Confronted with the uneasiness of even very young pupils, I noticed that no structure exists in primary schools to allow children to talk about their problems, unlike in middle school where there are places and many interlocutors (counselor principal of education, teacher, social worker, nurse, etc.).
So I decided to set up a listening cell in one of the primary schools in my area. This article aims to present this cell which I called the ‘little box’ and which I led for five years.
Three Recurring Themes
My meeting with the director of the elementary school, who is well aware of children’s rights, was the subject of my research. I suggested that her school suspend a book that I would lead every Thursday morning. After explaining my job and getting the agreement of the teachers ‘team and the parents’ delegation, I explained to the children what a ‘little box’ was. The parents of the students were also notified by post.
A mailbox has been made available to children to leave a small note with their names in order to find the time. The schoolroom is reserved for interviews.
Here are some sample tickets (I kept the original spelling):
- Hello, I feel a little sad.
- Dearest Elen, I have a little problem.
- Family problem. Get me the sooner, the better.
- I need you.
- Since last year, I have had minor problems, and I need advice. Can you give it to me?
- When I want to sleep, I can’t.
- Every morning I feel sad.
- Dear farmer, I would like to see you.
- Hello, my problem is recess.
The children took to the tool immediately and showed that they had a real need to talk. I received about ten children per morning, some returning several weeks in a row. Three main themes were addressed in the interviews: family, health, and school.
I chose for each of them a few sentences from children and a story.
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The Family Theme
- Everyone can argue; mom and dad are also arguing. You still have to get married.
- I’m afraid of my brother; sometimes, he says he will jump out the window.
- My parents are not enough for me; I would love to spend more time with them
- Soon I will be with my little sister tomorrow or the next day; my father left for Bosnia this morning.
- My father often beat me with a belt or a pair of sandals on my hips. Fear is always in your head.
- I want to live with illiterate parents. I have to get out of the house. I’m sad.
- Mom and Dad seem to dislike me.
The Theme Of Health
- I feel like I can’t see well.
- I am too fat
- What are the rules?
- I want to tell the class about my disability.
- I wet the bed; I don’t want to go to the green type.
The Theme Of School and Friends
- I’m heartbroken because I argued with my girlfriend.
- When I have worries, I can only talk about them with myself…
- I spend all recess in the bathroom, so I’m scared.
- I’m afraid of him; I’m afraid of being with him until high school. (a CE2 student).
- I am terrified of the mistress.
- I don’t arrive with the words; they arrive all mixed up. I do not know how to read.
During the discussions, the children demonstrated great analytical power and insight. I was far from thinking about all the things children can bring to a meeting: meditation, harmony, empathy, emotion (even those described as distractions). I provided them with tools (drawings, dolls, theater) to guide them, and they often found solutions to their problems themselves.
After trying out the track discussed in the interview, they often come back and tell me with a smile: “It worked!”. Or even “The storm is over!”, “I do better on the way to mourning!”, “My parents listen to me!”. They have gone through their ordeals and are once again living well by being actors in their lives.
Some had no special request when they arrived at the ‘small box.’ For example, a child came to talk about his daily life in a social setting. Three foreign girls came to show me the traditional dances of their native country. The little boy said to me: “My father is in prison; I will see him this weekend. I made him a beautiful painting, look …”.
The children sometimes came to ask existential questions:
- What is friendship? What is love? God? And the dead?
- Why are we in love? How do we know?
- Why did he kill his children?
- Why are there hungry children?
And I also remember this little 10-year-old girl who said, “What’s the point of loving if the other doesn’t love us?”
When I questioned the children about the ‘little box,’ they confirmed the importance of a permanent listening service at school by saying:
- We can talk about the worries we have, the problems. If we don’t want to talk to the family about it, that relieves us.
- We don’t think about that all the time, and we work better.
- I feel calmer.
- We release the pressure.
- I am no longer afraid; I am secure with you.
- I was tired of being sad in my head.
The educational team encouraged the pupils to come to the ‘little box’ from the start. If a teacher noticed that a child was not well, he reminded him of his existence, but it was always (except in an emergency) the student who ultimately decided whether or not to come. For a shy child or a child with relationship difficulties, there was often a lot of persuasion on the part of the teacher. It has happened that a young girl arrives at school in tears in the morning and that the teacher suggests that she come to the ‘little box .’This student agreed to talk to me. She had experienced a problematic scene (a death in the family), and I received her urgently. Another had been assaulted on the way; I met her after her visit to the director.
During a council of teachers, teachers told me: “it is a relief for us to know that a child who we know is suffering is coming to see you .”They also said that the students who came back from the ‘little club’ were more relaxed. I often noticed it in their smile when they said goodbye to me at the end of an interview.
Sometimes I asked for a meeting with the parents with the children’s agreement. The parents were happy to talk to me or meet me. Our relationships have always been in a climate of trust, and most of the time, the parents have been caring partners in helping their children. Situations were resolved more quickly than in college, where relations are often more strained between parents and teenagers.
A Few Keys To Success
Setting up a ‘little box’ assumes that certain conditions are met.
First of all, the agreement of the entire educational team of the school is essential. It is a matter of teamwork in the service of children, which presupposes good communication between the various actors.
Then the speaker will have to surround himself with a network of people (doctors, social workers, psychologists, etc.), the ‘little box’ wanting to be a place of listening and linking but in no way a place of therapy.
The worker should also not be left alone when faced with certain difficult situations brought about by the child (abuse, suicidal thoughts, etc.) and should not hesitate to be supervised.
The purpose of these interviews is to facilitate the release of speech; their success requires establishing a relationship of trust with the child. The latter must be assured of the subjects’ confidentiality (schoolwork, school, family, friends, health). Confidentiality can, however, be lifted if the worker considers that the child is in danger.
The originality of this action lies in the fact that children are considered actors in their health. The teacher or another adult does not address them, but the request comes from themselves. The child should never be forced to go to the ‘little box.’
A qualitative and quantitative evaluation respecting the confidentiality of the interviews must be carried out regularly.
I opened this place of listening to respond to a lack that I had identified in primary school. I have carried out over a thousand student interviews in five years, and all the moments shared with them have been very rich. This listening experience showed me that children often have sufficient resources to best manage the problems they encounter. They need us to accompany them on their journey. The famous maxim of the pedagogue Maria Montessori “Help me to do alone,” could be the ‘little box’ motto.
Finally, here is the answer that a little girl gave me when I asked her what the little box brought her: “Sitting down already feels good.”