A place of greater safety: an exercise

In Reflecting on the core values of therapeutic spaces I proposed an initial exercise to prompt reflections on some of the challenges of doing therapeutic work in a school building. These challenges can make it difficult to establish and maintain a therapeutic relationship and to create a safe, protected space for students within the school environment. This post encourages you to link particular roles with their workspaces to highlight the symbolic and practical values that the rooms might represent. In this exercise, you are invited to think about the rooms and roles of a headteacher and a therapist working in a school.

Before you begin the exercise, take a sheet of paper and divide it into quarters, numbering each quarter 1-4. You might also want to have a timer at hand to complete it in around ten minutes. 

A place of greater safety

PART ONE: The role of the head teacher 

In the first of the four sections on your page, note down some of the tasks that a head teacher might do in their office, for example, chairing confidential meetings or interviewing new staff. 

PART TWO: The head teacher’s office 

Can you bring to mind the head teacher’s office in the school where you work? 

If you are a head teacher, you might be sitting in this room now! If you don’t work in a school, try to conjure up a picture of the head’s office in a school that you have visited, perhaps even from your own school days. 

In box number 2, write down any qualities of that room, for example quiet, spacious, comfortable. Is the furniture different from other rooms, for instance, are there comfortable chairs? A large table? Is there art work on the walls? You aren’t making value judgements here, focus instead on the differences between this room and other rooms where people work in school. Finally, make a note of how people gain access to the room: is there a gatekeeper, such as a PA or business manager?

PART THREE: The role of a therapist in school

Now, let’s turn to the work that is done by adults in a therapeutic space in school. Take another minute to write down important aspects of a therapeutic practice, for example, establishing a safe space; listening carefully to students. 

PART FOUR: A therapy room 

In the last blank space on your page, box number 4, take a couple of minutes to jot down words that come to mind when you think about a room in school where you or those you manage or support work as a therapeutic practitioner. These words might conjure up the qualities of the space itself, such as cramped, airy, quiet or the habits of adults in or around the space, for example, people also come here to use a printer. If you don’t currently work in a school, use your experiences of schools that you are familiar with to complete this task, or you can leave this section blank. What is the furniture like in the room? And how do adults and children gain access to it? Is door usually open or closed?

PART FIVE

Finally, circle any of the words that you have written down that suggest a mismatch between the job of the therapist and the room where they work: I’m expecting that you will not be as likely to find a similar mismatch between the head’s office and their role, but I might be incorrect!.

The words that you have highlighted might be useful to you as you focus on desirable and non-negotiable qualities of your own therapeutic space or one used by your colleagues in school.

Using this exercise to connect the design of therapeutic spaces in schools with therapeutic practice

One of the most crucial aspects of creating therapeutic spaces in schools is making a strong connection between the specific priorities and demands of the practitioner’s work and the space in which that work takes place. This can sometimes be difficult to do, especially if the room allocated for this work isn’t fit for purpose but you or colleagues have been ‘managing’ in it for some time. 

That is why this exercise initially invites you to think about the head teacher’s office; a room that is likely to be a high-status space in terms in its design, furnishing, decoration and protection from interruption. It would be unusual that the qualities that make the head’s office suitable for their work – such as protected from interruption or having enough space to accommodate visitors – would (or should) be questioned, and understandably so, since these are all designed qualities that allow the head to do their job effectively. 

Of course not every head teacher has a large, comfortable or well-decorated room in which to work but even when the status and significance of their role is not manifested in these aspects of its design, that status is still likely to be reflected in the behaviours around the room by staff and students. Access to the room is likely to be controlled, whether that is through an agreed signal that no-one should interrupt when the door is closed, or through the physical barrier of a school secretary or business manager who manages appointments. It is an agreed aspect of school communities that the head’s role is crucial and to perform that role, they must have a private space to work in. They may have a choice of seating and an ergonomically designed desk; lights that they can adjust themselves and windows they can open. When meeting with staff, governors or parents, they would certainly expect to have a private space in which to talk about confidential matters.  

This exercise encourages the making of a similar connection between the specialised work done by therapeutic practitioners in schools and the spaces in which they work.

Of course not every head teacher has a large, comfortable or well-decorated room in which to work but even when the status and significance of their role is not manifested in these aspects of their room’s design, that status is still likely to be reflected in the behaviours around the room by staff and students. Access to the room is likely to be controlled, whether that is through an agreed signal that no-one should interrupt when the door is closed, or through the physical barrier of a school secretary or business manager who manages appointments. It is an agreed aspect of school communities that the head’s role is crucial and to perform that role, they must have a private space to work in. They may have a choice of seating and an ergonomically designed desk; lights that they can adjust themselves and windows they can open. When meeting with staff, governors or parents, school heads would certainly expect to have a private space in which to talk about confidential matters. Likewise, therapists should also expect to have a space to work in that allows them to do their jobs to the best of their abilities, building a trusting relationship with the students with whom they work in a protected, safe space. The intention of this exercise is to consider who to make a strong connection between work and a work space in schools. By identifying an example of where that connection has already, historically been well-made, i.e. the head’s role and their office, it is hoped that this example can be applied to other spaces in the school, specifically in this instance to therapeutic rooms.

Notes

Communicating the values and the challenges that are part of a therapeutic role in a school can be helpful in gaining the understanding of other staff members who might not realise that interruptions can be detrimental to the therapeutic relationship with students. This exercise might be useful for a staff meeting or a team of staff members who are working on the redesign of therapeutic spaces in the school. 

The title of this post, A place of greater safety, is borrowed from a novel by Hilary Mantel about the French Revolution. 

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