Autism Spectrum Disorder de-escalation strategies: Creating safe spaces

 Brown9781849055031In his third entry for the JKP blog Steve Brown offers another short practical insight into how professionals working with children that have an autism spectrum disorder can create the most comfortable learning environment possible and de-escalate situations that can lead to volatile meltdowns. Today Steve covers the importance of creating a safe space to learn and how one goes about doing just that. Steve Brown is the author of Autism Spectrum Disorder & De-Escalation Strategies: A Practical Guide to Positive Behavioural Interventions for Children and Young People – for more information on the book visit the JKP website

Creating safe spaces

Where do you prefer to go to when you feel anxious, angry or embarrassed?

Picture yourself in one of these states complete with an audience. As a means of protecting yourself I imagine you would ideally like to take yourself to a place that makes you feel comfortable and calm.

08-autism-afpgtThis is a major problem faced by a number of children with ASD – the acting out, the confrontation, the aggressive incidents are the result of them feeling great stress in the class environment and not being able to find that comfortable and calm space. One of the things that we as professionals should be doing is creating safe, calm places for children to feel good, learn and thrive in.

5 ways to create calmer spaces for children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder.

  • You can define any ‘safe’ area by giving it boarders. You can use a carpet tile, coloured spot or taped floor area to let the child know where to sit or stay provided this will help them feel safe.
  • You can introduce big bean-bags in classrooms or corridors for children to sit on when they need to calm down or have time to think. Bean-bags are flexible enough for the child to relax into, don’t pose a great deal of threat when thrown and are portable.
  • Set up a separate workstation (table and chair facing blank wall – low stimulation) inside or outside the classroom. This is a simple idea to allow the child to be slightly detached but still involved in lessons and work activities (not a punishment – just a safe space for them to be alone).
  • Comfortable chairs located in quieter areas for children to sit in or lean against help them to concentrate on what is bothering them or what they need to do next, rather than uncomfortable seats in busy areas which can provoke agitation and distract the rest of the class.
  • Designate a specific room that offers privacy and protection. In that room have slogans and pictures painted on the walls that offer positive thoughts such as ‘stay safe’ or ‘talk and listen’. You want a room that is a good size, is painted a calming colour and has soft furnishings or bean bags for children and staff to sit on.


Children with ASD who abscond or hide under furniture often do this because they don’t realise there are other options and thus default to a pattern of behaviour that can cause a great deal of disruption. Offering an alternative space where the child can feel safe means as professionals we have a greater degree of control and can help diffuse a volatile situation much better.

The learning environment is often one of the last things we consider when trying to help manage emotions and behaviour. Have a good look at your work place and see if there is anything you can change to provide the children and educators with calmer, safer spaces.

Brown---ASD-and-Deescalation---CLICK-HERESteve Brown is the author of Autism Spectrum Disorder & De-Escalation Strategies which is available in paperback from Jessica Kingsley Publishers

Autism Spectrum Disorder de-escalation strategies: Non-verbal communication

Brown9781849055031In the second of his special blogs running this March Steve Brown is offering another short practical insight into how professionals working with children that have an autism spectrum disorder can create the most comfortable learning environment possible and de-escalate situations that can lead to volatile meltdowns. This week – the importance of non-verbal communication. Steve is the author of Autism Spectrum Disorder & De-Escalation Strategies: A Practical Guide to Positive Behavioural Interventions for Children and Young People – for more information on the book visit the JKP website


Non-verbal communication

Sixty per cent of communication is supposed to be conveyed through non-verbal communication according to Borg (2011.) Experts in this field disagree on the exact statistic (don’t all the academics disagree? it’s their job!) but it is generally agreed upon that body language makes up a large part of what we communicate.

How many times have you gazed across a sea of children’s faces and picked out the ones that are looking to cause trouble or show signs of needing help just through reading their body language? Now think back when you were a child and did something that was bad enough to warrant serious consequences, you could probably gauge how severe your punishment was going to be from the adult long before they opened their mouth.

An angry teacher holding a composition book and pointing a ruler.As professionals working with children on the autism spectrum it is essential to be aware of the power our body language has. There are things we should always try to avoid – negative messages that automatically send out a bad vibe such as, double tea pot stance (hands on hips), turbo boost eye brow lift eye contact (a really stern look) and finger wagging are all non-verbal wind up techniques that are confrontational and can raise anxieties in children with an ASD.

