By Cynthia Cross
Date Posted: Sunday, 14 December 2008
Cynthia Cross began working as a “housemother” in a London County Council (LCC) “cottage home” in 1960. After training she moved to Hartfield the LCC children’s home for children who were deemed maladjusted. Later she was a founder member of a therapeutic community for children, moving on to become a training officer in an inner London borough. Before setting up as a freelance child care consultant and trainer in 1991, she worked in an outer London borough as Homes Adviser (Children), and in various other jobs, leaving with the title of Principal Child Care Consultant.
How do we think about children? Do we believe that unless we keep a tight rein on them, discipline them with threats of punishment they will be unpleasant and disruptive and do horrible things ? Or do we believe that they are intrinsically good and want to be liked and loved?
Sometimes children may have experienced painful and hurtful things from the adults who should have loved and cared for them; this may result in them not trusting adults and defending themselves against relationships for fear of further hurt. Sometimes they have not the experience to understand what is happening and how to manage their emotions so behave inappropriately.
However in an ethos where they are valued they can learn to trust adults again, and start to come to terms with their feeling of fear and anger. Their ability to make sensitive and sensible judgements then becomes apparent as clearly illustrated by the eight scenarios below
The eight scenarios I describe below illustrate aspects in the life of two residential communities, for what used to be called “maladjusted” children, 40 years ago. All the events happened but names and some details have been changed to preserve confidentiality.
Before I present the scenarios it will be useful to consider the term ‘maladjusted’ when used in relation to children. Maladjusted Children were officially recognised as a category of handicapped children in 1945; they would now be called children with Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties (EBD) or SEBD (Social Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties) or sometimes BESD (Behavioural, Social and Emotional Difficulties). The terminology changed after the Warnock Report and the 1981 Education Act when the 1945 categories of handicap were abolished and replaced with the concept of Special Educational Needs (SEN). Some welcomed the change, but others felt that the term maladjustment was a good one, as it left the door open for “adjustment”. There were strong feelings that such children were only reacting appropriately to “maladjusted environments” and should not be labelled, in many cases this may well have been true, but the significant thing was that they continued to have the same difficulties even when removed from their dysfunctional circumstances and therefore still needed treatment to “re-adjust” them. Another important change which came with the1981 Education Act was the idea that children with SEN should be integrated (now included) wherever possible in mainstream schools. While this may be a laudable aim, which should improve the way which teachers deal with such children, there will always be some children who need specialist treatment and if they are not identified and helped early enough, they will probably be “excluded” from mainstream society for the rest of their lives.
1) The meal has been cleared away and about 15 adults and 30 children are sitting round the 6 dining tables. Some children are sitting on adults’ knees and some reading books and comics; a boy stands up and says “has anybody got anything to say”. He is the chairman, a girl is ready to take notes in a minute book, both sit next to supportive adults; we are in “the meeting”
A boy puts his hand up, he complains that during the afternoon 4 boys, we will call John, James, Mathew and Mark, have been mucking about and using foul and offensive language in the local swimming bath. He is afraid that the community will get a bad name and will be stopped from using the facility. There is a discussion about the incident and finally it is decided that; John will get a warning, James will be stopped going for 3 weeks, Mathew will only be allowed to go if a certain adult goes and Mark will not be allowed to go if James is going; he will have to join another group.
2) It is about one in the morning and the children have only just settled, an adult Caroline is still standing on the landing to make sure all is quiet. A boy, Darren approaches her and says ‘William is hiding under Barry’s bed’.
Caroline goes and pulls William out from under the bed and roughly bundles him up some stairs and thrusts him into his own bed.
In the morning before breakfast, while everybody is sitting in the playroom, Caroline says she has to report to the meeting that she bullied William. William jumps on her knee and says “Bullied me! Bullied me! You nearly f….ing murdered me.” It is agreed that Caroline should make reparation to William by making his bed and cleaning his shoes for a week.
