An education based on affection, empathy and bridge-building

The 30th episode of Isto não é Pera Doce! brings us a different dynamic. The guest is Oficina de S. José, represented in a triple dose by Serafim Gonçalves - General Director -, Mafalda Malheiro - Technical Director of the Specialised Shelter - and Edson Luís - Technical Director of the Shelter.

 An education based on affection, empathy and bridge-building
Fígura de ondas técnologicas azul

Training is based on several foundations. At Oficina S. José, one of the most important is affection. In this real, pragmatic and sincere testimony, we talk about how to educate children and adolescents in risk situations who, from the start, would not be educational success stories. But affection can change the course of theory. Listen to the full episode:


To shelter or not to shelter?

Oficina S. José is an IPSS that takes in children and young people in situations of risk. Young people who are on the margins of the system and who require very dedicated and attentive work in order to guarantee their fundamental rights. To this end, the institution has four social responses, as Serafim Gonçalves explains:

We currently have four social services: a shelter - which houses 18 children and young people; a specialised shelter - which currently houses 14 young people from Afghanistan; and an autonomy apartment - which houses three young people who are already on their way to autonomy. In other words, the aim is for them to practically run the whole place themselves. We only supervise them from a distance. Two are integrated into the labour market, one is finishing university; and we have recently created an Inclusion Autonomy Residence for young people who have no family support or a fragile family support and who still very much need our support.


Responses that are put into practice to fulfil a greater purpose: to guarantee their inclusion in society and access to education. And at this level, the starting point is the reception, where the child, parents and carers are involved to start the process. For Serafim, a good reception is halfway to the success of the whole intervention.

In reception, which is the first level and we consider it to be one of the foundations of our home, it's important to emphasise this: we say, we take it for granted, that a good welcome is half the battle for the success of the whole intervention. This reception process, where we sit with the child, we sit with the family, we sit with those responsible for the reception request, this meeting serves only one purpose and that is to create empathy, to build bridges.

At the Oficina de S. José, there are two types of reception: scheduled and emergency, as Edson Luís explains

When it's an emergency, we reinvent ourselves to make the child feel comfortable and to give the family confidence. That's important. Building trust with the family, empathising with the family, so that the family understands that we are there to help. Not the other way round. In the prepared reception, we receive a report, there is a team communication/discussion - the technical and educational team - where we talk about the needs of this child, whether we are able to respond to the needs that are being asked of us, that we find a solution for them, where we ask the organisation that is asking us some questions that may not be covered in the report. After this analysis and team discussion, a decision is made. If the decision is to accept them - because there are times when we can't accept them.

During the preparation process, there are crucial stages: the needs assessment and the individual socio-educational plan. It all starts with receiving a report and ends with a decision. The decision may be to admit the child or young person, but it may also be not to admit them. Although it doesn't happen very often, the decision not to foster can be taken in situations that Serafim Gonçalves explains:

Especially [it happens] when we feel that we are not going to be an asset in the life of that young person or child. If we don't think that's possible, we have to be honest and say so openly to the person we are talking to. Sometimes it's also important to consider the other [young people] we already have in our care, and whether taking on another young person with certain problems could jeopardise the stability of the group.

When the decision is made to foster a child or young person, the journey of integration begins, involving not only the institution and the child, but also the family. From the perspective of S. José's point of view, it is important that the family has confidence in what is being done. This is the basis on which the individual socio-educational plan can succeed and not be doomed to failure.

It's important for us that the family has confidence in what's being done. Because if they have confidence in what is being done, we know that even if the young person goes home at the weekend, they will come back. We know that when the individual socio-educational plan is defined, the family will make an effort to participate in this process and in this project and will do their best. So it's difficult for the family not to participate in what is planned. If the family doesn't get involved and the young person doesn't get involved, the individual socio-educational plan is doomed to failure. It has to be a process where the involvement of the family and the young person is fundamental.

«Let us give every child what every child needs.»

