Reported in the Daily Mail this week (6th March '07) that pupils up to the age of 11 are being bottle-fed and mothered in school as part of a radical new move to address poor discipline. A state primary school has become the first in the country to take part in the approach, which was developed in the US to give problem children the love and attention they may have missed out on at a younger age.
Instead of being given a sharp telling off or a few minutes on the naughty chair, they have one-on-one sessions with a trained school therapist. The children - aged between six and 11 - are bottle-fed like young babies, nursed and encouraged to play games promoting patience and teamwork. Parents who feel they no longer have control over their child can sign up to the Theraplay programme, which lasts up to three years and emphasises the importance of a strong and loving bond with a mother figure.
The controversial approach - developed during the late 1960s - has now been adopted by Rockingham Primary School in Northamptonshire. The technique is based on the assumption that children with behavioural problems have often failed to bond with their parents in infancy. It aims to redress this by making them feel loved and secure once more.
Last night, the school's headteacher Juliet Hart defended the programme amid opposition from critics who claim it prevents children from growing up. "I'm sure there will be some people who won't agree with what we are doing but this form of therapy is recognised around the world for changing behavioural patterns. We are still like any other school. In each classroom children agree appropriate types of behaviour and know the consequences if they are not adhered to, including time-out or missing play-time. They also know that if they work hard they will be rewarded with approval. However, there are some children who need help to develop relationships with their parents. For whatever reason the bond has gone and there is no mutual respect. Through theraplay we encourage that bond to grow so the child feels more secure, calm and happy. It's not about discipline. This is about changing a child's behaviour over time. Admittedly, it will have an impact on discipline but only in the long term."
At Rockingham Primary School, which has 180 pupils, they have installed a dedicated Theraplay unit, complete with one-way mirror, run by trained therapist Jo Williams. She works with a handful of children at the school and uses a variety of therapeutic methods to help children who are experiencing problems at home and at school, including calming music and lights. In a typical session she might comb a child's hair, spoon feed them, put cream on their cuts and bruises or wash dirty hands. "It's all about making them feel they're worth looking after," she said. "I had one mother who was having trouble bonding with her child. There was little touching and eye contact. By the end, she was bottle-feeding him, he was stroking her hair. She said it was one of the best things that had ever happened to her."
The children who visit her are often from poor and fractured families. Often they come in groups while others come alone whilst a parent watches from a booth.
But campaigners claim Theraplay, by bottle-feeding youngsters as old as 11, holds them back and prevents them from growing up into adults. Dr Dennis Hayes, leader of the education forum at the Institute of Ideas think tank, said: "This is part of the infantilisation of adult life. It's about keeping people permanently as children, not helping them to grow up."
The GOS says: Sounds daft, doesn't it? But actually it's worth a try. Even if it doesn't do any good, it's not likely to do much harm except keep a few therapists unnecessarily in work, and give a few kids a bit of a laugh.
There's something to be said for giving people what they need (not what they think need, but what they really need) if it can be done easily and isn't to the detriment of others. The GOS used to be a teacher, and he was no stranger to the kids - there's at least one in every class - who crave more attention than all the others and will misbehave if they don't get it. In about fifty percent of cases, he found that if you allowed that individual two or three minutes of attention at the beginning of a lesson, played along and had a bit of a joke with them, that was the end of it. For the rest of the lesson they'd be quite happy. It wasn't difficult, it hardly disrupted the lesson at all and it seemed a small price to pay. Sadly, he doesn't think it would wash now. Today there are far more difficult children and teachers have it much tougher.
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