Reflecting on the core values of therapeutic spaces: an exercise

Settting up a new therapeutic space in school can feel daunting. And it can feel equally problematic to set about improving a less-than-ideal space that you or your colleagues have already worked in for some time. As you embark on one of these tasks, this post aims help you reflect on the qualities that you might want to enhance and those that you would hope to eradicate from a therapeutic space.  

Begin by considering the needs of the adults who work in a space. 

Involving students in the design is vital and will be addressed in later posts. Valuing the needs of the adults who will co-create the therapeutic space is likely to promote the effectiveness of the work that takes place there. The inverse is also likely to be true: if a therapeutic space isn’t supportive of the practitioners who work in it, their effectiveness may be compromised no matter how committed and skilful they may be.  

To help you reflect on how different types of spaces and circumstances in school might alter the effectiveness of a therapeutic practice, let’s start with a short exercise.   

The Perfect Storm: a five-minute exercise

In this scenario you encounter a series of escalating challenges that confront you when working as a counsellor in a school while trying to establish a therapeutic relationship with a new student.

Imagine that you work one day a week in a school as a counsellor. You usually work with the same group of students but you also set aside some time for students who may need an ad-hoc session with you. This morning as you arrive, a teacher asks you to work with a student who is unfamiliar to you. The student has been involved in an argument at home and has come into school angry, upset and unable to settle in class. You set aside half an hour to work with them during the morning assembly. 

All is going well. You are in your usual room: a music room that also doubles as a storage space for music stands and instruments but which is comfortable enough. You are listening to a student who you work with every week when there is a knock at the door. A member of staff who you don’t know comes in to room and and says ‘I’ve been told by the Deputy Head to tell you that he needs this room for a meeting for the rest of the morning.’

You need to find somewhere else to work but no other room is available.

It is time to go and find your new student and on the way to fetch them from their classroom, you quickly set up two chairs in a small, dark, dusty space under the stairs, close to the assembly hall. It is winter and bitterly cold outside so taking the new student outside doesn’t feel a like a practical option.

Rate your comfort level for working in this new space between 1 and 10: uncomfortable -> comfortable 

You sit down with the student under the stairs. So far, so good. But suddenly, a line of students files past on their way into assembly. Some of them start to wave and others turn to laugh at your student, who is trying to disappear into their chair. 

Rate your comfort level in the space again now that conditions have changed: 1 – 10, uncomfortable -> comfortable

In the next five minutes, several more lines of students walk past but finally the door to the assembly hall is closed and everyone is contained inside. You now have twenty minutes left of your session and only now are you and the student able to talk without being overheard. 

For five minutes, everything is quiet and calm. The student starts to tell you about the argument and bursts into tears. Your box of tissues is still in the music room but as you start to search in your bag for tissues, three members of staff bustle past with cups of coffee. One stops to ask your student ‘Is everything alright?’ 

Rate your comfort again: 1 – 10, uncomfortable -> comfortable

As they move away to catch up with their colleagues, you spot the school secretary hurrying towards you with a bundle of paperwork, calling out ‘I’m so glad I caught you …’

A final rating: 1 – 10, uncomfortable -> comfortable

This short exercise is intended to sharpen your sense of what we might find acceptable in our day-to-day working lives and what has a direct impact on our own work and those who we are working with. If you already work in a school, you are almost certainly very familiar with having to move from one space to another or with working in spaces that offer little protection or privacy from interruption. No practitioner, however experienced, could hope to establish a trusting relationship with a new student in need in those conditions. But a failure to do so because of the conditions can leave both students and practitioners feeling let down, inadequate or frustrated.

That’s why knowing what the supportive aspects of a space for your work, or that of your colleagues, is so significant. Therapeutic work is about building a trusting relationship. And while some less-than-ideal qualities might be tolerable, others can invalidate this relational work with students.

If you look back at how you rated each interruption, it should help you to prioritise the values that you want to bring to the design of your space. For example, if having a space that is protected from interruption is important, the way in which that space is designated and accessed is something to consider. As we know, very few rooms in schools that are allocated for therapies are perfect in every way so it is important to be clear about your own needs and priorities to find or create the best fit for your work in the context of your own workplace.

If you would like to further consolidate your initial thoughts about the qualities that you value in therapeutic spaces, you might find it helpful to note down the answers to the following questions 

During the exercise, was there a threshold at which you would rate the space as no longer fit for purpose and if so, why? 

Which qualities of the spaces described do you feel would most challenge your ability to do the work outlined in the exercise?

Was there anything that changed your expectations about what was important about the space? 

If another room had been available, which qualities would you value most highly when working with a new student?

Who else in your school might benefit from undertaking this activity to raise awareness of how spaces impact on the effectiveness of adults conducting therapeutic work with children?

For another way of looking at the values embodied in therapeutic spaces, have a look at this linked post A place of greater safety

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