Therapy In Schools?

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Helen Woodley

Helen Woodley is a primary trained SENDCo currently working in a large KS1-4 Pupil Referral Unit in the North East of England. She spent 3 years studying Theology in Durham; Helen has worked in a wide variety of special school settings, including all age schools....
Read more about Helen Woodley

Is therapeutic education counter-productive?

We are teaching in tough and challenging times.

Partner agencies, such as CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services), have long waiting lists. Other services have had their funding cut or they have simply ceased to exist. Budgets are tight and schools cannot afford to either buy services in or even keep support staff.

All in all, teachers are being asked to do more, be responsible for more, and achieve more.

Into this mix comes the range of therapeutic interventions used by schools such as Therapeutic Story Writing and Art Therapy. Increasingly these are being run by teachers and non-teaching staff often after minimal training. Sometimes they are offered even without any training.

When I was teaching in special schools, I accepted that my role as a teacher was to meet not only the academic needs of the learners but also their medical and therapeutic needs as well. When I moved into my current post I got my first real experience of what mainstream schools were offering and I became increasingly frustrated that so many learners were permanently excluded having already accessed so much support.

It left me with the following questions:

1. What difference could specialist providers offer for SEMH (Social, Emotional and Mental Health) needs if learners had already access everything?

2. Just how effective were these interventions being run by schools if learners were still not having their needs met?

A Hard Knock Life

I stumbled upon a book called ‘The Dangerous Rise in Therapeutic Education’ by Kathryn Ecclestone and Dennis Hayes. Reading it was enlightening but left me sat completely on the fence.

Their argument is that schools have placed too great a focus on therapeutic work to the extent that we are raising young people who are unable to show resilience or to be and accept individual differences.

Therapy has become a mainstream cultural phenomenon rather than a specialist service for those who most need it. Children have been seen as having issues that need to be ‘fixed’.

Ultimately they claim is that the drive for therapy in education is to produce workers who are able to respond in the ‘right’ emotional ways.

In summary, they felt that therapeutic interventions in schools were creating a generation dependent upon support to cope with life rather than independent and able to accept that sometimes life is tough.

Respect The Individual

On one hand this resonated so much. How uncomfortable must a learner feel who chooses not to speak in circle time? Should we see them as having emotional needs or simply accept that they are an individual and that we don’t all like sharing our inner-most thoughts?

I am an incredibly independent and private person. I hate group icebreaker activities and role play.

I know I do not have significant social or emotional needs but would I stand out in a modern classroom as needing additional therapeutic support? Probably.

Delivering therapeutic interventions to every pupil creates a therapy culture where everyone is deemed to benefit from it and those who do not engage as expected become ‘concerns’. Plus, if every pupil is accessing therapeutic support, just what benefits can therapeutic specialists bring?

The likelihood of a young person disengaging with therapeutic support at a later point must be affected if you feel like you have done all of this before. From my anecdotal experiences in Pupil Referral Unit, I feel that this is the case. Added to this was the impact on delivering these interventions by staff.

Does a two day course really equip you to deal with some of the issues you might face?

However, I also found I disagreed with the authors.

Having seen the decline in supportive services, it felt that sometimes schools were the only place that young people could get support quickly. Staff tend to have good relationships with pupils which means that they can be best placed to identify a need and often offer a solution.

I also agree with the need to have emotionally intelligent adults. We have all worked for leaders who are not or have experienced situations with people unable to empathise and see how their actions affect other people. Plus, so much of teaching does overlap with therapeutic methods such as listening to and valuing each other.

Expert Interventions

So, how would I envisage therapy in schools?

Basic therapeutic principles should be there for all learners and come within the role and remit of teachers. This means that PSHCE (Personal, Social, Health and Citizenship Education) and Citizenship are crucial parts of the curriculum. A whole school ethos of mindfulness is great.

However, therapeutic interventions should only be offered to those identified as needing it and should be delivered by people who are fully trained and equipped to do so. They should be tightly monitored and the benefit to the young person regularly reviewed. These people may, or may not be, teachers. What matters is the level of training which they have and the ongoing support for them as practitioners.

The outcome that I certainly wish to avoid is that where learners grow into adults who view their life through a therapeutic lens, seeking and becoming dependent upon support which they do not need purely because they have been taught by schools to think like they do.

Instead I would like to see an education system that pours support into those who really need it and equips everyone else to cope with the challenges that life brings.

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