‘Exceptional Children: Residential Treatment of Emotionally Disturbed Boys at Shotton Hall’ by Frederick George Lennhoff

Frederick George Lennhoff (1960) Exceptional children: residential treatment of emotionally disturbed boys at Shotton Hall London: George Allen & Unwin

F G Lennhoff’s account of his work with maladjusted boys at Shotton Hall gained a favourable review from Probation Journal (Fees, 2008). An educational psychologist, he had been inspired by August Aichhorn (1925), and also drew on Bettelheim (1950) and Redl and Wineman (1951), to create a school for maladjusted children as defined in the 1944 Education Act. Much like Aichhorn he saw this as a facility for those whose problems could not be managed satisfactorily within the community by a child guidance clinic. So he did not start from any assumptions about offering individual therapy but about creating a total environment in which the child’s symptoms could be managed and their behaviour changed.

However, he combined the assumption that early experience has a lifelong impact and that all problems in the here-and-now are related to events in the child’s past with what might now be called a ‘reality based’ approach to treatment, insisting that boys accept responsibility for their actions and make restitution for any offences or harm done to another person. He perhaps best exemplifies the ‘pragmatism’ which is often said to be a characteristic of the English.

Key Points

  • Difficulties may be caused by parents or by schools.
  • Different children respond differently to similar situations.
  • Maladjusted children have difficulty in giving and receiving affection.
  • Children need to be encouraged to make restitution when they have harmed others.
  • Staff need to be helped as much as the children, in particular not to take out their frustrations on the children.
  • Children’s initial reactions may vary widely but eventually the symptoms of their maladjustment will come out.
  • Activities offer an important way of enabling children to learn.
  • Regression is essential for development.
  • Creative activities can facilitate the release of feelings, the demonstration of symptoms and therapeutic outcomes.
  • Giving as much freedom and responsibility as possible encourages better social behaviour.
  • Taking a low key approach is the best way of addressing most problems; issues of sexual development are best addressed in informal settings.
  • Notwithstanding much positive behaviour, adults should not be ‘taken in’ by maladjusted children.
  • The behaviour of maladjusted children is often unpleasant and good public relations are essential.
  • Any ‘cure’ comes from a multiplicity of factors.


In the Introduction, Lennhoff argues that there is too much reliance on the assumption that following one’s instincts leads to success and he gives examples of the difficulties that can occur within families or at school. He stresses the importance of education for parenthood with a focus on emotional development but cautions that children are not all affected in the same way by family or other difficulties.

In Chapter I Selection and entry, he says that Shotton Hall accommodates 35 to 40 boys aged 10-16 of good intelligence who have arrived there for a variety of reasons and exhibit a variety of symptoms. Typically, they are “insecure and unhappy, finding it as difficult to receive the affection and trust of a sound human relationship as to give these qualities to others” (p. 26). They tend to lack security and may steal as a love substitute but they can sometimes be helped by something as simple as Lennhoff saying in a court report that a boy could change; the father believed this, his attitude changed and so did the boy’s.

In other cases parents need to be educated not to blame the child for their own problems and teachers to recognise children’s needs and not ignore them. Often they can be dealt with by a child guidance clinic but, where the problems cannot be dealt with in the community, it is essential that those who have already been working with the child make the referral, giving a full case history and the reason why the school has been chosen because there is a range of schools from which to choose.

They offer an interview to the child, the parents and the social worker; the parents are interviewed separately while another pupil takes the child on a tour of the school; then the child is interviewed separately followed by the social worker. Then the whole group meet and Lennhoff tries to get the child to ask to come to the school, unless the decision is No, when he might say the school was not suitable because it is important to minimise any feelings of rejection.

In Chapter II The setting for a new life, he stresses the importance of the building being one that children would like to live in; the walls need to be light, the furniture strong and the children able to choose pictures and ornaments. Where children damage other people’s things, for example, out of jealousy, they need to be encouraged to make recompense.

The children often begin by destroying things around them and, when they moved from their original accommodation to Shotton Hall, an advance party of boys worked alongside the workman finishing the conversion so that they would have pride in the home. There are areas in which boys can play and a wood into which adults rarely venture.

