The Cotswold Community. A re-published paper. By John Whitwell.

This paper was originally written in 1986. It is about the Cotswold Community once thriving therapeutic community, now deceased.  John Whitwell.

[I recently discovered this paper, April 2017, written as preparation for giving a talk about the Cotswold Community in 1986. I have decided that it is worth retaining my perspective from that year, which was full of hope for the future, rather than to update it and risk it being tainted by the knowledge of the Community’s closure in 2011.]


I will start by describing the physical layout of the Cotswold Community and it’s history.

Visitors are struck by its size and air of calmness. It is a village type community within a 350 acre farm. The buildings reflect its history. In the centre there are the original Cotswold stone farm buildings which have since been converted into accommodation, meeting rooms and offices. The buildings in this square are of historical interest and subject to a preservation order.


In the mid 1930s it was a Bruderhof Community for approximately five years. They were German refugees who lived in a Christian commune having escaped Nazi persecution. They were very industrious people and in their relatively short stay constructed many of the buildings we use today.


In 1942 the Rainer Foundation acquired the property and started an Approved  School, known as The Cotswold School.


In 1967 the Managing Body decided that there must be a fundamental change of regime. It was given a specific conversion task i.e. to become a therapeutic community offering a total treatment plan involving remedial and social education, a positive group living experience, individual and family casework and community links. Richard Balbernie was appointed Principal to lead this change process and this time was described vividly in the book “Spare the Child” by David Wills.


The hypothesis to be explored and tested was that it might be possible in a residential institution to develop and implement strategies of therapy for young offenders that might be more effective than the practices of the Approved School. In the second year of this conversion task the Rainer Foundation opted out and a second task was defined – testing the feasibility of locating such an enterprise within the local authority structure (Wiltshire County Council).


The other person who helped to spearhead the change process was Barbara Dockar-Drysdale who was appointed Consultant Psychotherapist soon after Richard Balbernie arrived.


Richard Balbernie retired last year and I was appointed to succeed him.


A healing culture


The therapeutic process at the Cotswold Community has been designed and developed specifically for boys with “unintegrated” personalities. In such a boy the ego boundary, which enables the mature individual to separate his internal world of drives, impulses, feelings and phantasies from the external world of relations with other people, has not yet developed. He does not yet distinguish between inside and outside, between his feelings and their causes. In this state of fusion or confusion, his experience tends to be either of having the other person or the whole world inside him – the omnipotent phantasy – or alternatively being swallowed up by the other. He may oscillate between these states.


The therapeutic task, therefore, is to provide the conditions within which the boy can begin to form an ego-boundary and become capable of managing his internal world in relation to his environment. At a minimum he should acquire: the skills needed for some degree of independence; some ability to recognise choices and make decisions; and some capacity to manage transactions with other people in his environment. This paper is about the planned environment of the Cotswold Community which facilitates this sort of learning.

The richness, strength and quality of the healing culture as a whole is at the heart of the matter. A planned culture (described by Bruno Bettelheim as “the other 23 hours”) which attracts trust and genuine allegiance and is stronger than the regressive attraction of sub-culture.

There are approximately 40 boys living in the Community in four small group living households. Most of the boys come from inner city areas throughout the country and are referred to us, through the boy’s social worker, by psychiatrists and educational psychologists in Child Guidance Clinics and local authority Assessment Centres. Their age at admission is between 10 and 14 years and they can remain until they are 18 but most leave when they are 16. The majority of boys have a family or foster family.

A typical boy referred to us has missed out on primary experiences and in the early developmental stages has experienced repeated environmental failures and failed dependencies. Their lack of security stems from a breakdown in the parental function of creating the child’s environment, consequently the child has had to do this for himself long before he has the inner resources to draw on. This leads to a surface adaptation to life which, at first glance, can appear adequate. However, there is no centre, no real self, no inner world, no feeling of wellbeing, no concern – more a chameleon response to life. In other words, a false self.

