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127 SEPTEMBER 2009
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They Call Them Maladjusted

S.F. Hill

The residential service as it is constituted today requires that a child must be categorized, either as deprived, E.S.N., delinquent or maladjusted. Such “watertight” definitions tend often to overflow and unfortunately the system gets a drenching. Mr. Hill asks for a rationalization of this situation, not only for delinquent or non-delinquent children as in the White Paper, but also for those delinquent children deemed as maladjusted. He shows how these children can be helped.

The prospect of a unified Child Care Service demands a new look at the way we treat disturbed and delinquent children.

Take the Underwood Report definition of maladjustment:

If we apply this to the delinquent population of those residential special schools “approved” by the the Home Office in England and the Secretary of State in Scotland we see that there are few logical grounds for the separate classification of these children for treatment purposes. Gittins, in his description of Approved School boys, says, after discussing the physical, intellectual and cultural aspects of the boys, “One topic keeps butting in. This is the emotional confusion and stress of which most of the lads are victims. Their craving for sympathy and affection stands right out above all other general considerations. “Crime and happiness are like oil and water: they have never been known to mix.” The unhappiness of children is distressing and it takes so many forms that only the most superficial description is possible here. But when thinking of treatment the fact of this emotional disorganization should be pre-eminent. Juvenile delinquents can be so exasperating, so destructive, so rebellious, so apparently indifferent, that one’s reaction is likely to be severe. This, by the queer distortion of the delinquent mind, is just the reaction that they both seek and fear, that they expect and yet hope to avoid. An understanding of these contradictions is essential since they give a reason for apparently irrational 'ambivalent' behaviour.”

The fact is that these children constitute the hard core of the juvenile delinquent population. Most of our delinquents will respond to corrective measures applied by the Court to a child left at home in the care of his parents. The hard core, however, has run through the range of deterrent and reformatory measures provided on what we may call an out-patient basis; removal from home is now called for. Regrettably this action, although nominally undertaken in the interests of the child is, in fact, a move to protect society from the depredations of the offender.

By and large the public image of the Approved School is that of a punitive and restrictive institution. Surely Society should make far greater effort to identify those delinquent children who are likely to constitute the hard core. Earlier treatment would save us in some degree from the deep-rooted hostility which is apparent, on both sides, by the time the child is committed to an Approved School.

Clinicians tell us that maladjustment is not a psychiatric concept; that it is the one class of educational handicap which cannot be subject to scientific measurement (at least so far) and which, unlike all the others, may eventually disappear. Basically its real meaning seems to lie in its use as an administrative term classifying children who by virtue of their behaviour do not fit into home or school or neighbourhood. I would not myself attempt to differentiate between the children whose disturbance is that of their inner personality; and those who conform to the delinquent pattern of a sub-culture which is at odds with generally approved norms. It is far better to consider all these children as in need of special help and to eschew attempts to classify and categorize. However “normal”, psychiatrically speaking, many delinquent boys may be, by the time they have reached a residential school, they are extremely hostile to adults and difficult to live with. We do not want necessarily to label these children. At the primary school stage there should be little need to consider children as “security” risks. At a later stage the deterioration in the child's relations with his environment may be such that his hostility will have to be strictly contained, and this, of course, is recognized in the Approved School Service by the creation of special secure units. By and large, however, let us avoid special categories.

The special school environment
What are the aims of the school for maladjusted children? To revive and restore the child's capacity to make positive meaningful relationships with his fellows. In varying degrees we are all wrapped up in self-interest: as far as our self-interests coincide with those of society all is well. Our maladjusted children are those whose self-interests are in the long run self-destructive and anti-social. We acknowledge this whenever we tell a child (if we do) : “you'll come to a bad end.” How nice if, by warning and moral precept, we could evoke favourable responses from our children.

Looking more closely at the delinquent children in a school for the maladjusted we can see two groups: first, those whose delinquency is originally the product of a delinquent sub-culture but whose basic personalities are well-founded. Underlying their overt hostility and suspicion is a capacity for positive relationships with others. They are children who steal, break and enter, truant and commit acts of malicious mischief, for the most part as one of a group. Secondly, we have a number in whose delinquent behaviour are definite pathological undertones and whose capacity for effective personal relationships is limited. I would reckon to find here various types of stealing, fireraising and sexual aberrations.

Schools for the maladjusted vary, of course, enormously but most have certain features which assist them in their work of rehabilitation:

  1. They tend to be small in numbers and yet comparatively well staffed. There is a good staff/child ratio and all that that implies in the treatment of the child as an individual.

  2. Children are in them with the freely given consent of their parents or guardians. They have not been sent away for punishment. They have come to the school to be helped. Parental motives may be mixed and the children's understanding of events muddled or incomplete; but somehow voluntary admission is an easier base from which to work.

