Julie Leoni explains why she believes that ‘positive strokes’, or comfort and support, are key to making her a better educational professional and mother, and how students could benefit from similar encouragement

I’m back at work, with a snappy new job title – research and emotional literacy coordinator – but not yet a job description.

After six months of maternity leave, it is pure joy having opportunities to complete sentences, sit quietly, write and finish cups of coffee. My ability to make people laugh has been upgraded from saying ‘boo’ to making attempts at satire and irony! Colleagues say thank you without being prompted. They don’t burp out loud, seem pleased to see me and are very welcoming.

Positive strokes
All of this is supplying me with the sort of positive strokes that I do not receive as a full-time mum (which I still am for four days a week). The American psychologist Eric Berne, author of The Games People Play, described strokes as units of recognition or attention. His thesis was that attention was a basic survival need, alongside food, warmth and shelter. His theory explains why babies in orphanages who are fed, watered and kept warm, still die if they are not held and stroked. Without strokes, they give up the will to live.

As babies we demand mainly physical attention: fresh nappies, food, rocking. But, as we get older, we start to accept symbolic units of attention. For example we understand that a smile is a positive unit of recognition, whereas a pinch is negative. Just as there are positive and negative ways of getting attention, there are also conditional and unconditional ‘strokes’. The most powerful strokes are the unconditional ones, as they are based on who we are rather than what we do. So an unconditional negative stroke might be ‘I hate you’, and an unconditional positive stroke might be a hug. A conditional negative stroke might ‘your trainers are crap’ and a conditional positive might be ‘I like you when you lend me your clothes’.

Mum and teacher
As a mum, I spend a lot of time trying to give positive strokes (and sometimes I give negatives). On a bad day, I feel like all I do is meet everyone else’s needs and none of my own. Nobody ever says ‘Well done,’ or ‘Great idea’. At work, thankfully, they do. I get positive strokes for doing. I also get positive strokes for being; lots of smiles, hugs and jokes. It’s only with my return from work that I realise how I have missed the many strokes I receive from grown-ups.

The effect of receiving positive strokes is that I feel energised, creative, calm and patient. I have the luxury of distance. What I do in school helps me reflect on home; when I’m at home I can reflect on work. I look forward to both roles. At work, I spend more time with adults as I have no teaching timetable this year. That means I enjoy being with my kids more and feel less one-dimensional.

Starting the journey
I’ve started the school’s emotional literacy journey by talking to the staff who mentor children, or work in the support team, about what they need. We are shortly to meet up as a group. My hope is that we can use these meetings to share what it is we do and start to understand how our different contributions fit together. Over time, we will be able to join up our skills, information and awareness.

The purpose of such meetings is not to bring about a situation where we all do the same thing or work in the same way. Rather it is to ensure that we know enough about what we can do to be able to draw on each other’s strengths and integrate our resources.

In April, we will embark on the Antidote Process. This will give us a bigger picture of what is going on in the school’s learning environment, then enable us to develop a strategy that is more likely to be effective because the whole school community was involved in shaping it.

So I’m thinking micro and macro at the same time, and trying to chart a course that will bring the two together over time. The Antidote Process will help us to see what we want to change in the big picture. The staff support group will gradually spread to include more of the pastoral staff. Both processes will send ripples out in all directions.

Resonating back
I was back at home after a positive day at work, when my four-year-old Matty had a screaming fit about the amount of chocolate I would (or rather would not) let him have. It was precisely because I had been at work, and had had my stroke quotient boosted, that I was able to see through the screaming, stay calm and kind, and give him the hug he needed.

He then burst into tears and told me how much he was struggling with school. On days when I have been home alone and become frazzled, I could easily have bought into the conflict, not seen past the chocolate and missed the opening for sharing feelings and problem solving.

So when I went to bed that night, I felt like I had been an asset at work as well as allowing my son a space to share his fears and sadnesses. Ben was asleep and next to me, husband happy watching football. Just for once, everything felt right in my world.

Which is why we all need to ensure that we are getting enough positive strokes.

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