In the course of normal development the separating out of mother and baby is a long and gradual process, at the completion of which the baby exists for the first time as a separate being and an integrated individual, absolutely dependent on the mother but no longer emotionally part of her. If integration of the personality is to take place, usually by the end of the first year of life, the evolution of this process must not be interrupted. Interruption of this essential process, which mothers and babies work through together in their own time and in their own way, is in our view the trauma which lies at the root of the various types of causes of emotional deprivation referred to us. The point at which traumatic interruption has taken place determines the nature of the survival mechanisms used by the child: but it is important to realise that the primitive nature of these mechanisms does not prevent them from being used in a highly complex manner.

The emotionally frozen child.

Barbara Dockar-Drysdale has used the term “emotionally frozen” to describe the most primitive form of these survival mechanisms caused by the fracturing of the primary bonding process with the mother at a very early stage.

She describes how a typical “frozen” child, in a therapeutic institution, presents a curiously contradictory picture. He has charm, he is apparently extremely friendly, and seems to make good contact very quickly. He is neither shy nor anxious in an interview and in his everyday existence he is usually healthy, clean, tidy and orderly. He is frequently generous and kind to younger children, especially one particular child, whom he protects against all attacks. In astonishing contrast he may become savagely hostile, especially towards a grownup with whom he has been friendly. He will fly into sudden panic rages for no apparent reason, in which he smashes and destroys anything in his vicinity. He is a disturbing element in class – a storm centre – and frequently has acute learning difficulties. Sometimes he seems to build a high wall between himself and other people which is impossible to scale or break through. He steals, lies and destroys relentlessly and without the slightest indication of remorse. He is always either cruel or wildly overindulgent to animals, which appear afraid of him. It is repeatedly reported that he is improving and hopes are raised. It is claimed that he is making a relationship at last but each time disaster follows, until finally he becomes intolerable to his environment. The longer the period of supposed improvement the more drastic is the breakdown. Experience teaches us to think in terms of lull and storm rather than maturation and regression or recovery and deterioration.

The ‘frozen’ child is of necessity delinquent. He may easily become a “delinquent hero” who gives permission to the other members of the group to break in, steal or destroy. His own lack of remorse, the fact that he can do these things without emotional discomfort, has the most disastrous effect upon all but the most integrated group.

We know that he cannot risk being left short of satisfaction for a moment because, as soon as the level of his pleasure drops, pain will flow in. He must, therefore, use any means in his power to maintain the pleasure level. It’s likely that such means will tend to be delinquent.

How does he ignore inevitable consequences? Firstly, he has what Fritz Redl termed “reality blindness”. He does not merely deny that he has done some delinquent or aggressive act, he does not know that he has done it. Secondly, he has no concept of time. There can be no past to regret and no future to consider. He lives in the present.

It is possible, although very difficult, to treat frozen children. From a state where nothing is felt and no one is important, you can begin to see some internal conflict and dependence on grownups, with evidence of depression and anxiety, which to us are real signs that emotional recovery is occurring.

There seems to be two stages to the depressed period. The first is general and applies to every sphere of the child’s existence. He will often become ill and be generally apathetic. He tends to retire to bed; sits quietly in class but with no sign of intellectual interest. It’s a kind of unfocused depression. The second part of the depression is different. It’s focused on the person with whom the child is making a primary bond. When this second stage of depression has been reached it’s no longer apparent in every field; the child begins to make educational progress and becomes quite worried and anxious in various aspects of his life. There is, however, a deep attachment to the grownup of his choice and, in the absence of this person for any length of time much anxiety is expressed. Disapproval from this special grownup is intolerable and there is evidence of a reaching out towards dependence. Providing that this second stage can be reached there is little likelihood of reversal, as far as we can tell. The earlier stage is by no means so established and the child may revert to the previous delinquent behaviour pattern.

At no point is one justified in being merely permissive with a ‘frozen’ child. One must be controlling, disapproving but not rejecting, approving but not seduced into serving as an extension of the child. At first the behaviour pattern is most carefully observed and reported until constant repetition of the pattern has made it familiar to the therapist. Next, interruption is introduced; this involves breaking into a behaviour pattern at a critical point in order to make the child aware of what he has done, is doing and plans to do. A next stage is reached when the first signs of a pattern can be recognised. Each child has a sort of signature tune which becomes familiar. Interruption now takes place at so early a stage that we can refer to it as anticipation.