We all know it is difficult to manage body language, to keep control of eye contact and limit our negative gestures but it is important that we try and remain aware at all times of the power these signifiers can have.

The trick is to be relaxed with body language, appear confidant and assertive and send messages that convey clear statements without appearing aggressive or authoritarian.

eye contactYour gestures are going to give away a lot of your overall message to a child long before you have said a word – as professionals we should start thinking a lot more about using our words to back up our gestures rather than allowing our gestures to give away something we might be thinking but isn’t helpful in a potentially volatile situation.

With that in mind we should try to align our non-verbal messages with the words we use. If you are asking a child to sit down – point at the chair and not directly at them. Make your gestures in a confident and assertive manner remembering the whole time that rapport is often built on non-verbal communication.



Steve Brown is the author of Autism Spectrum Disorder & De-Escalation Strategies which is available in paperback from Jessica Kingsley Publishers

Can children regain hope after suffering loss?

A social worker by profession, Camille Gibbs works closely with children who have experienced trauma and loss. Camille’s new book A Sky of Diamonds  presents a touching story of how a girl named Mia copes with the death of her mother. In an enlightening Q&A, Camille explains why and how Mia’s story came to be.

 Gibbs- a sky of diamonds - pg 46 - imageWhat was the inspiration behind writing A Sky of Diamonds?

I can recall, as a child clearly thinking that if I were to lose a loved one, I would find comfort in the idea that I could still talk to that person if I were to look up at the stars, as the stars are a constant. I think therefore that this book must have been in my head for many years!

During the writing of A Sky of Diamonds a close family member of mine was diagnosed with a serious illness. This news made me think about the possible impact that such a death would have on my own young daughter.  I thought about the types of questions she might, as a five year-old ask, and the reassurance and comfort she would require from those around her. My first book, One Marble a Day looks at the experience of a young child placed with an adoptive family.  Feedback from adoptive families has been that the book has helped children placed in their new family – as reading that others are experiencing similar feelings and emotions can be extremely comforting and reassuring. This led me to think further about the impact of the loss, through bereavement of a parent and how life changing this experience can be.

As you work with children who are being put into adoptive placements, you must see children going through a number of hardships. Are there many children in the adoptive system, who are there because of the death of a parent?

As a social worker in a family-finding team who specifically finds adoptive placements for older children, the children I work with on a daily basis have experienced trauma and considerable loss. Although, in my ten years as a social worker I have not experienced a child being placed for adoption due to the death of a parent, I regularly work with children who have been removed from their birth family as a result of abuse. On occasion, I have also worked with very young children who have been relinquished at birth. Although one might imagine that a baby or very young child has limited awareness, it is very clear that even very young children will grieve due to their separation from an adult with whom they have established a close relationship, whether this be the birth parent or a subsequent care-giver such as a foster carer.

A Sky of Diamonds is about loss, grief and hope – do you think children can have hope after loss due to death or separation?

Whilst the loss of a loved one changes a child’s life forever, it is important to nurture hope. It was my aim that A Sky of Diamonds will help children and their family members to see that grief is a process that has to be worked through before a child can move forward. Whether the loss is due to the death of a parent, separation via adoption, or due to another cause, what is key is the availablity of sensitive adults who are open and honest.  These adults can help the child to process their feelings, through validating the pain of losing someone, but also through helping the child to develop awareness that joy can still be derived from loving someone deeply.

In your experience, do children grieve differently when losing their parents/guardians, be it due to death or separation?Gibbs- a sky of diamonds - pg 28 - image

Grief is a process that a child needs to pass through before they can recover from the loss, whether this be as a result of death or separation from a parent, or someone with whom they have formed a significant meaningful relationship. Put simply, children need to grieve in order to move forward – there is no shortcut.

There is also the added complexity that the child may have had both positive and negative experiences when living with their birth family, and thus, some children will need extra support in managing overwhelming feelings as they develop an understanding of their earlier life experiences. Often children require support in expressing their anger and this can present at various stages in their development. Unlike the death of parent, a child who has been separated from their parent may know that the parent is still alive through some degree of contact.  This contact might be direct or indirect via letters if they are placed in a new adoptive family or in foster care.  Therefore the grief cycle may need to be repeated at different times.

