This is the last essay in a three-part series on approaches and strategies in making schools safer through the varied applications of narrative practices in the school setting. You can read the first essay here and the second essay here.
Creating safer spaces for children and young people in schools and elsewhere has been a recurring topic in my conversations with teachers, students, educators and other mental health professionals around me. Many important practices have emerged from these conversations that have enriched my know-how and influenced my practice.
While this article cannot claim to represent the entirety of the work done by the people and the organisations quoted, it is my hope that we find some practices here to take back to our own spaces.
‘Insider knowledges’: Bringing lived experience of the learner/young person into the room
One of the main things that quickly became visible to me in all my conversations was the value of ‘insider knowledges’. This term comes from the language of the narrative approaches. David Epston, one of the originators of narrative practice speaks about ‘insider knowledges’ in the therapeutic context:
We conceived of therapy as a reciprocal exchange that honoured the ‘local’ knowledges of the person consulting a therapist. We later dubbed these ‘insider knowledges’ to distinguish them as a very different order than professional knowledges. Such ‘knowledges’ had something of the sacrosanct about them and as such, should be given unusual respect as they were particular, local, non-identical and usually emerged out of the very vicissitudes of life in which ‘necessity was the mother of their invention’.
‘Insider knowledges’ come from unique lived experiences. They are present in every room and are, more often than not, invisibilised by dominant knowledges of people in power. Honouring insider knowledge is essential to making spaces safer.
Amrita, co-founder of Apnishala and Khoj community school in Mumbai, shares one of the central intentions of the school through this quote by Mister Rogers that resonated with her, “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable.” Amrita adds that this is a part of everything they try to create by facilitating conversations around things that are often considered unspeakable or unmentionable, while constantly engaging with ways to make spaces safer for everyone involved.
“When we design sessions on Social Emotional Learning, it is a balance between information-giving or -sharing, and drawing out experiences of the learner. That allows for some safety to be built,” she adds. She emphasises the value of making space for experiences that are different from the dominant stories of the world.
The Srijanalaya team* – an organisation working towards creating safer spaces in schools through arts education in Nepal, speaks about the mismatch between information in textbooks and the daily life of students. The students’ understanding is that what they learn in school and what happens in their house are different.
They recount an experience in Gatlang in Rasuwa district, north of the Kathmandu valley when they facilitated a performance activity using stories and creative movement with 8 to 13-year-old children. They introduced stories from the lives of the children, songs from their villages and homes, bringing in Tamang language and choreography into the stories. And with this, they noticed the students’ confidence, excitement and involvement with the activity building. The children felt they could bring their own experience, their experiences with their families, into the classroom. The team remarks on the importance of that in facilitating learning and creating safety in the classroom.
For children who experience the world in diverse ways due to their sensory experience – the experience of their bodies and their neuroatypicality – schools and classrooms are often unsafe spaces. Yashna speaks about this in the context of the fun club at Ummeed Child Development Centre, Mumbai. It is a club run by five mental health workers and two occupational therapists for children with developmental disabilities.
What has become really visible to us is that children have expertise over their bodies, experiences and needs. Trusting that has enabled it to be a safe space. Whether it’s through the feedback forms or the freedom to walk out of a room when it gets overwhelming, we are constantly discovering ways of making it safe and inclusive for one another.
For me, this foregrounds how ‘insider knowledges’ can also look like someone leaving the room, not participating, experiencing distress or showing defiance. All behaviours of children and young people can give us information about their ‘insider knowledges’ of safety in a space.
In the school I work at, we come together every year with the incoming batch of students to think about what safety looks like for them.
This activity leads to a discussion about things that each of them can do to make the school safer for everyone. Students have this conversation in pairs and then we document the actions that they choose. Below are some of the questions we ask in this activity:
- What does safety look like for you? What makes any place safer for you?
- What would school as a safer space for all students look like?
- What does this (previous question’s answer) say about collective values and principles that are important for you to see in the world?
- Is there a metaphor, a song or an image that comes to your mind when you think of these values and principles together in the world? Could you as a group write it or draw it?
- If you held close these values and principles that are important for you, what is one thing that each of you could do towards making the school a safer space for everyone?
Co-research: Uncovering the multiplicity of stories
David Epston speaks about the narrative therapeutic practice as ‘co-research’ so that the interviews are as much ‘ethnographic’ as they are ‘therapeutic’.
While doing interviews for this article, I noticed this stance of being ‘co-researchers’, and how this practice makes ‘insider knowledges’ based on lived experiences more visible.
Amrita recalls an experience which illustrates this:
We used to talk about the sense of a team, a collaboration or working together, and in that module, we were talking about a lot of different experiences of how people work in a team. One of the things a child shared in a session was, “I have experienced working together when my house was built – and it is something I keep on experiencing.” When you explore it further you realise that this child comes from a de-notified slum – which means they keep rebuilding the house. Every few months or years, the family comes together to rebuild the home, it is a real experience.
