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Posted March 19, 2003 

Lon WoodburyWounded Children

By Lon Woodbury, C.E.P.

The Special Needs children enrolled in Emotional Growth/Therapeutic Schools and Programs can be described as wounded children who are unable to assert control over themselves or their environment. Looking at it this way, it doesn't really matter whether the “wounded ness” is due to some pathology, to previous traumatic experiences, or is the result of completely misunderstanding or misinterpreting the world around them. They find themselves either: unable to control their overwhelming internal impulses, unable to stem the influence of external trauma from the past, or maintaining a distorted belief system about their rights and avenues for success in the world. Regardless of the reasons, they share the characteristic of not having the self-control and maturity to make constructive and appropriate decisions. In other words, they are wounding themselves and are their own worse enemy. There are other educational strategies, in addition to teaching self-discipline, of course, for a school or program to meet the needs of these children, but the basic foundation upon which these other strategies must build, or help to create, is self-discipline.

Realizing that Special Needs children are wounded fosters the realization that they need to be treated with respect and sensitivity, along with, of course, firmness. Alternative views of these children as jerks who are irritating us on purpose, or are immoral in some way, misinterprets the causes of their behavior. This view usually leads to a punitive attitude that can further wound these children. Except for those who are floundering and are looking for and will accept adult direction, punishment often backfires. Also, the view that they just need “a little love,” is common misunderstanding that too often doesn’t encourage the development of self-discipline, and it is the lack of discipline that is at the root of their problems.

To be effective with these wounded children, a school or program must have a clear idea of the goals for each child who is put in their care. In order to define these goals, the staff must be able to describe the attributes of a mature adult role model. Any adults who are raising children, such as parents, teachers, ministers, or therapists can find their work made easier by defining the desired behaviors and attitudes they wish to instill in the children.

Dr. Wayne W. Dyer, a popular self-improvement speaker and writer, suggests four stages a person has to successfully complete to obtain maturity. His stages can be helpful in developing an overview of how to work with wounded children. In his presentation, each stage is the foundation for the subsequent ones. The following interpretations are, of course, more mine than Dr. Dyer's.

The first stage emphasizes the necessity of discipline. Without self-control or self-discipline, the child cannot really succeed at anything, at least anything constructive. Even goals or ambitions are nothing but wishful thinking without the direction self-control can provide. This is the root problem of virtually all Special Needs children, and the first thing an Emotional Growth/Therapeutic school or program needs to address. When there is a lack of development in this first stage, it can be manifested either as power struggles, insistence on doing it their way even when they know its self-destructive, rebellion against authority, inability to understand schoolwork due to a learning difference, or any number of other problems. Essentially, what these children are trying to do is to figure out how to control their environment to make it safe, yet they don’t realize that it can't be done constructively without first achieving control over themselves. Whether the school or program intervenes through structure, medication, therapy, behavioral modification or a combination of these, of course depends on the individual needs of each child. But no matter what kind of intervention is used, a basic goal is helping the child achieve self-discipline.

Wisdom is the second stage, which is what academics and mentors attempt to impart by teaching life's lessons, for example: cause and effect, responsibility, accountability and trust. It is not possible for a child to achieve academically without knowledge of subject content, nor is it possible to succeed in life without some basic knowledge of people and how and why they act as they do.

The third stage for a mature life is doing what you love and loving what you do. This is the subject of dreams, and goals. Some people say that we each have a purpose in life, and our job is to learn what our purpose is, and then do it. Wounded children are so caught up in their chaos and rejection stemming from what is perceived as a confusing world, that defending themselves is a very serious business. Dreams are at best wishful thinking, even sometimes a cause for pain, given their belief that achieving their dreams would be an impossibility. Thus, when interventions help children to develop some self-control and foster enough learning about life that they can understand what their academic classes are trying to teach them, then the next step for the school or program is to help children get in touch with their dreams. Then, children can either start working realistically toward their dreams or goals, or work to develop more realistic ones.

The fourth stage is acceptance. A mature adult will know when to be in control of their environment, and when to accept someone else's control. Knowing when it is appropriate to control something, and when to accept someone else's control is very important for living a life with some degree of harmony. For example, passengers in an airplane get along best when they accept that the pilot and crew are in charge. Any other idea on the part of a passenger can create conflict, chaos and trouble. At the same time, the pilot must accept his/her responsibility to control the aircraft, with the same being true regarding the individual responsibilities of the rest of the crew. If any one of them ignore their responsibilities and do not exert the necessary control, it can create problems, if not total chaos. One mark of a mature person is knowing when to be in control, and when to accept another’s control.

Any Special Needs school or program must first recognize they are dealing with wounded children who need healing. Viewing them as juvenile delinquents, bad or problem kids, or anything comparable just encourages passive or active resistance on the children’s part, perhaps causing more wounding. Secondly, is important that all staff have a clear and consistent idea both of what they are trying to help the child achieve, as well as how they intend to help the child so that it can be achieved. The third step involves choosing specific interventions that are appropriate to help individual students let go of self-defeating behavior and keep focused on their dreams and goals. The fourth step is to be sure the staff can recognize progress so they can give realistic, meaningful and supportive feedback to the student. I've found that the most successful Emotional Growth/Therapeutic schools and programs cover all four of these stages. If the program makes sure they remember their students are wounded children, and covers all four of these bases, then they will be successful with their Special Needs Children.

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