When interruption or anticipation is used correctly acute disturbance is felt by the child. He needs a great deal of support and reassurance. He will do everything in his power to close the gap which has been made in his defences. His response to early interruption is often panic and rage. If, however, the gap can be kept open by steady interruption and anticipation, used in the context of his everyday life, then the next stage may be reached. Here we meet the first unfocused depression which affects every aspect of the child’s life. It is at this stage that a kind of bond can be achieved with the therapist with the child becoming regressed, dependent, trusting and vulnerable. It is from this point that he can slowly become loving and loved as a complete person.

The path to emotional integration.

Most boys referred to the Community have had multiple placements in children’s homes and foster families. These placements have broken down primarily because the ‘unintegrated’ child’s need for emotional containment, 24 hours a day, put too much strain on the family or staff team leading to increasing levels of acting out, which was the child’s communication that their needs were not being met. The unintegrated child’s inner world is full of uncontainable anxiety so the Community has to provide an environment which reduces anxiety and in which the child can begin to trust, to feel more secure, to invest in and to learn.

In carrying out the therapeutic task the Community has to perform two functions that are, superficially at least, contradictory: to contain; and to provide for separation. Because the boys’ ego boundary is inadequate the Community has to supply an outer boundary on his behalf. At the same time, this boundary needs to be held far enough out to enable him to experience being separate and to begin to acquire a discrete identity. This has led us to the notion of “negotiating space” – the space between the boy and Community within which various degrees of containment and separation can happen. At times there is a need for close containment – being a mother to this baby-in-arms. There must also be enough space – not just physical, though that is important, but also in terms of acceptable ways of being and behaving – to enable the boy to experience separateness and choice, but the boundary must not be so far away that it is not experienced as containing. Testing the limits is necessary for development, so the limits must be perceptible enough to be tested. The dynamic of treatment, therefore, means managing the continual tension between containment and separation within that negotiating space.

Our hypothesis is that the boy’s experience of using that space in the Cotswold Community setting will progressively enable him to create and use a corresponding negotiating space between himself and other parts of his external environment – his family, his peers outside, his social worker etc. The deficient ego boundary will gradually become more consolidated.

We aim to prevent the boys from ‘acting out’ their inner anxieties, tensions and conflicts in such a way that they can gain insight into their own behaviour and develop controls from within. It’s essential, therefore, that we don’t have a punishment system to maintain control from without, which would prevent inner controls from developing, nor a reward system encouraging false-self good behaviour. Staff teams at the Community become skilful at anticipating difficulties, being aware of groupings which can quickly merge delinquently, and knowing how and when to intervene. In time a boy will become aware of these things himself and be able to keep himself ‘separate’. The personal authority of the staff members and the cohesion of the staff team are the basis for a ‘safe’ household where the boys feel secure that grownups can cope with their difficulties rather than suppress them.

The therapeutic approach of the Cotswold Community was summarised in a DHSS inspection report in the following way:-

“At the Cotswold Community there is no use of sanctions and privileges in producing “good” behaviour. The therapeutic relationship is used to explain to the child why he should behave in a certain way and patiently gaining his cooperation. There are also strong verbal commands but these are not limited to rewards for complying or punishments for not doing so. There is, needless to say, no corporal punishment. This approach does mean that the sanctioning of behaviour is not uniform, but individual boys and adults do seem to understand why this is so. From observation it would seem that this approach has paid good dividends. Acting out behaviour is seen for what it is and with the more integrated children the absence of an aggressive subculture with its veneer of bullying, bravado, illicit smoking and gratuitous swearing, was particularly refreshing to encounter. The review team felt that to some extent this atmosphere was a reflection of the presence of adults who were committed to a more pacific, less thrusting and aggressive, approach to life. However, we also appreciated that the chosen model of care and treatment did aim to enhance real communication between adults and the young people. Clearly many children in the Community had moved towards, or into, this more mature model of communication. The general quality of life and consistency of approach also seems to be assisted by the insistence that delinquent pairing, or the development of a delinquent subculture, is diligently exposed and the children involved helped to move out from behind this form of protection.”