What is the core message of the book and why do you think it would help children to get through their grief?

The core message of A Sky of Diamonds is that, although the death of a parent who is deeply loved, is the most painful experience one can suffer, with the right support there can be hope and a child can be helped to live a happy and fulfilling life.  A Sky of Diamonds is honest in its approach.  In writing from a child’s perspective it offers the message that it is okay to express emotions.  Children reading it will see that they are not alone in experiencing strong emotions and in the book, the main character’s father is also seen expressing his emotions at times.

A Sky of Diamonds addresses some of the questions children commonly ask about death. Helping a child with answers to these questions, enables them to better process what has happened and avoid fantastical thinking or becoming overwhelmed with anxious thoughts about surviving family members or their own mortality. The book highlights the importance of giving children the time and space to work through their feelings and provides ideas for therapeutic activities that a surviving parent or adult working with the child could put into place to support the grief process.

Camille Gibbs is a social worker in the field of adoption, specialising in direct work with school-aged children moving to adoptive placements. Learn more about A Sky of Diamonds here.


Autism Spectrum Disorder de-escalation strategies: Avoiding confrontation


Throughout March author and de-escalation expert Steve Brown is offering short practical insights into how professionals working with children that have an autism spectrum disorder can create the most comfortable learning environment possible and de-escalate situations that can lead to volatile meltdowns.  Steve is the author of Autism Spectrum Disorder & De-Escalation Strategies: A Practical Guide to Positive Behavioural Interventions for Children and Young People – for more information on the book visit the JKP website


Avoiding confrontation
I often get asked how best to de-escalate in different situations – particularly when it comes to working with a child that a professional does not know well or has been able to establish some level of working relationship with.

In times of doubt or when a child of any age is displaying unpredictable behaviour, the space we have between us and the child is really important. Stand too close and we are physically vulnerable, stand square on and lean in and we put ourselves at further risk. This also looks confrontational. As an adult if someone gets too close what is our reaction? I often witness adults stepping back, instructing the person to back off.

armbentThe length of space between the elbow and the shoulder is deemed as intimate space, a space that we reserve to invite people into.

The next closest space is personal space which is defined from the elbow to the finger tips. This space is often entered unnecessarily or unintentionally. This is where problems occur. Eighty percent of injuries to staff are to the head and four to five year olds cause 3 times more injuries to staff than any other age group. Staff can fear older, taller children, yet it’s the younger, smaller children who cause the most damage to the most important resource: staff.

teacher_telling_off_sonEven though the staff who work with younger children get down to the children’s height, they tend to lean in and therefore bring faces closer into striking range.

If more staff stood sideways on and tried to keep in social space they would be safer and reduce the risk of injuries. The child would be less likely to be wound up or feel intimidated and have their emotions heightened.

An easy way to remember this is “sideways is safest”.

In times of trouble keep your distance and reduce and deflate your body language, by approaching sideways on you increase the chance of lowering the child’s anxieties which will help to reduce behaviours that challenge us as professionals. This doesn’t mean staff have to walk around placing their arm out pointing towards the children shouting “back off!” it has to be a controlled approach that is as calm as possible. The important thing is to not aggressively invade the child’s personal space. I once witnessed a staff member get so close to a child that when he was speaking little bits of saliva landed on the child’s face. The child kept on stepping back and then looked towards the member of staff, wiped his face and said “I asked for the news not the ******* weather!” It is important to remember that initially the professional must maintain that personal distance and approach side-on.

Emotions drive behaviours that get reactions and staff can wind up emotions or wind them down. De-escalation is subtle and can look like nothing is happening but done the right way it can make learning environments more comfortable for all involved. To avoid confrontation and winding up children staff can remain assertive, look confident, naturally smile, reduce body language by getting sideways on and stick to a positive script.





Steve Brown is the author of Autism Spectrum Disorder & De-Escalation Strategies which is available in paperback from Jessica Kingsley Publishers

How care becomes corrupted and we lose heart

In a follow-up to his last blog post, John Burton looks at the factors which cause care, and our faith in it, to break down. Leading Good Care, his most recent publication, dives into the heart of the care world’s many problems, and resurfaces with compelling advice on how to take on a social care leadership role with integrity. John has worked in social care since 1965 as a practitioner at all levels, and is now an Independent Social Care Consultant.

