Mia Kellmer Pringle
An article dating from 1971/2 which we are reprinting in two parts. See Part 1 here
Just as the under-nourished child requires a carefully balanced diet to build up or restore him physically, so judiciously balanced care is needed to build up or restore a deprived child's emotional health and to develop his intellectual potential. The role of the residential staff is crucial in this. How much can be achieved in reversing the effects of early deprivation has only been fully realised in recent years.
There is evidence from a variety of sources: studies of identical twins, reared apart, where the one brought up in a more favourable environment shows more favourable development than his less fortunate twin; illegitimately born children, who show much better emotional adjustment and educational attainment, when growing up in adopted homes, than those who have remained with their own mothers in a stressful, deprived environment; or immigrant children who show much higher educational achievements than their parents because they were afforded much greater opportunities in their adopted country.
In short, although the effects of an unstimulating home background, of unhappy relations between child and parents, or both, are likely to lead to emotional difficulties, stunted intellectual development and poor educational achievements, change can be brought about. As always, the earlier this is attempted the less difficult it is; and prevention is better than cure. How, then, can it be achieved?
I will discuss this separately for the different age groups, but the basic principles are, of course, the same for all children: to establish a loving, secure, mutually satisfying relationship with a caring adult; to kindle or rekindle curiosity, the desire to learn; and to provide an environment which stimulates language development and intellectual growth.
The pre-school child. The younger the child, the greater the shock of being removed from home; his inevitably limited understanding of verbal explanations adds to his bewilderment. Also a young child often feels it is his naughtiness which has led to his being sent away from home and hence being unwanted. Limited language ability remains a difficulty in the first task of restoring a sense of security, of being welcomed and valued. Establishing a personal bond of affection is the only means of doing so, but to achieve this a small staff is required where changes of personnel are kept to a minimum, especially during the initial stages. Once a secure relationship has been created with one adult, the child can then reach out to new ones.
High priority needs to be given from the outset to stimulating speech and intellectual development. The opportunities which surround a child in the educated, literate home must be provided in abundance just because they have been missing in his early days. Nursery rhymes, fairy tales, songs, and being talked to, long before he can speak himself, are essential activities; they must not be regarded as merely incidental and subsidiary to physical care, habit training and general homemaking tasks. Similarly, being played with is as essential as having suitable toys available.
Because these activities are enjoyable, not only for the child but also for the adult, they must not be regarded as a luxury and “a bit of a waste of time”. Rather, regular daily periods should be devoted to these activities; in addition, every opportunity needs to be used during the day for conversation and verbal stimulation. Mixed age groups of children also help. In such family groups, younger children learn from and imitate older ones. Being only with one’s own age group is less stimulating to language development while staff, in turn, are not faced with a whole group of toddlers all at the “eternal questioning” stage.
Even the youngest infant should be given some personal toys. Only if exclusive ownership is granted will a toddler gradually learn to develop a sense of responsibility for his own belongings and a pride in them. Also, possessions are a talking point, as much for children as for adults. Some people contemptuously dismiss “baby talk”. But only if we talk to babies will they outgrow the need for baby talk. The more we speak, sing and read to children, the more readily do they learn to enjoy the give-and-take of conversation with contemporaries and adults. This enjoyment and skill forms the basis for the later mastery of the three R’s in school; and, more important still, for participating to an increasing extent in our predominantly verbal culture.
The middle years of childhood. How best to compensate for the effects of inadequate parental care and of environmental deprivation still needs exploration. Such rehabilitation requires the most highly skilled care if it is to succeed. The basic fact is beyond dispute: loving care is not enough, while a mainly institutional or custodial regime evades the real issues. All residential facilities, whether hostels, homes or special schools, must become remedial and therapeutic communities. Only then can removal from home become a positive, constructive means of intervention.
What the infant needs remains also a basic requirement for the older child: rewarding relationships with adults and peers, and a stimulating environment to foster his learning abilities. Stimulating here often means allowing the child to behave, to talk and to play at a level much below that of his actual age. Owing to previously experienced deprivations he is likely to be immature for his years; he needs to cover the ground which bridges the gap between where he is and where he has to get to, in order to hold his own with his contemporaries. This includes talking with and reading to him regularly, especially if he has remained poor at it himself.
In addition, specific provisions must be sought for overcoming educational and social disabilities. Like any good parent, residential staff need to find a school where remedial groups and special classes for learning difficulties are provided. Unfortunately, in too many schools these are still inadequate or non-existent. In case of unmet need, the Social Services Department can provide these facilities themselves and employ remedial teachers to give help within the residential setting. Making available remedial treatment within the residential setting of a children's Home (soon to become community homes), both for short and long-term cases, has been found to be effective over a period of years now in a number of areas (Pringle, 1971).
To coach or not to coach is a question facing many a houseparent. There is no straightforward answer. Some children prefer to forget their educational difficulties, even hide them from those whose good opinion they value; others find support in sharing their anxieties about school work with someone they trust and whose help they welcome. If help is given, it is advisable to do so in consultation with the teacher to avoid confusing the child by a different approach. In most cases it is not mere coaching which is required. Rather a compensatory programme of enriching experience which widens the child's whole horizon is needed to overcome the cumulative effects of prolonged deprivation. Often, too, this needs to be linked with a comprehensive remedial scheme.
