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Posted December 3, 2003 

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 children.

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 to achieve.

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 almost miraculous.

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 their students.

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.

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