Supporting – not fixing
Remember, ELSAs are not there to fix children’s problems. In most cases they can’t. What ELSAs are able to do is provide emotional support. As they establish a warm, respectful relationship with a pupil they provide a reflective space where the pupil is able to share honestly their thoughts and feelings. The ELSA uses basic counselling skills (including active listening, problem clarification, open questions, thinking aloud, verbal and non-verbal prompts) to guide helping conversations. Avoid rushing in with suggested solutions, (‘Have you thought of…?’, ‘Why don’t you try…?’) Instead, assist the pupil to reflect on their concerns and lead them explore possible strategies and solutions for themselves, (‘Could you imagine another way of responding in that situation?’ ‘How do you think x was feeling at that moment?’ ‘What would you have liked to have been able to say/do?’ ‘What do you think might have happened if…?’) Sometimes it is appropriate to suggest some possible coping strategies but the key is to do this tentatively and to leave the pupil with choices, (‘Some people find it helpful to do x , y or z. I’m wondering if any of those things could work for you.’)
Keeping psychological needs in mind
It is easy to become focused on trying to change unhelpful behaviours without thinking sufficiently about the psychological need the behaviour might be expressing. Behaviour does not occur in a vacuum. It is helpful to think that children are not setting out to be difficult, but are trying to solve a problem they perceive. Their perceptions may need to alter through a process of reflection. ELSAs need to develop the skill of hypothesis-forming. If the young person were able to put into words what they are wishing to achieve through a particular behaviour, what do you think they might say? In doing this there needs to be flexibility of thinking. It may be possible to come up with a variety of hypotheses, some of which will fit better than others. Once some hypotheses have been formulated, an ELSA can begin checking out to see which fit the situation best. Developing an understanding of the behaviour leads on to identifying alternative ways of meeting the need. Understanding informs intervention. This is one reason why regular access to psychological supervision is vital for ELSAs.
Having a consistent time and place to work
We all like some consistency of routine. Most of us are more comfortable in a familiar environment. Familiarity helps us to relax. By providing a regular time and place for a pupil to meet with the ELSA, the pupil receives the message that they are important. If contact is irregular and in different places, the pupil is likely to feel that they are being fitted in rather than prioritised. We want pupils to prepare themselves for working with the ELSA in the same way that an ELSA needs to prepare herself for working with the pupil. If they don’t know when that will be, they are less likely to think about the session in advance.
Communicating unavoidable change
There will be times when plans have to be changed. If an ELSA cannot meet a pupil at the arranged time, it is important for that to be communicated to the pupil in advance. Turning up to be told the ELSA isn’t there, or waiting to be collected by an ELSA who doesn’t turn up, is very undervaluing for the pupil. If the ELSA phones in sick it is helpful to ask someone to specifically give a message of apology to any pupils he/she was planning to see. This helps to reduce any disappointment for those pupils.
3 keys for success
In establishing good rapport with pupils, there are three important keys that contribute greatly to the success of the ELSA role. These are
- Stay with the feelings
- Create a reflective space
- Don’t fix the problem!
Please click here for further information on these key principles.