As previously stated the boys at the Cotswold Community are aged 10 – 18. As the boys settle into the Community and begin to trust, a younger self commonly emerges. This younger self enjoys being read to, for example, and having a soft toy as a transitional object, usually made by his focal therapist.

People working with unintegrated children and adolescents have to carry a much heavier load of tension and anxiety than those who are trying to help neurotic, integrated youngsters. Workers at the Cotswold Community are constantly exposed to the full blast of primary processes – they are in touch with what should be in the unconscious but which, without ego development, is present at a conscious level in all its primitive violence. The danger – apart from the actual violent acting out – is that this primitive material can pick up wavelengths in the unconscious of the workers. For these reasons it is essential that staff become as self aware as possible so that they and the boys are less at risk and can more freely focus on the primary task.

Communication is a key part of the therapeutic work. Listening is especially important – really paying attention to everything said and responding suitably. There is no psychotherapy nor interpretation in the formal sense of the term but a lot can be achieved through honesty, intuition and empathy.

Symbolic communication is particularly important when working with children whose disturbance dates back to the pre-verbal period in their life. It means that if a boy communicates using symbols he should be responded to in the same symbolic terms. It’s another aspect of listening. Here is an example of symbolic communication between a boy and his focal therapist at the Community.

“Five weeks after Paul was admitted to Springfield, after getting used to the idea that other boys had soft toys as transitional objects, he asked for his own. It was a while before he decided what he wanted and eventually decided on an elephant. While I was making the elephant he frequently asked how it was coming along. It was finally finished one bedtime and Paul took the elephant and cuddled him in silence for some time.

Over the next few weeks Paul developed a consistent pattern of caring for his elephant who he named Albert. Together we made Albert a bed into which he was settled every night. He also came with Paul to the bathroom and had his teeth cleaned before bedtime. Once, after I had been away for a day, I came in to find Paul upset that he hadn’t managed to care for Albert and put him to bed on his own. He asked me in future to take Albert with me when I went home. Some time later, as Paul became more dependent on me, he asked me to leaving something of mine with him. We decided that I should leave him with a little painted turtle that I’d made out of a stone. So the routine became that when I went away I took Albert with me and left the turtle who was small enough for Paul to carry in his pocket.

Paul told me about some of the experiences that Albert had had before coming to the Community to live with him. Unsurprisingly Albert’s life history closely paralleled his own. Albert had been abandoned very early on by his parents and left in the African jungle where he was found by his uncles. The uncles were big, hardworking elephants and they brought Albert up. Paul described Albert’s uncles as a bit wild and weren’t able to give him everything he needed but at least they took care of him. Albert’s uncles then abandoned him and he had to go into a ‘home’. He then came to Paul, who adopted him. In play, Albert went off to Africa to look for his parents but didn’t find them, so returned. Paul wanted to write down Albert’s life story but was unable to get further than the title.

Paul and I both get a lot of enjoyment from play with Albert. He often wants me to share in giving Albert a voice, handing him over when he wants me to take over. I am always careful that I follow Paul’s lead so that Albert’s personality comes from him and not me. Both of us always respond to Albert as if he was a real person and I never make any interpretations about his use of Albert. Albert is quite devious and delinquent and is prepared to walk all over people in order to get his own way. He is narcissistic and sings about how marvellous he is. He displaces his aggression, continually taking things out on other people. He also splits between people, being rude to one and then nice to another to get what he wants. He goes off in a bad mood but then often has an accident and returns for comfort.

There are a lot of similarities between Albert and Paul; Paul asks me for guidance in dealing with Albert’s behaviour and in this way seems to reassure himself that I will continue to take a non-punitive but firm and caring approach to both of them and will not collude in order to avoid difficult behaviour. Paul’s impulse is to punish Albert but my approach is that there must be a reason behind his behaviour, however dreadful it is.