In addition to the family, there is another key player in the education and development of the child or young person in care: the school. Serafim explains that the S. José has a direct link with the school, which couldn't be otherwise, because the education of these children and young people is the responsibility of the whole community, the schools, and not just the institution. 

The education of these children and adolescents cannot be the responsibility of the Oficina de S. José alone. If it were, it wouldn't work. It's the responsibility of the whole community, and the schools also have a responsibility to be involved in this education. And fortunately we have a very good relationship with the schools in our community. The headmasters, the teachers and the headmistresses are regular visitors to our house, to our parties, and so they often come to the house and spend time with us. So this relationship, again the question of relationships, is fundamental to discovering new ways.

In this educational context, the institution argues that teaching should focus on individualisation. Firstly, because it's easier for a teacher to work with a class of 15 than a class of 24 or 28. Secondly, because tailoring education to the needs of each individual can actually increase the future success of that child or young person. Just as the Oficina de S. José likes to look at each child, identify their weaknesses and their potential, so that it can envision a future for them, the school should be able to do the same.

Let us give every child what every child needs. Give every young person what they need. And that would be a truly inclusive school. But even that is a utopia. We have to be realistic. Now we have to aim to get there. Because we feel that, for example, with each young child, when you talk about the whole, we like to look at each one. We often sit down in the meetings we have with the technical and educational teams to talk about the profile of each of these young people and to have a prospective vision of what this young person can be, according to what we know: weaknesses and potential. As far as the school is concerned, I know that the school is very large.

It may be utopian to think of the school in this way, because we are aware that it is still a mass agent, but the important thing is to work on this objective with a view to its future realisation.

It had to be interdisciplinary work, so it couldn't just be the work of one class or one group of special education teachers. It often had to be coordinated work with all those involved to say 'this is the way'.

For Edson, the ideal would be to rethink our education system so that opportunities are accessible to everyone and match each person's vocation. Encouraging diversified learning is fundamental so that, as he points out, we don't continue to have a shortage of people who want to work in electricity, for example. Serafim, who supports this idea, adds: 

The more we study the better. But there was a time when there was this psychosis that we all had to be doctors and alternative courses, particularly vocational courses, and so on. In our reality we realise that for a lot of children it meant finishing their schooling and then going to university, otherwise they would never have made it in mainstream education, they would never have made it. Sometimes we have to be vigilant. Now, let it be courses that really allow them to have a professional outlet when they finish. Because what do we sometimes see? That there are vocational courses, as the other would say, we know what they're for.

An education system in which vocational courses could start in the second cycle is an ideal that Edson favours:

We were able to put in a practical part where we were able to get a lot of the kids who are going to be young people, we were able to get them engaged, we were able to get them interested so that when they go to vocational schools they are interested. Because they're often at school, school doesn't tell them anything, they lose the basics. When they go to vocational courses, they're just there because they have to be.

According to Mafalda, the school isn't always ready. At the moment, the school is not ideal for targeted teaching.

Sometimes the school itself, the structure of the curriculum, isn't prepared for these children who may not be able to succeed on a theoretical level, but who could succeed on a practical level. Or, because of their characteristics, they are children who need a much more focused education. And that's often not what school is made for.

The school may not yet be ready for a targeted level of education, but Oficina S. José is doing its best to make this individualisation a reality and to prepare the children and young people for a bright future, with the same opportunities as everyone else. And to know that they have managed to build something good with the education they have received is one of their greatest achievements.

The vast majority have perfectly stable lives and families, and these are our victories. It's like us with our children: the seeds we sow today, we don't always see the result, they germinate later. Sometimes we want to see it now, but we don't, we see it later. And that's the work we believe in, because we give everything we have and demand the maximum that each of them can give. And in this dynamic of affection, with a balanced dose of authority, I think we've managed to do a really good job for these young people, and it's visible.

Watch the full episode on YouTube, Spotify, iTunes or Google Podcasts.


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