By Jeremy Millar

Date Posted: December 15th, 2011

Jeremy Millar is a lecturer at the School of Applied Social Studies of the Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen. Jeremy describes himself, “as an anarchist punk with a love of the absurd.” He sees his career as “a succession of serendipitous events revolving around residential care in its widest sense.” Jeremy’s “love of people and their stories has led to an interest in the history of containing, restraining and rehabilitating people who fall victim to the casual indifference and active oppression inherent in capitalist societies.” An idealist, Jeremy “arrived at teaching with a desire to bring the stories of the’other’ into the classroom.” He works with a group of care leavers who contribute to the teaching of social work and residential child care students. Jeremy “often rages at the world” and he “is currently looking to the Occupy movement to radicalise young people,”and he “is heartened by the results so far.” In relation to residential child care Jeremy is “delighted that the tyranny of new managerialism and its procedural risk averse practices are on the wane. Jeremy’s current message to those involved in residential child care is to ask them “to work with the power of relationships, to talk about love, and to constantly question the dominant discourse at all times.”


Residential Life with Children Revisited : Essay Review Part 1


One of the pleasures of working in an academic environment is the license to read books for curiosity’s sake rather than reading purely aimed at locating evidence for the most current assignment or keeping abreast of the endless stream of policy documents at Governmental and agency level. In the course of sourcing books on working in the life space I had the good fortune to pick up Chris Beedell’s 1970 work ‘Residential Life with Children’. I had a hunch through the title that it might offer a take on the life space. I was more than rewarded as Beedell not only references Aichhorn (1925), Bettelheim (1950) and Maier (1979) but also offers a chapter on working in the life space that draws on the work of Redl and Wineman (1951, 1952, 1957).

Having worked in residential care since the late 70’s and latterly come to teaching on a social work degree course with a residential child care focus, it is with a degree of shame that I confess my relative ignorance of the rich history of therapeutic milieu practice in the UK context. I am relishing rectifying this matter. The best analogy for me is enjoying the Rolling Stones and then discovering the original work of Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters etc. Suddenly the meaning of classic songs becomes much clearer as you learn about the historical context in which the original songs were crafted and how they came to influence contemporary music.

I will commence with some of this historical context. Christopher Beedell started his residential career in one of Britain’s early therapeutic communities, Hawkspur Camp in Essex. This experiment in the treatment of delinquent young men was set up in 1935 by David Wills (1941, 1945) who in turn had been influenced by the work of Homer Lane and his Little Commonwealth (Bazeley 1928). Christopher was enthused by these innovative alternatives to the harsh punishment models of treating those with delinquent behaviours and other children deemed to be at risk. Throughout his life he supported therapeutic treatment utilizing an understanding of psychodynamic principles. He went on to work at the Mulberry Bush School and in a consultative capacity with the Cotswold Community. He was part of a teaching team at the Bristol University who taught the Advanced Course in Residential Work with Children that was delivered throughout the 1960s and 70s.

He utilized his contact through the course with students from a variety of senior posts in residential child care who challenged and refined his thinking leading to his 1970 publication ‘Residential Life with Children’. It is this book that I will now review and offer, hopefully, meaningful links to current practice and debates on the nature of the demands in providing safe, nurturing and healing environments for troubled and troublesome children and young people. Christopher Beedell has written a practical guide to understanding the residential child care task whilst adding the magic ingredient that of the therapeutic relationship combined with a clear understanding of the latent power to affect positive change within the life space.

Beedell starts this guide with a look at the scope of the task, describing the different settings and offering examples of the daily activities. He states his political position on the first page, noting the historical legacy and the ‘uncomfortable and sometimes painful aspect of social organization, such institutions (except the public schools) tend to be starved of money and social approval, and the work they do is undervalued and often misunderstood.’(Beedell 1970:1) He goes on to state that whilst residential care can be seen as a residual provision for those who society shies away from it should not be regarded as second best in terms of care. It should also not provide care for those children who could reside in their families and communities for want of other provision such as adequate housing.

