Children Are Not Washing Machines!

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shutterstock_104976929 A curious little girl looks into the empty drum washing machine


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What is the title of your inner story? 

In my new book Inner Story: Understand your mind. Change your world’, I describe how you have two stories inside your head. One is about your life. The other is controlling your life.

The story that controls your life is your inner story. It is created in your mind and controls everything that you think, feel and do. You are living it every moment of every day. It is a story you tell yourself before you tell it to others – and the more you tell yourself a story the more you become that story.

One way that people offer an insight into their inner story is when they start a sentence with “I am the sort of person who…”

As a teacher, when you interact with a young person you are always interacting with their inner story and making a contribution to shaping who they think they are both as a person and as a learner. Of course, when a young person interacts with you, they are also interacting with your inner story too. Every teacher has an inner story (but that’s a different blog).


At Risk!

Every learner’s inner story is potentially at risk in any mass education system. This is particularly the case if the child experiences difficulties in systems where deficit-focused labels abound. In such systems ‘the problem’ is seen as being located within the child and therefore children who experience difficulties are in danger of being treated as if they are broken washing machines that need fixing. The notion that the adults or the environment should change – in order to enable the child to change – is often absent from the agenda.

shutterstock_25219753 A row of industrial washing machines in a public laundromat

Image: Shutterstock

In chapter two of Inner Story I provide a real world example of conversations I had with ‘Kaylee’ about her inner story…

The Conversation:

I do not believe that any child needs fixing. Change happens when children who experience emotional needs receive intensified understanding within an environment that is responsive. Intensified understanding requires looking differently. It places a focus on understanding needs rather than fixing difficulties.

I remember explaining the inner story concept to a seven-year-old girl who was experiencing what were described as ‘severe emotional and behavioural difficulties’ because of traumatic events that had happened in her young life. Kaylee was a resilient girl. It is worth noting here that the early research about resilience was carried out with children in similar circumstances to Kaylee. In one of my earlier conversations with her I asked her to tell me what sort of person she thought she was. Her response illustrated that this was something she had already given careful private thought to.

“Do me a favour. Think of most horrible person in the world that you can imagine.”

She gave me a generous amount of time in which to think. Once I confirmed to her that I had thought of someone, she continued,

“I am worse than the person you are thinking of. I am worse than the worst person that anyone can think of.”

Psychologically, this is a distressing place to be when you are seven years old. Despite her resilience, the meaning that she attached to her inner story was placing her at risk and so we began the process of changing it. During one of our later discussions our conversation came back to the nature of her inner story. She leant forward, one eyebrow raised higher than the other, and enquired,

“Does my inner story have a title?”

What a beautiful question that is. Of course your inner story can have a title if you want it to have a title. It is your story and you can call it whatever you want to. Kaylee was asking because her inner story was changing and she wanted to acknowledge this by giving it a title. Her title illustrated how leaps of progress were taking place inside her mind. It was,

“It’s not so bad being me.” She then asked,

“Can my inner story have music to go with it?”

What a beautiful question that is too. Of course it can and Kaylee had already given careful private thought to this too. Kaylee sang the theme tune. Impulsively, yet naturally, we jumped up and down, clapped our hands and danced to it together. It was one of those spontaneous experiences where you turn around and notice a colleague staring at you through the large pane of glass in the door, shaking her head and smiling in recognition of the meaning of the moment.

Children are not washing machines.

shutterstock_235708072 Repairman is repairing a washing machine on the white background.

Image: Shutterstock

Reflection/Action Point:

Think of a learner that you teach. It does not have to be a learner who is experiencing difficulties. How do your interactions with them contribute to shaping their inner story? What can you do to help change their inner story for the better?

Reflection/Action Point:

Think of a colleague. How do your interactions with them contribute to shaping their inner story? What can you do to help change their inner story for the better?

Reflection/Action Point :

Your own wellbeing matters too. Ask yourself the question that Kaylee asked: 
“what is the title of my inner story?”

Now examine the title and see if it is empowering you or holding you back. What could you think, feel or do differently to change your inner story for the better? (Inner stories do not have to be bad to get better). If you feel adventurous you can ask yourself what the theme tune or the soundtrack to your inner story is too.

Get In Touch:

Finally, I would be really grateful if you would let me know what the title of your inner story is – and the accompanying music too if you want to. I am collecting titles at the moment.

Written by Dr. Tim O’Brien for Teacher Toolkit. Tim is a former lecturer in Psychology and Human Development at Institute of Education. You can follow Tim on Twitter at @Doctob.

Dr Tim O Brien @DocTob Inner Story

Written by award-winning psychologist Dr Tim O’Brien, Inner Story is “wholeheartedly” recommended by Sir Elton John and is endorsed by Arsene Wenger, Manager of Arsenal Football Club in the English Premier League. For years Tim has worked behind the scenes with global businesses, in elite sport and with high profile public figures. He shares his expertise with you so that you can understand your mind and change your world.



One thought on “Children Are Not Washing Machines!

  1. Having read and reviewed the whole of Inner Story, I feel that this blog is an excellent summary of the part of it that relates most specifically to us as teachers. ‘Children are not washing machines’ should be a mantra that we shout from the rooftops if we are really to get to the heart of what it means to provide meaningful learning environments for our pupils.
    I would urge you, however, to go on and read the whole of ‘Inner Story’ as it is packed full of life-changing ideas about our role as teachers, leaders and human beings.
    My review is here:

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