A Whole-Child Approach at the British School of Ljubljana

In traditional schools and families, the teachers and parents still believe that children will do better if we tell them that they are bad.  But when teachers tell students that they are stupid or ignorant, they damage their self-image.

The Danish family therapist Jesper Juul warns that when teachers or parents regularly undermine children’s sense of self, the children start to believe that something really is wrong with them.  Slowly but steadily they lose their self-respect and accumulate doubts and feelings of guilt and shame.

If children are exposed to verbal and physical abuse over a long period (or even less for more sensitive children and teens), there can be serious consequences for them.  Gradually this situation can lead either to violent or self-destructive behavior.

Two forms of bullying at school

Children are exposed to pressure and bullying by their peers and teachers at preschools and schools.  This can be either open or hidden.  Hidden bullying can be just as dangerous because it appears to be the “normal” situation, and so children are not easily able to defend themselves from it.  Hidden bullying can take place unnoticed for a long time and so have irreparable consequences for the victims.

There is a lot of disciplinary action in traditional schools and preschools.  Teachers compare students to one another and make excessive corrections and reminders.  They also use public shaming and humiliation in order to make the children compliant and obedient.

After months and years of this kind of pressure, many children start to give in and “cooperate.”  They become quieter and more passive and lose confidence in themselves and their capabilities.  They do only what is expected of them and in the way it is to be done. They become “good” children.

Children who do not submit end up revolting.  These children, especially teens, have no chance in their revolt against the system.  Schools see children’s need to express their uniqueness as a violation of the rules and they respond with sanctions.  If these do not work, they pressure the parents to take action against their own child.

A child, who is now between a rock and a hard place, either “wises up” and submits (at least temporarily and for outward appearances) or embarks on open conflict with authority. (S)he becomes alienated from school and family, and sooner or later falls in with the wrong people.

Every action this kid now takes leads to an even stricter reaction from the school and parents and sets of a chain reaction of events.  The door to youth delinquency and dangerous teen behaviors is now wide open.

This type of damaging approach has long been a part of the education and “training” methods used by teachers in traditional preschools and schools.  There is not sufficient control of their activity, especially not in the preschools and early years of primary school, when children are still unable to express their thoughts and feelings — a fact that some teachers count on.

Open violence (bullying)

The other form of violence at school is purposeful, open violence: bullying.

Bullying has many faces, but all have serious consequences.  Victims feel afraid, upset, and helpless, and often develop resistance to school and ultimately learning.  In rare cases bullying is dangerous not only to the children’s learning success and health, but even the lives of bullied students and teachers.

Bullying is a complex issue.  Most schools are not successful in their efforts to reduce physical and verbal abuse in their facilities and outside them.  In order to curb it they would need to change, because the reasons for bullying are built into the school system itself.  Schools that have not been successful at stopping violence tend to relativize its extent and consequences.

More about bullying and experience with this issue at the British School.

The children who suffer the most

Not all children are equally sensitive to unpleasant situations at school.  And not all children are exposed to the same level of violence and pressure.  But the problem is that the children who are most vulnerable and sensitive are the ones who experience the most violence.

The children most at risk are those who stand out from the average and are different in some way.  Here are ten types of children for whom traditional schooling can be like a nightmare, either all the time or part of the time:

    • exceptionally bright children (due to lack of challenge and being picked on by peers),
    • children with learning difficulties (because they feel like losers and because some teachers and classmates act like they are),
    • children with a strong individual character (because of ongoing pressure from the school to adapt and conform),
    • children who are exceptionally gifted in one area, such as the humanities, science, art, or sports (because they must “meet standards” in subjects they are not good and that don’t interest them),
    • curious and inquisitive children (because they are often bored by the content and teaching methods at school),
    • children with special needs (because it is most difficult to be different at school),
    • children who look unusual or have speech problems or birth defects (as above, plus they are bullies’ main targets),
    • children who are different in culture, language, clothing, customs, or interests (as above, plus they hear the worst insults),
    • sensitive and exceptionally emotional children (because everyone thinks that their problems are imaginary),
    • quiet, reserved, and introverted children (because the school pressures them to be something they aren’t).

How to protect the whole child

One of the best options is homeschooling.

Home and family are children’s natural environment and this is definitely the safest and most productive environment for children’s development in the first years of life.  The growing trend toward homeschooling in other countries indicates that more and more parents are convinced that this is also true during childhood and adolescence.

In Slovenia homeschooling has been a legal form of education since 1996.  It is also the legal basis used for enrolling Slovenian children in international schools with programs in foreign languages.  Here is some information on homeschooling as an aid for families that are thinking about primary schooling in foreign languages in Slovenia, or those who wish to educate their own children.

If homeschooling is not an option due to lack of time or lack of the skills required to teach at home, or for any other reason, the best option is an “alternative” school.  Alternative schools are any schools where children are protected from violence, from diminishing their inborn creativity, and from negative programing.

Having this in mind it shouldn’t be important in what language children learn at this school, what kind of clothes they wear, or what part of town the school is in.  Ultimately it also shouldn’t be important whether this school is financed by public or private funds.

Protecting the whole child at the British School of Ljubljana

Here are five reasons why the British School in Ljubljana is a good alternative to traditional schools, in terms of its protection of children’s individuality and mental health.  (And also a good alternative to homeschooling, but for different reasons.)