Following the visit of a family with a young child, Paul was reminded of how much he liked the smell of babies. We identified the smell that he liked as that of baby powder. Paul asked me to powder Albert’s feet with baby powder and from this it soon became part of Paul’s bedtime routine for his own feet to be washed and powdered as well as Albert’s.

Recently Albert has been testing me out, calling me rude names and blowing his nose on my sleeve and generally covering me in his mess. Paul said that Albert is not able to trust many people because of what happened to him but is able to trust me. Albert fulfils a number of roles in Paul’s treatment. Paul has never had a transitional object of his own before and Albert is also a very important part of his dependency on me. Albert represents a part of himself and so by caring for Albert I’m also caring for Paul. Albert also enables Paul to access primary care, for example, Albert’s feet being powdered enabled Paul to access the same care.”

Paul was able, through using Albert with his focal therapist, to bring his problems into the open. It’s significant has been unable to get further than writing the title of Albert’s life story as he himself is wanting to talk and know about his early life but feels his family is resistant. This example of Paul using Albert illustrates how a transitional object can help a child to feel less threatened about communicating with a grownup he is learning to trust.

Supporting the fragilely integrated young person.

We have found that it is unwise to mix emotionally unintegrated and integrated children in the same group because their needs are so different, for example, the unintegrated child’s need to disrupt a functioning group frustrates the integrated child’s need to use the group positively. Our ‘secondary’ household, Larkrise, continues with individual treatment programmes with the added dimension of group work. The fragile integration, that a boy moving to Larkrise has achieved, needs to be nurtured in order that he can begin to take responsibility for himself and in turn be involved in decision making within the group.

Within Larkrise boys have the shared experience of managing their environment through cooking their meals, doing personal laundry, cleaning the house, growing vegetables, being involved in milking the house cow and goats for milk and cheese. All these activities require a high level of cooperation between boys and grownups. The Community takes on as many self-help projects as possible rather than turning to outside contractors as a first resort. Over the years several derelict buildings have been converted into boys and staff accommodation by members of the Community, supported by our own maintenance staff team. This provides a model for changing the environment rather than being overwhelmed by it. Larkrise has converted part  of an old adjoining building into two bedsits for older boys who go out to work, giving them a taste of semi-independent living before leaving the Community.

The households are very separate from one another, with each having a large garden and its own clearly defined territory. The households are as homely as possible, each with its own character reflecting the people, boys and grownups, who live there. The individuality can be seen in the pictures and photographs on the walls; the homeliness of the furniture; the attention paid to mealtimes; boys’ bedrooms that convey a feeling of comfort, calmness, security and individuality; a welcoming farmhouse type kitchen; a good workshop and play area.

Food and therapeutic care.

The strength of the household culture is particularly seen in relation to food, its preparation and how it is eaten. During the Approved School era all food was cooked and eaten centrally, en masse. This has completely changed. Meals are cooked in households with boys able to participate in their planning, purchasing and preparation and eaten in a much more convivial atmosphere. Food also has an important part to play in an individual boy’s treatment as the following example illustrates.

“Philip had already lived in the Community for some time and had responded well to the therapeutic care provided in the Cottage. At the time of writing he had been in Larkrise for nearly a year. One particular area of difficulty for Philip was the continual disagreement and ‘tug of war’ between his now divorced and subsequently remarried parents. With difficulty but at his own request, he’d re-established contact with his mother and was visiting both parents, alternating between Yorkshire and London.

We felt that Philip had reached a plateau in his development, just sufficient for him to cope with the experience in Larkrise but was not moving any further forward. He still had an unrealistic view of the future and denied the problems which clearly bothered him. Small areas of breakdown began to appear. He was far more bad tempered and aggressive – he was more excitable and seemed to increasingly disrupt other people. He was less able to communicate with Stella, his focal therapist.

