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None of your business?

Written by Paul Dix

Is it ever your place to get involved in children’s family life? It requires caution, but there are times when difficult conversations are a must, says Paul Dix…

Dante’s parents are splitting up and it is messy. Mum and Dad are at war and all advice to protect the children has been drowned out by the desire for revenge. Dante has not seen his dad for more than a month. A previously delightful and rational pupil has been transformed into an emotional tornado. Brief outbursts of anger are interspersed with a lot of tears and attempts to escape from school and get back to Dad’s. You can see the pain he is going through but you have no control over its source and the other children are becoming worried by Dante’s sudden changes in mood and behaviour. How can you keep everything secure for Dante and for the rest of the class?


How do you respond?

A Talk to the class

It is becoming increasingly difficult to make excuses for Dante’s behaviour to the rest of the class. They understand something has changed and some think they know the story behind what has occurred. Using his classmates to help support Dante will mean that you may have to reveal what has happened.

B Call in an outside agency

Dante is grieving over the loss of contact with Dad and there may well be other things that are worrying him. You invite a specialist to work with Dante once a week to help him through this difficult period. You accept that whilst your relationship with Dante is good, you don’t have enough expertise to help him.

C Appeal to Mum

After checking there are no current concerns with the school’s safeguarding officer, you set up a more formal meeting with Mum to try and negotiate some time for Dante to see his dad. Be prepared to share what has been happening in class but also what the long term effects could be if the separation is not handled well.


You chose…

A: Talk to the class

You seize your opportunity when Dante is removed for reading group. The children are excited as they presume that your ‘secret talk’ will uncover something exciting: a prize, food or a special trip. You clumsily embark on an explanation about Dante’s ‘hurt’. In your eagerness not to share too much personal information, you try to generalise: ‘Dante is a bit sad’, ‘He misses his dad’, ‘Things not well at home’. The children listen intently and make all the right noises. They are keen (if not over enthusiastic) to help Dante and understand that he is feeling really wobbly.

At breaktime you realise things may not have gone exactly as you planned. Some of the children have made their own connections and are telling Dante how sad it is that his dad has been taken ill / gone to work abroad / is serving seven years in the ‘big house’. Concern for Dante has quickly been replaced with rumour and speculation that is getting out of hand.

Talking behaviour

  • How can you safely engage the help of the rest of the class when a child is going through a difficult period?
  • s revealing personal details a safeguarding issue?



B: Call in an outside agency

You have spent many hours in staff training looking at how outside agencies can support the children and it seems that now is a good opportunity to show that you were listening! Looking at the list of support agencies, you are surprised to see how limited it is – and in most cases a cost is involved. The head is supportive of your actions and you contact a specialist in child trauma and grief counselling. Dante seems excited to meet this new person and bounds into the meeting unusually positive. The meeting does not go well. Dante had assumed that when he was offered ‘help’ that someone would help him to see his dad. He is not interested in talking. He just wants Dad. It is clear that, regardless of how much expertise the specialist has, this support is a longer-term strategy and will not ease the immediate crisis.

Talking behaviour


  • Is it better to use the outside agency to help train you rather than intervene with a child they have no relationship with?
  • How can you help Dante when you can’t produce his dad?



C: Appeal to Mum

Although you’ve had a series of short conversations and email exchanges with Mum, you have always been receiving information rather than swapping it. When calling Dante’s mum in for a meeting, you make it clear that you are looking for solutions – not simply giving her more problems. Walking into the meeting, you sense all is not well. Within a minute, Dante’s mum has broken down and through wet eyes she tells you everything, and probably too much. It is clear that although the separation is messy, there are no concerns over Dad’s treatment of Dante or his desire to see him. You stick hard to your purpose and whilst you understand that Dante’s dad is not the knight in shining armour that Dante wants him to be, you suggest that he needs to see
him. The meeting is not easy.

You explain that you are not taking sides or suggesting that Mum cannot look after Dante brilliantly. You calmly insist that Dante needs contact with Dad and that in all of the chaos of separation the needs of the child must come first. You leave the meeting with an agreement that she will ask Dante’s dad to collect him from school and take him for tea next week. You agree that Mum will tell him and you will not mention this meeting to him.

You agree to a weekly phone call to update on progress. You also agree with Mum that spending time with Dad cannot be withdrawn or used as a threat for poor behaviour. Dante will remain under the same sanctions as the other children.

Talking behaviour


  • Is it your place to involve yourself in family life?
  • Do you need to be sure of the details of the separation before asking for more contact with Dad?




A: Your behaviour style – Loose Tongue Talking

to the children in general terms about how we look after someone who is upset might be appropriate. Naming the child and sharing private business is definitely not. You have acted too quickly and revealed too much, albeit with the right intention. Accept all information given to you by parents as confidential and you won’t go far wrong. The problem now is that you may have given information (however confused) to other families that Dante’s mum would rather have kept private. Expect difficult conversations with her and with your line manager!

B: Your behaviour style – Call the Cavalry

Using outside agencies as part of a long-term planned and agreed intervention strategy is a sensible approach. Trying to use them as a sticking plaster in a moment of crisis is unlikely to be effective. Quite apart from anything else, it takes time to build trust with children and families. You may well find that, even with your limited experience of emotional trauma, your positive relationship with Dante will be the stability that he needs. Listening may be enough.

C: Your behaviour style – Straight to the Source

Talking to mum was never going to be easy and you certainly don’t want to add to her difficulties. Yet you have a duty to support Dante and to be honest with his mum about what is happening with his behaviour. Accept that her promises may not bear fruit in the short term. This is the start of a conversation with her, certainly not the end. She may be glad of your kindness. You may reveal feelings that Dante is worried about showing at home as everyone is already struggling with their own emotions.

© Paul Dix


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