9781849055512 (1)


Strip away the irrelevant, brittle and showy exterior, all the quality and compliance waffle, the delivery and performance gobbledegook, and the key lines of regulatory assessment, to find the solid core task of caring human relationships. Focus on that and only that; put your heart and soul into the work; and use your imagination and creativity to make caring an art. That is the message of my new book, Leading Good Care.

For me, 2015 marks fifty years in social work. I started as an assistant in a run-down secondary school in a deprived area of London. I had a lot to learn there, but the real shock to my system was living as a resident in a probation hostel nearby. While I came with all the security and love of my upbringing in Devon, my fellow residents had nothing to fall back on, and the hostel provided no more than food and a small bed-space in multi-occupied rooms, in a cold and dirty little institution. My subsequent engagement with social care, and particularly with residential care, started there. I thought that surely there must be a better way of doing it.

I have worked with people of all ages, from children to the very aged, in a wide variety of places and teams, led several different services, and consulted to many others. While there have been landmark reviews and reports providing well researched support and stimulation for change and development, I find it hard to identify a single item of legislation, regulation or government guidance that has resulted in progress in social care. Nor can I think of “improvement agencies” or regulatory regimes that have substantially improved care.

No, the effect of central and top-down efforts to improve care is to corrupt it, and to undermine and weaken the role of those who lead care services on the ground, people like care home managers. With the best of intentions but lacking understanding of how good care is created, the current regulator and inspector of social care in England, the Care Quality Commission, has made its requirements for conformity the central objective of all but the most determined and confident social care managers. We pay many £millions to carry this millstone around our necks.

Look at Winterbourne View. The place was rotten to the core but it operated within the legislative and regulatory regime. It was inspected, people were sent to live there, and the owners charged the taxpayer £3,500 a week for “assessment”, “care” and “treatment”. It would still be open if there hadn’t been a brave and principled whistleblower and a Panorama programme. For nearly four years there have been unceasing panic, blame and denial. Parliament has gorged itself on the horrors of such places. Ministers decree that they will close. Nearly four years later very little has changed, yet politicians, civil servants, and the great and good of social care continue to put their faith in the same institutions and methods that have so abjectly failed to bring about change. Such scandals have punctuated the last fifty years, yet there are many wonderful, creative, joyful places that defy the corruption of this culture of compliance, the constipation of this rule-bound regime, this bullying bureaucracy of blame.

The most basic knowledge of the sociology and psychology of organisations tells us that the culture and relationships at the top determine the way the workforce behave with each other and perform their task. Social care works well when the team is well led (yes, CQC have got that one right) and the core task is the only task. It works well when all the external managers and organisations understand that their role is to resource, support and enable the core task to be carried out. Social care goes wrong when the core task is corrupted by the demands of those above and outside, when manager finds themselves distracted by compliance, form filling, attending to the needs of the managing organisation or the regulator or the local authority . . . by a hundred different jobs that take them away from meeting the needs of clients and the staff that care for them.

Managers lose heart when they collude with a corrupting system. To lead good care, the manager has to have that drive and belief, the professional authority, pride and principles to resist, to join with other like minded managers, and to say “no” when told to comply with demands that corrupt the core task.

John Burton has worked in social care since 1965 as a practitioner at all levels, and as a manager, writer, trainer, researcher, inspector and consultant. Learn more about Leading Good Care by John Burton here.

Leading Good Management in Care Homes

John Burton has long been fighting for a forward-thinking and conscientious care management system. Leading Good Care, his most recent publication, dives into the heart of the care world’s many problems, and resurfaces with compelling advice on how to take on a social care leadership role with integrity and pride. John has worked in social care since 1965 as a practitioner at all levels, and is now an Independent Social Care Consultant.

In Leading Good Care, I set out and recommend a positive and hopeful vision of social care. My subtitle – the task, heart and art of managing social care – is both realistic and idealistic. The task requires serious, disciplined, hands-on, and hard work. The heart signifies that this work is emotional and personal, and that care is a human relationship. And the art of managing care engages your skills, your imagination, your culture and creativity.