In describing the residential population it is striking that he is, by today’s standards, referring to much larger groups of children. However, when he discusses the profiles of the children some clear connections can be made to the group composition in today’s ‘units’.‘At any given time the group will include at least two or three children who, in thinking and intellectual response, function at markedly below average level…..…there will be only one or two children who have little or no contact with some family member of their own……a proportion will have previous institutional experience….among the more disturbed at any time, one or two children will be odd, difficult to know, and in need of special handling if they are not to be a source of constant annoyance to the rest of the group and miserable in themselves.’ (Ibid:6-7)

These observations connect the reader directly to the lived experience of residential child care. Immediately I started to remember children previously in my care, particularly the odd ones. Beedell goes on to look at aspects of disturbed behaviour and makes links to what we would now understand as resilience factors. He is breaking the task down in terms of understanding the child in their unique developmental context and he sums up with the aspect that we can often overlook; ‘All these children will have a healthy, developed side to their personalities and, particularly if the unit provides a large ‘chunk of life’ experience for them, will need to be stimulated and helped to thrive as unique individuals.’(Ibid:8) This refreshingly optimistic outlook, is one that connects directly with current strength based approaches.

In looking at the daily rhythms and routines of the ‘typical’ unit. Beedell uses the voices of the children to highlight their concerns and queries. Whilst the age range within the unit is broader than is usual today the issues are similar,

‘May I make a phone call?

Is Mummy coming?

Can my friend come to tea?

I hate school. Do I have to go tomorrow?’

These are a sample of the voices and he then goes on to to describe the activity of an evening : ‘Older girls are in the play room or hall playing pop records at full blast, knitting, smoking, playing table tennis, chatting (or being chatted up).'(Ibid:15) The effect is to draw the reader into the life space and identify the normality and the centrality of staff within the milieu fielding queries and concerns, anticipating conflict and distracting participants. There is structured activity around domestic routines and homework along with free semi-structured time to be children and adolescents.

So how do staff practice, what knowledge base do they draw upon and which essential components from their use of self contribute to this therapeutic milieu? Beedell sets out the challenge; ‘This means that for each child the unit has to make available a reliable but constantly modifiable selection of the range of provision set out in the next three chapters.’(Ibid:16) Beedell characterizes these as parenting and holding, nurturing and personal integrity.

In the first of these chapters Beedell explores the nature of what he calls the shared parenting role undertaken by residential workers. He breaks this down into a ‘holding’ role in which the parent provides for the safety and survival of the child. The parent offers comfort and control and meets the child’s basic needs. The next aspect is one of ‘nurturing’ in which the workers offer developmental experience within the context of a loving relationship and finally he discusses the importance of personal integrity, which relates to the developmental aspect of becoming a whole person.

From Beedell’s perspective the residential task is to weave these elements together. A complex and demanding endeavour that differs from intuitive parenting in that; ‘In the residential situation these aspects must be more consciously thought out, even at the risk of appearing to separate a very complex whole experience into bits and pieces.’ (Ibid:20 authors italics) It is clear that Beedell regards the experience of residential life as one of a therapeutic intervention not just removal of the child for safety or the provision of containment for a period in the child’s life. He talks of this as the rehabilitative task and exalts staff ‘to be able to provide not only good ordinary experience for their charges but also some good extraordinary experience.’(Ibid:21 authors italics).

Beedell goes on to look at the nature of holding and identifies three key areas; acceptance, experience of care, comfort and control and adult help in a novel situation. Acceptance, is similar to unconditional positive regard or dare we say love and underpins all the other aspects of parenting and is characterized by the warmth and depth of the totality of the interpersonal relationships in the home. Each individual feels they are treated as a unique person and through the growth of mutual trust they incrementally reveal more of their true selves. This often manifests itself in testing out behaviours as the child seeks a deeper affirmation of their acceptance. Beedell takes this behaviour as a positive sign of progress not an issue for tighter behaviour management.

