Designing therapeutic spaces in schools 2: four principles supporting their success

As adults, were we to visit a therapist or counsellor, it would be hard to imagine sitting in an open-plan space that invites constant interruption or distraction. Instead, we would expect privacy, as well as confidentiality since to be looked at by passing strangers while unpacking difficult feelings might be almost as difficult as being overheard by them. Yet, in my experience of visiting and working in school buildings, children are often expected to talk through feelings or take comfort when they are very upset in settings that are far from private. The teacher, therapist and writer Louise Bomber is an authority on supporting children with attachment issues* and enhancing attachment-awareness** in schools. For Bomber, 

The presence or absence of safety (perceived or real) will influence the pupil’s ability to be in a position to settle to learn and to make optimum use of their ‘exploratory system – our  internal hormonal, neural and behavioural responses and processes, responsible for any of us being able to take the many risks required in learning. (Bomber, 2011, p.44)

 

Bomber’s expertise lies in recognising when children feel unsafe in schools, in how they might communicate their feelings of vulnerability (e.g. through risk-taking, hypervigilance or anger) and in helping them to find a sense of safety in their school setting. The therapeutic space is an example of somewhere where these complex feelings can be expressed safely with a trusted adult so that they can go back to their classrooms feeling more settled. 

 

Therapeutic spaces require a good deal of thought and planning to succeed. As Adam Wood notes in his post on this site A Useful Definition of Architecture: Organization does not just happen. It has an organizer. Often a space-organizer is not an official Architect. 

In this post, a proposition of four principles to support the design of a therapeutic space, I include comments from some of those ‘organizers’ who have successfully set up spaces in their own schools to support the emotional health and safety of children. 

These principles are:  

  1. The presence of a trained, trusted adult;
  2. Time given to the adult to work flexibly within the daily  rhythms of the school
  3. A whole-school understanding and commitment to supporting the emotional needs of children in the school setting;
  4. Careful attention to the qualities of the therapeutic space, such as acoustic protection, location and comfort.

 

1: The presence of a trained, trusted adult 

The presence of a trained adult is a crucial aspect of a therapeutic space and one that is likely to require the biggest financial commitment on the part of the school, since that adult will need to work outside the classroom with a relatively small number of children, usually 1:1. The adult will need full access to a room, preferably one of their own that is not timetabled for other activities, where they can establish a presence and win the trust of all children with whom they work.

 

Carrie, a teacher in a west London primary, had already been working at her school for several years and knew the children well but was acutely aware that she needed to establish trusting relationships within the therapeutic space before any significant work could be done:

Thinking about yourself, if you were going to talk about something to someone that you felt uncomfortable talking about and perhaps really didn’t want to or felt a little bit guilty about talking behind people’s backs, you’d want to feel that you could trust that person before you started bearing your soul to them. That’s why it was lucky that I was here before because part of that work is already done, but not on a one-to-one basis. I (started by) playing games and doing things to get to know children so they could start to relax a little bit.

 

As well as developing a sense of trust with the children, the adult must also have the trust of other adults in the building and a respect for the type of work that they do (see 3: a whole school understanding). They will need to feel that their judgement is respected with regard to all aspects of the creation and set-up of the space, including the management of their own time.

 

2: Time given to the adult to work flexibly within the daily rhythms of the school

Every school has its own distinct rhythms associated with the ebb and flow of movements around the building and the site. These rhythms are driven by whole-school and individual class timetables, meal times, playtimes, Physical Education (PE), music and dance lessons and home time and by other incidents and visits that occur. When considering the possible location of a therapeutic space, try to take account of these rhythms, ensuring that they don’t negatively impact on the work being done there. An example of a poorly planned space is a partitioned area of a corridor located next to the school library, where children are regularly lining up and waiting to go inside. A therapeutic space needs to feel like a sheltered spot at all times as far possible. 

 

IMG_20191212_141843009 (1)

The adult who works in the space will need to be able to exercise autonomy in organising the  availability of the space, according to the emotional needs of the children they work with. Regular sessions with children should never be interrupted by another member of staff who needs to use the space, no matter how senior in the school they might be. Imagine going to a therapy session as an adult and being told that the room is being used by someone else. As Carrie explained to me:

They like the familiarity of coming to the same place (…) at the same time on the same day (of the week) so that they know when they’re coming. If you move that constantly, you don’t feel settled. 

