The importance of schools being aware and sensitive without discriminating further

As a relatively inexperienced primary teacher, I recall the behaviour of a boy in my class changing. Periods of withdrawal would be interspersed with outbursts. It was clear something had changed, something was wrong.

On discussing with a senior colleague, I learnt that his brother had recently been sent to prison. Looking back, I know that the first question that came to mind was, ‘What did he do?’ My focus was immediately on the brother – the offender – and not the child, the learner in my class going through a challenging time.

Even though I knew my responsibility as a teacher was to my student, it was a subject I didn’t feel comfortable with. It was the ‘elephant in the room’ I wasn’t sure how to address. There was a sense that talking about it, mentioning his brother, or discussing imprisonment would somehow make it worse. The easy, and perhaps selfish approach, was simply to observe from afar, recognising that there was a reason for the behaviour, but not really reaching out to offer support.

When I reflect now, I know that I must hold my hand up and recognise that I got it wrong. My thinking was blurred; the child with potential needs wasn’t being placed at the centre.

Why are schools important in supporting children?

Schools can play an important part in supporting children affected by imprisonment but at the heart of this support lies the need to understand the issues, display sensitivity around them, and to approach the subject from the perspective of relationships.

Families Outside, a national charity supporting families of prisoners in Scotland, has pioneered training sessions for schools. These in-prison sessions, run in partnership with the Scottish Prison Service, allow teachers to experience visiting prison from the perspective of a child. They provide a platform to raise awareness of the impact on learners and promote discussion around how school communities can best reach out to, and support, children in this situation. The impact of these sessions has been significant – “A must for all current and future educators” (University Education Lecturer).

Without such awareness raising, education staff can lack the necessary confidence and knowledge. At no point in my training, nor in my professional career, had I considered what a child might be experiencing when a relative was sent to prison. Whilst I was trained to be sensitive to the needs of all children, imprisonment was an issue I hadn’t really considered, and when I did, it seemed like an awkward topic, one I didn’t feel skilled to address. Bringing up the subject felt like opening Pandora’s Box, and if you opened it, you, as the teacher, needed to have the answers, the solutions to all that emerged.

If you or your school would like to find out more about Families Outside’s CPD Training please Contact Us on 0131 557 9800 or email admin@familiesoutside.org.uk

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