I write at a time when we should be learning the lessons of a command- and-control culture, but, as always, we are in danger of replacing yet one more set of instructions with another. It was a do-as-you’re-told, top-down, target driven culture that led to the atrocities of Stafford General Hospital and Winterbourne View. This ‘delivery’ culture was also characterised by the extraordinary selection and subsequent dominance of some of the most senior managers who recruited and protected each other and bullied their way to the top. Desperate to mend health and social care before the next election, politicians go on believing that it can be ‘fixed’, and the same old delivery culture believed that Jim could fix it for them. Then, they recruited Sir James Wilson Vincent Savile, OBE, KCSG to ‘manage’ a secure psychiatric hospital where he abused patients. They gave him free rein to prey on hundreds of victims in many other care settings, while being honoured, protected, sponsored and used by the Establishment that he so assiduously courted. Like Savile, celebrities and members of the Establishment have used their sheltered and safeguarded positions of authority to abuse the trust given to them by children and adults alike. They acted with impunity, while those who protested were ignored, silenced, threatened or punished and those who survive are only now being heard. The officials who colluded in concealing these crimes can still redeem themselves by exposing the truth about perpetrators in power. Abuse and exploitation are endemic in a top-down social care system that demeans, disempowers and damages the people who most need its help.

When you become a social care manager, you too may feel that in order to keep your job you will have to do as you’re told, put up with what you know to be wrong, get high marks in your inspections, and convince your employers and regulators that you are in every way a thoroughly compliant employee. Indeed, this has been the problem with developing leadership in social care. For several reasons (some shared with the health service) social care has become a top-down, rule-orientated, highly competitive and bureaucratised service. Compliance and delivery are the watchwords; if you don’t comply and you don’t deliver, you are likely to be regarded as a failure. The truth is that this top-down system has been a disaster and managers have been left dealing with the perpetual and tragic failures of such a regime. Hitherto, the response to these failures has been to do more of the same, thereby only making matters worse.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Leading Good Care encourages you, as a leader, to work out your own principles and set your own standards; you will take responsibility for your service and its task; you will encourage leadership in your team and assertiveness in the clients of your service. Ultimately, you must take the path that will help you embrace the leadership role you have been given and take the lead. Taking the lead means making decisions and sometimes being wrong, and then learning and moving on. It means taking the authority to lead and being given the authority to lead by your staff and your clients.

John Burton has worked in social care since 1965 as a practitioner at all levels, and as a manager, writer, trainer, researcher, inspector and consultant. Learn more about Leading Good Care by John Burton here.

Read the first chapter of The Essential Manual for Asperger Syndrome (ASD) in the Classroom


Click here to read the opening chapter of Kathy Hoopmann’s incredible new teaching manual.

“If every primary/elementary school teacher read this book, the lives of all young people who have Asperger Syndrome would be significantly improved. They would at last feel that the teacher understands them and thus feel so much happier, more relaxed and better able to achieve academic and social success” – Professor Tony Attwood (author of The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome)

Professionals and teachers are raving about this exciting new resource that is rewriting the rulebook on how to teach children with an ASD. Kathy Hoopmann’s new book is the answer for time-poor teachers that need to know how to approach the teaching of a child with an autism spectrum disorder quickly and comprehensively.

You can find out more and purchase a copy of The Essential Manual for Asperger Syndrome (ASD) in the Classroom at the Jessica Kingsley Publishers website by clicking the link below:

Ten things to consider when feeding a child with Aspergers


Sarah Patten, author of What to Feed an Asperger: How to go from 3 foods to 300 with love, patience and a little sleight of hand, offers her top ten things for parents to consider when feeding a child that has serious sensory issues.

1. Information overload.  A child with Asperger Syndrome (ASD) is likely to scrutinize the look, texture, taste and temperature of their food.  As parents we need to remember that every feature of what they eat matters.

2. Understand food from your child’s perspective.  What looks and smells good to eat?  Find ways to get them interested in foods they currently reject but need to eat. Look at ways to engage them that don’t relate directly to taste, for example branching structures got my boy eating broccoli.

3. Just what the doctor ordered.  If restricted eating habits are an issue I would advise making a diary of what your child eats for a week and visit your GP to rule out any underlying medical problems that might be making eating unpleasant for them.

4. Can’t touch this! If your child likes food on separate plates – go with it.  Graduate to smaller plates, closer together.  Then arranged far apart on a bigger plate.  Ease into it and foods will be allowed to touch after a while on a regular-sized plate.