After returning from a few days with his mother he became more aware of the conflict he felt in choosing between his mother and father. Within a week of his return he developed a heavy cold and stayed in bed. This illness continued over the following two weeks. Philip was clearly very unsettled and one evening we found that he’d broken into one of the flats next to Larkrise. While talking to Philip about this incident he opened up about a stream of difficulties he’d got into, both here and while at home. In the two weeks since he returned from home he’d been going out at night and tried to break in to the Community’s shop to steal sweets. The excitement he felt while stealing and the need for this excitement had become paramount for him and he was worried that we would allow him to steal and he said he felt as if “his head would explode”. While saying this he held his head between two pillows.

Through this communication we identified two needs that needed to be met. Firstly, Philip’s need to be more closely managed. Secondly, his need for delinquent excitement in the search for oral gratification through sweets.

We suggested that he should have his own sweet jar which would be in a special place in the care of a grownup but available to him at all times and only for him. It contained a few small sweets and chews which Philip said he liked. He was assured that the jar would never be empty and he seemed to accept this. For the next two weeks the staff team ensured he had more individual attention. The sweet jar was used regularly in the first week but by the third the use had decreased. Philip expressed delight and excitement at how well it worked for him, meeting that excitement with real, personalised, oral comfort. We only needed to fill the jar twice so the occasions of real need were not many.

During this period the difficulties within Philip’s family became more evident and consequently the strain on him increased. He had a temporary setback and collapsed into bed for three days but with help and encouragement was able to participate more fully in group activities. We started to see a substantial improvement in the quality of his communication with grownups. He made the following comment about the sweet jar. “You know those sweets are working. I ate two this afternoon and I didn’t want to break into the shop anymore so I saved the lolly!”

The boys in the group then had an opportunity to spend a few days at home. Philip decided to stay in Larkrise rather than go to either parent. He was worried as to how they would react but definite about his need to be looked after safely. It was four months before Philip felt safe enough to go out shopping alone and even this had to be paced. He met his father and felt able to share the conflict he felt between his parents. At the same time we saw a step forward in his capacity to learn and develop.

Three months further on and we continue to see improvements, especially in the openness with which he is able to share feelings of frustration and despair. The sweet jar, which played such a critical role in the time of crisis, sits on the shelf with a few sweets in it bit has not been used by Philip for a long time. Philip’s reaction to the extreme stress he was experiencing is by no means uncommon in boys who seem to have overcome their “anti-social tendency” and yet suddenly break down if they feel support at this stage of secondary development is not available to them.”

Need assessments.

The staff, in both teams and individually, are supported in their learning and professional development by our consultants (Child Psychotherapist, Educational Psychologist, Child Psychiatrist and Organisational Consultant). We also have a system of weekly training groups, enabling staff from different households and the education area, at similar stages of learning, to share experiences and to work together relating theory to practice and vice versa. A great deal of emphasis is placed on open, direct communication within a staff team, a household group and the Community as a whole. A series of regular meetings is designed to facilitate this. The main tool of the therapeutic process is the “need assessment “. Assessing the needs of a boy requires everyone who works with him to share their different experiences of him in order to build a realistic picture.

A need assessment starts off with the question, is he emotionally integrated as a person or unintegrated? To help answer this we ask two further questions: does he panic, which means a state of unthinkable anxiety – almost a physical condition? Many so-called temper tantrums are panics. Does he disrupt i.e. does he disrupt a group activity or a happening between two other people? The presence of panic and disruption in a child’s life usually means that he is emotionally unintegrated.

Once we think he is emotionally unintegrated we ask the following questions to work out the syndrome of deprivation.

What is the state of feelings in this boy in regard to: personal guilt? Does he feel what one might call healthy guilt, an acceptance of personal responsibility for harm done to others, of a kind which can lead to making reparation, rather than a fear of being punished or found out?

Is he dependent on people or a person?

Does he merge? This is the way in which some children become merged with one other or with a group and lose their sense of separateness as an individual.

Does he feel empathy? This is a capacity to imagine what it must feel like to be in someone else’s shoes while remaining in one’s own.

