27 Apr

The importance of scaffolding social interactions and developing confidence is critical for young people to succeed outside of the safety of schools and colleges. As educators we have an important role to play in developing these through our everyday interactions and expectations of the young people we teach. 

While it is clear that some neurodivergent young people struggle with eye contact, for the majority of students this is an aspect of social communication that needs to be developed and practiced through the modelling and use of the communication and social skills that employers have long complained that young people are lacking when it comes to recruiting into roles in industry1, 2

I engage with employers seeking to fill roles from apprentice to graduate, and all comment on the need for applicants to be more than the sum of their academic qualifications. Those that have employability skills stand out among candidates at interview and assessment centres. This places those that have developed these skills and practiced them at a distinct advantage when seeking employment. 

Social media has played a part in these interpersonal skills being lost to many young people. With much of a teenagers’ life being led online, we are seeing a change to the way young people are interacting in person due to the nature of their increasingly online social interactions. While social media was an important lifeline to many of us during lockdown, the comparisons and worries that come hand-in-glove with these platforms is having a negative impact on their mental health3

According to Youngminds, 1 in 10 young people has a diagnosable mental health disorder, with 1 in 4 exhibiting some evidence of poor mental health. This means that the number of students in classrooms given a ‘K’ SEN status code for SEMH has risen over the last 4 years. We serve these young people a deficit curriculum if we do not explicitly teach the social norms that will see them successful in navigating the workplace in due course. In fact, meeting the Gatsby Benchmarks relies on Careers Leaders using input from employers to develop the curriculum. If employers are telling us that they are looking for employees that have good communication skills and can engage with others in a face-to-face setting, we should indeed be taking this whole school. 

The SLANT acronym often takes a beating from some quarters, claiming that it “demands eye-contact from neurodivergent students”. This is one of those lethal mutations we read and hear about at conferences. The ‘T’ stands for Track the speaker: Student attention spans differ. Looking in the direction of the speaker is a visual cue that the student is being attentive. Students should be encouraged to track both the teacher and other students who are presenting in class. Tracking the speaker will help students to be attentive and prevent them from getting lost or daydreaming in class.   

Encouraging all students to develop the metacommunication skills needed to facilitate positive communication is important to their future success. It prevents young people talking at each other while they listening to respond rather than to understand. Natural gaps in a conversation are being lost, as heavy social media users treat conversations as their personal broadcasting opportunities – we’ve all been in a conversation with someone that jumps in as you take a breath mid-sentence! 

Any group of people coming together from multiple backgrounds, with differing social cultures, norms and expectations, have to be pulled together with a strong culture that is over communicated to ensure all are reminded of shared values and norms. This does not mean that reasonable adjustments aren’t made to accommodate SEND needs, because these are accommodations. Just as we have the social norm of all find a suitable place to park their car when shopping, and make accommodations for disabled drivers, or accommodations were made regarding facemasks during the Covid-19 pandemic, reasonable adjustments are made in schools. 

Strategic policies need to work for the majority of students, and have accommodations built into them to allow for reasonable adjustments. Culture has to be strong enough to counteract any negative external culture seeping in, to keep vulnerable students safe and protected in school, and promote a positive culture for those looking at the school from the local community. Secondary schools can be scary places for visitors if they are not managed properly - I've had visitors tell me they've felt unsafe in a school, and no one wants that to be the takeaway a guest has in our communities. 

What we must do on social media is ensure we don’t fall into the trap of hyperbole and exaggerated views of practices that are employed across the country in very successful schools and decry them as problematic without looking at the whole picture and the culture of the individual schools they are used in. As schools are becoming more social media savvy, and promote their ethos’s, values and the work they do to serve their communities and the young people we are seeing more detractors jumping in with ideological objections to practices in schools they do not teach in, for communities they are not members of.      

Remember, social media is a snapshot through a particular lens. We should bear this in mind when observing the social media posts of educators. We all have schools we would not work in, and leaders we wouldn't work for; these are both personal choices we make. The best schools to work in are ones where visions of all stakeholders are aligned. It's an incredibly tough gig teaching and leading in schools deemed "inadequate", and it takes a certain type of person to strap their boots on each day and take these challenges head on. I’m yet to meet one that doesn’t want the best for the young people they teach and communities they lead. Being proud of a school community and the work within affects the attitudes and pride students have in their school. This spreads through a community, with reputations changed with employers.  At the end of the day, students moving on to successful and happy lives is what we are all here for. 

We need to model online behaviour better; all of us. 

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