5. Give peace a chance.  Asperkids can absorb tension like a sponge.  Calm mealtimes make for happy eating and digestion.  Park arguments and disputes before sitting down and leave those heated ‘discussions’ for later.

6. Are they sitting comfortably?  The hardness/softness and ergonomics of a chair need consideration.  If a chair doesn’t feel right to your child, they won’t sit still and focus on their food.   Memory foam seat wedges worked for us.

7. Get foods past the screen test.  Over-analysis and rejection of coloured, multi-textured foods had my Asperger boy eating only breads, cereal and chicken breast.  But presenting lamb so it looked like chicken and adding protein rich grains, like quinoa, to bread, did the trick.

8. Creatures of habit.  For an Asperger there’s comfort in eating the same food over and over.  But set-eating patterns can be altered by introducing other habits that are better for them.  We ate a mini broccoli floret at every meal, every day until eating broccoli was a non-issue.

9. Active duty.  A sedentary child brimming with antsy-energy is unlikely to eat very well.  Getting rid of some of that energy through physical exercise is essential to building up a healthy appetite.  Finding some physical activity that they enjoy and cutting the TV screen time will help make them better eaters.

10. You are what you eat. A great diet packed with first class protein, fruit and veggies gives your child the essential minerals and vitamins they need to function and grow.  Having Asperger and neurotypical boys I see that diet affects my son with an ASD to a greater degree.  Everything about him is turned up to 11, as a family we have adapted and as a result he finds great pleasure in eating different foods now.

Patten, Sarah

Sarah Patten is the author of What to Feed an Asperger: How to go from 3 foods to 300 with love, patience and a little sleight of hand published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers

“It’s just a bit o’ banter, innit?” – Why “That’s so GAY!” still needs to be challenged

Jonathan Charlesworth is the Executive Director of the charity Educational Action Challenging Homophobia (EACH), UK, and author of That’s So Gay! - Challenging Homophobic Bullying. He has over thirty years’ teaching and training experience and regularly delivers training and consultancy on homophobic bullying, harassment and crime to schools, colleges, universities, and the police service. In this post he explains why homophobic name-calling is still a problem, and one we must work together to challenge.

“Got your little clarinet, have you? You’re so flippin’ gay, you are!” I heard this one sneered at a pupil in a corridor not so long ago. This is a fairly straightforward one with which to deal. Our ‘perpetrator’ had targeted her insult directly at another pupil and called him gay. Presumably those dishing out homophobic name-calling, perceive it to be okay for a girl to be seen carrying a clarinet but not a boy, so one must assume effeminacy equates to ‘being a girl’ with the two seen as interchangeable? There is always interesting work to be done here around sexism and gender with all our pupils and youth group attendees.


That’s So Gay! – Challenging Homophobic Bullying, by Jonathan Charlesworth

It’s certainly easy here for a member of staff to recognise that one pupil has denigrated another and this requires an intervention or sanction. What’s harder to challenge for staff in schools or informal youth settings is the ‘victim-less crime’ of something being called ‘gay’ like homework, or a pop band (who aren’t – or can’t all be), or something intangible like the cold as in “Oh, God, this weather is so gay!”

How often have you spoken to your son or daughter about ‘calling things gay’ and they retort with, “But it’s just banter!” Or you’ve spoken to a young person if you’re a teacher or someone who works in children’s services and they fob it off as being just a ‘joke’ whilst someone who is the target of homophobic bullying and who is really worrying you misguidedly dismisses their abuse simply as ‘a bit of a drama’.

Many schools will be indicating consistently that homophobic bullying is wrong and pupils will recognise that it is unacceptable to treat someone differently because they are gay or are thought to be. Where schools often struggle is with the use of homophobic language and phrases such as ‘That’s so gay’. In these cases pupils will often not see that their actions have a direct consequence for anyone. As a result it will often be perceived as ‘harmless banter’.

Any of us who work with young people will recognise that homophobic language is frequently used without its perpetrator’s thinking and is often overlooked or even ignored because it can be difficult to know how to respond without awareness-raising or appropriate training.

I recently explained to a Deputy Headteacher in a secondary school that we were soon to see the publication of my book to help schools challenge homophobic name-calling and bullying: That’s So Gay!. “Oh, yes!” she exclaimed. “But they don’t mean anything by that, do they? They say it all the time and it more often than not has nothing to do with sexuality!” I did my best to explain diplomatically why it is important to take homophobic name-calling as seriously as racist or disablist, but by this point she was smiling at me with that look of someone who is thinking about something else and has ‘checked out’. It may come as no surprise to learn that the pupil whom I’d come to support and discuss left the school a few weeks later because of homophobia and cites being much happier in their new school.

