Working with children who ‘hurt’ inside

I was on duty at break time. Out of the corner of my eye I could see a little boy hobbling across the playground. It was Leo in Year 2. He reminded me of a footballer hobbling off the pitch to see the physio (me) for treatment. I turned to look at him.

“Sir, I’ve hurt my leeeggggggggggg,” he moaned.

“Oh dear,” I said, looking closely at a leg that was now dribbling blood.

“What do you think we should do?” I said. Leo looked at me with wide and inquisitive eyes.

“Well, I could go inside and get a plaster maybe?”

“That’s a good idea. Go with Mrs. Maddison and get yourself sorted. Can you see her? She’s just over there,” I said pointing towards the main school building. “Make sure you sit inside for a minute to give it time to heal.”

Leo thanked me politely and hobbled over to Mrs. Maddison. Five minutes later, he was back outside playing tag with his friends. I grinned.

It feels good to help children heal. These sorts of events happen regularly on the playground. Children are born to get scrapes, bruises and cuts from games, playing out and climbing trees. Children should break their arm (or leg) once in their life too. Not from fighting or anything sinister but from trying a challenging kick-flip on the skate park, tackling an opponent in their first contact rugby game or doing a handstand in gymnastics. Then their friends can sign their cast. This is a good thing.

Don’t misinterpret what I’m saying here; I don’t wish hurt or pain on children. What I wish for is to see children safe and comfortable exploring the boundaries of their environment and the limits of their bodies. And adults should be there, laying in wait to help them heal – because they will heal, eventually. Then adults can watch them, five minutes later, playing with their friends again. This cycle of challenging the environment and the limits of bodily function is an important learning process for children and young people for all sorts of reasons. It’s one of the miracles of life that with all pain there is the opportunity for healing.


Hurting Inside

But not all children can show you their hurt. It is not physical and doesn’t dribble down their knee. It isn’t explicitly mental either…it’s simply inside. For some, it is slow burning, low-level and it gnaws at their precious soul. It has been going on for years. For others, it happens all of a sudden, one weekend in February and life is never the same again. Others hurt every so often, acutely; it comes in waves. Like the sea, their hurt is calm at some points in their lives but in others it is choppy, turbulent and devastating, wrecking everything in its path. The worst thing about it though, is that often they can’t share what’s wrong with the adults in their lives in an appropriate way. For these children, their hurt is something that we can’t stitch up or put a plaster over. For me, this sort of pain is not good for children. It should not happen. Ever.

The sort of pain I’m referring to here is the result of traumatic experiences of loss, trauma, abuse and neglect. Many of us know children who have gone through this. Not many of us know how to help them. And it breaks our hearts. We don’t know what to do. We feel gutted that we can’t ‘fix’ their lives or improve their circumstances. We wonder how we can help change them for the better. We wonder how we can help them heal – as a teacher, in a school and nothing more.

Why is this so difficult? Why, as adults in schools, can we not just put a plaster over pain inside children’s lives and just get on with teaching them Maths?

The first step, I think, is this: understand that children who have had traumatic experiences are hurting inside. This is important. When we know this, we can empathise. When we can empathise, we can build relationship. When we can build relationship we can help them heal. In many ways, it is no different to what I did with Leo. Let’s unpack that story in more detail.

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see a little boy limping…

 I firstly noticed Leo. I sawthe symptoms of his suffering and acknowledged them, shifting my attention towards him.

I turned to look at him.

 I listened. I made sure he could share with me his pain.

“What do you think we should do?”

 I gave him power to choose what to do. It was Leo’s hurt. Not mine. It’s a curious thing to know that when we ask questions to people with problems, often, given enough time, they can figure it out themselves.

 “…Make sure you sit inside for a few minutes to give it time to heal.”

 I made sure he gave himself time to heal. As Anthony Liccione said: “Pain will come with time but time will heal the pain”. For Leo, I knew a few moments inside would help the plaster stick to his leg a little longer before he came back out. I learned this the hard way!

Four simple things: noticing, listening, giving power and giving time. Are these the principles for helping children who hurt inside? Definitely not, they are far from it. Yet, interestingly, they come naturally when pain is physical but are forgotten when pain is inside. This is because we do not notice it.

Let’s begin by noticing the children who have gone through traumatic experiences as children who hurt in our schools. Maybe the rest will follow.

*For the record, Leo and Mrs. Maddison are not real and this story is fabricated to ensure anonymity. However, It is truethat I do my break duties!*


Other posts like this? See my review of Louise Bombér’s excellent book here.


3 thoughts on “Working with children who ‘hurt’ inside”

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