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Opinion & Essays - December, 2001 Issue #88 

Emotional Growth Schools – A New Kind of Village
By Rebecca Plona, M. Ed,
Marketing Consultant, Skyland Journey

As an undergraduate, I majored in sociology and anthropology.  The development, history, and behavior of groups fascinated me, whether as separate cultures or simply social organizations.  As I focused on human development and family systems, I remember being amazed at the similarities I found in my cross-cultural analyses.  Whether I was studying Chinese peasant families, modern-day Irish village life, or the American family model prior to World War II, the basic building blocks of healthy families remained the same.  They included one or two primary caregivers, usually the parents, along with the other children in the family, usually siblings but also foster-siblings and cousins.  There was a network of other adults and children, related to the subject family most often by blood ties. Sometimes, though, other factors such as proximity, common interests, or ethnic background, created a bond that mimicked and complemented the bond of blood relationships.

In all cases, with regards to raising children, the formula was remarkably similar.  Infants and young children at first bonded closely with the parent, learning social skills by watching them and practicing skills by interacting with siblings.  As they moved into the adolescent stage of differentiation, or separation from the parents, the children turned to other members of the extended family for role modeling, guidance, and assistance with the transition to adulthood.  This created a safe environment for the natural developmental stage of self-actualization. Adolescents were being mentored by people other than their parents, yet they were able to learn their place in life with the support of people who understood and supported the basic core values of the extended family.  These young adults then took what they had learned and applied it to the raising of their own families.

Today’s American society is somewhat different.  Most of us settle and raise our own families far from our parents and siblings, without a great deal of interaction with our own grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.  Some of us succeed in creating an extended family in our new neighborhoods, but often privacy concerns or politeness keep us fairly isolated.

In today’s society childrearing is much more within the exclusive province of the nuclear family. If the nuclear family dissolves due to death or divorce, the remaining primary parent may be left alone to raise the children.  As the child enters adolescence, he or she seeks to establish an identity separate from the parent, though possibly also looking to other role models. In a situation where the parent is isolated from the extended family, the child often finds these alternative role models amongst their peers or in the form of pop culture icons.

In an emotional growth school or program, the dynamics are set up to mimic a healthy family as much as possible.  Each child is served by a team of healthy adults who act as a unit to provide the best mentoring, teaching, and if needed, clinical support, that a child could possibly need.  Consistent with the principles of human development and family systems theory, each child establishes a relationship with a primary person.  Similar to the family unit, that individual is the first person with whom the student bonds while in the program. This primary person, whether called “mentor”, “counselor” or “therapist”, continues to be the student’s primary sounding board throughout the various stages of the program.

As the students progress, they form relationships with others who become part of their “extended family” while in the program. Teachers, administrators, other mentors or counselors, outdoor education instructors, support staff, and peers all become part of the students’ support-network.  In programs where a licensed clinician, physician, or nurse is employed, this individual also becomes part of the team.

The team’s role is to help create the maximum amount of growth for the student in the most safe and effective way.  As a result, it is important that the team work well as a unit.  In an emotional growth program, just as in the nuclear family, the mentor or counselor is ultimately responsible for the well being of the child.  Similar also, to the traditional family system, the child has the greatest chance of success if their mentor in the emotional growth program has support and guidance from the “extended family.”  Programs that truly embrace the principles of emotional growth place value on the insights of all adults who work with the child.

There is a subset of the adolescent population who is better served in a setting that provides primarily one-on-one counseling. This is why selecting a program based on an individual’s needs is so very important.  The majority of adolescents, however, will experience the most positive growth in an environment where the community is a key component and each individual’s role is important for its success; much like what children know from their own families.

Those of us who have had the privilege of attending a graduation ceremony at an emotional growth school or program know this to be true.  The importance of the community is repeatedly demonstrated as each of the graduates stands before a group of peers, adults, and parents to be honored for their accomplishments. Each one makes some version of the statement: “I couldn’t have done this without the help of:” followed by a list of people, from mentor to friend to kitchen staff, all of whom in some way have become part of that student’s extended family.

Sociological studies have shown that children are most successful when they have the benefit of many healthy adult role models and many different adults watching out for them throughout their development.  Those of us who have experience in an emotional growth environment can present example after example demonstrating this to be the case.

Several years ago, Former First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton wrote a book I often cite in my discussions with parents who are considering emotional growth education for their child.  Regardless of anyone’s opinions about Mrs. Clinton, her politics, or her choices, I tend to recommend to parents her book, “It Takes a Village”, because she writes about this very topic.  Whether I agree or disagree with any of her other public statements, I do agree strongly with her statement: “it takes a village to raise a child”. It really does “take a village” and those who first created emotional growth environments have known this for many years.

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