How does he cope with stress?

Does he communicate with feeling or chatter in a superficial way?

With whom does he identify? Does he, for example, seem to model himself on a grownup he admires or on another young person?

Is he sometimes depressed, or is he indifferent, or always apparently cheerful?

Is he verbally or physically aggressive?

What is his capacity for play? Does he play a lot alone with pleasure? Does he make use of a transitional object? Does he like to play with one other, usually a grownup? Does he play with more than one grownup at a time? Does he play with other children and is he able to keep to the rules?

What is his capacity for learning and can he learn from experience?

What is his capacity for self preservation? For example, is he accident prone, does he take care of himself and his belongings?

An emotionally integrated person is more likely to feel guilt and want to make reparation; feel concern for others; to communicate feeling rather than act it out; to be able to feel sad; play in a group; learn from experience and look after himself. The level of unintegration can be measured by the presence or absence of these characteristics. On the basis of this information we make a therapeutic plan for him. Knowledge about someone can only be partial so we aim to do a need assessment every three months and alter the plan accordingly.

As staff teams become accustomed to using need assessments we find that there is a considerable opening up of communication within the team. We also find that team members begin to take responsibility for the acting out of boys once it is realised that, in general, acting out results from a breakdown in communication. In most cases it is possible to find the point at which communication broke down so the onus is on the team to be alert and prevent the acting out.


Our starting point is that for education to be therapeutic it must focus on the needs of the individual, that is, from his inner world outwards rather than a curriculum or blueprint inwards. In general, the boys at the Community have a poor self image and our task is to transform this into acceptable feelings about themselves. The process of educating, therefore, needs to be positive, giving them feelings of doing work which is well done. This is very difficult as they are suspicious of and threatened by too much praise. It can lead to a degree of self expectation that they are unable to live up to and can too easily sink back into despair.

Their bad self image springs from feelings of rejection by their parents. They see themselves in care and in the Community as a punishment for being bad. They can only meet this by rejecting in turn their parents, about whom their feelings are extremely ambivalent. They invest all adults and authority figures, police, teachers and social workers with these mixed feelings of a little goodness and much badness. This makes the role of the teacher an extremely difficult one. Punishment is irrelevant in terms of therapeutic rehabilitation so teachers have to know their own inner needs when faced with the testing and destructive behaviour of the boys. If they have unresolved authoritarian and identity feelings about themselves they could be corrupted, by the aggressive outbursts of the boys, into institutionalised ways of dealing with them. The teacher must be able to be a caring bound setter.

Generally, the basic educational skills of reading and maths can only be taught individually at the child’s own pace. It must be a “caring” gift from the teacher to the child, analogous to the food a loving mother gives to her family. In such a one-to-one relationship the teacher will learn which is the best method of approach for a particular boy. An important stage will be reached when boys can learn to cope with their inner destructive needs and work together on group tasks. This is associated with having achieved emotional integration.

Education is provided for boys in the Community in our own education area which we call “the Poly” and each of the four household groups has its own separate area and its own teacher. Having the same teacher is crucial to facilitate the development of a trusting relationship between the child and teacher. Boys come to the Community with varying experiences of school and teachers but, in general, have found their school life difficult. Within the Poly they are given the opportunity to begin to learn again in a small group setting and with a lot of individual support and attention.

Emotionally damaged children are often afraid to learn in case they discover more disturbing and frightening facts and information. This can be intellectually paralysing. Improvement occurs as he makes a relationship with his teacher and feels more secure. Each boy has his own educational programme using his interests as a springboard for furthering his learning. These interests might be sports related, arts and crafts, horticulture etc.

The Family.

 The relationship between the Community, the boy and his family will have a significantly influence on the effectiveness of our therapeutic work with him. We are working with boys and their families where relationships have broken down badly and the wish is to put distance between each other. Initially a family may regard the Community as rescuers and see us in a positive light. As time goes on this can change and we might be seen as rivals. A double bind for a boy would arise if he was made to feel that by making good use of the Community he was implicitly criticising his family and being disloyal. These dynamics have to be worked with if therapy is to be successful.

