Here is the continuation of the "Lucy story" referred to in Woven.
This is a true story, with names changed.
We worked together on Lucy’s strength plan…
Firstly, I remember asking her: what might work well for you?
She shrugged her shoulders with a sort of sadness…she didn’t know. I needed a new question I thought to myself!! This was too big and vague a question.
Can we start with what has gone well at school ever? Something with a friend or one teacher or one class or one hour – she then laughed at me!
Of course, there had been one hour that was good in 3 years of school she teased me! She kept laughing for a bit at the thought that I had asked what she felt was a ridiculous question but at least she laughed.
I then used the “magic wand” question – if she could wave a magic wand and make school pleasant, or even fun - what would that look like? And then I shut up.
She started to talk about her cooking and sewing teacher and how kind she was; she also had an English teacher a long time ago who liked her written stories, but English classes got too hard and she stopped trying. She had a couple of girls she called friends but they didn’t keep in touch when she was out of school. She talked about how teachers that shouted at the kids made her feel ‘frozen’ and how when she went back to school after a long absence they yelled at her about not being on time, plus all the work she had missed and shouted that “she better stay in class”. Lucy got quite upset retelling how they shouted at her, and the impact was so great she avoided going back altogether.
I asked her permission to go and talk to the positive teachers who were still at the school, she smiled and seemed pleased that I wanted to follow up. I could feel we were starting on a trust journey.
The teachers gave very positive accounts of her while she was with them and were worried about her being out of school for so long, what she might be doing while not at school and who she might be hanging out with. They were keen to help in any way they could and were aware of the family’s complex issues.
After their feedback, I recounted this back to Lucy using their words, they felt she was a supportive person to others in class, wrote good stories, used her time really well in cookery and sewing and was creative, eager to learn and just a nice person to be in class. She enjoyed hearing the feedback, it had been a long time since she’d heard any positive comments and it was based on genuine feedback.
Lucy’s strengths plan started to evolve from that conversation. Another thing that made her feel strong was cooking with her granny, but her granny had been around her less in recent months so we put that on the plan to revisit.
I worked with the school guidance teacher to frame up what a strengths-based return to school plan might look like for Lucy with a view to it being an option for Lucy to choose to step into, not “forced” as she felt previously. I worked with the teachers on their approach and how Lucy might respond better to positive feedback when something had been achieved, rather than shouting at her and focusing on the work she had missed; that was the past there was nothing she could do about the past but we could involve her in future choices. They kind of got it - however it didn’t matter that only some of the teachers understood what I was trying - I only needed a couple of them to support it and the others would see the results in time. Two teachers were fully on board and willing to try something new.
Another part of what made Lucy feel happy and strong was playing with little kids and entertaining them with made-up games. She loved little kids and wanted to aim to work with them in the future so together we found a local pre-school nursery. They met with her and were supportive of giving her some work experience for 8 hours a week as a trial period.
Lucy’s Strengths Plan was now looking like four keys areas. Almost 30 years later, her words to the best of my recollection were something like:
- Teacher being nice if I go back.
- More time with my granny.
- Working with wee kids.
- Help getting up in the morning.
This seemed like a good starting point.
- I got agreement from the school that she could return part-time and start with sewing and cookery and basic English until she felt more confident.
- She and I met with her granny, which was quite emotional. Granny had taken herself away from the family home because she had fallen out with Lucy’s mum and had stayed away. When she saw how much Lucy missed her she made a big turnaround gesture and said she could come to her house every Sunday and they could cook and “hang out” and that Lucy was always welcome. That reassurance meant a lot to Lucy.
- The nursery 8 hours happened during school hours initially so this meant she was part-time at school and she was also at the nursery dong something she loved. She was building her confidence and self-esteem so much with the young kids, and her family and teachers knew where she was and that it was safe.
- Lucy’s mum had various issues of her own which was part of the complexity for Lucy, however her mum got reassurance from this new path of Lucy’s and she became more connected to Lucy. Her mum wanted the job of getting Lucy up in the morning, no easy task as the whole family who were not working and had a routine of staying up late at night, and then sleeping in until 11am. Mum wanted to do this but was nervous, so I made a deal with mum; I would drive by in my car in the morning and give a little toot at her door on my way to work to remind her to get up - she would then go to Lucy’s room and get her up. This was a small step for mum taking back a bit of ownership and responsibility to support Lucy. After a week or so she was at the window giving me a wave to let me know there was no need to toot.
Another family member joined in and bought Lucy a new alarm clock to back up mum just in case.
What changed for the positive?
- Lucy’s self esteem
- Her family’s routine and their connection to each other.
- Lucy’s relationship with her granny - her granny’s home became a second home.
- She got back to school full time after 6-months on the part-time arrangement.
- She started to achieve at school and feel proud of herself.
- Friends became a bigger part of her life, they loved that she had a job and this gave her something extra to talk about and again feel happy and proud about.
- Teachers relaxed and focused on what she was doing well.
- She gained real work experience and got a reference.
- She was happier in general, looked healthier and was around more positive influences in her day than before.
Now this is not a Disney story; each day was not a resounding success - there were days she refused to go to school as she had over slept; there were days I had to go up to the school with her to make sure they didn’t give her a hard time for missing a day. There were days she had had arguments with her family and was tired; there were days where she had enough to eat and this affected her mood. All tough stuff but she got through it as there were more supportive people and activities in her life offering support and no judgement, only options with as little pressure as possible. All were reminding her what she had achieved and what was possible.
I worked with her for over a year and then “closed the case” when clearly, she had her own path and support network.
At 17 she had enrolled in a course for early childhood education, had finished school and gained some qualifications. She stayed close to her granny and she said to me one day something like “unlike some others I didn’t end up ‘preggers’ (which is Glasgow speak means pregnant) or on drugs on the street”. I remember feeling sad that that this fact in itself was a big achievement for her in her environment, her resilience was inspiring to me.
Over the many years of working in social-work I had the privilege of working with many young people in this strengths based way, and this strengths-based approach has permeated the way I live and all of my work since then, and continues to shape my work and life.