1. The school’s principles and values

The British School in Ljubljana is built on eight universal principles, which are its basic values and at the same time an essential element of a healthy, safe school environment.  School communities that value ethics, respect, empathy, and cooperation have less disagreement and violence.

Frequently an organization’s principles are merely words on paper, but not at the British School Ljubljana.  Teachers and staff demonstrate these values and transfer them to the students with their behavior, actions, and communication.  In schools where teachers are a good example to students on all levels, negativity is significantly reduced.

Similarly, schools with a strong agreement on the basic principles of behavior among the teachers and administration, as well as the students and their parents, are more connected and homogeneous.  Such schools usually don’t attract people who would find it difficult to live by such principles; at least not for a long time.

2. Teachers and staff

The teachers and staff at the British International School of Ljubljana make child protection a top priority.  They show zero tolerance of any kind of violence.

In addition to their educational credentials, the teachers also have training and experience in child protection and safeguarding.  Most teachers at the British School Ljubljana are able to quickly recognize when a child is in distress and the reasons for it.

It’s equally important that teachers at school react immediately when they suspect abuse.  If there is domestic violence or bullying at school, the teacher is often a child’s only safe haven.

In addition to aiming to be a violence-free school, the teachers at the British International School of Ljubljana also take care in their communication with students.  They work to avoid the two situations Jesper Juul says cause the greatest harm to the whole child and children’s self-esteem: unfair criticism and uncritical praise.

3. Class size and school size

Small classes, small problems; big classes, big problems.  The more children in a class and the more classes at each grade level, the more difficult it is for teachers to teach (and students to learn) and the more difficult it is to protect those who need protection.

Class size at the British International School of Ljubljana is limited to a maximum of 20 students.  When the number of children exceeds this limit, the school administration divides the class into two.

Because not all classes are full the number of students is still less.  The average primary class at the British School has from 10 to 15 children, and the secondary classes have around 5 to 10.  Unlike what is commonly believed, these numbers are optimal.

Research confirms many advantages of small classes and schools, both in child protection and in children’s overall learning and development.  Longitudinal studies indicate a strong correlation between small groups in preschool and primary school programs (fewer than 18 students per teacher) and long-term academic and career success.

In primary schools that have 25 or even 30 children in one class, much time is spent on enforcing minimal conditions for work and that much less for actual learning.  The advantages of smaller classes and small to medium schools are numerous and proven.

4. School community

The British School of Ljubljana is relatively small but is a tightly connected community of students, teachers, and parents.  If something escapes a teacher the parents notice it, and vice versa.  Inappropriate behavior is suppressed even before it has an opportunity to spread.

Like other international schools, many of the families at the Ljubljana British School have one parent who does not work full-time.  These parents (usually mothers), have more time and frequently help out at the school by organizing events, carrying out school excursions, and volunteering in the preschool and early primary classes.

The assistance of these parents (fathers, too) is valuable for the quality of the school’s program.  This important assistance also offers the school support in maintaining a tolerant and safe learning environment.

Because the enrolment in the British School, like other private schools, is voluntary, there are certain positive aspects to that.  British School of Ljubljana attracts families with similar interests and goals.  Learning, work, and success are high on their list of priorities.  With only rare exceptions, the students are optimistic and positive, eager to learn new things and succeed.

In schools where children do not have this kind of parental support there is more inappropriate behavior and lesson disruption.  Students for whom school is a last priority often fall behind their more eager classmates, picking on them, teasing them, and doing whatever they can to make the school a misery for them, too.

A strong school community is key.  The best thing adults can do for their children’s success in school is to show them that learning counts, and back up those words with actions.  The British International School of Ljubljana certainly achieves this.

5. Awareness-raising

Last but not least, regular awareness-building and training within the school community about how to prevent and react to bullying contributes a great deal to a safer school environment.

The British International School of Ljubljana invests significant resources in child protection education and training programs.  These programs include the entire school community: teachers, staff, and administration, as well as students, parents, and caregivers.

One of these programs is Child Protection Week.  Special materials are prepared for students, parents, and teachers at the primary school level (bullying, internet safety, the “underwear rule,” etc.) and the secondary level (students with anxiety, physical, emotional and sexual abuse, bullying, problems at home, internet/telephone safety, etc.).  Teachers refer to messages from these programs throughout the whole year.

BISL regularly holds teacher workshops led by foreign and Slovenian experts.  The school hosted the leading British child protection professional, Robin Watts.  Forty-one members of the school’s teaching staff learned about the four most common forms of child abuse and physical or behavioral signs in a child that may reveal that something is wrong.

BISL also takes part in preventive programs such as the NSPCC handbook (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children) and works with Slovenian institutions such as ZPMS, TOM, Društvo Ključ, and others.

Conclusion

Many schools have good child protection programs and many schools have committed and caring teachers and professional staff who do the best they can.  It’s also true that no school is 100% immune to inappropriate and violent behavior, including the British International School of Ljubljana.

However, it can be claimed that the five factors given above guarantee a safe learning environment at the British School at all levels: preschool, primary, and secondary.

All children have the right of being protected as whole persons, psychologically and emotionally as well as physically, so that when they conclude their formal education they are still the same intact personalities they were before starting preschool or school.

The only way for children to enjoy this basic right up to the day they become adults is a well planned and thorough whole-child protection throughout all fifteen or more years of schooling, which is ultimately the responsibility of adults.  The British School of Ljubljana takes this responsibility seriously.

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