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Posted: Dec 25, 2003 10:39


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By Lon Woodbury, C.E.P.

One way to describe a child’s experience in a therapeutic or emotional growth school or program is as a series of peak experiences, compressed into a short period of time.

Abraham Maslow used the term “peak experience” to describe the series of realizations that characterized the stages of human growth, which in turn resulted in an increased understanding of the world. Maslow felt that when people are presented with situations that challenge their worldview, they are forced to “escape into a higher order.” This causes them to form a new worldview that takes into account the new circumstances they have experienced. In healthy growth, each new understanding creates a more mature perspective of the world. Most of us can look back and identify “A-HA” moments in our lives when the “light dawns,” where what had been confusing suddenly makes sense. Although these “peak experiences” seem more frequent in childhood, adults also have them throughout their life, as long as they are trying to better themselves and are open to new ideas and concepts.

As an example of a common peak experience, to the pre-school child, Christmas often is a simple time of excited anticipation that features Santa Claus and presents that magically appear under the tree. However, usually about the age of six or seven, various circumstances cause the child to have a crisis of belief. Most children struggle through it and develop a more mature understanding of Christmas, which in turn expands to begin to include ideas of giving, good will, and a deeper understanding of the meaning of Christmas.

In a normal, healthy progression of growth and development, these crises occur periodically throughout childhood and children grasp from each experience what they are mature enough to understand. It is important to note that each time their comprehension is expanded, it is preceded by a period of confusion and struggle. It is not easy for any person to give up the old simple beliefs. It can be very painful for a parent to watch their child struggle, and difficult to avoid the temptation to deny their child the healthy experience of growth. Indeed, denial of healthy growth would occur, should the parents intervene, even in an attempt to protect their child from pain.

It can be very helpful to consider the structure of emotional growth and therapeutic schools and programs in light of the perspective of peak experiences. In most cases, in their past the children either were presented with challenges so severe they were traumatized and unable to make a healthy growth step, or were so protected from struggle that they never were faced with a challenge that forced them to expand their understanding of the world. In either case, they need experiences that can help them learn those healthy lessons.

The goal of a quality school is to present peak experiences for the child so the child has the opportunity to quickly learn the missing lessons. These experiences will allow the child to catch up with those peers who did not get “stuck” in some past stage. Out of necessity, these emotional growth experiences are accelerated, and any school that is doing good work will require a lot of intensity and sensitivity on the part of the staff. If the school or program is well structured, a visitor is likely to feel a sense of safety when visiting the students in their regular classes and free time, because the intensity is controlled and directed into groups, counseling sessions, and physical activities.

It is important that the structure of the school presents these experiences in a way that is conducive to learning healthy lessons. The use of punishment to “teach them a lesson,” is an approach that more often than not results in counterproductive learning. Usually the lesson that is learned is likely to be how to deal with, and manipulate powerful adults, rather than how to be a successful, mature person.

When a child is self-absorbed, selfish, insensitive to others, and out-of-control, it is important that he or she is put into a strong, healthy and positive environment so the peak experiences can begin. When the child resorts to the old patterns of lying, blaming and/or manipulating others, the reaction of the other students and staff is to confront the behavior quickly, which puts the child into a crisis. When the child’s previous pattern of manipulation no longer works, the child is automatically thrown into a crisis that requires a struggle until he or she has a peak experience that results, for example, in the realization that telling the truth, or accepting responsibility, is more effective. With an out-of-control child, even the process of enrolling in a highly structured quality school or program begins to initiate a crisis, because the old rules and patterns are no longer viable.

It is when our old patterns no longer work that we are forced into the confusion and chaos that Maslow predicts can cause us to “escape into a higher order,” and grow to be a better person. This is an important part of what effective, highly structured schools and programs do.

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