With a general lack of trained staff, staff need to be helped just as much as the children, in particular to deal with frustration and to avoid taking things out on the boys. They need to balance a permissive atmosphere with reasonable demands on the boys. One problem is that children may crave affection but have difficulties with human relationships. This may create difficulties for adults because the child wants to test things out; however, it is important not to appear too saintly to the child. At the same time staff must make sure that no blame falls on the child for the situation in which they find themselves.

All staff need to be aware of normal development, to be able to share faults, to have a creative, artistic or sporting skill and to be patient. Teachers need to be able to deal with the group first, and then with individuals. House staff need to be emotionally stable, open and honest and willing to learn. The technical staff are often socially closer to the boys and may become confidants or informal instructors.

He concludes by outlining the process of staff selection and a syllabus for staff in schools and hostels. (This was before the Home Office opened the Certificate in Residential Child Care courses to staff who did not work in children’s homes.)

In Chapter III The daily life of the child, he describes how the child is sent a clothing list. The clothes may be purchased either in advance or on arrival but very often boys are unaware of the cost of clothes. New boys normally arrive before start of term to familiarise themselves with the school before the others arrive.

There are two main rules: don’t go on the roof and don’t go out without telling someone, and some minor ones, such as not walking through the entrance with muddy boots. Boys can bring pets and other personal possessions. Some react by being angels and others by trying to see how far they can go. Some will boast of earlier delinquencies and some still see themselves as having been ‘sent away’.

By around six to eight weeks, the symptoms of the child’s actual state begin to appear. Generally, the first year involves the manifestation of symptoms, the second the first steps towards relationships and confidence and the third stabilisation and progress. As a rule, the older the boy is, the longer this takes.

Each day they are woken at seven and then given a reminder; they do exercises in front of the house while the stragglers are collected and then one hour ‘cleaning up’; boys may be paired to do jobs. Breakfast is at 8.30, followed by a house meeting. School begins at 9.30 with a break at 11.00 after which some go back to classes and others to activities. These end at 12.45 and lunch at 1.00 is supervised by two staff while the other staff eat separately to review the day. In the afternoon there is school for the senior group and activities for the others until 4.00, when they have some free time until tea at 5.00 followed by evening activities. Supper is at 7.30 and bedtimes are staggered from 8.30 to 9.30, though the boys often talk for hours after going to bed.

He argues for shared responsibility rather than self-government and there is an elected committee of three boys with the secretary which meets twice a week to decide punishments, special purchases, outings, and so on.

Restitution is encouraged, though boys often find this more difficult to cope with than corporal punishment, particular those used to punishment. An example might be making a contribution to the fire service welfare fund from the boy who lit a fire in dormitory. With an emphasis on restitution, there needs to be variety in the forms of restitution.

In Chapter IV The problem of learning, he notes that maladjusted children have no confidence in those who teach them and argues that activities offer different ways of helping children to learn. Problems can arise when children want all the adult’s attention or when their fear of getting things wrong leads them to blame others for this. Some boys complain of a lack of ‘spare time’ but, if given it, they don’t know how to use it.

Among the different ways of keeping boys interested are outside speakers and, for example, giving a boy unable to stay in the classroom the task of making a door for a lean-to shed. The boys have a strong sense of ‘fairness.’ Some senior boys may immerse themselves in work to avoid addressing reality; they often have unrealistic ambitions.

Turning to school subjects, they tend not to like history but geography is acceptable. They need to get over any fear of failure to do maths but maths can lead on to practical applications. Science is most acceptable. Current affairs is also acceptable but English is generally disliked, though English literature gets a mixed reception. The boys treat art at first as a route to freedom and only later ask for formal art lessons. Divinity is based on stories from the Bible with the addition of practical work. Teaching maladjusted boys is actually very difficult to describe; people need to experience it first hand.

In Chapter V Our life outside the classroom, Lennhoff argues that what has once been experienced can never be undone and that the boys need opportunities for regression and then development. Art and craft can help to deal with aggression and depression and are also ways of demonstrating problems. They teach boys the recorder and Mrs Lennhoff runs a music group though the boys tend to have difficulty singing together.

