Much has been made of the decline of the family but the bonds between parents and child have not weakened. The reality and persistence of the extended family is one of the best kept secrets of modern times                                 

                                     Terri Apter, psychologist and writer                                           

In 2007 I was based at Oak Park Primary School* in London where I would go into class, on request, to help manage issues around bullying and exclusion. There were 600 pupils when I arrived, considerably more by the time I left two years later, and the presenting problem was always the same – an out of control classroom and a quietly despairing teacher.

At the time, Oak Park had a noticeably higher than average turnover of staff and a not insignificant number of teachers would take prolonged sick leave during the course of a term. This resulted in a steady flow of supply or substitute teachers, further exacerbating the situation in the classroom.

A significant percentage of pupils were not native speakers and some arrived mid-term as political and economic refugees with little or no understanding of English. Some groups, such as the Traveller children seemed especially ostracised.

This East London borough has one of the highest levels of child poverty in England. I realised that I needed to do something substantial with these children, something that reached and addressed the deeper issues of their lives.

In the beginning, my class visits were scheduled during so-called ‘philosophy’ sessions. These timetabled classes offered teachers a break from the curriculum and enabled them to pursue and develop ideas which were not academically focussed.

In my second term at Oak Park, I was asked to go into a Year 5 class where a Romanian girl, who spoke no English, was being excluded by the entire group. The child had already been moved from a parallel class, but there had been no improvement.

I realised that, as the girl spoke no English, my approach would need to be experiential rather than explanatory. My mother tongue is Swiss German, a language that is not easily understood outside the culture. I decided to conduct my session entirely in Swiss, behaving with the expectation that everyone in the room could understand what I was saying. I had visited the class before so the children knew that I spoke English. However, the sense of disorientation was complete.

I issued various instructions in Swiss, asking the class to perform certain tasks. I used only words, no gestures, no smiles. I randomly praised one group whilst criticizing another.

Eventually I sat down and observed the stunned silence in the room. I asked them how this experience had made them feel. ‘Confused, stupid, excluded’, they replied. I explained that although this was not a situation that would likely occur for an entire class, there were some children at the school who were born in another country and spoke another language. Perhaps this was the way they might feel when they first came to Oak Park.

I asked them what they thought I could have done to make them feel safer and less disoriented. They suggested smiles, gestures, eye contact.

We did the exercise again and I implemented their ideas. We talked about how many languages, other than English, were spoken in the classroom. I grouped the children according to their mother tongue – Punjabi, Polish, Lithuanian etc and then asked each native speaker(s) in the group to teach the others a sentence in their own language.

The Romanian girl grew more confident and her behaviour towards her peers became less aggressive as they began to include her more. For several weeks after my visit to Year 5A, children would call out to me in Swiss in the playground.

My role at Oak Park included making home visits to talk with parents about difficulties their children were having in school. On one occasion, I was asked to set up a meeting with the mother of a boy of Spanish/Moroccan descent. As I had anticipated, Ali’s mother was initially quite hostile.  Gradually though, she began to talk to me about her own mother and how much she missed her family and her country. Her language became almost poetic as she spoke to me about growing up amongst the smells, colours and tastes of Southern Spain. The longing was palpable, but so was the sense of connection and belonging.

Everything, she told me, was different in England – the climate, the language, the food. As a single mother of 3 children, she was clearly not in a financial position to return to Spain, even for a holiday. I suggested to her that she speak to Ali about her childhood, that she teach him Spanish words, nursery rhymes and songs so that he too could connect to the Spanish part of him that he had inherited through her.

During the 2 years I worked at Oak Park, I grew increasingly aware of how important culture and language was for these children. I saw, during individual sessions, how acute the sense of loss and how much these children missed the extended families they had left behind in their homelands. In her book, You’re One of Us, Marianne Franke writes: The parents thanked their lucky stars that they had managed to escape {their homelands}. They poured their energy into finding a job or procuring money. Often the price the children paid for their parents’ loss and homesickness, was failure in school or depression.

As a result of these experiences in classrooms and living rooms, I developed an exercise that I called The Stones of Belonging.

In my first week at Oak Park, I had a meeting with the Head Teacher. She talked to me about the challenges that teachers face in today’s classrooms. They are expected not only to teach the curriculum but to manage the psychology and behaviour of some very troubled children. They trained as teachers, not as therapists or social workers.

Having spent many years as a teacher myself, both in this country and abroad, I sensed the importance of offering them something  practical, an exercise or an idea that they could use or adapt after I had left the classroom.

