The most significant thing about the therapeutic community approach has always been the focus on the quality of communication between the worker and the child, and the connections between the help provided by individuals and the task of the whole group. This is an approach that is made even more relevant by the difficult economic position that residential care finds itself in. Groups work for children and young people and group care can be made to work for them too, in cost effective, value for money ways; but that is unlikely to happen by chance.
Fortunately, there is a long tradition and a body of literature to helps us know and understand the approach in therapeutic communities. Clearly, not all therapeutic communities are the same, but in general they hold some things in common. There is recognition that relationships and attachments matter, the provision of supportive yet challenging relationships, recognition of the enabling potential of giving young people appropriate control over their lives, and a great emphasis on creating a culture of enquiry (“What could this behaviour mean?” “Why I am I feeling like this?” “I wonder what their intention is?” etc.) The aim is that all members of the community, children and adults work together to overcome difficulties and conflict, and all are encouraged to work with an open and equal spirit.
Therapeutic communities provide an integrated, planned environment with clear boundaries, close relationships and open resolution of problems, tensions and conflicts. Daily life is filled with purposeful tasks (therapeutic, domestic, organisational, and educational) and there is a shared commitment to the goal of learning from the experience of living and/or working together.
Therapeutic work does not have to be confined to individual or group work therapy session; it also takes place in everyday interactions. Although time is spent on assessment, planning and reviewing interventions, many opportunities arise for communication and support in every day practice. This is the concept of opportunity–led work. The quality of this work lies in the skill of the worker to recognise the opportunity and respond appropriately, with emphasis on the distinction between reacting and responding: reacting in an un-thought out way can only serve to complicate matters; responding appropriately means dealing with the situation on a well thought out judgement.
A significant part of the work is reflecting on experiences, trying to understand and make sense of the behaviour of the children. The capacity to provide for the needs of disturbed children is powerfully enhanced when the adult is able to reflect upon, and respond to, what is happening in the relationships with the child, in other words the adult consciously works from an understanding of the processes of development and interaction. Reflecting on one’s experience of any interaction and being aware of how one feels and where these feelings originate is a process of on-going personal development.
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