Beedell’s ability to bring residential life alive for the reader comes through in his exploration of the experience of care, comfort and control; ‘Like good hospitality, it does not basically alter one’s life situation but it does renew hope.’(Ibid:26) ‘The symbolic scrap of sticking plaster and a kiss on a scratch for a small child or a hot drink and cosseting for an adolescent are quite as important as aseptic medical care’ (Ibid:27) With observations such as these we enter a therapeutic milieu in which the child finds a secure base and genuinely displayed feelings from dependable adults.

Out of this milieu Beedell addresses one of the thorniest issues in relation to residential care, that of control. He astutely chooses not to aim for a characterization of the controlling environment but instead accepts that the environment is both controlling and controllable and the emphasis will inevitably change as children present their behaviour differently. Some are over controlled within themselves whilst others are reliant on external controls and the goal of the control or discipline ‘should always be related to specific circumstance, individuals, groups and aims.’ (Ibid:28 author’s italic). The role of staff is crucial in the maintenance of a controlled and controllable environment and this is where adult help in a novel situation comes to the fore.

Beedell goes on to highlight the importance of planning for and even rehearsing for departure and admission, with the focus being on the discussion of feelings and an awareness of previous painful separation and how this relates to attachment style. It is best if a worker can bridge the transition with the child. I’ll offer the last words on holding to Christopher Beedell, ‘Good ‘holding’ provision is essential to the residential unit’s task… …Holding provision is really a kind of ‘ground base’-a rhythm and harmony running continuously under the chords and tunes of other kinds of provision…’ (Ibid:36)

Having set up the nature of the ‘holding’ environment Beedell now looks at the nurturing role. In this aspect of care Beedell is referring to holistic inter-personal and culturally educative role, one that good enough families provide. Crucially Beedell identifies the key developmental opportunity provided by the group and identifies the key areas of; stimulating play opportunities, adopting identities within the group and experimenting with ‘developmentally appropriate sex-role behaviour.’ (Ibid:38) He goes on to discuss the milieu as a locus for socialization, both in the unit but crucially relating the learning about social roles into the wider community. Learning about others and maintaining relationships with adults and peers alike is facilitated by the group living experience. This developmental opportunity is managed by the staff with reference to their unique knowledge of the children they are working with.

Beedell illustrates nurturing practice in his discussion as offering, for example free play and opportunities for hanging out. There are obvious links to what we would now probably identify as a social pedagogic approach. He challenges assumptions that can made by staff focusing on static rather than fluid identities which lead to an over ‘supervision’ of the child leaving little time for them to experience solitude. In Beedell’s words, ‘Unless a child has opportunity to act alone it is difficult for him to find a sense of himself as a person apart from others which is positively confirmed by his own actions and not mainly a defence against, or reaction to, the demands of others.’(Ibid:43)This is a most perceptive understanding of the tension within residential child care between offering space for a child to find him/herself and for staff to be seen to be effectively intervening. This opens a fruitful area of discussion into therapeutically holding back from doing things.

The discussion regarding staff modeling appropriate adult sex-roles evidences just how little we have developed practice in terms of exploring gender stereotypes and Beedell refers to society’s ferment in terms of the degree to which workers should adopt an educational role. Currently this can still be seen in the context of same sex adoption and education around lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues.

The role of the staff in offering routines and shared rituals is explored in terms of a critical understanding of whose needs are being met. I like the manner in which Beedell recognizes both the therapeutic potential in shared mealtimes but also the right of the child to ‘control’ how they eat. He correctly identifies that other children seldom complain about the habits of their peers unless they have been put up to it. Tolerance and restraint appear to be his watchwords in terms of socialization in the life space. He then goes on to illustrate how the learning can be translated into the wider community. Beedell comments on wise adults choosing carefully their battlegrounds with adolescents and understanding the concept of a tactical withdrawal.

