Not long ago, I was having a tutorial with a student who works in a residential school for kids with emotional and behavioural difficulties. She helps the young people there to reintegrate or maintain in mainstream education, and we got to talking about one of her kids. Apparently, this kid is doing really well. The two (my student and the kid) have to travel quite a distance to his school, and he has rolled with the early mornings and lengthy journeys with good humour. He’s engaging much better while at school, and is developing good relationships with his worker (my student), his teachers and some of his fellow classmates.
For whatever reason, this kid is unable to live at home. So at the end of each day he returns to one of the residential units located in the school. Unfortunately it isn’t going well there, and from what it sounds like to me, the staff may be having as much difficulty making sense of this as the kid. There’s apparently a view that, “of course he’s doing well with the educational portion of his day “he gets all this one-to-one attention in transit and for part of his lessons”. It’s perceived that he switches his engagement and cooperation on and off at will. From what I gathered, the staff are indeed invested in and like this kid, but they’re frustrated by the major disparity in his behaviour at school and in the unit. The student herself is concerned about him and interested in how she might help him with this. She talked about how she could see a visible transformation in his demeanour as they got closer to the unit at the end of each return journey. She seemed gutted about it.
At some point in our discussion, it came out that he “just didn’t belong there”. This conclusion seemed to be derived from the fact that he himself never felt he belonged there, and that complications were preventing him from moving back home or to a foster placement “complications not to do with his choices or behaviour. In fact, he had done his part to make this move happen, but it still had not. A typical story, not just in Scotland but in many other places as well.
Now there is likely a complex constellation of reasons why this kid is struggling and from the little snippet I got that day, I’m really in no position to make pronouncements about the situation. But, it did get me to thinking more deeply about the importance of belonging.
On one level, I think we collectively know that a sense of belonging is important. I think on another level it’s really easy to lose sight of this. This was clearly illustrated to me when I did my Master’s dissertation on the therapeutic potential of participation in a residential school’s football team. I had witnessed all sorts of development and healing in some of the boys in my unit, much of which appeared to be related to their involvement in the footie. This team was part of a league, mostly comprised of teams from other residential schools for kids with emotional and behavioural difficulties.
In the early stages of my project, I did the standard literature review to provide a theoretical context and explore similar or otherwise relevant research. I explored notions of resilience, the promotion of pro-social values, the importance of rhythms and rituals, and Phelan's model of experience arranging. I then did interviews with staff and kids, exploring their views and experiences of the school football team. I also used vignettes or scenarios that facilitated a discussion of the more complex dimensions of team selection (i.e. who should get to play, who shouldn’t and why) and the appropriate conditions (if any) for withholding eligibility to play.
In analysing the transcripts of these interviews, I saw evidence of resilience enhancement, pro-social reinforcement, powerful rhythms and rituals, and positive developments of identity. These developments appeared to be related to experiences “often first time experiences “of being liked, capable and worthy. But as I looked closer something else came into sharp relief. I realised that the thing staff talked about most when discussing the benefits of team involvement was belonging. The kids talked most about the sheer enjoyment of play, but a close second was belonging as well. In fact, experiences of belonging were often entwined with enjoyable aspects of taking part. Some of the most moving and profound things staff and kids said were related to this important sense of belonging.
Now, I knew that belonging was important and I’d spoken about it with colleagues before ever doing the study. I also think I spoke about it at the early stages of the study, but how did I miss including it in my preparations for those interviews?
