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A residential treatment community

This is the brief closing summary of the 1960 book by F.G. Lennhoff entitled Exceptional Children: Residential treatment with emotionally disturbed boys at Shotton Hall. Interesting historical context is sketched in the Foreword by Dr Edward Glover:

“Some ten years ago, reviewing the second English edition of Wayward Youth, Aichhorn’s classic work on the institutional rehabilitation of maladjusted, psychopathic and delinquent youth ... , I concluded by saying that his pioneering book should lie open on the desks of all who seek to understand or treat difficult children. It is not often that one can greet the appearance of works on behaviour disorder with such unstinted praise. Yet I have no hesitation in saying that in my opinion Mr Lennhoff's book [deserves similar praise]. Mr Lennhoff was in fact a contemporary of Aichhorn's and was already engaged in his present type of work in the early 1920s ... ”

Adult example is too readily thought of as perfection which, of course, it never is. Our aim at Shotton Hall is to help the boys to a realization that grown-ups have their positive and negative sides. Adults are human and should admit it and part of their example should be to give the boy every chance to learn how grown-ups can adjust to their own weaknesses. Emotionally disturbed children exist largely because of experiences which have led them to lose faith in the adult world and those concerned in helping such children have to restore some of this faith. While they may set themselves high standards, they should not try to appear perfect in the child’s eyes, since the shortcomings they are bound to exhibit will deeply disappoint the child and increase his cynical belief that the adult world is perfidious and unreliable. In attempting to restore faith in the adult world, one must of course try to set an example of reliability. When one fails (as from time to time one is very likely to) and when circumstances arise which lead the boy to feel that he has once again misplaced his confidence, then the grown-up must explain these circumstances honestly and immediately.

Honesty is always necessary. We have seen that the maladjusted child has good reason to be more than ordinarily watchful with adults. If one makes mistakes, they should be admitted. Life is not easy and we believe that it is important to impart strength with which to face its difficulties, rather than to pretend that these difficulties do not exist. The boys at Shotton Hall have plenty of fun, but we try to show them that facing the challenge of difficulties can be just as stimulating as fun. We attempt to avoid moralizing which builds up guilt, but try to strengthen insight and persistent effort towards adjustment to both the positive and worthwhile and also to the negative and weaker side of each individual personality. From this, as from frank admission of the fact that grown-ups are not perfect either, and that even the most mature amongst us have weaknesses and prejudices of various kinds, the boy can come to realize that his own failures are not final; he retains hope.

It is, perhaps, as well to remember that normally-maturing adolescents, too, often show considerable aggression towards the adult world. Puberty is in itself such an upheaval that many young people regress to immature behaviour temporarily, even if they have no maladjustment.

It is easy to lose one’s temper when things go wrong — this happens to us all, whether we are grown-ups or children. We believe in the old saying ‘Never let the sun go down on your wrath’ and we never let a child go to bed without explaining our hasty reaction to any wrongdoing that may have occurred. If we ourselves have appeared impatient, we apologize and explain that the deed was too much for our equanimity and we do not expect the impossible of him either.

If one sets a task to a maladjusted child, it is necessary to make sure it is one he is capable of doing. Help may have to be given to him, but it should be given unobtrusively, so that he does not feel in any way degraded by his difficulty. Tasks should be planned so that they are graded progressively, in accord with the positive development of the child, so that he is stimulated to compete. Permissive though the atmosphere must be for some children, it is essential to remember that a group of maladjusted children does not act as a team, but as a number of individuals. If the group does not receive from its adults enough guidance, it easily loses security and chaos readily develops. If things go too far, the group will blame the adults for it, while feeling guilty and inadequate because they could not control themselves.

Supervision is, of course, always necessary, but if it is not to be harmful to the children it must be disguised. One is bound not to succeed if the children get any sense of the supervising adult ‘policing’ the group; it is the adult’s responsibility to mix freely and join in with whatever is going on, not merely to stand on the fringe.

Sometimes staff new to the work worry because they are not particularly good at whatever the group is doing and therefore feel afraid to commit themselves, as do some of the children. This is an unnecessary feeling: an adult who is valued as a stable and reliable person does not ‘lose face’ by not being good at a task, from asking advice, or learning with and from the children. It is, in fact, a help to the boys to see that adults are still willing to learn and do not think themselves infallible.