Beedell details the importance of relational work when he goes on to address the nurturing aspect of knowing about each other. Here he is talking about a mutual knowledge involving all those living and working in the milieu. The therapeutic task is to get under the surface behaviour and create a shared narrative for all the participants that will include an intimate understanding of likes and dislikes, funny stories, shared moments of joy which contribute to the ability for individuals to see themselves reflected in others much in same manner offered by a loving family environment. Beedell doesn’t underestimate the effort required to achieve this outcome but he is clear in his understanding of what can be the consequences if relational approaches are not to the fore. He details the dangers thus,

  • A child floats through, escapes notice and does not become well known as an individual by at least some members of the unit;
  • Knowledge about children is constricted to cover only limited aspects of their behaviour: what is most trouble-some or conforming and thus most readily noticed;
  • A shared picture becomes too simple in another way: by neglecting variations in a child’s behaviour in relation to different adults or children groupings;
  • A shared picture becomes badly distorted by unconscious pressures within adults or the peer group. (Ibid:52)

I can immediately connect with situations in which vulnerable young people in my care slipped under the radar as no one reached out to the them as they were quiet and compliant and others made more overt demands on staff time. Not being a ‘management problem’ is in effect an equally strong cry for attention as being constantly in the staff group’s face. The availability of staff to support the nurturing process is crucial and Beedell makes the following insightful observation on the perception of staffs role, ‘It may be impossible for the Head of the unit ever to appear without his role, though one hopes the children will know he or she is flesh and blood. But for most other staff it should be possible and sometimes easy for them to do so. Young and junior staff members are often valuable in this respect. In fact the general level of ‘undefendedness’ among the staff will contribute to this opportunity…’ (Ibid:53) In this description I make links to the ability of some relief/sessional workers to quickly engage with young people, happily share of themselves and get involved in doing stuff that excites and interests the group. Arguably this is the quality we should be bottling rather than instilling a technical procedural approach that stifles the opportunity for creativity and spontaneity.

The final element identified by Beedell as crucial to the work of the therapeutic milieu is the development of personal integrity. He commences his exploration of the complex understanding of integrity with reference to the psychodynamic understanding of ego integrity. He references Fairbairn (1952) and his concept of mature dependence as contrasted with infantile dependence. Here Fairbairn distinguishes mature dependency as an ability to see oneself as a differentiated individual who has insight into their various selves and the ability to mediate between these selves and their interaction with the external world. The concept of this ego integrity is central to the understanding of working therapeutically in the life space. The contrasting state of infantile dependence can be clearly observed in the children and young people who enter residential care. It can be characterized by behaviours that attempt to swallow up/consume and ‘incorporate’ another. Extreme controlling behaviours that speak of the individual’s inner turmoil and need to bring stability to their emotional state by way of dominating the immediate environment and those in their presence. At the other end of thisunintegrated spectrum is the individual who subsumes themselves in another loosing their identity in the process. Here we observe children unable to express an opinion, self-direct and vulnerable to many forms of exploitation. The evidence for these distinct forms of inner turmoil manifests themselves in the harming and self-harm behaviours that often brought the children to the attention of social services.

The function of the therapeutic milieu is to firstly understand that these children have both healthy ‘bits’ and ‘fragile’ bits in relation to their ego development. Beedell refers the reader back to the importance of the holding and nurturing responsibilities in facilitating the repair of the ego, offering the prospect of working towards a sense of ego integrity. He identifies this process as ‘Educational ‘integrity provision’ (Ibid:59) which works by the,

    • ‘Admission of the whole child to the unit.
    • Protection from the pressure of ‘others’ with recognition of ‘others’ as ‘egos’ in their own right.
    • Opportunities for reflection and expression as ways of confirming one’s ideas of oneself and testing one’s wholeness.
    • Recognition of fragile learning points.