About 20 years later William told Caroline that he was only under Barry’s bed because he had been put there by Darren and Barry.
3) Robin had been in the community for about 6 months and had not used any of his pocket money except to buy a fishing float for 8p.
At the meeting Colin complains that Robin threw an egg at him, which fortunately missed, and he would have thrown more if he had not been prevented from doing so by an adult. It was agreed that Robin should buy Colin some sweets from the tuck shop.
Robin was offered the opportunity to throw some eggs at an adult who would put on oilskins. Robin said that this would not be necessary. He did however accept the offer of the kitchen buying from him the remainder of the eggs.
4) The girls had been messing about and failing to settle long past their bed time when adult Valerie got into a confrontation with 11year old Maggie. Eventually Valerie became exasperated, lost her temper and hit Maggie.
The next day Maggie went to a fair and won a tin of fruit at the hoopla. When she came back she gave her prize to Valerie realising how absolutely devastated she was about hitting her as Valerie was not someone who ever hurt anyone. Valerie also made reparation. The incident was not reported to the meeting.
5) One of the cleaners had lost her purse; it had most likely been stolen by one of the children.
6) Peter, aged 7, finds it difficult to play with other children although he desperately wants to join in with their games. A group are involved in complicated imaginative play and Peter is getting in the way. Eventually they stop and talk, and then one of them says to Peter, “all right you can be a statue, and stand there” Peter stands quite happily and the others use him in their game by having to meet next to him and run round him 3 times etc. etc. Problem solved.
7) Adult Brian has a heated argument with Tom; Tom goes off and breaks a window. The incident is reported to the meeting. Brian says that he must take some responsibility for what occurred as he should have kept Tom safe.
The decision is that both Brian and Tom should pay towards buying the glass and putty to repair the window. Brian should pay proportionally more as he can better afford it. Brian and Tom should go and buy the glass and putty and repair the window together.
8) Some children put on a play for the rest of the community. In the play a woman in charge of a children’s home has been mistreating the children and is brought before the court. The judge sentences her to a month’s holiday when she can be talked to, have a nice quiet time and think about what she has done and come back a better person.
You, the reader will have no doubt have your own thoughts about some of the implications of the eight scenarios.
From my view they demonstrate that children living with adults who display love and care and think in terms of putting things right, and resolving conflicts, rather than finding someone to blame, will absorb these values and act accordingly. They learn that putting things right can be a pleasant experience and can make you feel better about yourself and others.
Children are capable of understanding that different individuals who transgress the boundaries of appropriate behaviour will need different responses to help them manage better.
Children are able to empathise with adults and accept that they make mistakes and may be victims of overwhelming emotions; this can happen even in situations where they have been hurt by the adult concerned.
Children can be kind and thoughtful to one another, and understand on some level the complexity of relationships and emotions.
Adults who can admit that they make mistakes, don’t always have the “right” answer and can be unduly influenced by their emotions at times of stress, will contrary to popular opinion, gain the respect of children. This does not of course mean that adults should not try to always manage their emotions in such a way that they minimise harm and distress to others. But it recognises the fact that they will not always succeed. In a culture of blame, adults will rationalise their feelings and justify their actions. Children will feel unfairly treated and will not learn adults also have upsetting emotions that have to be managed, and when occasionally they are not, then things can go wrong; but subsequently things can be put right and reparation made Adults are important role models for the children in this respect.
Present day emphasis on recording events and accountability in the name of child protection may prevent the spontaneous and constructive resolving of difficulties between individuals. Obviously there must be clear boundaries and some things cannot be tolerated in any circumstances, however in the sort of communities where the above scenarios could happen, the community will ensure that acts of abuse are brought into the open and dealt with. Although the meeting can deal with most of the interactions within the community, it has to be understood by all that, issues regarding health and safety and upholding the law are primarily the responsibility of adults and that they will, when necessary take decisive action to protect both children and adults.