We have found that it is better for our therapeutic work if a group of boys stay together for several weeks at a time without the disruption of weekends at home. The same applies to staff teams who, in general, don’t take holiday when the group is together. Every 6 – 8 weeks a boy will go ‘home’ for a week, a little longer in the summer. Short periods away from the Community help him to remain in touch with his family and it is an opportunity to measure himself in the wider world without the support that the Community provides. If problems emerge during these holidays this can be the focus for work on his return. A boy’s focal therapist will maintain contact during these holiday periods with letters, telephone calls and occasional visits. The visits could be to enable his family to feel involved in the work we are doing with him and building a rapport. We would hope to start this rapport during the referral process and if a family is completely opposed to his placement with the Community it is unlikely that we would go ahead.

The organisation.

People who work at the Community also live here. We are fortunate to have enough buildings to enable this to happen. It is like a therapeutic village. Everyone who lives and works in the Community, whatever their role, is aware of the “primary task” (the task that an organisation must perform in order to survive) and can identify with it. This level of awareness and identification has to be worked at constantly through regular group meetings.

The late David Wills described it this way in “Spare the Child”.

“The attitude of the staff is non-moralistic and non-punitive because they believe that the experience of seeking to build a satisfactory way of living together will gradually bring about the development of moral and ethical ideas. This is not to say, however, that they are themselves amoral in their attitude. On the contrary, they should be stable and well-integrated people with firm moral convictions which they are not afraid to express but which they should always express in a non-condemnatory manner. Their function in the Community is to provide stability and direction, to provide security not only by the authority of their personalities but through affection and tolerance; to provide love and identification objects for the residents and to set standards of courteous and considerate social relationships. It is believed that such people, behaving in such a way, can do much to help the residents with whom they live in close communion and also that the residents in this setting will, often unconsciously, be a help to each other; in fact, that the whole life of the place is one large exercise in group therapy.”

The boundaries around boys at the Community are like layers of an onion or a series of membranes. The membrane around an individual boy, his ego boundary, is thin or incomplete. Staff working with a boy provide a secondary membrane which defines the boy’s negotiating space. Household management is now a third membrane and the Community management a fourth. The membranes cannot be rigid, otherwise growth and development would be impossible, nor can they be too flexible for the same reason. The various boundaries serve as shock absorbers for pressures exploding outwards from the boy and conversely from the external environment coming inwards.

For boys who have been living in chaotic environments, with little or no communication between home, school, social worker, friends etc., their inner chaos is amplified and so it is a relief to be in the Community where all aspects of living are integrated. This provides the framework for their own personal integration and in turn enables them to move towards mastering their environment rather than being swamped by it.

I will end with a piece written by a colleague in which he describes what the work means to him.

“Working with disturbed children and younger people is for me such a rich experience that it is only possible to describe periods of time through what are magical moments, rather like photographs which capture something in mid-air. Several moments stand out in recent weeks. One is Nigel’s bird table with its incline of 45 degrees. In order to put a bowl of water on it he has put a piece of wood under the bowl so that it’s level. It could easily be sold to Tate Modern and had both of us in fits of laughter. The look on Simon’s face, when I gave him a radio, was one of disbelief as he couldn’t believe that anyone would give him a present. Justin’s eyes lighting up about the technicalities of Santa Claus getting down the Aga chimney after, in the same breath, denying his existence. Lee’s inexplicable aggression on the tennis court. Malcolm’s sadness when his folks had their phone cut off, coupled with not having much to eat for Christmas. Sometimes I feel the boys here are like frightened, mistrustful sparrows in need of food but easily spooked, yet, if we sit still and don’t frighten them they have so much to tell us and teach us of the world through their eyes.”


“Spare the Child” W. David Wills 1973 Penguin Books

“Children Who Hate” Fritz Redl and David Wineman 1951 The Free Press

“Therapy and Consultation in Child Care” Barbara Dockar-Drysdale 1993 Free Association Books

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