This is just one localised example of how homophobic name-calling is regularly brushed off as ‘harmless banter’ and not thought to be particularly hurtful. Its use, and homophobia in schools in general, does need to be challenged because ignoring it absolutely allows homophobic bullying to gain a foothold, continue, then escalate.

To be borne in mind however is that a lot of pupils will be reluctant to admit that they are upset by the homophobic abuse whilst the desire not to be seen as weak or a victim can make pupils equally reluctant to report any form of bullying.

If you’re being bullied because you’re, for instance, black, Asian or Jewish in all likelihood your parents will have had several conversations in front of and with you about faith-based or racist bullying and harassment. There’s comfort at home provided by understanding, compassion and shared experience. With disability often comes the sense that it’s ‘not their fault’ and despite the ‘retard’ and ‘spaz’ insults, which have so charmingly resurfaced in recent years, pretty much every pupil acknowledges disabilist name-calling and bullying as a taboo.

Sexual orientation meanwhile is too often considered by both young people and adults alike to be a ‘choice’ rendering the gay person a legitimate ‘victim’ of their bigotry and disapproval. Gay or lesbian young people invariably also don’t have the luxury of someone at home who shares their sexuality and who can empathise with feelings of awkwardness or ‘get’ what their ostracism ‘feels like’. If you’re being bullied because you’re heterosexual but your ‘Mums’ are lesbians this can present its own set of problems.

Although young people who hold on to stereotypes may not wish to withhold equal rights from gay people they may well have their sense of who gay men and women ‘are’ skewed by television depictions and not see it as a priority or empathise with the issue.

The belief that being gay is inferior to being heterosexual leads to subtle behaviours such as jokes and vocabulary that can be very damaging to gay young people. One of the most obvious examples is the pejorative use of the word ‘gay’ among young people to describe something as worthless, wrong, dull, stupid or inferior.

Way too often pupils in school believe that reporting their bullying looks like taking it too seriously which will simply attract more abuse. We also know that too often, pupils are  not confident in the mechanisms schools put in place to respond to bullying. Similarly too many feel that their teachers will not take the problem seriously. They can also be unsure how to report if homophobic bullying is not specifically cited as unacceptable within school policies and practice.

Pupils regularly tell me and my colleagues at Educational Action Challenging Homophobia (EACH – about a lack of clear and consistent sanctions in school when responding to bullying. Many fear that by reporting bullying they themselves will be excluded from activities in order to avoid being targeted by their perpetrator(s). EACH regularly hears stories of targeted pupils being asked to change separately for sports lessons, physical education, or leave lessons early in order to avoid running into their tormentors.

When so much legislative progress has been made for lesbian, gay and bisexual equality, pupils might question whether co-opting the word ‘gay’ as an insult really matters. Language changes all the time and many young people will argue that calling their homework gay has nothing to do with their opinions on same-sex relationships. In fact young people who themselves identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual will use ‘That’s so gay’ in this context. For these pupils the word can have several meanings which they think has no connection to their attitudes towards themselves and other gay people. Education about historical oppression and the tremendous battle fought for equality evidently needs to be for all. There is also a chance pro-behaviour is at play here. This is when someone who is conscious of feeling ‘outside’ of society’s ‘mainstream’ deploys self-deprecating humour to divert attention away from their, for example, disability, ethnicity or sexuality. It sometimes works but to those who can see what is happening it is more often embarrassing.

If a pupil or a young person in your care uses homophobic language we should all point out the effect their language is having on other people: remembering that phrases such as ‘That’s so gay’ are not harmless banter but part of wider homophobia whether the pupil appreciates this or not. This is not just an Ofsted requirement but a moral responsibility we share collectively as part of our Duty of Care.

This article has been adapted from Jonathan Charlesworth’s That’s So Gay! – Challenging Homophobic Bullying.