The Stones of Belonging is an exercise that is suitable for any year group, although, in my experience, it generates the most useful discussion with higher years (3 – 6).

Initially, we talked about the idea of ‘Belonging’ and I asked the children what the word meant to them. We considered the different groups they belong to – school, class, friendship, sport, church etc. I talked about how these might change over time, but that there is one group that we are always a part of – our family group. Sometimes grown-ups stop loving each other, one parent may move away, to another town or even to another country, but our parents remain our parents and we remain their children. We belong to our families and they belong to us for a lifetime.

I explained that we also belong to our countries. I told them that my mother was Swiss and my father was English and so both those places are a part of me. More than 80% of the children at Oak Park primary at the time that I was working there had parents and grandparents who were not born in the UK and many had a mixed cultural heritage. Even having a father from Jamaica and a mother from St. Lucia invites a closer look at the differences between the two.

One child suggested we go round the class and ask each person in the room where they came from. The children seemed surprised but also proud to be articulating their heritage in this rather public way. I decided to include it as part of the exercise.

I used a Tibetan singing bowl, initially as a way of gathering the children’s attention and as a form of meditation. The bowl resonates at a very physical level and the sound fades  gradually. I encouraged the children not to speak until the vibration had stopped completely.

I then filled the bowl with small, semi-precious tumblestones – rose quartz, amethyst, jade, tiger’s eye, opal, turquoise. These can be bought in bulk and at relatively low cost on line. I passed the bowl around the circle and asked each child to choose 1 stone. I explained that this stone represented them.

I passed the bowl around a second time and this time, I asked them to choose 2 stones.  I then invited them to guess who these 2 stones might represent. A response was always immediate – ‘our parents’. This often started a conversation about stepfathers and grandparents, foster parents, adoptive parents, same-sex parents and parents who have died.

I told them that I have 3 stones that I always carry with me. Sometimes, when I have something difficult to do, something I feel nervous about, I hold my 3 stones and somehow having my parents close makes me feel stronger, calmer, braver even. I asked them to think about something that made them feel anxious or worried – a Maths test maybe, speaking in Assembly …. I then suggested they hold the stones in the palm of their hand and see if having their parents close made them feel better, more supported. Most, if not all reported that they felt stronger, safer, more confident.

Early on, I began to make a point of including the teacher and the learning support assistant in the exercise. Some of the children were astonished to consider that their teachers might have parents too. It was interesting to observe how teachers related to the exercise: one stitched little bags with the children to keep the stones safe; another casually mentioned that she’d ‘lost’ her parents.

I told the children that the stones belonged to them and suggested they keep them somewhere safe.

In December 2010, an article entitled The Ancestor Effect was published in the European Journal of Social Psychology. Researchers, it seems, have discovered that thinking about one’s ancestors can be a strong motivator and can even improve intellectual performance. Interestingly, thinking about friends or aspirations didn’t generate the same level of confidence.

Teachers reported to me that some children would lay their Stones of Belonging beside them on the desk whilst taking a test. One boy, who had very little contact with his father, told me that he planned to give him his ‘Dad’ stone next time he saw him. Another girl sadly told me that her father hadn’t realised the importance of the stones and had taken them away from her. A few days later she approached me at the bus stop, introduced me to her father and asked me to explain to him what the stones meant. I subsequently discovered that he was a single father and that the girl’s mother had returned to live in Pakistan.

Weeks, sometimes months later, a child would call out to me in the corridor I’ve still got my stones, Miss …., my Mum and my Dad.

When I do the exercise, I know that there will be some children who don’t relate to it in quite the same way as others. However, as it’s a class exercise, a child can watch and listen without having to openly agree to anything. It seems to be easier too that we use stones, which are symbolic.

Some children talk to their parents and show them the stones, which in itself is a healing movement as it initiates an explanation as to what they represent. Sometimes I am asked … but what if the child is being beaten by his father; what if the girl’s mother is depressed and unavailable? What seems to be true about doing this exercise is that it somehow reaches beyond the rational, beyond the reality of these children’s lives and touches a universal longing they have to connect to that part of their parents that is whole and caring.


This article was published  in The Knowing Field, January 2012

and in Conexao Sistemica Sul, Brazil, February 2012

*The name of the school has been changed to protect students’ anonymity.

Reference: Marianne Franke-Gricksch You’re One of Us. Systemic Insights and Solutions for Teachers, Students and Parents Carl-Auer-Systeme Verlag 2001