It is important for the adult not to show pity for maladjusted children, however much his compassion is aroused, and to try to overcome his natural irritation at such occurrences as aggressive outbursts, bed-wetting, lying and stealing, which are only outward manifestations of deep, underlying disturbance.

To realize this helps one to accept the symptoms more calmly. Take stealing, for example: this may be by no means unrelated to the child’s normal wish to collect objects which interest him and to build fantasies around them. Near the Hall there is an old dump, where our boys are allowed to go and collect objects. While such a thing as an old and no longer serviceable dynamo has no value for an adult, it may be collected from the dump and valued by a child, who develops his fantasies round pride of ownership of his Atomic Energy Plant! Much can be done to turn a child who steals into a socially acceptable collector. In the midst of an emotional tangle with a child, it is important to go slowly and expect very little, and much can be achieved by a little adult imagination or by placing between oneself and the child some neutral factor such as a shared hobby or task, in this way relieving the situation of emotional tension.

We find it useful to engineer matters in our life at the school so that children can approach us about something that is worrying them, rather than broaching the subject ourselves. If they come of their own free will to talk, they will be more receptive and can be more easily stimulated into group discussion. Timing is an extremely important factor in the handling of a deeply disturbed child. First, he must be given sufficient time to act and play out his tensions and display his maladjustments adequately in the new surroundings. Then comes the stage of assisting him to a more constructive form of behaviour; it does not matter in what direction the child widens out, as long as he is successful and can be encouraged to go a step further.
Shotton Hall’s treatment can be divided into three parts, I think.

First comes the relaxation the boys find here. They are away from the tensions of their home situation a situation that in nine cases out of ten, is responsible for their maladjustment, and within which it has been found impossible for the child guidance clinic to work with the boy. They are away, too, from other pressures to conform: from school, for example, where so many boys are misfits because their difficulties hinder and stunt their scholastic development, and their behaviour at school makes it difficult or impossible to have them in a normal classroom. The lessons here are geared to them; they have individual encouragement and can work at their own speed. They are away, too, from the smaller pressures, perhaps not amounting to much individually, but which, when added together, can become a burden too great for them to carry. Here they are free to express themselves as they wish: they can get dirty, they can swear, they can run about, climb trees, be cheeky and belligerent, sulk or get in a temper and not be constantly nagged for doing so or crushed into the conventional social mould. They are accepted as they are, as persons; as persons who are worthwhile. When they are criticized, it is for what they do, rather than for what they are. What is demanded of them is graduated to what they can stand; to what will lead them on to the next step forward on their journey to peace of mind and consequent social adaptation.

Secondly, the group teaches them so much. They see a great many boys, all with problems which are often very different from their own, and they can learn to help one another towards greater maturity. They realize how much individuals differ from one another and thus learn understanding and tolerance. In a small community, living together so closely, they can see the consequences of what they do and the results of their behaviour in a way almost impossible in the impersonal urban life from which they come. If their actions are too anti-social the reaction will come, not so much from the adults, but from their peers. It is invaluable that this is so, for they are brought into reality situations from which they are unable to escape by projecting the blame on to the adults, the school, or ‘them’. Again, with judicious handling, group pressure can be regulated to some extent to meet the situation. In addition there is the enrichment we all gain from the interplay of personality, and the boys begin to find a wider loyalty to the community and are not just shut up in their own self-concern.

Thirdly, there is the more directly therapeutic side of the work: the interviews, and the group discussions, which help the boys to gain insight into their difficulties and to deal with them. There are the relationships which they build up, perhaps at first only with the animals, but later with other boys and then a member of the staff, who will try to lead them on from the blockage in their emotional development towards maturity. These relationships grow not only in the deliberate contacts of school and groups, but in the casual day-to-day meetings of life together, in work and play. The realities of life are time and again brought home to the boys, not only in these personal contacts, but through school projects and visits and their involvement in the business aspects of running and working the school and farm. Doing maintenance and farm work and, for the older boys, supervising various activities, gradually gets them used to accepting responsibility, sticking at a job even though they may not like it, putting up with the tension and controlling their impulse to run away from it: all this helps to prepare them for the time when they must stand on their own feet in the world outside.

