According to The Children’s Society (2021)* 1 in 6 children aged between 5 and 16 are likely to have a mental health problem. This equates to around 5 in a class of 30 children. Fortunately, the emotional and mental health challenges faced by children are becoming more widely acknowledged and addressed by schools. Most schools in the UK now have at least one emotional or mental health practitioner who regularly visit or are employed as a member of staff, fulfilling roles as counsellors, psychologists, therapists or emotional literacy support assistants (ELSAs),
If you are one of these practitioners, you will know that the therapies you offer depend on building a trusting, confidential relationship with each child. You might also experience a disruption to the sessions you offer due to the design of the space where you work or the behaviours of colleagues and children around that space. These disruptions can put your crucial work with children in jeopardy.
With this in mind, here are eight strategies to help you establish a safe space for your work.These strategies are about setting and protecting the boundaries of the space that you establish; communicating the importance of these boundaries to the whole school community and ensuring that the space promotes a sense of belonging and comfort for you and the students you work with.
1. Disrupt Interruptions with visual cues
One of the most important ways to promote a feeling of security in a room is to protect against unexpected interruptions. As a practitioner, be unequivocal and bold in your signage on the outside of your door, for example ‘Do not enter: session in progress.’ Don’t be apologetic in your determination to ensure that interruptions are avoided: remember the value of these sessions for the child and that you may be the only adult in their life with whom they are able to share difficult feelings.
2. Enlist support
If the sign on your door is regularly ignored and you are unable to stop people from interrupting your sessions, enlist the support of a senior member of staff. They can help to you communicate the value of your work to the wider school community. Your work has already been financially invested in by senior leaders but reminding all staff members of its importance can help to change the culture of the school. This might be communicated in whole-staff CPD or staff meetings or with individuals who are unaware of what you do. You might also want to talk to children and young people about how they feel about being interrupted when they are expressing something that is important to them and convey this (delicately) to your colleagues.
This booklet about therapeutic spaces can be shared with staff to demonstrate the importance of creating a place where both you and the children you work with feel safe and comfortable.
3. A better place
Routines often change in schools and so even if your room was once a peaceful haven, someone may decide that they need it more than you do (this has certainly happened to me more than once). If this occurs, take the initiative in looking for a better place to work and, again, don’t be afraid to ask for support with this from colleagues. Appendix A on page 37 of the therapeutic spaces booklet (above) is an audit tool to help you prioritise the qualities you value in a space and match them to rooms in your own school.
4. Blow your own trumpet!
To ensure that the value of your work is understood, gather evidence from key adults about the impact of your work, for example, individual class teachers and find opportunities to share this with other colleagues. Promote the value of your work and the importance of a consistent space in which to work whenever you have the opportunity
5. Make yourself at home
Creating a comfortable space to work in can have more than one benefit: not only does it make your room feel less institutional and encourage conversation and feelings of belonging, it can also create a boundary to others who might otherwise dump their things in your room.
Bring items from home, such as plants or a lamp, to add character or collect them from freecycle (or equivalent) to bring a sense that this is a different type of space from the school classrooms. Don’t feel shy about reflecting your own personality in the room: your relationship with the children and young people will benefit from your own sense of safety and comfort.
6. Find furniture that fits
The scale of the room is important. School furniture can be oddly sized and having a giant table or too many chairs in a small room may detract from the feeling that the space is safe and comfortable. Try to find a chair for yourself that is as supportive as possible, especially if you are working in the same room for several hours at a time. Or if you prefer to work on the floor, collect soft furnishings that suit your needs. Addressing your own comfort can make a significant difference in your ability to create comfort for those you are supporting; this is a commonly missed opportunity in outstanding schools that in seeking to be child-centred may inadvertently undermine those who directly deliver support to children.
A space will feel more secure to children if there is room for some freedom of movement. If you are working in a tiny cupboard, try to minimise the furniture so that there is some room to spread out.
7. Pay attention to environmental details
Ventilation, temperature and lighting, are among the first features of an environment likely to be dismissed as ‘background’ and may go unnoticed but they can make a huge difference to how a space feels. It is important for your own safety and peace of mind that you can control the ventilation and other aspects of the environment in your room and having a window that you can open is an ideal place to start.
8. Support a sense of belonging with co-design
Involve the children you work with in the design of the room as this will help them to feel that they belong. This might be as simple as finding out where and how they want to sit or whether there are any special toys or items that they want to have to hand when they come to visit you. Or, as happened recently in a school I was working with, they might want to suggest how they would set up the room for other children in the school.
If you have any suggestions or strategies of your own, please share them in the comments box below “Leave a Reply”.
*In the UK