The Srijanalaya team speaks about the importance of bringing the learners’ languages into the classroom even when it is not spoken or understood by the educator. They believe, ‘If I speak four languages, I can think in four languages.’ They talk about how using Nepali and the learners’ own language (Tamang, in this context) makes it possible for students to make connections and bring diversity in thought and engagement in the classroom. They highlight the importance of learning how one’s stories about food, culture and work practices might be different from those of others. One of the practices that facilitates co-research is the reliance on a young person’s sensory experience of the world. The knowledge of the world that one has through one’s senses is already valid, it is unique, and is frequently used in expression through the arts.
Yashna reiterates the invaluable role of the members of the fun club in co-creating their safe space.
They (the children) have reshaped our understanding of access care and leisure for children with disabilities. Without their wisdom, we wouldn’t have been able to figure it out ourselves, and most likely would’ve replicated an ableist, capitalist idea of fun and leisure.
Making space for mistakes, and no right or wrong answers
Shree, a student from Nepal speaks about safety being important for ‘expressing my opinions and perspective without worrying about being judged. I could disagree with my teachers and peers on anything and have a healthy discussion.’
This is an important practice for the Srijanalaya team as well as the Apnishala team in their facilitation of the Social-Emotional Learning sessions.
The Srijanalaya team members who facilitate writing for children speak in particular about creating a safer space where mistakes are okay – for both the educators and the learners. They talk about paying little attention to grammar and spelling. The educators are unapologetic about their own struggle with spellings in the classroom. In their experience, this makes it possible for students to feel more comfortable with their own mistakes. The visual arts educator added that he starts his classes by saying that there is no right or wrong answer, and that helps students to experience safety.
Responding when harm happens
When we make space for all kinds of conversations – in any kind of space for that matter – harm could happen. My opinion could be influenced by systems that cause violence, such as casteism or patriarchy, amongst numerous others. Working towards making spaces for children safer means that we prepare for and find ways to respond to that harm.
Diptarup, a clinical psychologist at LGB Regional Institute of Mental Health, Assam, who started a youth wellness hub in Tezpur in collaboration with the local community and youth, shares how they respond when this happens in their group meetings or ‘youth addas’ as they are called.
When we see very strong dominant discourses being articulated – discriminatory language, subtle violence through words…when there is a spontaneous comment like that, we grab that opportunity to gently break that dominant discourse, to have an uncomfortable but necessary discussion. We want to shift the thinking through our influential questions. We improvise, bring in other kinds of diverse, marginalised opinions and experiences. We encourage that feeble voice, that small nod, that says you’re right – I wanted to say that but I couldn’t. We try to strengthen or amplify that.
Yashna tells me about collaborative practices and their value in preventing and responding to harm. She believes that as non-disabled practitioners, we can easily ‘fall into familiar ableist practices and never challenge them’ if we do our work without consulting children and families. She also speaks of the need ‘to anchor ourselves to intentions that we had set out with for this space. To think collectively of questions like, what is the meaning of leisure for children and young people with disabilities in an ableist world that significantly limits their participation with its normative construction of leisure?’
Amrita shares a few practices they use in Khoj, which resonated with my own practices as a school counsellor. She speaks about the importance of talking to the students involved in the harmful comment or action and the students harmed, right after the incident. This could be done by the teacher along with the counsellor or by the teacher alone.
If it is something that needs to be spoken about with the whole group, the teacher might bring it up in the next day’s ‘circle time’, she said. She gives the example of a conversation that Priyanka, a teacher in Khoj had with the students when a harmful comment about skin colour was made. With the help of the storybook Gatila, the teacher facilitated a conversation about skin colour with kindergarteners.
A work in progress
The thoughts and practices of all these people converge as they talk about learning along the journey, failing sometimes, making mistakes and trying to do it better the next time. They echo the importance of collaboration, learning from each other, and honest conversations within the team.
Making schools (spaces) safer for young people is a work in progress. It is collective, collaborative work. It is work that is built on support and intentional choices, on conversations that are pre-planned but also spontaneous sometimes. It is revisiting conversations, again and again; questioning and trying; failing and learning; and most importantly, being honest and vulnerable through it all. It is the imagination of a world that can be; it is the making of it – one step at a time, one space at a time.
*About Srijanalaya: Srijanalaya is a growing community of artists and educators in Nepal who offer creative mediums as alternative approaches to rote-learning and static textbooks. They develop programmes that create safer spaces of learning through the arts. Their vision is for every child in Nepal to have access to safe spaces to express themselves and to be heard. In my conversation with ten members of the Srijanalaya team, they spoke primarily of their experiences with schools in Gatlang, Rasuwa and Panchpokhari Thangpal, a rural municipality in Sindhupalchowk. The arts educators of Srijanalaya I interviewed were Sharareh, Sushma, Subima, Sunee, Nasala, Muna, Manantuna, Nabin, Sanjeev and Niranjan.
Prathama Raghavan is a developmental psychologist with a PhD from Université Paul-Valéry, Montpellier, France. She currently works as a school counsellor, Mental Health and Disability Support worker in Kathmandu, Nepal. Her work is informed by feminism, disability justice, neurodiversity, narrative approaches and poetry. She has recently become interested in working towards building ‘imperfect solidarities’ through group conversations in a far from perfect world.