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Reflection on our Bayswater school site from a psychotherapist

A reflection from psychotherapist Eva Serra who spent two days a week for half a term at our Bayswater school site. 

At the Chelsea Community Hospital School they provide education for children and young people while they are in hospital, or unable to attend mainstream school because of their medical or mental health needs.

They believe that by empowering, inspiring and supporting the students they help them develop as confident, resilient, and independent learners. It is evident that the school show students they are valued by celebrating every developmental breakthrough and success.

They support students to face the challenges of a disrupted education because of medical or mental health conditions. They do this through knowledge and understanding, advocacy, and working to change attitudes and systems.

They have continuous contact with parents, hospital, and social workers. This supports the holding environment for the children and an ease of communication, which promotes an awareness of the continuous changes that occur daily.

There is a luxury of time given to discuss each child, even those who have left. The reason for discussing the children who have completed, is for the purpose of upkeep and follow up, as well as supporting the children that have had to go back into hospital and temporarily can’t attend the school. If a child must return to hospital, an assigned member of staff will keep in contact with the child speaking with them about their favourite school subject. This keeps the children thinking about school, while also promoting hope for the future and a reminder to an environment that is keeping them in mind.

From the morning meetings I noticed that the culture that is maintained is one of compassion, the headteacher remembers personal things about the staff and checks in with everyone about their weekend. The administrator is caring and makes sure that if there is a birthday or a wedding, the staff member is celebrated and made to feel that they are appreciated and valued. I believe this inspires the staff to be more devoted to the children, which is necessary due to the high level of need that is present.

The music behind the words of the environment is safe holding and compassion, this secure base (Bowlby,1988) enables the children to explore their learning, knowing there is a safety net to catch them at any time. Due to the high level of stress that these children are navigating, school appears to be rest-bite from their mind. It appears that school is helping these children regulate their nervous system and carefully expand their window of tolerance (Siegel,1999).

I noticed that there is a desire in the school environment for fun, play and “normality”. These children have made it into school and are after a “normal” school experience, so that they feel part of society again. The young people expressed feeling less alone, learning with peers that have had shared experiences. the headteacher is aware of this, hence feeling that it is not necessary for the young people to check in with one another emotionally. There is a shared understanding that everyone is struggling, and that patience and care is the only way for them all to learn and move forward.

Often, if there was any dissonance between children or a child talking a lot which jarred another child; the young person would actively swallow their irritation, look away or even mutter their irritation to themselves. I wondered if this was because the focus was on getting better. I wondered if as well as getting better, the reason for not challenging each other as fellow peers was due to the amount happening in their own mind.

The young people confidently speak about their therapist or therapy, as if referencing their lunch break or swimming lesson. This openness supports how safe the environment feels for the young people, which promotes their engagement in learning and caring for one another.

I noticed that some children would argue the answers with the teachers, owning their knowledge and showing that there are clear boundaries in place which enable a non-hierarchical environment to work.

With the second half of my time spent at the psychiatric school, I noticed that the morning meetings where a valuable space for each staff member to share their perspectives on the presentation of the student in question. I was struck by the ease of which equal weight was given to each person’s view. I noticed that staff, volunteers, and observers are empowered and respected as a way of modelling this way of relating. The young people at the school learn from the school culture, integrating this way of relating as part of themselves, which is encouraged by school leavers who have succeeded and returned to help. 

Quote by Lauren, who wanted her name mentioned under her quote:

“Without a sound Liliana did her very best to try to be quiet,

clicking like fragile bones”.

---- Lauren is a student at Chelsea community school.

The melody and rhythm of the teacher’s voices supported the children’s engagement, I wondered if this was a conscious decision, or the teachers unconsciously responded to the unsaid needs of the children. Stern (1985) explains that attunement occurs when the infant expresses ‘affect’ and a mother responds cross-modally, matching duration, intensity. I observed that the young people responded to the animated lively melody of the teacher’s communication with more engagement and focus. It seemed as if the teachers were potentially unconsciously returning to an earlier developmental stage, to encourage the young people to feel safe. Stern (1985) continues, explaining how our life force, or ‘vitality affects’, vitality promotes development through movement, sounds and supports attunement.

I wonder if when the teacher’s communicate using movement and animation, this allowed the young people to mirror the teacher’s behaviour and potentially prompted the young people’s unconciouse drive to heal and develop in connection to others. Winnicott (1960) writes how when the mother is relating with the infant, the infant is internalising the environment of ‘acceptance’, and that they are contained. This experience helps to develop the infant's idea of self, as it witnesses itself as separate, and sees itself in the mother’s face/reflection. Which is something I can see happening at the school, the children, it seems are building themselves up from scratch. For this reason, it is as if these children are developing a different identity post what they have been through. In the holding environment of the school and through the new mirror of the teachers and mentors that support them, these young people are slowly piecing themselves back together again.

In conclusion

I felt that the school was a supportive environment for children to re-engage with learning again. I felt that the organisation focused on learning, staying positive and left the painful reality of the lives of these children for outside the learning environment. I wonder if their reality outside school if integrated into their school day would support them to feel that all parts of them are accepted, or if it would be overwhelming. The system that I observed seemed to flow and work smoothly, which highlights that the school are following the needs and desires of the students.

Eva Serra, Psychotherapist           10th October 2023