EBD , SEN , ADHD, oppositional, defiant, anti-social, trouble maker… all diagnoses or labels; labels that describe; descriptions that define. In the best sense these are sign posts that can be useful. Yet, we are so keen to understand ourselves and understand children that we can define them and then inhabit those definitions as the walls to our world.
I have just read the notes for the children who are coming to the farm this week. Brandon is on the edge of exclusion for carrying a knife. Angela is a selective mute. Kieran struggles to make friends. Ali is a fighter. Briony is dyslexic and lazy. Sam was ‘probably on the spectrum’ and didn’t attend school.
The group have arrived and in the mill of apprehensive and happy faces and I wonder who is who. Thankfully I have a terrible memory for facts and they only stick when bound up in experience and the relational aspects of life. I have already forgotten which label or which ‘problem’ applies to which child. All are different in their special ways, all unknown, all potentially able to reformulate who they are and discover new selves. Every one of them is special. I cannot distinguish which is Brandon or Sam or Ali. I recognise I need to knowingly forget what I have heard about them and let them tell us through their behaviours and reactions what they can and cannot do.
All of the group are outside their comfort zones. The newness and difference of the experience will free them. It’s a new beginning, a line in the sand. The teachers have been confounded. How did I not know this child was so capable, kind, hardworking, resilient, fit, brave? Each child has exceeded expectations. The confidence of the organised teacher who likes to predict what happens is being threatened.
But, to give him his due, he is standing back a bit, loosening the threads of his controls. He is watchful, observant and seeing that the warmth and positivity of the small group around the table in the barn. It has a life blood flowing through so different from school. The culture here on the farm is all about celebrating strengths, noticing, praising, valuing. Children in turn learn to do this for each other. Constant positive feedback is the core element in training dogs and horses. Yet, we as humans have allowed this to slip in priority. We are quick to judge, to accuse, to label, and the frequency of positive praise has diminished.
However small a task or deed we can thank the children: carrying a bucket of animal food; remembering to tell Rob our chef to take out the bread out of the oven; offering round the flapjack they have just made; bringing in the veg from the garden; giving a generous shout out to the shyest member of the group for kindly letting someone else shower first. There are a multitude of ways you can stand out and be counted for being a star on the farm. Everyone is included, teachers as well. They too need a boost to feel good, to be valued, to be acknowledged and know children care.
Brandon is full of surprises. His brittleness melts. He is caring and supportive, intelligent and thoughtful. Briony has excelled in kitchen, made light of the walk, received praise and recognition and is now ready to set sail. She feels she can try again, not fear too much failure and she is on her own journey towards success. Angela is talking, and finding pleasure in her voice and admits the power of silence was her inner support. Kieran is a grafter and physical work shows how he can progress. Ali has a gentle side he was previously shy to express. Sam has made friends and no longer needs to stay at home. The teachers are more optimistic, rejuvenated and no longer feel the same. There is optimism where there was pessimism, hope where there was surrender. A community of people can return to school with less fear.
Written by Tish Feilden, Founder and Lead Psychotherapist
Tish is a UKCP Registered Psychotherapist with over 30 years experience of working with children in schools, residential settings, clinical settings and the community. Tish co-founded Jamie’s Farm when in 2006 the very first visits were welcomed to her home. Tish now leads the therapy strand of our work across all three farms, directly working with children as well as indirectly supporting our staff to uphold the highest standards of therapeutic practice. She is currently writing a book focused on our methodology and the experiences of the thousands of young people she has been able to speak to through her 30+ years as a Psychotherapist (10 years with Jamie’s Farm). The book is intended to help teachers and other practitioners understand young people’s behaviours.