The Mulberry Bush School
Founded in 1948 in Oxfordshire, England, the Mulberry Bush School's mission is to improve the lives and long-term prospects of children who have severe emotional trauma. Barbara Dockar-Drysdale, who founded the school, developed an interest in child development as a young woman, when she earned attention for her ability to care for children with emotional difficulties. During World War II, Dockar-Drysdale provided care for a number of children who had been evacuated from larger cities because of German aerial bombing. Through her experiences, she came to believe that children experiencing fits of anger or aggression could be calmed best by the presence of a reassuring and loving parental figure. After the war, with support from the government, Dockar-Drysdale ran the school with an emphasis on the development of close therapeutic relationships. She died in 1999.

The school, which serves children from across the country, has room for just 40 students. The demanding amount of training for staff and the high ratio of caregivers to children drive up the cost of running the school to about $190,000 per student, but the school is open to anyone. The students who attend the school arrive from a variety of troubled backgrounds -- having suffered everything from severe neglect to physical and sexual abuse -- that have left them unable to behave appropriately in a typical school environment. Many act out aggressively, striking other students or teachers, and tantrums and screaming are commonplace. Self-harming or dangerous behavior is not uncommon. Some students have been through rounds in multiple foster homes, but their behavior has made it impossible for them to find lasting homes.

The school's approach to dealing with these students is to provide a consistently supportive atmosphere, one in which adults treat children with firm respect. A child having a violent episode is handled by a caregiver who restrains the child in an embrace.* The goal is to provide children whose emotional development has been stunted or disrupted with the skills to deal with their feelings in socially acceptable ways. All caregivers receive extensive training before working at the school.

The goal of the school is to enable its students to return to more conventional schools and to be able to function in society. Research suggests that the school reduces violence and antisocial behavior substantially. A large number of those who were previously unable to find long-term foster homes are able to do so after attending the school.

» The Mulberry Bush Organization
» Scott, Caroline. "Inside the Home for Angry Infants." The Sunday Times. May 11, 2008.
» Kelly, Annie. "Neglected Option." The Guardian. June 20, 2007.
» Beedell, Christopher. "Obituary: Barbara Dockar-Drysdale." The Independent. April 8, 1999.

Dealing With Emotionally Disturbed Children

Experts believe that the earliest years of a child's life are critical to social development. Neglect, abuse or other trauma experienced in those years can leave an individual without the skills to deal with emotions or to negotiate normal social interactions. Treating a child with a traumatic past is extremely difficult, because such children frequently lash out when they confront situations beyond their capabilities.

Children who experience trauma are more likely than others to struggle at school, to deal with substance abuse and to experience certain health problems, including mental and physical disorders. When trauma affects a child who has not yet developed the capacity to deal with it successfully, antisocial behavior may result. An essential aid for a child in such a situation is the presence of an adult who can offer comfort and support. Children who have been neglected by their parents often seek the support of other adults, which provides an opportunity for professionals in therapeutic environments to offer their help.

» The Mulberry Bush Organization.
» Kelly, Annie. "Neglected Option." The Guardian. June 20, 2007.
» Perry, Bruce D. M.D., Ph.D., "Helping Traumatized Children." Caregiver Education Series. 2002.
» "Helping Traumatized Children Learn." Massachusetts Advocates for Children. 2005.

Similar Schools in the United States
There are numerous residential centers and schools in the United States that offer therapeutic living environments for children with emotional and behavioral disorders similar to that of the Mulberry Bush School. Some centers are community-based while others have an institutional background. These centers often employ psychiatrists, social workers, counselors, teachers and other specialized staff who have experience working with adolescents who have severe emotional disturbances. These disturbances can range from hyperactivity disorders to extreme aggression and suicidal behavior.

The O'School dining room, Courtesy of Wikicommons The O'School dining room. Bettelheim oversaw several building renovations and commissioned a number of art pieces, including this mural and a mural by Jordi Bonet. Courtesy of Wikicommons

Many centers, such as the Barry Robinson Center in Virginia and Vista Maria in Michigan, began as orphanages and continue to offer services for children in foster care. The Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School at the University of Chicago has achieved worldwide recognition for its treatment of troubled children. Founded in 1915, the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School is noted for its milieu treatment, in which children develop close relationships with their caretakers, who are imbued with the understanding that violent or abusive behavior is symptomatic of trauma and should not form the basis for disengaging. The school became well known in the 1950s under the direction of the controversial psychoanalyst Dr. Bruno Bettelheim, who said such behavior "is the child's greatest achievement. For him, it is saving his life." The focus of the therapy is to acquaint troubled young people with a structured, loving and nurturing environment so that they may discover an alternative to acting out.

» Bruno Bettelheim
» The Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School
» Vista Maria
» The Barry Robinson Center