  3. Children display a wide variety of symptoms of disturbed behaviour. The dangers of monoculture are avoided. The interactions between child and child in response to such behaviour can be used to promote an understanding which assists the creation of a cohesive and coherent therapeutic atmosphere. The normalcy of one child corrects the deviancy of another. There are opportunities for identification with others whose work and play patterns are more normal. It seems to me that a group which is exclusively delinquent tends to re-inforce delinquent attitudes and to disseminate delinquent know-how.

  4. Length of treatment can be determined by the needs of the child and his home situation. It seems to me impossible to lay down hard and fast rules regarding the length of time a child should remain in a residential school. What is important is that the school should give itself adequate time to work with the child and family, time in which attitudes can be changed and domestic situations bettered or a long-term plan evolved for the child's well-being, if the home situation proves totally intractable At the same time, the school must remember the artificiality of its own environment and keep constantly in mind the need to make the child ready to meet the normal demands of the outside world. There is as much danger in keeping a child too long as in discharging him too soon. No doubt some research worker will one day tell us the factors for calculating the optimum discharge point.

What is the difference?
Educationalists normally deal with children who, being brought up in reasonably stable families, have enjoyed security, affection and esteem in their early years. More than anything else, the feature of maladjusted , delinquent children which impresses is the child's lack of a sense of self-esteem. These rejected or neglected children do not have the feeling that they mean anything to anybody; they are valueless in the eyes of others and of very little value in their own. Their world treats them as of little or no account; they treat people and places of their acquaintance in the same indifferent way. “Meaningless”, “senseless” behaviour, says the moralist, when they indulge in some act of wanton damage in an effort to provide life with meaning for themselves. Society, in the shape of parent or possibly court, steps in perhaps to punish physically, perhaps to admonish and moralize on the folly of it all “and the child, muddled and fearful, finds little joy in either the blows or the admonitions. His sense of unworthiness is re-inforced, his hostility aroused.

What can we do to put some meaning into the lives of these children? To make them feel that they are of value to us? The young predelinquent can still be reached by the adult: the huge defences raised by the adolescent do not yet exist as the barriers to be overcome before any contact can be made. To establish good rapport is a delicate matter: there must be no attempt to thrust one’s self at the child. The child arrives in the residential school with all sorts of preconceptions about adults: why should they in this place be other than unfriendly, unreliable or remote? By far the best way for the newcomers to learn of the place, is to do so from his peers. The image of the adult as non-rejecting, reliable and accessible will slowly achieve its effect. This is not to say that the adult deliberately avoids contact with the child. In many cases the child's behaviour will be so disruptive that the adult will have to intervene “but only to the extent necessary to keep the routine life of the institution running smoothly. This restraint alone will appear to the child as a punishment and nothing more is needed. Adult intervention will evoke hostility from the child but provided the same is not shown by the adult, such ill-feeling will be dissipated without damaging effects on future relationships.

Every aspect of the school’s life can contribute towards giving the child a feeling of his true value. We are all aware of the way in which achievement in the class-room can bring new ease to a child's relations with outsiders, and the converse holds true. The little jobs about the place give opportunities for recognizable service. Dining room duties, jobs in connection with games or the general tidiness are often trivial, but they can be used to make the child feel important and really part of the group. What is to be avoided, at least initially, is any expression of disapproving regret if a child falls down on the duties it has undertaken. In children who show often such a high level of distractability and overactivity, sustained performance of a regular job cannot be expected.

Liaison of residential settings
I said earlier that the indeterminate treatment time does enable work to be done at the schools and in the home in an unhurried and methodical fashion. In particular it should enable some sort of relationship to be built up between Children's Departments and their services and the school. Children in care who go to schools for the maladjusted have less security in background than any others. It is imperative for the child to know that he has a place in a Home, or a foster-home which is his in holiday time, come what may. An understanding of each other’s role, an appreciation of each other’s problems and a regular exchange of information preferably in person, can do much to make life easier for staffs concerned and for the child. Ideally, exchanges of staff might do more than anything else to increase our knowledge: the pity is we so often have not the staff to exchange. The complaints that a child's behaviour is worse than it was before he went away to a residential school arise from a misunderstanding of the school’s estimate of the child's needs and its attempt to formulate a policy to satisfy those needs. It is a failure in communication: Schools should find time to explain what they are doing and should find out what the difficulties of the residential Home are.

If we are to offer new opportunities to children with delinquent tendencies, then I think we shall have to make a far greater effort to identify them at an early stage, and to refine this general identification in order to select those who should have time away from home in a special residential school. We must lose some of our reluctance to remove young children from home and help parents realize that special educational treatment in this sense is therapeutic and not punitive. Any practise saving a child from hard-core delinquency benefits us, and the realization that we can modify a young child's behaviour more easily than that of a teenager will benefit us most of all.

This feature: Hill, S.F. (1966). They call them maladjusted. The Anti-social Child in Care : Annual Review of the Residential Child Care Association, 14. pp. 83-87.

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