Beedell acknowledges that the admission of the whole child, psychologically speaking, to the unit presents a considerable challenge. He breaks the task down into more discrete aspects. He commences with presenting an environment that expresses acceptance described as ‘more than being sympathetic or tolerant: it is an attitude of readiness for anything.’ (Ibid:60) He identifies how residential settings tend to offer a conditional space in which it is made explicit that certain behaviours don’t happen here. Beedell states that it is ‘more educative to be faced with the assumption “anything can happen here”.’ (Ibid:60) This is so refreshing to read yet it is somewhat depressing that such a fundamental aspect of the therapeutic milieu is so often negated by restrictive and risk averse cultures of care.

This strength based approach is reinforced through the next element, that of validating the child’s personal history. Beedell contributes a quote for which he hasn’t traced the source; ‘The child’s history as he sees it is the only history we can work with’ (Ibid:61) and this perceptive insight urges caution in the practice of checking facts and questioning the child’s reality. Beedell goes on to say that, ‘Feelings are as much facts as occurrences which can be externally observed,..’ (Ibid:61) and urges workers to accept the child’s history and not to devalue or ignore his/her account as that approach diminishes the whole child and the valuable material that can be worked with in a therapeutic manner. He goes further in his observation of how the process of splitting the child from aspects of their history leads to a temporary appearance of progress within the milieu but often a breakdown and regression to a pre-care state on leaving the care environment. Tellingly Beedell identifies the oft-heard lament that this post care breakdown could have been prevented with more after care services when in fact the issue is that the ‘in care’ work has been avoided by a reluctance or inability to accept and work with the whole child. The strengths that a child brings in their personal history demand of a unit that it ‘search steadily and sensitively for those areas of good, or at least not-to-bad, experience.’ (Ibid:63)

Beedell goes on to describe how ‘ego therapy’, can be achieved. In the process he describes there are parallels with the work of Redl and Wineman (1951, 1952) and Trieschman et al (1969). He commences with exploratory ego building which address missed or denied opportunities for developmental play and social interaction through the creation of fresh opportunity to indulge in free play and adventure. He identifies artistic expression through use of paints and clay as well as the outdoor activities of building dens, climbing trees and caring for animals. To this reader, Beedell is identifying the practice inherent in good residential child care that has been eroded and undermined in the current climate of risk averse management techniques.

Optimistically, these barriers appear to be falling as the new social pedagogic model of practice is being rolled out in child care. Out of this emphasis on the child’s mastery of their physical self and manipulation of external boundaries and limits the ego is built and strengthened, offering new possibilities for growth in the future. It is vital that workers, through the process of assessment, recognize that without these formative experiences necessary for ego strength, many of the tasks they set for children in their care are doomed to failure. It all becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Remedial ego building focuses on the building of the child’s confidence to overcome obstacles that have resulted in an erosion of self-esteem and the inability to manage and complete tasks. The worker would help to identify the blocks that may be around from negative messages from previous caregivers or poor educational support leading to the child believing their self to be stupid. The workers relational role in supporting and enhancing the child’s latent strength is the key to this remedial task.

For children encountering difficulties in terms of a personality disturbance Beedell identifies the requirement for ‘personality resolution and integration’, which draws on the psychodynamic understanding of mediating the unconscious processes that are presenting as disturbed behaviours. The resolution involves making sense of past dysfunction in relationships that led to a skewed understanding by the child of the self and it’s relationship with the world. Achieving this goal is inherent in the therapeutic milieu and Beedell states,


‘Provision for this to happen, and to be used in a healthy way, depends on many circumstances: the assumption that anything can happen; open communication and acknowledgement of feelings; availability of adults as individual persons, reliability of response (not necessarily consistency of it at some stages) and so on.’


I like the way he casually addresses the thorny issue of consistency which plagues many a staff team in terms of how they deliver care. I believe that he is pointing to staff having a clear understanding of the ‘work’ required for ego repair coupled with a commitment to the relationship that will provide the holding and nurture for the necessary growth. Consistency exists in the loving responses of the individual staff members rather than a one size fits all approach to the children in the group.

