By Michael J. Marlowe
Professor Michael Marlowe teaches at the Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, United States of America
Building Relationships with Troubled Children: Insights from Torey Hayden
Torey Hayden, a teacher of children with emotional and behavioural difficulties, has authored eight books chronicling her day to day work in special education and child psychology. Hayden’s first book was One Child (1980), the story of Sheila, a silent troubled girl, who had tied a three year old boy to a tree and critically burned him. One Child was followed by Somebody Else’s Kids (1982), Murphy’s Boy (1983), Just Another Kid (1986), Ghost Girl (1992), The Tiger’s Child (1995), the sequel to One Child, Beautiful Child (2002), and Twilight Children (2006).
Hayden’s teacher stories are remarkable for their emphasis on relationships (Marlowe 2006, 2011). They stress the interpersonal dynamics and emotional connections involved in working with hard to reach children. Her stories give special voice to the power of relationship skills, intuition, and the social milieu in changing behaviour, and they emphasize the synergistic power of relationships between a teacher and her students. In her prologue to The Tiger’s Child, Hayden noted this reciprocal effect in her relationship with Sheila: “This little girl had a profound effect on me. Her courage, her resilience, and her inadvertent ability to express that great gaping need to be loved that we all feel – in short, her humanness brought me into contact with my own.” (Hayden, 1995, p. 8)
While Hayden is open about the fact that she follows no specific model, I have distilled from her stories an approach to educating children with emotional and behavioural difficulties which could be termed the relationship-driven classroom (Marlowe and Hayden, 2013). The cornerstone of this relationship-driven approach is commitment. It is the unequivocal commitment of one individual to another, of Hayden to the child she is working with, that evokes positive change. Troubled children have to have this type of relationship if they are going to move forward. They need the esteem that comes only from knowing others care about you, others value you sufficiently to commit to you. They need to know that while significant others may have been unable to provide this type of commitment, it does not mean they are unworthy of it. As Urie Bronfenbrenner (2005) proclaimed, every child needs at least one special adult who is irrationally crazy about him or her, for only then can the child develop to full potential.
Whether you are a teacher, a child and youth care provider, or a foster parent,
there are certain skills and concepts that underpin relationships as a means of change. Four skills are fundamental to the success of using relationships with troubled children or youth. Of all available social skills, these are the ones that are most crucial in order to create the strong and healthy bonds necessary for effectively using relationships as a medium of change (Marlowe and Hayden, 2013).
The key quality of self-awareness is the ability to step back from one’s emotions and cognitive activity sufficiently to be able to discern what one is feeling and thinking. The other key quality is to have a reasonable understanding of why one does the things one does and how one’s feelings and thoughts influence one’s actions. Those skilled in self-awareness are able to maintain this awareness as they are thinking and feeling and to make use of the small space between antecedent action and their behavior to actively choose how they will respond.
This crucial skill ensures that we can maintain our own behaviour as a conscious action and respond rather than react to what the child is doing. This allows us to monitor and make the almost continuous small adjustments to our own behaviour necessary to discourage inappropriate behaviour and encourage appropriate.
It is the fundamental skill upon which all other skills and, ultimately, all personal change are based. Self-awareness must always be present. Without awareness of what we are doing, it is impossible to make any kind of significant or lasting change.
Objectivity refers to the ability to let go of the self-oriented point of view and see things from either the perspective of another person or from a general perspective external to ourselves. In cultivating objectivity, we recognize three things: a) that our own perspective is limited; b) that the other person also has a limited perspective which will be unique to them and different to ours because they have had different life experiences and circumstances; and c) that there is always a “bigger picture” which is both outside these individual subjective perspectives and inclusive of them.
When self-awareness and objectivity work in tandem, they allow us to see our own perspective is our own, to step back from it sufficiently to discern others have different points of view that will feel as internally valid to them as ours does to us, and to be able to step outside both to view the “bigger picture.”
There is a duality present within the relationship-driven approach. On one level it is all about self-awareness and objectivity, which means recognizing that what we think, feel and experience affects our actions, but that we each think, feel, and experience differently. On another level, however, it is about recognizing that we are all, in fact, alike. Our differences are superficial. At our core, we ALL much more alike than different.
While we each have our own subjective realities and we need to be aware of this, we must also remember that we all share the same basic humanity, no matter how different we may appear from the outside. We all experience fear, joy, pleasure, anger, discouragement. We all experience pain, tiredness, arousal, hunger, illness.