Many do not know their father’s occupation and have no experience of working life. They lack concentration but they are allowed to contribute to repairs around the school. They can cope with work experience placements because they know it is only for a week; they are encouraged to discuss their experiences on their return. In reality they have a greater level of freedom than in most schools and children from stricter schools tend to behave less well when on outside activities. They have lots of opportunities to be away from the school though they have to give a reason and he also limits the numbers to one venue and may ask a stable boy to chaperon a less stable one.

On Thursday evenings there is a group therapy ‘discussion’ which starts with an innocuous topic and normally then develops. They use play therapy, especially with the younger boys and, where this reveals problems, these are noted and discussed and may be referred to the psychiatrist.

Animals and the visits from the vet play a significant part in the life of the school; they allow exploration of the facts of life. There has also been less absconding since they acquired the farm; the children were involved in its purchase and renovation.

The boys have difficulties over games; they tend to be bad losers and also to lose games anyway. Staff need to avoid boys ‘teaming up’ with those with similar problems.

In Chapter VI Some of our problems, he mentions how, when his wife was in hospital, there were numerous crises in the school because of his emotional state at the time and gives various examples of situations where he did the wrong thing.

About a third of the boys wet the bed and a tenth soil; this is taken in its stride. There may occasionally be a discussion group but different things have been successful with different boys. They generally ignore swearing, aggression and temper outbursts. With pilfering and lying, they try to identify whether it is just a passing phase or a symptom of rejection but they generally suggest restitution.

They help boys to adjust to their sexual development with a mixture of biology and ethics; ideally, he would like co-education and the school started in this way but societal fears led to the decision to make it a boys’ school. Sex education is important, especially as children begin to explore own bodies; having open discussion leads to willingness to talk and sex education is always given informally, not in school.

Absconders used to run a long way away until they got the farm, eight miles away. If boys abscond, they are returned with the minimum of fuss and, if their reason for absconding was frivolous, they are invited to contribute to petrol costs. Early absconding is not a reason for despair.

Most boys are unable to cope with standard religious practices, so they listen to the schools broadcast voluntarily and have a simple service on Sunday. This probably gets closer to the purpose of religious life than the formal rites.

In Chapter VII The child and the adult world, he stresses the importance of understanding present behaviour in the light of past experience and of the adults dealing with own ‘areas of anxieties’ (Bettelheim, 1950). The psychiatrist acts as a go-between, sometimes seeing boys individually but also drawing attention to staff weaknesses or mistakes.

It is important to break down the ‘us’ and ‘them’ between adults and children so that boys realise that adults can be different. Visitors should not be taken in by an initial friendly welcome or policemen by a willingness to admit things that boys haven’t done.

In Chapter VIII The child and the law, he notes that the boys often feel guilty after their offences. Initially police officers were suspicious of the school but gradually they became more confidant. The main problems were boys saying that they knew they were doing wrong when they didn’t and their statements being unreliable. The boys were generally tense and suspicious when a policeman came. The police gradually accepted the value of restitution, particularly after the Underwood Report (1955) commended it.

There is a need for research into the causes of delinquency because it is not clear what proportion of children are like Shotton Hall children. Children should also have their offences removed from the record after a certain number of years of no offending.

In Chapter IX Backroom work and beyond our fences, he outlines the amount of paperwork they have to do, noting that the children can see their files if they insist but it is generally discouraged. Then there are the visitors and the time needed to plan outings. They provide twice-yearly reports to local authorities.

Discharge planning involves offering work experience, arranging accommodation and making local contacts and then having a farewell party. Often they do not hear from a boy for one to two years until suddenly they return, sometimes with good, sometimes with bad news. Old boys tend to be a good example to existing pupils and sometimes they can support old boys but, apart from a general newsletter to old boys, contact is at the instigation of the boys.

He comments that most of manifestations of maladjustment are unpleasant and so good public relations become important, particularly when dealing with unsympathetic neighbours but also when sympathetic neighbours become ‘too kind’.