I wonder if a stronger appreciation of the importance of belonging might come from exploring those occasions when it is weak or absent. Think about the last time you were in a situation where you really felt you just didn’t belong. I’m not a gym person, for example. I went through a gym phase in my twenties, though, when I tried to do the gym thing. I selected a community based, non-flash gym and went through the orientation. Still, every time I went, I felt like an imposter. I would change at work to avoid the locker room, enter the gym with head down, and quickly get on with whichever routine of free weights and machines I had set for myself. If there was a queue for a more popular machine, I skipped it as I didn’t feel entitled to add to the demand. I have no idea whether any of the other folks there had eyes, as I avoided making eye contact at pretty much all costs. In a largely unconscious attempt at compensation, the targets I set for myself were beyond my capabilities, and I left most days with a sense of dissatisfaction or even defeat. It’s not surprising that my gym phase was short-lived, and when I think back on it, the sense of non-belonging was at the root of the whole experience. I just didn’t feel like I belonged there. Yet at the same time, it was relatively mild, contained to three to five hours a week, and I got to stop when I chose to. Imagine having no sense of influence or control over conditions and circumstances of your worst experiences of non-belonging. Imagine these experiences comprise large portions of your every day. Maybe you don’t have to; maybe it’s a matter of remembering. Hopefully it’s not your current reality.
Most of us do our best to avoid these situations, and perhaps take for granted a consistent (low level, at least) sense of belonging. If you’re an adult, you are much more likely to have higher levels of control over how often you are exposed to situations that stimulate strong feelings of non-belonging. The same can be said if you have higher levels of education and are a member of dominant groups (e.g. white, male, heterosexual, middle class). Of course there are exceptions to this, but it’s easy to forget how excruciating it can be to be in a setting when you strongly sense you don’t belong.
One of the conclusions of my dissertation was that the school football team appeared to have been an important vehicle for the development of two things: relationships that enabled experiences of belonging and a sense that school was a tolerable place to be. Only once those had taken root could the wider benefits identified, those related to resilience, pro-social development and new and powerful experiences of self, be realised.
Looking back, I suspect this was a significant factor for a lot of the kids I worked with in other settings as well. I can remember Frank, a kid who makes me smile every time I think back on him. He had been in something like 68 different placements before we got him. And he was only 12. He blew through many of these places very quickly. I can remember he was reported to have broken every ground floor window in the first two hours at one place; I think that was about the length of that placement.
We had a rollercoaster ride of a time with Frank, and in with all of the difficulties I remember his sparkling sense of humour the most. He ended his time with us in a planned and positive way, and went back home to his mother. This would be one of those placements we would deem a “success”, and I wonder now how Frank feels about his time with us. He must be in his mid-twenties now, I think.
I vividly remember Frank’s first day with us. We were a bit wary and also geared up for his arrival, as he had an almost celebrity status given his placement history. These were the days when we could be pretty simplistic and often misguided about the need for kids to earn “privileges”, a word we used for the things they liked or made them feel good. In a moment of brilliance, our programme director suggested he accompany us to Tae Kwondo practice. Internally, I resisted. I wanted to be sure he wasn’t going to be more than we could handle out in the community, and for him to earn a bit of trust first. Fortunately, the idea of getting him off on a positive footing also appealed, and we bought him along.
I don’t remember whether Frank participated in the session or just watched, but he did end up joining the Tae Kwondo programme and progressed, I think, to green belt (one’s belt is an important symbol of progress and development). What I remember so vividly, though, was the return journey in the van. I sat in the back with the kids, with Frank next to me. At some point early in that half hour journey, he hooked the lower half of his leg over mine and subtly, gently swung legs with me for the rest of the way home. This was not something any of us would have expected; he was a hard, tough little man. It felt significant. We never spoke about it or anything, and aside from a shared smile it wasn’t even acknowledged. The gesture felt akin to a child taking the hand of an adult, and maybe on some level he experienced us and the centre as a place he could tolerate and perhaps, albeit temporarily, belong.
Anyway, I wonder how much a sense of non-belonging has to do with the difficulties this kid in mainstream school is struggling with when he returns to the residential unit each evening. And I’m wondering if there might be times when, for whatever reasons, it just isn’t possible for a young person to cultivate any sense of belonging “no matter how hard everyone might try. And finally, I guess I’m wondering if we took this as our starting point – a deep and active appreciation of the central importance of belonging – how our assessments, actions, even thinking, might be different.