An understanding of this commonality allows tolerance and acceptance to develop because it enables us to let go of fear about the other person’s differences. We are hard wired to be afraid of things we do not understand. The ablity to perceive common traits allows us to understand the other person, however, different, bad, repugnant, et cetera, is at the heart really just like us, and so we don’t need to fear them. . It helps us realize that however bizarre, incomprehensible or misguided their actions, they are acting in an effort to feel better or avoid pain, just like we do. This helps us accept the child is not a “beast” or “inhuman” or “unreachable” and that within him or her there will be feelings, sensations, perceptions and experiences like our own and if we can connect with this common ground we have a chance of bringing about change.
It isn’t necessary to be an extrovert to make relationships work as a methodology, but it is necessary be sincerely interested in other people and to find a natural enjoyment in interacting with them. External methodologies where focus is solely on the maladjusted behaviour and controlling it are not dependent on personality characteristics of the teacher, residential counsellor, or foster parent. In order for relationships to work as a means of behavioural change, however, the adult needs a certain level of natural friendliness in order to be at ease forming relationships.
These four skills are fundamental to relationships in general. As well as these necessary skills, there are seven philosophical principles which underpin and inform all action taken in a relationship-driven milieu (Marlowe and Hayden, 2013).
Relationships are a process, not a goal
There are two different approaches whether it is working with troubled children or whether it is towards life in general – goal orientated or process orientated Both orientations are a normal part of human behaviour. In goal orientation you do what you do for the ultimate outcome. With a troubled child, for example, you work with him because you have expectations of making him better and more capable of living a fulfilling life. You have expectations of an outcome from the time you undertake what you are doing. Fulfillment comes when you reach the goal.
In process orientation you do what you do for the process of doing it. With a troubled child you don’t have any expectations of what’s going to happen because you are not looking at the future. You work with the child because you enjoy the act of being with the child. This means you focus on the process, the doing of something, rather than the outcome. Consequences or outcome of the experience may reinforce the behaviour but they are not at the heart of this orientation. Fulfilment comes instead from awareness and appreciation of having the experience while it is happening.
Relationships are, by their very nature, process oriented. They are ongoing and now. The relationship-driven model is present oriented because relationships only exist in the present. Thus in order to use relationships as a way of changing behaviour, one must be oriented to the present process as opposed to towards a future goal. In other words, the relationship the adult has with the child now is used to change behaviour as opposed to its being a reward or an outcome of the change. The adult is working with the environment, modifying what is happening “right now” by means of relationship skills, intuition and social milieu, all of which exist only in the present.
Hayden works with children because she thoroughly enjoys the process itself. She loves the act of being with the children. While she is open to the fact that improvement for her children is desirable, this is not what guides her work. Her pay-off, her fulfilment in working with children comes during the time spent together, during the interactions, during the moment itself.
There is a difference between the person and the person’s actions
In order to relate in a warm and tolerant manner, we must accept that each person is ultimately separate from his/her actions and thus has the potential to control and change his/her behaviour. It is crucial to understand this distinction between what we do and who we are. We cannot change who we are. We can change what we do. Actions belong to us and in that way they are part of us and we are responsible for them, but they are only one part of a greater whole. They are not the whole itself. This is one of the most basic tenants of the relationship-driven approach. It is the concept that powers the confidence that change can take place, no matter how appalling the current circumstances. Self-esteem can be rebuilt; motivation can be re-instilled; new lives can take form as long as there is the hope that this is possible. And this hope resides in the understanding that what we do is not who we are.
No one chooses to be unhappy
Hayden believes we all want to be happy. Everything we do, no matter how odd or misguided, is done because we think consciously or unconsciously that it will lead to our feeling happier. This is simply another way of saying “Everyone is doing the best they can.” Children engaging in difficult or destructive behaviour do so in erroneous belief that this will relieve their unhappiness. They are not actively trying to be unhappy. Instead, they are actively trying to be happy but going about it in an unproductive way, because – for whatever reason – they are simply not able to do differently at this point in time. A misbehaving child isn’t wilfully choosing to be unhappy. He/she genuinely hasn’t come up with a more effective way of being happy.
Misbehaviour is a teaching opportunity
If everyone wants happiness and no one wants unhappiness, yet there is misbehaviour that results in unhappiness, then we can assume the person does not know how to do differently. If he/she did, he/she would be doing it, because unhappiness makes one feel dismal. If, on the other hand, someone doesn’t know how to do differently, then the appropriate response from those who do is to teach him or her how.
A gigantic amount of misbehaviour occurs because the child simply does not know how to behave differently, because he has misconceptions about how he should behave, or because he has misconceptions about himself. These situations are not corrective occasions. They are teaching opportunities.
In a relationship-driven methodology, functional behaviour is taught actively via the adult-child relationship in order to give children experience of the appropriate behaviours they are expected to use. Some aspects of appropriate behaviour are taught by the adult through active modelling and others are taught to the child directly, such as how a functional person manages his/her emotions, how a functional person relates appropriately to others, and how a functional person handles negative situations. So discipline in a relationship-driven milieu can be summed up as: never pass up an opportunity to teach.