One of our ex-boys, who came from a home in which he had been starved of love, told us that what he gained most from Shotton Hall was an understanding of how two married people could live and work together and gain strength from each other. Another, Alan, expressed a similar tribute to my wife in one of his letters:

‘You may recall from our June visit that Maggie is noticeably diffident in company, yet apart from Mummy (the affectionate term by which my wife is known), I have not yet met a woman with so much inherent character and ethical propriety.’

Another quotation from a letter received from one of our former pupils expresses something of what we attempt to achieve here:

‘... it was at Shotton Hall that I first began to somehow be able to open out and really live. I was no longer living with my past and being singled out, I was just one of a community. I am sure you both understand that to be as such was a wonderful feeling even though it did take time to understand and get used to it all ...’

Our children are not always able to express their changed feelings in words and the relations they develop with numerous pets we have at Shotton Hall often help them to ‘say’ various things to us in other ways. Two examples may be taken:

Roger was a child who was unmanageable, prone to stealing and bed-wetting and an affectionless boy and a potential psychopath. The first signs of the beginnings of response after a year and a half with us were encountered when we found him one day behind a hedge with two calves, one in each of his arms, cuddling them. His expression was warm and soft, like that of a real child — something we had never seen in him before. Hitherto, his face had been ‘dead’, bearing no expression, almost as if it were made of carved granite. He is now a happy and successful adult.

Eric, whose mother had attempted to kill her children, had partly succeeded and ended by committing suicide in an institution, is a depressed child with no roots, and we still don’t know how he may develop. One day, he was confronted with the possibility of getting into contact with his sister, but was not able to face it. Before this, he had adopted a cat a very scruffy, rejected and ugly cat, which seemed just as Eric felt himself to be. He always fed it from his own plate in the dining room when he was eating. Later a litter of kittens arrived. One day, after the offer was made to meet his sister, he had the cat on his right hand and her kittens on his left, while sitting at the dining-table, suddenly he said, pointing to the group: ‘And this is my family.’

One should never be surprised when a maladjusted child apparently shows great insight into his own misdeeds: after the deed is done he will often tell you that it is wrong and that he knows why it was wrong. Yet he cannot tell you why he did it, and he does not realize that some extraordinary piece of evil-doing has merely been a relief of his tensions and disappointment with his fate. The only thing to do is to lead him towards an understanding of why he reacted in this way and show hint what he might have done (and must learn to do in the future) to relieve his unhappiness more constructively. If he can be made happier in the process his troubles are much less likely to recur: in the words of an old Dutch proverb, ‘Happy people are not wicked.’

What is treatment? We have tried to show in this book that when ‘cure’ comes it comes about from the interplay of many factors.

Above all else it is necessary to remember that a child’s behaviour and outlook are never static, though sometimes the recurrence of symptoms may tempt one to believe that they are. The attitude and manifestations are always changing and time will solve many problems if, as time passes, the child is constantly surrounded by an atmosphere of stability, security and warmth, together with sensible, constructive help and challenge.

People outside our type of work often ask how we can go on for years and years, helping generation after generation of new children towards stability and emotional health, putting up with the stresses of the life they create round us and accepting and sustaining the public pressures that our children’s behaviour sometimes produces. Our work does not allow deep emotional ties between child and worker, so where, they wonder, is our reward? It must be the personal satisfaction that a rescue worker gets when he pulls a trapped child out of the wreckage of a house or car — no more.

We must gain our strength from the belief that we have, over the years, saved a number of people, however small considering the many who need help, from the agonies of mental illness and delinquency and guided them towards a more positive and constructive attitude to life. The happy faces of our former pupils, strong and successful and complete personalities at last, are not only our reward, but our encouragement to further efforts for the future of exceptional children who are our main concern.

Lennhoff, F.G. (1960) Exceptional Children: Residential treatment with emotionally disturbed boys at Shotton Hall. London: George Allen & Unwin