Educational Action Challenging Homophobia (EACH) is the multi-award winning registered charity providing training, resources and support to affirm representations of gay and transgender people, challenge homophobia and reduce discrimination experienced because of sexual orientation or gender identity. (
• EACH’s National Homophobic Bullying Actionline: 0808 1000 143

Supporting young people suffering with self-harm and eating disorders – three key lessons

Pooky Knightsmith is a specialist in student mental health and emotional well-being, and author of Self-Harm and Eating Disorders in Schools. Through her company In Our Hands Ltd, Pooky works with schools, parents and organisations to promote awareness of and provide training on topics related to mental health. She is also the Mental Health and Emotional Wellbeing Advisor for the PSHE Association in the UK and a trustee for Beat, the eating disorder charity. She has personal experiences of the issues she teaches and writes about, having personally overcome eating disorders and self-harm herself.
Here she shares her top tips for supporting young people suffering with self-harm and eating disorders, gathered through years of research and training.

“How on earth have you ended up doing what you do?” A colleague questioned me today “Teaching people about self-harm and eating disorders is not exactly the kind of job you dream about when you’re 14 is it?”Knightsmith

And he was right.  I didn’t dream about doing my current job when I was 14.  In fact, I didn’t dream about anything in my future when I was 14.  All I really wanted was to be dead, but I lacked the motivation to make my ‘dream’ a reality.  I was living a half-life, walking around each day in the shadows of anorexia and self-harm.  So in answer to my colleague, I suppose that I started down the path I’m currently traversing in order to try and stop other children feeling the way I felt.

Fortunately, things have moved on somewhat from my own school days.  We have a far better understanding of self-harm and eating disorders – unfortunately that’s at least in part due to a huge increase in prevalence in both conditions which has forced us to learn, fast, and taught us some difficult lessons along the way.

I feel we’re currently at the tipping point, with schools and agencies ready, willing and increasingly able to offer support to the young people who need it most.  But what are the key lessons that we should bear in mind when offering support to young people in our care?  If I had to boil down many years of research on the topic into three key learning points (and anyone who’s attended one of my training sessions will know how keen I am on having three take home points!) it would be these:

We need to enable young people to feel in control of their own recovery

A desire to take control of one aspect of their lives is a key reason young people cite for the development of self-harming and eating disordered behaviours.  Bearing this in mind, we need to ensure that in our keenness to support young people’s recovery, that we don’t take this process straight out of their control.  Contributing to their sense of lack of control is likely to exacerbate rather than alleviate their harmful behaviours.  We can help young people to feel in control of their own recovery by employing truly person-centred practice where the young person is the key initiator in recovery goals and all information and meetings are designed to be accessible to the young person concerned.

We are stronger when we work as a team

When school staff, sufferers, parents and any external agencies involved come together and work as a team to support the recovery process with unified goals; progress is both more rapid and longer lasting.  This type of team working can be difficult to implement but it reaps dividends in terms of positive impact for the young person trying to overcome their self-harming or eating disordered behaviours.

Recovery doesn’t stop when someone looks healed

Finally, we need to ensure that support doesn’t drop off the moment someone looks physically better.  When a healthy weight has been restored or cuts or burns have healed then it’s normal for support to drop away.  Tight health budgets often mean that therapeutic or psychiatric support may dwindle at this point and parents, friends and school staff can often begin to step away feeling that the worst is over.  For the young person concerned though, this can be the most difficult phase of all as they are probably still working to overcome the underlying difficulties that drove them to their unhealthy behaviours, but they no longer have these behaviours to turn to as a means of coping.  Whilst underlying issues are being resolved and new, healthy coping mechanisms are still being embedded, young people are very vulnerable to relapse.  To minimise the likelihood of relapse, we need to ensure we extend our support, care and guidance into the weeks and months following physical recovery.

Things are looking up.  More than ever I find myself welcomed with open arms when I go to teach colleagues about how best to support the young people in their care who are facing self-harm and eating disorders.  A few short years ago there would have been no market for the book I’ve spent so long researching and writing and there would be no place for my training sessions; so taboo and under-recognised were these topics.  We’re opening our eyes to the problem and our approaches are evolving fast.  I’m hopeful that soon I’ll be able to reflect that a lot less young people are feeling like I did when I was 14.

I certainly hope so.

You can download one of Pooky’s PDF handouts, which gives alternatives to self-harm suggested by former self-harmers themselves, here

Find out more about Pooky’s book Self-Harm and Eating Disorders in Schools, read reviews or order your copy here