Finally Beedell turns his attention to the truly fragmented child, one who has missed out on the vital early attachment experience so necessary to a coherent sense of self. These children experience their relationship with the external world as confusing and threatening as their inner turmoil. For Beedell and other writers such as Barbara Dockar Drysdale (1966) the therapy centres on providing primary experiences for the child that attempt to make good the developmental gaps. Beedell accepts that these experiences are illusory, as one cannot go back,‘Yet this making good the gaps is “real” because the child experiences it deeply in work with a special adult. And to the extent that such illusory experience is felt as “real” by the child it gradually becomes dependable.’ (Ibid:75) Herein lies the magic of residential life with children.

Beedell goes on to assert that this is the most intensive and direct intervention in the life of a child. The worker has to be directive in a sensitive manner as the child lacks the necessary ego initiative to take the lead in its own healing process. This process is most ably conducted in the residential group setting where support is available to the care givers, the opportunities for assessment are greater than any other setting and the scope for creating experiences that contribute to ego integrity building are wider in scope than more traditional educational settings.

This review of Beedell’s work has gripped me and led to a greater engagement than I first envisioned so I am pausing at the end of chapter four. I will bring the concluding chapters to you at a later date. Now to end this part I will leave you with this summary, ‘residential provision has a ‘parenting’ function comparable to that of the family. The experience must be, in all respects as good as those of the ordinary good family and in some respects more expertly related to the child’s individual needs.’ (Ibid:79) Surely this is not beyond the scope of all the resources of the ‘Corporate Parent’?


Aichhorn, A. (1951) Wayward Youth. London: Imago First published 1925 VerwahrlosterJugend.Wien: InternationalerPsychoanalytischerVerlag

Bazeley, E. T. (1928) Homer Lane and the Little Commonwealth London: Allen & Unwin

Beedell, C. (1970) Residential Life with Children.London: Routledge & Kegan Paul

Bettelheim, B. (1950) Love is not enough: The treatment of emotionally disturbed children. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

Dockar Drysdale, B.E. (1966) ‘The Provision of a Primary Experience in a Therapeutic School’ in J. Child Psychol. Psychiat., Vol. VII, 263-5.

Fairbairn, W.R.D. (1952) Psychoanalytical Studies of the Personality, London: Tavistock

Maier, H. (1979). ‘The core of care: Essential ingredients for the development of children at home and away from home’ in Child Care Quarterly, 8(4), 161-173.

Redl, F.& Wineman, D. (1951) Children Who Hate. New York: The Free Press

Redl, F. & Wineman, D. (1952) Controls from Within-Techniques for the Treatment of the Aggressive Child. New York: The Free Press

Redl, F. &Wineman, D. (1957) The Aggressive Child. Glencoe, Illinois: The Free Press

Trieschman, A., Whittaker, J.K. and Brendtro, L.K. (1969) The other 23 hours: Child-care work with emotionally disturbed children in a therapeutic milieu, New York: Aldine De Gruiter.

Wills, D. (1941) The Hawkspur Experiment, London: George Allen and Unwin.

Wills, D. (1945) The Barns Experiment, London: Allen and Unwin.

The concluding part of Jeremy Millar’s review can be found in Issue 11 of the goodenoughcaring Journal


Brian Gannon observes


An excellent article from Jeremy on Beedell’s book which took me right back to the days when this book was the well-thumbed bible, nay, Bible! of our earlier practice settings. I remember its remarkable ability to speak to (a) the complex individual developmental tasks of the child, while at the same time to (b) the competent management of the whole environment of the children’s home. That must be one of the most significant and informative texts in the history of the field. It was well-organised, too, in that it served as relevant reading for students in courses we were teaching, for staff in programs we were running, and in our own personal growth in our direct practice. I should think that many kids out there today as adults in their own right owe much to Chris Beedell. I once had a student in a class here in Cape Town who had studied with him in England, and she added much to the discussion in the group. (She was a nun in the Sisters of Nazareth order).

I was so pleased to see that it was just “Part 1” of Jeremy’s reflection on the book.