Troubled children can find the strength to confront their difficulties in the wilderness
He had stripped to the waist and was dancing round the woodland in the rain, like an elephantine ballerina, with a huge grin on his face, making sounds. In any other school context, this could have had negative consequences. But after yelling at him: “Ethan, get your clothes on now!” (he complied), the teachers paused and grinned in amazement at each other through the rain. They realised that, however inappropriate, in this context it was another signal that Ethan had made massive progress in only a few short weeks.
Ethan (not his real name) was 14, on the autistic spectrum, and part of a carefully profiled mixed group of children with autism and those with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties (SEBD). The group were participants in a therapeutic outdoor intervention designed to train school staff to run a low-level therapeutic intervention themselves.
Ethan had transformed from someone with real issues around social skills, contact with dirt, germs and getting wet – not your conventional candidate for forest-based activities – to someone now desensitised to these things and able to function far more freely and participate more fully.
The tangled web
The intervention was designed by therapists and outdoor specialists to have specific developmental and therapeutic impacts on its participants. Such programmes go beyond traditional forest schools and are essentially applied wilderness therapy. They can be designed for a range of young people, depending on age and the issues they are facing, such as SEBD or ADHD. However, they can also include children who are simply having a hard time and are emotionally fragile, or children who need more confidence or a developmental boost.
In schools, we tend to focus on behaviour and ultimately learning but many key areas of a child or young person’s development are inextricably linked together. If the web is stretched, stressed or broken elsewhere, it puts a strain on learning and behaviour. Unless you can identify this, you are just fire-fighting behaviour with consequences – treating symptoms and not the cause. A single broken component in emotional intelligence means the difference between someone who responds to failure in the woods by:
- stomping away shouting, swearing and punching someone
- saying “Can I try it again? Can I try it a different way? Will you help me?” or even “I will help them”.
When working with children in the wild, it is essential to identify where the tensions are, and then to design wilderness activities that are specifically framed in the right way to work with parts of the web which are under tension or broken. Without such an approach, a participant’s behaviour problems and issues can be magnified; just doing mainstream activities outdoors, in a mainstream way, can put a lot of stress on that web.
Trust the process
Several years ago, I was sitting round a fire with eight 11-year-old boys with SEBD. It was session number seven of eight and, with only one session left, I was struggling. We’d had good moments and bad and made some progress, though I wasn’t sure what progress to expect as I’d never run this intervention before. The boys were all troubled and difficult to manage but I never really felt they’d opened up and dealt with anything.
In the early days we would normally have had a therapist with us every week but she was off sick. Oh well, I thought, I better get on with it.
“OK, who’s a bad influence in your life?” I asked. And then it started. Glumly, the boy next to me said: “My dad”. And then he cried. And the next person in the circle said: “My dad is too. And my big sister.” And so it was with the next person, and the next and then even with a member of the school staff who was being trained.
The group was in pieces, sharing horror stories about their various troubles. And I was in pieces because the therapist was off sick. The one day she’s not here, I thought, it all kicks off. What am I supposed to do?
So I phoned her and said: “Help me! How do I fix them?”
She was devastated to have missed the day’s events. She said she’d been waiting for the tipping point in the trust that the group was building up and that I didn’t have to fix it. “Well done”, she said. “Trust the process”.
The intervention – the process – was designed so that it built so much trust in the group that they were able to be open. As the sessions progressed, they had already recognised their issues, the root of them, and in some measure deep down what they had to do in order to deal with or change them, or to get the help they needed. The answers were inside them. I didn’t need to tell them. I just had to lead them to this point.
The wilderness mirror
Our job is not to fix broken kids. If there was a magic formula, we’d all be using it. But we do have to have empathy, the ability to build relationships, an array of tried and tested therapeutic approaches, and to care enough to try. I call it “the wilderness mirror”. I have witnessed time and again participants seeing a clear reflection of their true self. They acknowledge their issues and that they already know deep down what to do about them. We assist them to make firm intentions and carry them through.
Perhaps more importantly, they see their best self in the wilderness mirror, and how to be it. They see another side of themselves to the person that gets lost in the sea of behaviour issues and labels they have stapled to them by everyone around them. They identify their strengths, abilities and qualities, and are encouraged to use them before they transfer back to school and the real world. They incorporate these qualities into their lives and begin to deal with the bad stuff. We work with them to help them remove the negative labels and give them permission to be their best selves, clothed in a set of new, positive labels.
Such interventions are capacity building. They are specifically designed so that the low-level therapeutic skills, and required outdoor skills, are transferred to carefully identified school staff – often SENCOs, class teachers, inclusion managers, teaching assistants or sports coaches. I’ve even trained two headteachers, a caretaker and a gardener. The idea is to create a sustainable approach that the school can utilise again and again with different children.
This approach can make a big difference to the lives of young people, as Ethan would testify. He found the strength to cope with mud, muck and getting wet, and was able to use his new-found social skills to integrate more effectively at school. He was no longer treated as a clown by his peers. He now had friends who laughed with him, not at him. Out in the wilderness, Ethan found self-esteem.
Robin Sheehan is Director of Outdoor Therapeutic Interventions, Programmes and Forest Schools at Equilibrium and Enablement (eQe) Ltd: