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Theologian Martin Marty of the University of Chicago observed that throughout history the tribe, rather than the nuclear family, ultimately ensured survival of a culture.  When parents faltered in their responsibility, the tribe always was there to nourish the new generation.  The problem today is that we have lost our tribes.  The school is the only institution beyond the family that provides ongoing relationships with all of our young.  Schools could become the new tribes to support and nurture children at risk.

Early educational pioneers saw positive human attachments as the sine qua non of effective teaching.  Johann Pestalozzi declared that love, not teaching, was the essence of education.  In his classic book, Wayward Youth, Austrian August Aichorn (1935) argued that relationship was the heard of the reeducation process.  His ethic was that affection rather than punishment must be dispensed to difficult youth because this is their primary unmet need.  As educational literature became more “professional,” however, relationship building was ignored temporarily.  Now the importance of human attachment is the focus of a revival of interest.

Research shows that the quality of human relationships in schools and youth programs may be more influential than the specific techniques or interventions employed (Brophy, 1986).  Teachers with widely divergent instructional styles can be successful if they develop positive classroom climates.  Building successful relationships, however, takes time and effort.

The late eminent psychiatrist Karl Menninger often noted that many of today’s youth do not experience a sense of belonging at home.  When they come to school and behave in unacceptable ways, they get another unbelonging message:  “People who act like that don’t belong here.”  Some youth quit trying to build human bonds and begin to protect themselves with a guarded, suspicious, withdrawn manner.  Others do not give up seeking attention, recognition, and significance.  Instead, they pursue “artificial belongings” in gangs, cults, or sexual promiscuity.

Hostile or withdrawn youth often are signaling to adults that they have learned by experience to expect rejection, and untrained people almost invariably give them what they are used to receiving.  Many ways of reaching out to these unloved and sometimes unlovable children are possible if adults can overcome the fight or flight reactions that come so naturally.  Following are strategies for meeting the needs for attachment and belonging, which have developed in various theoretical traditions.

1.  Psychodynamic programs long have posited that strong, trusting relationships between troubled youth and adults were prerequisites to effective reeducation.  Youth work pioneer August Aichorn concluded that love is the primary unmet need of many troubled children.  Morse emphasized the importance of “differential acceptance,” in which we accept the child but not the behavior.  To accurately decode “testing” behaviors also is important.  Many troubled children initially provoke well meaning adults to see if they

EDMS 512, Hood

Summer 2006

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