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Fitting in when you don’t know the ‘rules’

We’ve all watched documentaries (I would have thought) that see explorers journeying deep into the jungle to meet an isolated tribe and, like me, have wondered at their strange ways and new language. Yet in many ways we assume that it takes a journey such as that to find something so fundamentally different from what we already know and understand. Increasingly, it seems, children and young people are migrating with their families (or in some case without them) to find a new life. In moving out of their established ways of living they are forced to find ways of settling and fitting in. However, they are required to do that by trial and error because it seems people seldom teach them or seek to understand.

 

Volume 2.17 (Blog 112):

Purdy, L., Molnar, G., Griffiths, L., & Castle, P. (2014). Ilona: ‘tweeting’ through cultural adjustments. In K.M. Armour (ed.) Pedagogical cases in physical education and youth sport (pp. 222-234). London: Routledge.

 

Ilona

Moving, as a fifteen year old, to the UK from Poland has been hard enough for Ilona but now the one thing that seemed to make sense i.e. her rowing, doesn’t seem to anymore. She has struggled to settle but had hoped (as had her parents) that rowing, something she had done to a high level in Poland would be a way of making friends. But that hasn’t happened either.

Language was always going to be a challenge but while she is receiving support at school she is finding it difficult to communicate beyond the basics. Consequently, and while she was known as an outgoing and friendly girl, she spends most of her time on her own at school. Things are not much better outside of school and because the local Polish community has not been particularly welcoming she has found her virtual social links (i.e. Twitter) the only vehicle she has for talking to friends; albeit the ones in Poland.

Joining the rowing club had been seen as a way of making friends. What’s more it was something that Ilona loves and she had been the top of the region in her age group before migrating. Her record spoke for itself and her new coaches expected her to be one of the leading rowers in what is a very popular club. But it hasn’t happened. Ilona frequently arrives late for training and hasn’t adopted the ‘ways’ of her new club preferring the methods from ‘home’. Consequently she’s been taken out of the crew boat and been put into a single scull – which is not good for her social networking. Additionally her performance has deteriorated markedly and her coaches (both old and new) can’t fully understand why. Her chances of representing Poland seem to be declining daily and she is increasingly turning to social media to voice her concerns and find her friends.

 

The Pedagogical Case

Purdy and colleague approach Ilona’s situation from three angles – sociological, psychological, and physiological – before exploring it as a pedagogical case. In doing so they remind us that individuals are complex and benefit from a multi-faceted approach to their well-being and development.

From a sociological perspective it has been shown that “the effect of migration on Ilona has been multi-layered and complex” and it seems that Ilona has suffered as a consequence of her move. When her family decided to emigrate and make a life in a new country it had a “life-altering” impact on all of them. Ilona has had to constantly “build and re-build [her] perceptions of [her] new home and, through that process, build and re-build [her] own self”. What made sense to her before no longer does and she has lost sight of some of the spatial, cultural and emotional aspects of herself. She doesn’t, in short, know how to be ‘her’ any more. The social mechanisms with which she was familiar i.e. her friends, the language, the way to be at school and the rowing club, the way to row even, have all changed and she has lost the comfort of the well-known and the day-to-day. Consequently, how Ilona presents herself to others has changed i.e. how she dresses, acts, and what to expect from other people.

There is an assumption that people know how to act in a given situation and we question people (but not to their faces) who don’t ‘behave appropriately’. In her old rowing club it might have been that people started to arrive for training at the time where Ilona’s new club are getting on the water. This would certainly explain her lateness as she doesn’t really know “what should happen”. Ilona needs help to understand how to “carry out social roles and engage in social situations”.  She needs to understand the setting, how to dress and ‘be’, and what people’s or institutions expectations are about her. Mastery of such social situations is not easy and at present Ilona is almost “required to work out each situation anew every time it occurred”. Because of this she might appear to behave oddly and “to operate outside culturally acceptable boundaries”.