 

The trusted adult will also be the best judge of how to respond when a child is in crisis and whether they need to spend some ad-hoc time in the space. In the schools that I visited where best practice in this area was evident, these adults planned their days with built-in flexibility and were careful to protect themselves from passing on the sense of urgency and need to accomplish everything quickly that is often a feature of primary education in the UK. If the adult in the room feels rushed, there is a risk that the child will also feel that sense of hurry and interpret this as a lack of safety. By creating a sense of unhurried time*** within the room, no matter what is happening outside it, the child is able to take time to express their emotions, with the added knowledge, conveyed by the adult, that they will be there for them later if needed. For Carrie: 

Just sitting here in quietly and even having ten or fifteen minutes and often they’re ready to go back into class. They’re not 100 per cent but they’re ready to go back and then just making sure that they know that I’m there all the way through the day if they need to come back, so that they know they’ve got a choice if they want to come back, they could. That relies, as well, on staff who understand that.

 

Sophie, the pastoral support lead at a two-form entry primary school, highlights an additional benefit to the school community of having a member of staff who is ‘off-timetable’:

I’m the only person that has a lot of processing time, so I have a much calmer schedule to the week and it means I can be a bit of the thinker in school. Also I can observe quite a lot. I just see things because I’ve got the time: most people are just rushing around all the time so if there’s a problem I’ve got time to think about it and hopefully I can feed back a few suggestions to people and that can be helpful.

 

3:  A whole school understanding and commitment to supporting the emotional needs of children in the school setting

 

This third principle is especially difficult to quantify but clearly recognisable when you encounter it and vital to the success of any therapeutic space in a school context. Even if just one adult working in the school undermines the value of its therapeutic spaces, these spaces can be significantly diminished in the benefits they can promote for children. Adults working throughout the school must be reminded that children often feel a sense of shame and embarrassment when asking for emotional support, or crying in front of their peers. It can also be tricky for children to find the words to ask an adult if they can leave the room, especially if there are strict rules in place about not being allowed to use the toilet in lesson times. A whole school recognition that some children might need to be in a different, supportive space because of their very different circumstances can be communicated at training days for all staff, including midday meals/breakfast club supervisors. Educating everyone about the different needs of children who have experienced trauma, separation and loss in their young lives and how they children might communicate those needs through ‘challenging’ behaviours can help all staff to recognise the importance of therapeutic spaces. 

 

Creating this whole-school understanding may require some investment of time and effort, especially if this type of emotional support was not available in schools when the staff themselves were children. Training for staff and school assemblies can provide a context for adults and children to build this understanding and treat each other in a caring and respectful way when they struggle to cope, rather than framing this as a behaviour issue that warrants punitive sanctions.

 

  1. Careful attention to the qualities of the therapeutic space

 

Good school design recognises the emotional as well as the physical, social and cognitive needs of children and the designed qualities of a therapeutic spaces matter to all those who use the space. If you are an architect who designs school buildings, it is worth remembering to be thoughtful and careful in consideration of how the emotional needs of children will be met through your designs. Many children who have experienced loss and trauma in their early lives are likely to be hypervigilant in school, since school might be a place where they don’t feel safe. This may have implications for the types of room created and for their prioritisation within the design of the whole school, rather than them being an afterthought or a windowless cupboard. Unless therapeutic spaces for children are well-located, private, comfortable and accessible, then the therapy or counselling that they are offered in these spaces may be drained of all value. This may cause children to shut down and refuse to talk about what is troubling them. 

 

For Louise Bomber, the availability of ‘a physical, protected, boundaried space retaining consistent focus and function’ is essential for children with attachment issues (2011, p.32)*. The effectiveness of this space certainly relies on the other three principles but the qualities that it communicates to children also need to be considered as part of this discussion. These qualities are the subject of my next post.

 

Notes

*For most children, early attachment results in a ‘good enough’ experience, and enables development of a sense of self and expectation of the world which is relatively hopeful and relaible. But when a child’s needs for sensitivity to its signals, comfort and reassurance are not met, then insecure attachment can result.  (p. 48)

Geddes, H. (2016) Attachment in the classroom. London: Worth.

For many children with an insecure attachment, due to early neglect, abuse or separation, this pattern of insecure attachment can result in behavioural problems, with implications for learning.

** Geddes includes a chapter about the school as a secure base, describing the features of attachment aware schools. See also this excellent resource from Bath Spa University: https://www.bathspa.ac.uk/schools/education/research/attachment-aware-schools/

 

***See also this post about Alison Clarke’s (2011) excellent micro-history of a welfare room in which she explores a sense of a different type of time as well as space within a Medd-designed school building. 

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