In some cases learning difficulties may be so severe or resistant that a full psychological examination is indicated. Then the houseparent, like any good parent, should seek specialist advice. Its availability varies greatly from one part of the country to another but, given persistence and patience, it can be obtained. Though neither quick nor easy remedies can be expected, a comprehensive assessment of the child's strengths and weaknesses, and an appropriate treatment programme are of great help.
The adolescent. For the child whose earlier years have been deprived “emotionally or intellectually “adolescence brings greater dangers and greater opportunities. Greater dangers because his early experiences are likely to have left him immature, insecure and educationally adrift; greater opportunities because he has now a second chance to make satisfying, mutually rewarding relationships with significant adults outside his immediate family.
During the years from 12 to 17 a second weaning takes place from dependence on parents and on authority in general; simultaneously there is a search for other model figures. This offers the chance to any adult closely concerned with the care of adolescents to have a profound influence on their personal and intellectual development. This requires a willingness to offer a relationship which enables the child to learn more adequately what was denied him in earlier years.
The unloved, rejected adolescent has failed to learn to make satisfying relationships. Often too he has felt or has actually been rejected by the educational system which he in turn has rejected as being of little relevance to himself. Yet the need to earn his living, to become independent and to find some interpretation of life, however vague or simple, remains. It is a period of heightened emotional awareness and receptiveness, but also of increased insecurity because he is on the threshold of a new world. The more his parents and his teachers have failed him, the more distrustful of adults will he be. Once his trust has been won he will become much more demanding than youngsters of his age. So the task of rehabilitation is arduous, complex and slow.
The same applies to educational rehabilitation. Indeed, very considerable resistance needs to be overcome, stemming from his profound belief in the inevitability of failure. Allied to this is a rejection of an educational approach or materials which in his eyes appear “childish”. There are now books and other equipment available which avoid this pitfall, and it may well be worth while to have a stock available in all residential homes catering for the older age groups.
As to tackling the adolescent’s educational backwardness and the part played in this by the houseparents, similar considerations apply to those discussed for younger children. There are no ready guidelines “each youngster needs to be considered in the light of his background, his personality and the educational facilities available both at his school and in the residential community.
The way ahead
There has been comparatively little study of the language development and scholastic attainment of children living in residential care. My own series of studies of the relation between deprivation and education was prompted by the fact that teachers of such children thought that many of them showed serious learning problems at school.
The findings confirmed that their views were justified (Pringle, 1971). Hence, whatever additional help, provision or treatment are, or may in future be used to supplement residential care, houseparents will inevitably-like a child's own parents-shoulder the major responsibility for fostering emotional, intellectual and language development.
In the light of these recently recognised needs, priorities may have to be reconsidered. The maximum possible time should be devoted to talking to children, reading and telling them stories, encouraging them to make up and act simple plays about everyday occurrences, inviting them to relate anything that has happened during the day-all aimed at helping them to express their feelings, ideas and thoughts. Deprived children need this help far beyond the stage when it is normally required because so many of them have missed these experiences at the right time.
Quick results cannot be expected. If there is a slow growth in the child's capacity to use and enjoy language, then gradual improvement in intelligence, adjustment and educational progress is likely to follow. Mixed age groups in residential units may also help: younger children learn from and imitate older ones, while the latter can be encouraged to play with, talk and read to the little ones, ostensibly to help houseparents but at the same time improving their own power and desire for self-expression.
The term “substitute care” tends to suggest that it is second best compared with parental care. If the aim is a pale imitation of ordinary family life, this must be so. However, there is evidence, both from Israel and Russia, that this need not be the case, even for very young children (Bronfenbrenner, 1970; Pincus, 1970). Rather than providing a substitute home, the aim should be to create a different environment which offers an alternative form of care with its own satisfactions and challenges. The term “community living” was chosen by such pioneers as Leila Rendel some fifty years ago, and it is perhaps a tribute to their leadership that the residential establishments, envisaged in the 1969 Children Act, are to be called “community homes.”
Several ideas are implicit in this concept. Perhaps the two most important ones are that true community living can be an alternative way of life, neither better nor worse, but just different. Secondly, that it must be involved in the larger community in which it finds itself, rather than be inward looking and self-sufficient. There are many ways in which such involvement can be fostered. Of particular relevance in relation to language development and scholastic progress is the contribution of young volunteers from secondary schools and colleges of education. These young people may be willing in the evenings and at week-ends to give individual and intensive help to a child. Such a scheme, in addition to providing a valuable link with the outside community, would also foster greater understanding of the aims and practice of residential work.
In brief, my argument can be summarised as follows. First, that love is not enough in caring for hurt, unhappy and damaged children, though it is and always will remain, an essential ingredient. Secondly, that a knowledge of normal child development is a necessary basis for understanding the needs of deprived children. Thirdly, that houseparents need to add to their many other responsibilities a very specific concern for the language development and educational progress of the children in their care. Fourthly, that realistic yet positive standards of expectation are a vital ingredient in bringing about change. Fifthly, that the peer group has great re-educational and therapeutic value. And lastly, that though residential care is an alternative means of looking after children in a community setting, the houseparent will always be concerned with and for every child as an individual.
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This feature: M.L. Kellmer Pringle (1971/2). Deprivation and education. In Pruden, E. (ed.) Annual Review of the Residential Child Care Association: Education.