COMMUNITIES THAT HEAL
By Lon Woodbury
The idea of community is very important in the network
of Emotional Growth/ Therapeutic Schools and Programs.
Quality schools and programs make a considerable effort
to develop a sense of a real community, seeing this
as a key component in helping to heal unhappy, alienated
This type of community differs from the common definition
of community, which is usually understood as a collection
of people in one place, or those who share a common
interest. An ideal community will provide a healing
and learning environment for wounded children. It is
very difficult to attain, but very important to strive
This is the kind of community where all the students
know that the other students and all the adults are
there for them, and have their best interests in mind.
It is designed to be free of closely held secrets,
hidden agendas, and ego trips. Detecting if a school
is a real healing community is a visceral feeling;
a visitor can best determine if the community is really
working, if he or she experiences an internal sense
of safety while on campus. I have occasionally visited
a school where it feels so comfortable that I really
didn't want to leave, but just wanted to hang out and
enjoy the relief from the usual defensive attitude
of being on guard, that is so common in the world.
These were schools that had achieved a real community
as a result of their difficult and insightful work.
In these schools, the growth of the students seems
Compare this example of an ideal school community,
with a more typical school, where a student doesn't
dare share his/her honest opinion of others for fear
of retribution, or has to accept in silence, harassment
from a manipulative bully. Or, where some teachers
seem to get a perverse pleasure out of punishing students
who displease them, or where teachers are so burned
out, they radiate disinterest in the well being of
Alienated students have adopted the belief that the
world is a hostile and uncaring place, and that basic
belief drives their actions and poor decisions. They
trust no one, and are on constant guard to defend themselves
from threats they see coming at them from all directions.
Put this type of alienated students in typical school,
and their alienation often is just reinforced. Put
them in a school that is a true community, and they
are so overwhelmed with positivity, that sooner or
later they respond with more healthy attitudes. This
is not to say they should be only surrounded with positive
affirmations, smiles and hugs. Only providing smiles
and hugs is a set up for a manipulative disaster. A
true community will have serious logical and immediate
consequences. The students and adults that make a school
community work cannot be naive, or permissive. They
have to be gentle with a child's better side, but intolerant
of a child's fearful side. To an outsider, the consequences
might even seem harsh, but if the child receiving the
consequences sees that they are appropriate, it can
eventually be accepted as a learning and growth situation.
This in turn leads to the child learning a basic step
in the relationship between cause and effect.
The developer of a school that strives to be a healing
community must take into account hundreds of aspects,
weaving academics, free time, consequences, groups,
dorm situations and a lot more into a whole that makes
sense and feels safe. When changing any one aspect,
one must clearly take into account the fact that such
changes have the potential of undermining the safety
and sense of community, and must be carefully thought
through. Putting all this together is hard work, and
even harder to keep it working.
Some of the things that undermine a true community
are hidden secrets, unspoken agendas, and ego trips.
By coincidence, these are major defenses of alienated
children. By building a school that is a true community,
the school staff is undermining the basic negative
beliefs of alienated children, and this is perhaps
the secret of their success.
Some might say this goal of building a true community
is too idealistic and would never work. My answer is
that from time to time I have found a school like that,
so I know it can be done. It just takes the will power
to decide to do it, and a decision that the children
are worth the extra effort.