In Chapter X A general summing up, Lennhoff argues that they help boys to see adults as human beings by being honest and apologising when they get things wrong. They also help by only setting tasks which are practical and recognising that maladjusted children are still individuals.

Supervision is important but being good at everything is not. Pity is unhelpful but symptoms need to be taken calmly and opportunities created for children to broach subjects. Overall, the first step is relaxation, the second is learning from the group, especially about other boys’ problems and the third is therapy which may take place in interviews or discussions, through making relationships or through accepting responsibility. He also acknowledges the importance of him and his wife being a successful married couple.

In the end  “‘cure’ … comes about from the interplay of many factors” (p. 180) and strength comes from the belief that they have led some people towards a constructive life.

The book concludes with a number of appendices illustrating various aspects of the work of the school.


It is perhaps difficult with hindsight to recognise how radical Lennhoff’s ideas were in the 1950s. Hitherto, pioneers such as Neill, Lyward and Wills had worked largely outside the statutory frameworks and so could be dismissed as ‘one-offs.’ Lennhoff showed that it was possible to work within the 1944 Education Act to provide care and education specifically tailored to children ascertained as maladjusted which was also informed by the most progressive ideas about child care then available.

His central thesis that disturbed children have difficulties giving and receiving affection has been largely supported, though today’s terminology might be that they have ‘anxious-resistant’ or ‘anxious-avoidant’ attachments (Ladd, 2005). He agrees with Bettelheim (1950) and Redl and Wineman (1952) on the importance of activities, though it is not clear whether they would be as important for girls (Konopka, 1966).

His argument that disturbed children do not need many rules and that they were better behaved when that was the case was quite revolutionary. Nearly a decade later Clegg and Megson (1968) were having to demonstrate the benefits of less punitive approaches in ordinary schools. His use of restitution, which he argues children often find harder to cope with than corporal punishment, can be seen as a return to the original concept of compensation to the victim rather than a fine which the state pockets (Strang, 2002). It is unlikely that he knew that his use of a committee of boys to take certain decisions, including punishments, dated back at least a century to Demetz and La colonie agricole (Heywood, 1978).

Though he does not develop these themes in any detail, Lennhoff’s recognition that dealing with disturbed children can be very unpleasant and his argument that staff need support to cope with any frustration caused by the children’s behaviour suggests a realism which is perhaps more constructive than just relying on ‘professionalism’ or professional training. He anticipates Highet (1963) in arguing that staff need to have some creative, artistic or sporting skill; Highet argued that, unless teachers had something from outside their own subject to bring to their pupils, they would be very boring teachers.

Lennhoff’s argument that regression is essential for development has now been discounted and he might have achieved more rapid outcomes had be not been waiting for the boys to demonstrate their regression before he began to intervene more directly. His finding that the older the boy, the longer this takes, may reflect a propensity for some professionals to avoid a residential placement until it is unavoidable and the child’s situation is worse.

He shares with many practitioners a belief in the value of creative activities, though I am unaware of any research which has validated this assumption. However, his arguments for a low-key approach to many problems, including temper tantrums, to which Trieschman et al. (1969) devote an entire chapter, would draw approval from many behaviourists (Sheldon, 1995). His willingness to talk openly and informally about sex and to explore alternative approaches to religious education were unusual at the time. He does not conclude, as Clarke and Clarke (1976) do, that the current environment is the most significant factor in recovery from previous deprivation or disturbance but his argument that any ‘cure’ comes from the interplay of many factors is not inconsistent with their conclusion.

His plea for more research was to be answered in the decade after his book was published and his arguments for removing children’s offences from their records were eventually to be implemented in part. He was a long way ahead of most practitioners in allowing children to see their files, even though he tried to discourage them. His relaxed attitude to follow-up was to be vindicated by Taylor and Alpert (1973) and his recognition of the value of good public relations is something which too few practitioners have recognised.

Lennhoff continued to self-publish a wide range of books drawing on his experiences of working with children at Shotton Hall but, by the 1970s, the theoretical assumptions he had made were no longer widely accepted and some of his ideas about sex, for example, had become old-fashioned. So the extent to which he was a genuinely progressive practitioner, well ahead of his time in many areas and still ahead of some people today, and the lessons which could be drawn from his pragmatic approach have tended to be ignored other than by those who either accepted his assumptions or could see the value of his ideas regardless of their theoretical underpinnings.


