Schools Conversations that move us forward

  • By Katie Langmore
  • This article was published more than 9 months ago.
  • 3 Oct 2023
Principal Jane Langley. Photo: Simon O’Dywer

Principal Jane Langley brings a wealth of knowledge and understanding to her courses on managing challenging conversations with students.

It’s not surprising that Jane Langley is comfortable having difficult conversations. During a 25-year career in education, the Macarthur Primary School principal has not only worked in the classroom but also supported schools in restorative approaches, drug education, and wellbeing programs.

“Restorative approaches are effective and the drug education work helped frame my pedagogy around the importance of working proactively rather than reactively with students and empowering them with the skills that they need to be successful,” says Jane.

With such a background – which required Jane to consider the social and cognitive pathways that can lead to risk-taking behaviour – it’s also not surprising that she draws heavily from neuroscience in her approach to both student wellbeing and tackling tricky conversations.

“I think the more that you understand how the amygdala and prefrontal cortex impact on behaviour, the more you can know how to work with and support kids’ behaviours, and the ways that kids approach learning,” explains Jane.

She has learnt that sometimes just listening fixes the problem. “If someone is really heightened, there’s no point being the voice of reason at that point in time, because their prefrontal cortex is not engaged. But validating their experience and feelings and naming that helps lower the emotions and brings that learning brain back online.

“Our ES staff are the people working most closely with some of our trickiest kids and also with some of the kids who have the biggest challenges to being successful in school.”

Jane Langley

“Then we can explore next steps if needed – but when people feel heard, understood and valued, sometimes that’s enough.”

Jane explores this neuroscience in her courses on ‘Managing Challenging Conversations’, a Teachers Learning Network (TLN) series she has previously held for leadership and teachers and will soon share with education support staff.

“For ES staff, a challenging conversation with a child may be around addressing the behaviours that are holding them up from learning or addressing the behaviours that are making it difficult for them to build connections with others in the classroom and school,” suggests Jane.

“Our ES staff are the people working most closely with some of our trickiest kids and also with some of those students who have the biggest challenges to being successful in school.”

In Jane’s experience, all staff can struggle with difficult conversations – whether with a student, parent or colleague – because there is a wariness about upsetting someone or amplifying heightened emotions.

“Often in education, we’re here because we care about people, and we have great empathy and compassion. If we haven’t got the skillset, we have concerns that any difficult conversation we have may do more harm than good.”

The answer is to provide people with a skillset and conversational structure or script to support the process, says Jane.

“If we’ve got a recipe to follow on how to have a difficult conversation, and also how not to be frightened of our own emotions or other people’s, and where those are coming from. Then we can be brave enough to step into conversations that actually help us move forward.”

Jane Langley runs regular training on ‘Managing Challenging Conversations’ for the Teacher Learning Network.

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