Copy for TTCJ May 2023 Vol IV 08 2023
Healthy Boundaries between School and Home
In residential communities, particular care needs to be taken about establishing and maintaining appropriate social and emotional boundaries. And partly for this reason one of the five themes in the book, The Growth of Love, is called Boundaries. The concept includes rules, routines, no-go areas, safeguarding, discipline and much more. It doesn’t take a lot of thought to see that no social life, at whatever level of intensity, is possible without some form of healthy boundaries that are consistent, shared and lived.
One of the boundaries that all children, parents, carers, and teachers navigate is that between life at school and life at home. These had to be rethought comprehensively during the Covid period, but there is a fundamental universal challenge. The question is how to identify appropriate roles, distance, and partnership that nurture the learning of a growing child or young person, and respect her agency, privacy and well-being.
The stakes are high. Inappropriate boundaries (where, for example, a parent distrusts the school and criticises what is going on; or where a school makes undue demands on a pupil, say with regular homework or revision) put at risk both the well-being and learning of the child. And conflicting, often unconscious beliefs and attitudes, between parents and teachers will undermine confidence and trust.
There are many types of school and households, and boundaries will vary accordingly. At Mill Grove there is a Pre-School as well as a Peto-inspired school for children with cerebral palsy. Both involve partnership agreements between parents and teachers. In the latter it is the parents (and child) who take a lead in setting out the tasks or agenda, by identifying what particular skills or techniques will most help the development of their child. The effectiveness of what goes on depends on the insights of the parents and their knowledge of the life of the child in the context of their household. In the Pre-School, although the needs and abilities of each child help to determine what goes on, there is a shared curriculum and common activities.
While working on this article I have wondered about the boundaries in a place like Mulberry Bush, between the school, and the homes on the premises in which some of the pupils live. Perhaps this piece will prompt a response: it would be much appreciated.
The focus of this reflection is the boundaries between school and home when a child is experiencing anxiety, has difficulties with self-esteem and suffers from bullying to such an extent that life at school each day results in tensions, conflicts and struggles. To different degrees, this describes the school-life of many of the children who have lived at Mill Grove, or whom we support. We are a therapeutic community in the sense that we have insights into psycho-therapeutic issues and perspectives, and seek to create a residential environment in which a child or young person can feel secure and, in time, explore and experiment.
So how should the boundaries be set, and according to which principles, values or aims? A lifetime of trying to work this out has led us to a rather simple modus vivendi. In short, we try to keep school and home life as separate as possible when the going is hard for the pupil in question. This may seem rather counter-intuitive, but it builds on the practical wisdom of a psychiatrist I heard speak decades ago. He commented that roughly a third of the boys referred to him were looking for nothing more than someone agreeable, predictable, and non-threatening, with whom to kick a ball around. That there were underlying issues was not in doubt in his mind, but to engage in an enjoyable game together without enquiry, hassle, or hidden motives, might be the very thing that most helped such young people.
So it was that last night I was with a young person whom we support, one of the extended family of Mill Grove. His father is chronically depressed and seems unlikely to be able to resume any form of work; his mother struggles with her physical health, anxiety, and the needs of her family; and the boy is struggling with mental health issues both at home and school. He receives continuous special help at school, and has difficulty with relationships, learning, timekeeping, boundaries (such as what belongs to others), and self-esteem.
I met him at school and deliberately refrained from any questions about, or even reference to, his day at school. It seemed to me to have passed without undue crises, but I may never know. He volunteered that his group was going to see Les Miserables the next day, and that gave us something to discuss as well as to look forward to until we got to Mill Grove. We had a drink, and then made our way out to the playground where we started (yes, you’ve got it) kicking a ball around. Before long others had joined in, and this morphed into playing a new game called Four Square (Box Ball).
There was more informal football and then he helped prepare a dessert (blackcurrant crumble) with my wife: this is something he really enjoys doing. We had a relaxed meal with members of the extended family of Mill Grove who had come to stay for a few days (from Chicago, and Bedford).
Then there was more play outside, this time in the garden with new residents of Mill Grove and their dog. This was where he used to play when as a young boy, he and his family lived at Mill Grove for some years. The youngsters were having such fun together that it felt hard for me to bring the spontaneous play to an end, but the sun was setting, and I had promised to get him home at a given time.
On the way we chatted about the summer holiday in North Wales and the practicalities of how he was going to get there (the rest of his family were spending a week or two caravanning on the East Coast instead, so he would not be accompanied by his two younger siblings). I then asked about the following Monday and whether he felt happy about the rest of his family being with him at Mill Grove. He seemed to me genuinely happy, even relaxed at the prospect. His father was there to greet us, thanks to a text sent by the young person on the journey. And both confirmed how much they were looking forward to next week.
There was a couple of minutes’ banter about football (as can happen when Arsenal and Spurs fans meet) and that was it.
You will see that the boundary between school and home had been scrupulously observed. There had been space for him to share with me in confidence had he chosen to do so, but I had in no way asked for or prompted this. And the parents of those with whom he had been playing said what a pleasant and confident young person he was…
As resourceful, committed friends (he calls us Uncle and Auntie), we were there for him, we helped to create safe and creative space for him, and we respected his boundaries and privacy. It may not seem much, but a boundary set differently would in our judgement have undermined one of the genuinely positive experiences of his week, even his life.
And it is part of a long-term process in which trust is developing. He knows that we will not intrude on his space, and hopefully, that we are there and available should he invite us into this part of his distressed inner world at any stage.