I met a teenager recently who came to me with some problems she is having at her school. The mother sat in on our conversation. Afterwards, the mother emailed me and commented on how I spoke to her daughter as a mature person, and how I was able to be on her side but also to say hard things to her. I loved getting this compliment, but I also had to laugh because I hadn’t done any of those things consciously. I believe that the culture we have created at The Community School is so powerful that our way of relating to young people becomes, in some ways, automatic. We do in fact see the adolescents and young adults we work with as fully realized human beings. It doesn’t matter if they have difficulties in relating and communicating or with emotion regulation; they are all living, feeling, individuals capable of engaging in complex relationships.
This approach to thinking about and treating members of the community this way plays out in lots of ways. For example, there is usually a lot of student involvement in decisions, and because of this an observer can usually watch a negotiation, argument, or debate of some kind going on. When are we going to the library, what kind of snack can I have, when do we get to play Monopoly, etc. etc. These activities stretch the emotional flexibility and durability as well as the logical thinking of everyone involved.
There is also quite a bit of humor in evidence in the community, as everyone is encouraged to express their ideas, silly or otherwise, and to expand on the things that are meaningful to them. This results in lots of role-playing, clowning around, and joke-telling. The staff and the students share personal stories and funny incidents in their lives with regularity. There is a sense of trust that enables this exchange to occur; after all, nobody wants to tell an embarrassing story to someone who might take advantage of that revealed moment of vulnerability. On a more serious note, we also hear the students share personal details of their lives, or struggles they are having, often enough to make one realize that its more than just a coincidence when it happens.
There is more going on at this program than simply treating individuals with respect, or treating them as “human.” But that is an essential starting point and it makes for a wonderful community.