What I saw work well
Having spent nearly a decade working with children with emotional disabilities, here are a few observations.
Children tended to respond best to a sufficiently relaxed environment with enough flexibility so that they felt free to try out some different responses to intentionally and carefully calibrated challenges, both academic and behavioral. This requires the presence of patient, insightful, reflective, warm, and encouraging staff. Many of the students, in their earlier educational experience, had become habituated to ineffective responses to challenges and the associated frustration that resulted. The key was to create a level of trust that enabled the student to dial down their defenses and take small risks in adjusting their behaviors. We all have within us a hypervigilant “reptile brain.” Many of these youngsters had become stuck in that mode. This took providing lots of one on one coaching and real time feedback.
Though trauma may be a frequently used term these days, many of the students had experienced some level of traumatic disruption in their lives, some repeatedly. (I remember one who would dive under the furniture at the sound of sirens. You can guess what that was about.)
On occasion there would be some staff who honestly believed that a quasi militaristic behavior modification program rigidly enforced would, basically, rapidly get the kids to “shape up.” (Thanks, Pavlov.) This was not effective. Most students were too proficient at defeating an authoritative approach.
I do understand that what I’m talking about here is a fairly “rich” program model. Also, it’s very helpful to have a solid continuum of mental health services available as well. Ideally, there would also be the availability of supportive programming for parents/families to fill out the daily school experience.
Special Education training programs need to help future staff examine what draws them to work in this field and to help them grow in gaining awareness of their own areas of countertransference. I don’t believe enough attention is paid to this. (Nor does it get enough emphasis in today’s mental health training.)
Looking back on those years, that’s what offered the greatest likelihood of progress.