From a psychological perspective it is clear that there is a contrast between how Ilona is regarded in her two respective rowing clubs. In Poland she was well regarded and enjoyed productive working relationships with her team-mates and coaches. In her UK club she has few if any friends, she is rowing on her own, and has seen a marked drop in her performance levels. It would be simple for her new club to assume that she is poorly motivated and physically underprepared but (as shown above) it is much more complex than that. Her coaches need to consider a wide range of support options to help Ilona succeed in all aspects of her life. 

A sport psychologist, for example, could start to build an in-depth picture of Ilona and help her parents and coaches understand how they can help to support her. Through fact finding the sport psychologist could look beyond the physical performance concerns and explore “environmental, intrapersonal, interpersonal, behavioural and performance history, rather than performance related goals in isolation”. Looking at Ilona’s case from a physical performance perspective Purdy and colleagues argue that it would be easy to provide Ilona with psychological skills training to help her with her self confidence, motivation, concentration, emotional control and her coping strategies for stress and anxiety. By understanding the broader context the sport psychologist could well find that Ilona has reacted to external life events that, in turn, has resulted in performance deficits. In other words, it might be that Ilona has found it difficult to adapt to a significant life transition outside of her sport. She needs help to understand these stresses and help to make new friends and learn the language. By putting her back into a team boat, providing ‘buddies’ and running a “series of communication-enhancing sessions” all the rowers in her age group can be educated as to the difficulties of moving to a new country and all that entails.

Moving to any new environment – let alone a new country – presents individuals with a number of physiological challenges. Ilona is required, for example, to adjust to new living arrangements, a new education and social system, and maybe even a new diet. She has lost her normal support structures and these stresses can manifest themselves physically through “physical fatigue, lack of energy, feeling unwell and/or change in appetite”. In turn social barriers may prevent Ilona from exploring and discussing these concerns with others. It is safe to say that all of these manifestations could individually or collectively impact on Ilona’s performance.

Her loss of form might, instead, be related to her biological development and not her migration. As “the time and rate of growth during maturation is highly individualised” Ilona’s declining levels of physical performance might be as a consequence of a rise in musculature, a shift in her centre of gravity or a change in limb length of core strength. Furthermore, her training might be generic (i.e. she might be required to undertake male training programmes) or it might be based on her “chronological age without consideration of biological development”. Her loss of form might also be related to infection, a pre-existing condition or other diseases. It is easy to assume that the athlete is to blame but there are many extraneous factors that also need to be considered.

In summarising and bringing Ilona’s case together pedagogically Purdy and colleagues argue that Ilona “is struggling to write herself into her new cultural landscape [which] has resulted in feelings of loneliness and sadness and, in sport, a decrease in performance”. It seems that her coaches and crew-mates need help to understand her situation and need to stop seeing her slump in performance as a problem to “be solved” but instead see Ilona as a “unique and complex individual, with her own voice and persona”. The club and her parents need to recognise areas of particular stress and provide support. By adopting a multi-discipline approach and considering her slump more broadly those involved in supporting Ilona can see the wider picture.

It is important, as the world becomes smaller, and people move about that we are sympathetic to the needs of those new to our classroom or clubs. It is easy to assume that someone else is dealing with this or that they will settle in given time. As pedagogues we need to go the extra mile to ensure that we understand and play our part in helping newcomers to understand and find themselves in what must surely be a confusing and stressful time. 

What’s next? As part of this blogs I propose the following as a way of considering the implications of this research on your teaching- Think, Act, Change (or TAC for short).

Think about findings of the paper – do they resonate with you? Use the comment box below to ask a question, seek clarification, may be challenge the findings.

Act on what you’ve read. What do you believe? Is it your responsibility to make changes or is this just something else that I’ve put on your plate? Is there action to take? If so, what might it be?

Change what you do in response to your thoughts and actions? Is this a personal undertaking? If you want to do something or are looking for help then please let the community know about it.

I wouldn’t expect every paper to get beyond the T or even the A of TAC but if one paper resonates enough to get to C then hopefully all this is worthwhile. Good luck.

 

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Vicky Goodyear for her work behind the scene as copy editor. Her help certainly forms a vital part of the production of this blog, and in getting out on time and in a semblance of coherence. However it is important to note that any mistakes that remain are mine.

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