced in June 2015 and is still yet to materialise over 18 months later, even as reports come in of centres all over England closing, or coming under budget pressures. A clear national framework for consistent and useful parenting support at varying levels from basic advice to highly targeted approaches for those most in need still hasn’t materialised.

Additionally, though, inactivity means that present policy falls further behind the reality of people’s lives on the ground. Thus we still are not adequately addressing disturbing declines in children’s mental health, often linked to the internet, which are stopping growth. There is a growing need to help young people transitioning from education to employment even as careers advice has been stripped back and compulsory work experience abolished in schools. And as gender stereotypes continue to become increasingly meaningless to many young families, there is still far too little to support the active engagement of fathers through both public services and the workplace – leaving many frustrated, and mothers put upon. This is something it was understood Life Chances would be particularly tackling, even as the Women and Equalities Committee launches its own inquiry.

Mr Hinds has promised a Social Justice Green Paper this spring which it is understood will incorporate elements of the Life Chances work. Precisely which is at this stage unclear, but after such a long period of inactivity what is most important is to get the ball rolling with policy debate and discussion as soon as possible. Without it the life chances of the present generation of children may look very bleak indeed.