Voices from precarious spaces: dedicated spaces for therapeutic practitioners in schools

In this post, I draw on the voices of therapeutic practitioners working in schools to consider why it might be advantageous to them and to their students to have a designated therapy room to eliminate a sense of precariousness from the spaces where they work. 

In most primary schools, classrooms are inhabited by a single class and their teacher for at least a year. Even in secondaries, there are designated suites of rooms where teachers teach certain subjects, for example, the science labs. This doesn’t generally apply to therapeutic spaces however, which are not used for teaching and may be an ad-hoc, multi-purpose room. 

In my day job, I work with teachers and families of care-experienced children and young people. As part of this role, I worked with Sara Freitag, a senior educational psychologist, to assess the value of and need for therapeutic spaces in our tri-borough local educational authority. In our survey1 of schools carried out in the summer of 2020, 100% of those who responded confirmed that at least one member of staff was currently employed to support the emotional wellbeing and mental health of children and young people through a therapeutic practice. However, only 22% per cent of respondents indicated that their school had a dedicated space for these therapies. In the same survey, 73% very strongly agreed and 27% strongly agreed with the statement that a therapeutic space should be consistent in its usage, i.e. that it should be a dedicated space. 

What did the practitioners say?

Practitioners were asked about the advantages of having a dedicated space. The theme of disruption and interruption came through strongly. 

“I cannot stress enough the importance of a dedicated space to do my work in. As a full-time ELSA2 my day is spent constantly trying to find somewhere to do my sessions, not always knowing how a session will go.

“Sometimes (people) need to use (the room) for other things, meetings etc. We struggle to find a space when that happens.”

“Occasionally it is used for a spare ‘exam space’ in emergencies.”

While it is understandable that emergencies occur, generally it is possible to plan in advance to ensure that meetings or exams don’t happen at the expense of therapy sessions. And although it is commonly recognised that teachers of particular subjects will need specialist equipment for lessons such as music, art or science, it is less widely understood that therapists also often need equipment or props if they are art, music, drama or play therapists or working as an ELSA. 

I also don’t always have all the correct equipment with me, i.e. puppets, worry teddies, therapeutic putty, strategy books. I take what I can and know I’ll need but sometimes a session doesn’t go the way I planned and then I have to quickly run to where my things are kept to get them.

Consistency of a provision of a safe space in school was also a theme of this study. The focus of the study, due to covid restrictions, has initially been on practitioners, who were clear that the students with whom they worked needed to know where to find them. 

If a student is having a bad day and needs some time, they never know where I’m going to be.

Children and young people who have experienced trauma (Bowlby 1969) can form attachments to important adults in school and also to the school itself: certain adults and particular spaces in school can act as a child or young person’s secure base (Bowlby, 1988), offering a sense emotional security and promoting opportunities for positive relationships. 

“If they are in class and feeling upset, they will ask to come down. As long as they’ve seen me … So every time I go to that door, there’s someone outside. But it makes them feel better. And coming here they feel safe. If I’m not here, it’s panic stations”

Just making sure that they know that I’m there all the way through the day if they need to come, so that they know they’ve got a choice if they want to come back, they can. This relies, of course on staff who understand that’

Practitioners who had their own room full-time, or part-time but for a whole day at a time, were positive about its value to their students:  

“The children like the familiarity of coming to the same place and I try my best to do it at the same time, on the same day so they know within reason that they’re coming at a certain point. They like to come to a certain place, well it feels like it at least. If you’re moving around constantly, you don’t feel settled.

Listening to the voices of practitioners, we noted that many of them were grateful to have a room in which to work, however poorly designed. But when a vital financial investment is being made in the emotional and mental health of students in schools, we felt that schools also needed to invest in the spaces where this important work takes place to ensure that it has maximum value. Having recognised the precarity of these spaces, we talked to teaching therapists about how to make our therapeutic spaces in schools less precarious for all those who use them. Our recommendations are listed below.

If you are a therapeutic practitioner 

  1. Try to establish working hours in one room that are non-negotiable if possible. Even if a room is multi-purpose and used by others; signal that you will need advance notice if you are going to be asked to move and explain why this is disruptive; post a timetable on the door. Having to abandon a therapy session because you need to change rooms is not acceptable when an investment has been made in a student’s mental health and in your own time.
  1. If you are routinely having to find an alternative space to work in, make note of when and why this happens so that you can pinpoint the reasons for this disruption and work with senior managers to find a solution.
  1. Take the opportunity to communicate the value of your work for the students you work with; also the nature of your work and why it is especially disrupted by having to move.
  1. Involve students in the co-design of the space: this includes listening to them express their views about having a consistent space where they can easily find you. 

If you manage therapeutic practitioners in your school

  1. Can you establish more than one safe and suitable room for therapies if it is impossible to prevent interruptions to the therapist’s timetable in a single room?
  1. Provide adequate storage in therapeutic spaces so that therapists do not have to waste time fetching resources. This is also necessary to ensure that objects such as scissors and knives are hidden away during therapy sessions.
  1. Ensure that resources stored in therapy rooms for other purposes, such as music lessons, are not required during the therapy session, causing disruption. 
  1. Make time to listen to students’ views about the spaces provided for therapies. Do they feel it is important to come to the same place consistently? 
  1. Use appropriate signage and communicate to all staff the value of therapeutic work and why a consistent, uninterrupted space will be of maximum benefit to students and staff. 
  1. Timetable the room appropriately for therapies, offering long periods without interruption if the room cannot be currently designated solely as a therapeutic space.

If you are an architect, designer or involved in the commissioning or refurbishment of school buildings

Following the covid-19 pandemic, the need for therapeutic rooms in schools are even more pressing than before. Can you build at least one therapy room into plans for the school you are working with, having listened to the voices of practitioners and students about what is needed for therapies to be successful.

If you have any experiences of your own to share, please leave a comment below.

Notes

  1. You can read the results of the survey in a report commissioned by Achieving for Children Virtual School about the design of therapeutic spaces for care-experienced children and young people and the adults who work with them here.

2. ELSAs  or Emotional literacy support assistants, to give them their full title, are responsible for planning and delivering emotional literacy-based interactions within their schools, which may involve individuals or small groups of students. See http://www.elsanetwork.org.

References

John Bowlby (1907) was a developmental psychologist and psychiatrist who originated attachment theory. Bowlby theorised that the bonds formed in early life between caregivers and infants had a remarkable impact on relationships for children and adults even in later life. His work was developed further by psychologist Mary Ainsworth who developed the Strange Situation assessment.

Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and Loss: Volume 1: Attachment. The International Psychoanalytic Library, 79, 1-401. London: The Hogarth Press.

Bowlby J. (1988). A Secure Base: Clinical Applications of Attachment Theory. London: Routledge. 

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