Everyone can change
Hayden believes that everyone regardless of who they are and what they have done, can change. This belief is the foundation upon which all the rest of the relationship-driven model is built.
Everybody can change is just a practical attitude. Pollyanna says, “Everyone will change.” This statement is just as black-and-white as “He’ll never change.” What Hayden wants to cultivate is the ability to stay positive about the possibility of change, and the recognition that we are not omniscient. It’s easy to fall into using black-and-white terms like “always” or “never” in regards to difficult behaviour, but in doing so we are implying that the children and situations we are dealing with are fixed, and discreet, and therefore entirely predictable, when they are, in fact, constantly changing and connected to and affected by an infinite number of other things that we have no knowledge of, insight into, or control over.
Because we may not be able to see how change will take place doesn’t mean there is no chance for change. We need to promote personal change as doable, and in the process, distinguish in our own minds the difference between “I can’t do any more to help this child” and “No one can help this child.”
Personal change is very difficult
In Hayden’s experience changing ingrained personal behaviour is very hard to do. There are many reasons for this: genetic make-up, environmental circumstances, motivation, and consequences all factor in. As a result, it is normal for the individual who is trying to change to make many approximations before managing the right behaviour. It is also normal to slip up or fail many times before eventually achieving the behaviour. It is normal for the increments of change to be very, very small and the more entrenched the behaviour, the smaller they usually have to be for success to be maintained. Because of this, it is necessary and, indeed, crucial to reward approximations of the desired behaviour as one goes along. It is also important for both adult and child to be aware from the onset that it is entirely normal to have to make such small steps and that the person making the change should be encouraged to be positive about any movement in the right direction, however minute the increments.
Change can be slow, subtle and difficult and very often happens in a manner much different to what we had planned or envisioned, so it is important children be aware of this and be aware that this is normal. We want to help children shift away from the goal-oriented judgmental perspective that “I tried. I failed. I can’t do it. I give up” to the process-oriented “I tried. It didn’t happen this time. I’ll try again.”
The world is complex
Black-and-white thinking – the tendency to perceive things as all-or-nothing and thus able to be put into discernible, discreet and permanent categories – seems to be a hard-wired trait for humans. We categorize and generalize by nature.
From the perspective of a relationship-driven approach, two of the most important reasons for avoiding black-and-white thinking are: 1) almost all behaviours are on a spectrum and not at the two (black or white) extremes. For example, we are virtually never entirely happy or entirely sad. Happy is one end of the spectrum, sad is at the opposite end and we normally tend to fall somewhere in between. Recognizing the spectrum nature of behaviour makes it much easier to accept approximations of appropriate behaviour and to see positive movement towards the wanted behaviour because we can see what is being done is further up the spectrum than the previous behaviour. In contrast, black-and-white thinking allows us only two outcomes: success or failure. And 2) black-and-white thinking tends to ignore time and the fact that all things change over time. We are not at all static creatures. We are never really the same twice. Recognizing this continual process of change allows us to recognize the potential for things to be different than they are right now. In contrast, black-and-white thinking assumes permanence and looks for opportunities to reinforce that. The black-and-white thinker looks only for evidence that reinforces categorization and ignores evidence of change. Once a bully, always a bully, for example.
So it is important when working with a relationship-based methodology that one have a clear understanding that the world is complex, that we can’t reduce it to clear-cut, comprehensible certainties. This kind of open-ended acceptance is one of the most crucial attributes for success in the dynamic realm of relationships.
Final Thoughts on Relationship-Driven Practice
Hayden has developed a philosophy of attachment and loss in forming relationships which threads through her books. For her forming relationships is central to teaching, but it inevitably implies eventual loss, just the way birth inevitably contains within it the guarantee of eventual death. One of her favorite quotes is: “A ship in the harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships were built for.” In other words, the only certain way to stay safe from loss is never having attachment, but research in psychology and sociobiology shows that we are a social species and are primed biologically to have relationships from birth (Szalavitz & Perry, 2010). That Hayden formed attachments which she knew ultimately would end simply meant she was able to keep an objective eye on what was going on in her teacher-student relationships – I’m a teacher; my ending comes in June – not that she was any better at loss than her students or that it hurt her any less. Part of what she teaches in forming an attachment, is how to cope with loss, and loss comes to all of us.
Hayden’s goal in forming relationships with her children as stated various times through her books is to help more than she hurts. She states that’s all any of us can aim for, as the perfect person or perfect relationship does not exist. She remains committed to the idea that we all do need to know in a very real way that we matter to someone, someplace, even if we cannot be together. And real love, for whatever time it lasts, is never wasted.
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