Claire Campbell: Trust and whether the marble jar is full or empty

A trip to the park brought joy

Claire Campbell is a Thanet mum-of-three and SEN teacher working in a specialist school in Broadstairs where all children are autistic with complex learning needs.

This month in our mission to support better community access for families with children with SEND, I have been considering the ‘T’ word an awful lot – trust.

Brené Brown has an analogy about trust that describes a marble jar that becomes fuller or emptier based on the feedback you get in situations. If you keep having positive outcomes then your trust grows, but when you have negative outcomes, marbles are removed from your jar and trust dwindles.

Many parents of children with SEND have negative outcomes when they attempt to access their local communities. There may be a literal lack of physical access that makes inclusion impossible, missing facilities make it difficult for you to meet your child’s care needs, your child may have a difficult interaction with another child, or it may not be possible for them to explore a space in the way they want. Perhaps the negative outcome comes in the form of the sideways glances, the rolled eyes or attitude of onlookers assuming that your child is simply ‘poorly behaved’ or you are an ineffective parent. These experiences are taking away your marbles left, right and centre and your ability to trust that you can successfully access your community with your family is therefore very low.

So, how do we fill the jar? Charles Feltman defines trust in his book The Thin Book of Trust as ‘choosing to risk making something you value vulnerable to another person’s actions’. In this case the ‘something you value’ is actually something you love unconditionally and would move mountains to protect – your child. When you are out in the community with your child you cannot protect them from the attitudes and words of others. They are vulnerable to ignorance and misunderstanding. The more that families with children with SEND are seen in their local communities, allowing understanding of these children to grow, the more local communities can accommodate, adapt and learn how to make space for these children. But in order for that to happen, these parents need to be vulnerable.

A wonderful experience

My trust has been on shaky ground lately. I have been feeling vulnerable and unsure. But just when my marble jar was dangerously close to being empty, I had the most wonderful experience. I took a group of autistic 6 and 7 year old children with severe and complex needs from my class to the play park. We met and interacted with members of the public young and old. One parent said to their child ‘isn’t it nice that you’ve made so many new friends today?’ and the heart-warming answer was ‘yes mummy, but the one who keeps giving me his pictures is my favourite’. He was referring to a non-verbal pupil that uses picture symbols to communicate and was using this system to ask this child for turns on the swing.

Another pupil from my class made friends with a granddad in the park who was sitting and watching his grandchild play. The granddad was on the phone and this pupil loves phones. He is always picking up our phone in class or finding others round the school and shouting ‘hello?’ into them or ‘bye, see you soon!’ and enthusiastically slamming them down. He loves this role play and here in this park he spotted someone doing it right there for him to watch up close. The excitement was uncontainable. Jumping up and down, squealing, eyes wide, clapping his hands, all very close and directly in front of this older man. The man was charmed by this child and I later saw him pushing him on the swing when we had not quite managed to get to him in time to fulfil his request.

Comfort zone

But my favourite part of our visit was actually a situation that started off being a little tense. One of the pupils in my group loves a new face. When we have new adults in the classroom he immediately wants to get to know them. When a man came into the park with his pre-school aged son, this pupil approached him and tried to take his hand. The man was visibly a little shocked by this and uncomfortable. I quickly joined the interaction and supported the pupil in moving away and accessing a different area of the park. In wanting to share and support interactions with all the pupils in the group I was not able to observe how the interaction developed, I only saw the end point.

So cut to this man, initially wary and a little uncomfortable in this child’s presence, whizzing him up and down on the zip wire, giving him simple, clear instructions to follow so that he could take turns with his son. Supporting him to share with other members of our class group and happily interpreting and reacting to the pupil’s non-verbal communications that indicated his enjoyment but also indicated whether he had had enough or wanted more. The man’s son raced up and down alongside the zip wire trying to out run it and giggling as he tried to avoid the pupil’s impending legs. The two children were very happy in this game. This pupil had completely won this man round. In such a short space of time he had shown this man how he communicates and interacts. And the man thought, ‘ok, I can get along with this’.

Jar overflowing

Boy did that man give me marbles that day! Watching his complete change in comfort made my jar overflow. Sometimes we have to trust that these wonderful children will teach others exactly what they need to. And yes, there was a necessary vulnerability in this situation. This child risked being rejected and if a parent was watching this interaction they may not have let it get to the great place it went to. They may have instinctively wanted to protect their child from having awkward or difficult interactions and experiencing that rejection and they may have removed their child from the park the second that the man showed discomfort. I cannot pretend it was intentional but without even knowing it, I trusted this child to teach this man.

The other side to this of course is that this man had to trust also. In interacting with this child that he had never met before, he was taking a risk. It could have gone wrong in many ways which could have taken marbles from his jar. The child could have fallen and hurt themselves, screamed or shown upset. All of these outcomes would have been difficult for this man and so he needed to be vulnerable and trust in his instincts in how to be with this child and trust that he was in a safe space to do this.

Be brave, be vulnerable

Charles Feltman also said that ‘Trust is critical for everyone who wants to work with others to accomplish something that is not possible alone.’ This is not possible alone. No one person is going to make community access for families with children with SEND better and easier. So this is definitely a situation where trust is needed. It is necessary for families to trust their community and their children and it is necessary for members of the community to trust these families. That if they attempt positive interactions with these children they are going to gain marbles from this experience and not have them taken away.

Brené Brown talks a lot about courage and vulnerability. Being vulnerable is never easy but the payoff can be wonderful. So let’s be brave, be vulnerable, trust each other and get that jar nice and full.