educating troubled kids

Our life outside the classroom

F. G. Lennhoff, writing more than forty years ago, illustrates alternative ways of teaching.

In the course of these chapters, we have frequently mentioned the animals and the farm, which play an important part in the treatment of our children. When I was a child I needed animals around me because their acceptance of me was unconditional and without challenge. This is one important aspect of a normal child's attitude to owning a pet animal. A second one is that while the pet does not demand, he does depend upon his owner “for affection and for food. The child then feels he is important, that he has something to give.

When maladjusted children own animals, they feel proud of being an owner, pleased at having something to love and something to master. If they are not too cruel, their animals have an infinite capacity for forgiveness and acceptance. But emotionally-disturbed children, in spite of these feelings, have great difficulty in looking after their animals regularly and consistently. Every time they fail to do so, there is a battle within them to overcome their sense of guilt, and every time they succeed in this, there is a sense of satisfaction and consequently a step forward in their progress towards stability.

We have many animals at Shotton Hall and when the children come for interview, this is a great help. There is, especially to town children, romance and excitement in seeing pigs and cows and hens at close quarters. There is also the feeling, looking at the glossy backs of our cows and the plump sides of our pigs: “If it is so good for the animals here, it can’t be too bad for me!”
Having an animal to cuddle and pet is of great importance to children who cannot open their hearts to adults or even to other children. While the animal imposes no condition on the attitude of its owner, it does make demands for care and attention: this often establishes for the first time a reality situation not connected in the child's mind with adults.

We always have a great number of cats, several dogs, rabbits, etc, and it is interesting to see how children with different problems react differently to them. Boys who suffer from severe deprivation of love, unable to make positive contact with others, usually keep their pets only a short time, then barter them for something. With the progress of their rehabilitation, the period during which they can keep their pets increases. Other children are over-possessive, and show their tensions and need for aggression to their animals instead of to adults or other boys. Happenings like this give a chance for many discussions with the child, and form an essential part of the therapeutic effort.

Animals are often coddled and over-petted, smothered with attention when their owners are in emotional need of them and rather neglected when the need for reassurance and acceptance is not so great, but ill-treatment is rare and seldom really serious. Cruelty and severe neglect threaten the security of the other boys and they take a serious and, for once, intolerant view of it.

One seriously disturbed boy killed some of our hens and the rest of the group was so upset and incensed by this action that the boy had to be defended by the staff, for he had been so bitterly hurt by previous cruelty and so damaged emotionally that this savage action was the only way he could express his sickness with the world.

A most welcome visitor is our veterinary surgeon, who is loved and admired by the boys and is himself a big boy at heart! When he performs his professional duties, the boys stay around, listening to his explanations and asking endless questions. They help where possible. Boys who never heard at home about the facts of life are fascinated when our piglets are born. They almost whisper and walk on tiptoe, thrilled at experiencing so nearly the miracle of new life.

I always wanted, when I was a child, to be a farmer and this was, I suppose, the first step towards the widening out of our zoo of pets and domestic animals into serious farming. I felt that boys who had so little sense of community-duty and working discipline responded better when they were away from the crowd. When engaged in something “different” and worthwhile, they might feel big, strong, happy and more content. A farm seemed an ideal solution. When children are restless, it is best to relieve the restlessness in a legalized way. When a child is so tense that he only wants to run away, going to the farm may be a good answer; we notice that since we have had a farm, there is less absconding.

This is a constructive way out of tension and to be really a way out, it must mean a journey, not merely a move to another part of the usual background. This is why the sixty-acre farm we acquired is eight miles away from the school.

Boys who are old enough can leave the noisy group and its problems and journey to the farm. There they join our farm bailiff who knows little of maladjustment, but is interested mainly in animals, crops and machinery, and who has a genuine liking for youngsters. They can enjoy the changed atmosphere and learn something at first-hand about the demands of an ordinary way of life, and the responsibilities of a job of work.

The benefits of being on the farm are great if the boys are not made to stay too long on one job. Their tasks there must be necessary, so that they do not feel patronized, within their capability, so that they do not get discouraged, and not too heavy, so that they cannot feel they are being exploited.

The farm we bought had previously been allowed to run down; work was needed on buildings, fencing, and so on. The children were in at the beginning of negotiations: they heard the bargaining and visited the lawyers while transfer documents and deeds were drawn up and signed. They participated in the planning for future development and joined enthusiastically in plans for making good what was wrong. They are now kept informed about markets, prices and the rotation of crops. They sometimes order and bargain for fodder, call in expert help for the working equipment and are familiar with the prices and fuel consumption of tractors and the cost of seed. The boys are informed of the costs of running the farm and our endeavour to make it pay its way. All these things help a boy to mature.

Helping at the farm is voluntary in every sense of the word “only volunteers go to the farm and they are not paid for their efforts. We have often consulted them about this and they are unanimous in their opinion that to be drafted or paid would, as they put it, “spoil it all”. There is always a rush of volunteers for the farm and we have to watch that nobody goes merely to avoid an effort of which he is already capable elsewhere. We have taken care that the farm is sufficiently staffed for its size so that the children's visits are not directed by the need of the farm but for the benefit of the boys concerned.

Paul, one of the boys who is much concerned with the farm, summed up the part it plays in our life by saying that he could work off his moods quicker at the farm than anywhere else and felt that it had taught him “a lot about life”.

We know that for a warped personality to become part of an ordinary working team has a therapeutic value all its own. Any observer can see which boys have been to the farm by the way they enter the house with slow, self-confident steps, identifying themselves with the working man whom they met on the land.

Paul added the final note to the whole project by saying: “I reckon there isn’t a job in the world you couldn’t tackle properly once you learned to be a good farm-worker. Whatever the weather, whatever you feel like, the ploughing has to be done, the animals fed and milked and the crops planted. And that’s the same in everything.” If Paul, an emotionally sick child, can see this lesson in farm life, what more is there to add?

This feature: L. G. Lennhoff (1960). Our life outside the classroom. Exceptional Children. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd. Pp 100-104

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