The majority of my professional life has been spent living and working alongside children in residential schools. I have always been curious about the impact that we as professionals might have on the children under our care and why we can be so successful with youngsters who at times, seem wayward bound.
Last week I attended a conference exploring the benefits of residential childcare programmes for children who faced difficulties in their home life, or disadvantaged by autism, ADHD and challenging behaviour. It was entitled The Power of Residential Child Care, and brought together leading authorities in the fields of childcare, education and residential provision from Europe, North America and Asia.
My own workshops were well attended and well received, but what I found fascinating was the newfound optimism in the sector after three decades during which scandal upon scandal had undermined not only the image and reputation of residential care, but also the vitality and resilience of the profession itself. The title of the conference suggested that residential care, far from being the 'least worst option,' might offer something special for disadvantaged children.
Curiously, despite the evidence staring us in the face, we have not been very good at explaining why this might be so. It is as if we have not yet developed the mechanisms to show how well we are doing, and the language and grammar to articulate our success.
Over the last few years, I have become a 'born-again scientist,' desperate for objectivity and reason, dispassionate debate and circumspection to cut through the ill-informed discussion that takes place in our tabloid press. I have, at the same time become increasingly frustrated with our school inspectors who scrutinise what is measurable and important but ignore what is abstract and vital. I mean, for example, the blossoming of self-esteem or empathy in a troubled teen or the small gestures that show that a challenging youngster has finally developed a sense of self and thus of others.
What we have yet to develop is a range of unifying concepts that help us to understand and explain why some children struggle, while pointing us in the right direction for identifying the types of provisions they might need. I have been fortunate in my own career in that I have worked with the very privileged and the very challenged across a range of educational establishments that varied from the professional and well resourced to the shambolic.
What I have gleaned from these experiences is what you might regard as strikingly obvious, but others often fail to see it.
Firstly, children need to anchor themselves to people and places that they can trust to give them refuge. From these secure points, they will naturally wish to explore what lies beyond.
Secondly, they cannot develop a sense of others, nor the compassion and empathy that we expect from them until they have developed a sense of self. In order for this to happen, they must understand their own limits and these must be set by those around them. Children, who have no concept of self, will assume the world stems from only their state of consciousness, i.e. themselves. They will be idiosyncratic, self-centred, blind to the needs of others and the impact of their actions on those around them.
The 'over-indulged' child is as impoverished as the child who has access to nothing. If all his/ her requests and demands are met, the child never encounters the limits of his/ her own influence.
What we see in Brat Camp is the peeling away of layers of learned behaviour-layers that protect children from the need to experience themselves. This is the traumatic part because what appears to these young people as the destruction of their own true world is in fact the removal of a very superficial construct and their own 'false reality.'
Stage two is to help the children learn to reflect on themselves by first discovering their own physical limitations. The emotional self is too complex at this stage and far too vulnerable to distortion and self-deception, so we must go back to those first few months of life and re-build the trust in others, thus creating something beyond the self. This underpins many of the core ideas of 'attachment theory.'
You cannot argue with a capsized canoe nor blame others when the fire fails to light. The tent that leans, or the rope that slips, is doing so because of you, and no one else. You are the cause of the consequence of your own actions, and life is thus simplified and mirrored in your own existence. It is because of the simplicity of such cause and effect, that youngsters who may previously have shied away from reason can scrutinise their own actions, come to terms with their own failures and thus discover the routes to success.
We can tie this in with our new understanding of the way our brains function and suggest that we are developing through such activities, the higher order reflective thinking or 'executive functioning,' that will enable them to plan and organise their thoughts and actions across a range of settings. They learn the vocabulary and grammar that we all need to succeed in this complex and challenging world.
"Think first." "Step back and think this through." "Don't just do something, stand there." "Take a deep breath." "We can always try again." "What are we trying to achieve and how can we get there?" These phrases are the beginning of an emotional literacy that will develop later in life, once the seeds have time to germinate in those young minds.
What happens in stage three is for success to give value to the child and his or her own self-esteem. The children who fail and are repeatedly told they are failures: MUST LEARN TO SUCCEED and to VALUE their own successes, because what follows is an understanding that others too share these experiences and that others too matter.
I cannot pretend that any of these concepts are new, but I now understand that a framework exists that can explain why we are successful. We must take the time to see that no matter how challenging they appear to be, the child is someone in need, not someone to be punished into submission.
This is the story from Scotland. Amongst the hills and the heather, and the smoke and the smog, we in the profession of residential childcare now know that we matter and that we can change the lives of these struggling teens. We too, as professionals, need to learn how to reflect on our successes and learn from them, rather than being bogged down in the minutiae of our own failings. We too need to form a strong sense of 'self' as a profession-only then might we really connect with those we seek to serve.
About the Author: Bill Colley has worked in Scottish residential education for over 20 years in both senior academic and childcare posts. He is an Associate of the Scottish Institute for Residential Childcare and the National Centre for Autism Studies at Strathclyde University. He recently stepped-down as the Head of a residential special school in order to work as an independent consultant and trainer.