Thursday, 30 June 2016

The Power of Relationships

Putting up hammocks for the camp..

Many of the children and young people who come to us on our long term programmes are dealing with multiple life challenges; difficult home circumstances, disaffection with school, mental health issues, learning and developmental delays and processing disorders. A significant proportion may have Autistic Spectrum Disorders. Their days in the wood can make the difference between being able to stay in education and finding the pressure of school just too much to cope with.
For those on the spectrum, forest school gives time to decompress, time to play away from electronic games, time to be absorbed in physical tasks and projects, time for self directed learning and a chance to build peer relationships in a space where it is easy to back away if interactions go wrong. Significantly, they also get quality time with adults, often on a 1:1 basis. These adults will make time to build relationships with them, rather than just demand compliance in an authoritarian way which is sadly often the only option open in a large school situation.  
I have been reflecting on our approach in more detail after experiencing what felt like a significant failure. We had to ban one young man who attends a long term group (they come for up to three years each) from coming on our overnight camp last week on the grounds that his behaviour was disruptive, unsafe and divisive and would spoil the camp for the others. He is not on the spectrum but does struggle with ADHD.
We almost prevented another young person with suspected Pathological Demand Avoidance from attending too but decided to give him the chance. We were so delighted we did, he had the most amazing time and the experience meant so much to him as he has rarely been allowed to go on trips.
Around the camp fire in the evening..

 I realized that what made the difference between these young men was that we had successfully built up a really good relationship with the boy with PDA. In the end he came on the camp and worked co-operatively because he wanted to, even though his condition makes it really hard for him to respond to direct requests.  Somehow the other boy had slipped away from us and I was keen to understand why.  
All our guidelines for behaviour are worked out co-operatively with the group, there is always choice and demands are few. We worked hard to gain his trust but this one lad had blocked chances to interact with mutual respect and seemed determined to ‘rebel’ against us. More concerning, he would instigate discord amongst the other participants seemingly for the fun of watching more vulnerable participants suffer meltdowns. In many ways he is a wonderful young man, full of sporting talent and energy. There were many moments when he did engage but it was hard to sustain. He was generally quick to lose interest and didn’t seem able to just relax and ‘be’ in the space.
Perhaps it was simply the wrong intervention for him.
Unfortunately his generally disruptive presence in the group meant we had to introduce a weekly monitoring system before the camp – something I prefer to avoid as the young people have so much of it at school. We introduced camp “passports” – in order to qualify to come to the camp, the participants had to fulfil three requirements each week: basically showing respect and kindness to everyone, contributing and achieving.  He knew that the consequences of not qualifying would be that he wouldn’t be able to come on the camp but I guess he hoped we wouldn’t follow through.
Coracle fun!
In principle most children and young people (anyone really!) will respond more positively to someone they have a good relationship with, who really connects with them, rather than someone who demands compliance and threatens consequences or offers treats. It does seem easier to forge these respectful relationships in the relaxed environment we provide in the woods.
I have also seen another example of this recently with a primary aged child attending with a special needs group. Last Autumn he came and ran off within the woodland and refused to do as the teaching staff asked. This so unsettled the class teacher that she stopped him attending on health and safety grounds. 
This term he has attended with another teacher who has clearly built an extremely positive relationship with him. He has pond dipped, used the fire, sawed wood safely, accessing everything independently.
It is hard to believe it is the same child.
The power of a positive relationship has transformed his behavior and responses.
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