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How Can the Relational Approach to Psychotherapy Can Help Teachers and Their Students

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Working at a secondary school in my role in pastoral care I used my therapeutic background to inform my work with young people and staff. I began to notice the level to which educators and support staff at the school were embodying the relational approach to psychotherapy found in my training.

I wondered if it would be helpful for them to have the ways in which the students relate to them deconstructed and explained; they were doing a fantastic job, but I wondered if they really understood how they were providing this in their relationships with students.

The working alliance is a cornerstone of the agreement (or disagreement at times) of the contractual agreement and purpose of their role as teachers in the room. At the very basic level this was in essence, I am here to teach you and to help you develop and this required a working relationship that allows both students and teachers to fulfil their role in lesson.

This required an acceptance of their position in the room as teachers by the students themselves, and all too often I noticed the power struggles in the room, the rejection of the basic values that underpin the working alliance. The working alliance is more than just a contractual agreement and also speaks of the quality of the relationship between teacher and student, no easy task when you have a class of up to 30.

I was able to offer support to staff who were struggling with certain students or classes. In these instances I sat with them to help them understand the transferential element of the relationship.

One teacher confided that they felt a loss of control in class and felt humiliated at not being respected so publicly in front of their class and other staff members. We looked at what this reminded them of, what had happened to them previously that made this feeling so hard to contain?

The teacher reported that they had been bullied as a child and these situations summoned similar feelings up and they just froze, experiencing that trauma again in the room, the feeling of being shamed. 

We considered the background and experience of the students home life in the approach being used, when incidents occur they felt threatened and desperate to hold on their position as teacher and reported that they felt they sometimes acted harshly and removed the student from the room just to ‘push the situation away’ so they didn’t have to deal with it. They reported that they felt they weren’t handling it well and that it didn’t feel resolved but at that time they just needed to be seen to be in control.

We thought about this and explored how they might be feeling or experiencing this, perhaps being told to do things in any negative way was seen as losing face, being humiliated and that this was something they wouldn’t back down from, something happening elsewhere in their lives?

Together we worked to find a solution, going into battle in front of the class was too much for either or them to manage, instead the teacher reflected that speaking to them one to one later to ascertain how they felt might be a better way to manage the situations. The teacher used this intervention and reported that it deescalated some of the stress and fear, they found the class much easier to manage and the rapport with the student increased.

We worked together further on this and they began to improve their working alliance with some understanding of each others triggers. In this instance there had been a parallel process going on, the student and the teacher were enacting experiences with others and both had been left feeling shamed.

The reparative relationship between teachers and students is evident in the nurturing role they provide, the ‘reparenting relationship‘ helps to provide a space for students to make safe mistakes and make them well on firm ground ‘age and developmentally appropriate’.

I found that some students struggled to be able to come back from making a mistake when communicating with staff and the walls went up, sometimes students would then make some small gesture towards the staff member which was often missed as being ‘too little too late’. Educating staff to understand these small gestures spoke heaps and bounds about the students reparation state, an attempt to reconnect after harm had been done, they needed a way back in.

When we can understand what one another is trying to convey we find ourselves in the person-to-person relationship – accepting each other for our flaws and valuing each other as individuals.

I was able to use music as an intervention with students experiencing emotional difficulties. I would play chords on the piano while students spoke to me about having low self esteem or struggling with their mental health, often they would note match as they spoke which eventually turned to speaking words of songs and then singing.

Sometimes they sat at the piano and played chords which reflected how they were feeling, other times we would find songs with meaningful words or melodies that reflected their emotional states. I found that building self-esteem through music and singing helped improve self esteem in other areas and helped to improve confidence.

It was working this way that I blessed enough to experience the transpersonal element of the relational approach, a perfect moment of unspoken meaning – a truly magical moment if ever you have experienced it.

I enjoyed this experience of working with teachers and students and firmly believe in the value of schools learning to understand how we relate, what wound is being felt and what is being reenacted in the classroom.

I hope in future to have the opportunity to work in schools and offer a relational approach to supervision for teachers and staff members to understand just how much of an impact one teacher can have their students each day in the classroom.

*** Image credit: Freepik

As an integrative therapist, Kizzi Johannessen will work to help you integrate all the aspects of yourself to help you to make peace with the parts of yourself. 

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