Aichhorn, A (1925) Verwahrloster Jugend Wien: Internationaler Psychoanalytischer Verlag See also Children Webmag August 2009.

Bettelheim, B (1950) Love is not enough: the treatment of emotionally disturbed children Glencoe IL: Free Press See also Children Webmag August 2009.

Clarke, A M and Clarke, A D B (1976) Studies in natural settings In A M Clarke and A D B Clarke (Eds) Early experience: myth and evidence, Chapter 6, pp. 69-96 London: Open Books

Clegg, A B and Megson, B E (1968) Children in distress Harmondsworth: Penguin See also Children Webmag September 2009.

Committee on Maladjusted Children (1955) Report of the Committee on Maladjusted Children (Chairman, J. E. A. Underwood). London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office

Fees, C (2008, May) Lost bridges and residential therapeutic child care: Howard Jones (1918-2007) and Reluctant Rebels https://thetcj.org/articles/child-care-history/lost-bridges-and-residential-therapeutic-child-carehoward-jones-1918-2007-and-reluctant-rebels

Heywood, J S (1978) Children in care: the development of the service for the deprived child (Third ed.) London: Routledge & Kegan Paul

Highet, G A (1963) The art of teaching London: Methuen

Konopka, G (1966) The adolescent girl in conflict Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice Hall

Ladd, G W (2005) Children’s peer relations and social competence: a century of progress London: Yale University Press

Redl, F and Wineman, D (1951) Children who hate: the disorganization and breakdown of behavior controls Glencoe ILL: Free Press

Redl, F and Wineman, D (1952) Controls from within: techniques for the treatment of the aggressive child Glencoe ILL: Free Press See also Children Webmag November 2009.

Sheldon, B (1995) Cognitive-behavioural therapy: research, practice and philosophy London: Tavistock

Strang, H (2002) Repair or revenge: victims and restorative justice Oxford: Clarendon Press

Taylor, D and Alpert,  S W (1973) Continuity and support: following residential treatment New York: Child Welfare League of America See Children Webmag March 2009.

Trieschman, A, Whittaker, J and Brendtro, L (1969) The other 23 hours: child care work with emotionally disturbed children in a therapeutic milieu Chicago: Aldine See also Children Webmag November 2009.

4 thoughts on “‘Exceptional Children: Residential Treatment of Emotionally Disturbed Boys at Shotton Hall’ by Frederick George Lennhoff”

  1. my 9yr old son whom i adopted in 2006 has severe attachement issues,lying and stealing,a tendancy to balme others for what he has done,no empathy or guilt and has tried on several occassions to harm his sibling whomwe adopted in 2007 (using knives and other sharp items). He has attended theraplay/chrysalis i sheffield with little effect,he is with drawn and has no friends at school,although for the past 3/4yrs we have tried everything i feel sometimes we are amking matters worse for him. social care are involved but not much they can do or have done,if he does not receive the right help i feel he will end up back in the system,we are trying hard but at the cost ogf keeping the other 3kids safe and happy i need to do something more. Does all this sound familiar to the things you deal with,is there hope for him at a school like yours?? pam

  2. I was at westhopemanor first then shotton hall 1953/1956 it was ran by a very bad temperd man called g f lennhoff and should not have been aloud

  3. Frederick George Lenhoff and Ursula Lenhoff made a great impact on my life and the life of many others. It is not fair to pull someone down when they are dead and gone. Peter Collins has a right to his opinion; he does not have the right to misscall someone who can’t defend himself. If he was mistreated by F G Lenhoff (not G F Lenhoff which he could not get right), he must have deserved it.

  4. i was at the school from 58/60. If i was very bad i received the cane other than that all was fine and i did not turn out too bad (in my opinion).
    Fred an d Ma lennhoff did the best job to get me through alot of S___t that i was going through at home
    RIP both of you
    Brian Tatton Australia


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