Psychoanalysis at Work in the Public Schools

Nearly thirty years ago, BGSP faculty member Joan White decided to bring modern psychoanalysis into the public schools. “The emotional demands made on teachers by their work can be overwhelming,” says Dr. White. “Children who come to school with emotional problems are still expected to perform at grade level. But their feelings get in the way of their learning.” Violence, racism, drugs, non-cooperation, inattention, and provocative behavior are among the challenges confronting teachers. “And the teachers,” she reports, “take it personally.” They can be left feeling hopeless, frustrated, angry, and helpless.

Dr. White realized that sending the disruptive student to individual therapy was not the best way to help the student or the teacher. She decided to work directly in the classroom with both teacher and students. Under the guidance of the late Dr. Stephen Hayes, a BGSP alum and founder of Lynn Community Health Center, Dr. White collaborated with the Lynn Public Schools to help teachers understand the feeling states that were interfering with the classroom education. “Teachers tend to experience feelings aroused by the difficult child as assaults,” Dr. White comments. “We try to validate the teacher’s feelings, and then help the teacher learn to use her emotional reactions as information about the child – to help the child.”

Dr. White considers the training at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis crucial to working with teachers. “Here at BGSP, the first thing you learn is how to sit and observe and tolerate feeling states with very disturbed patients.” This experience translates directly to the classroom, she says, where “you have to be able to tolerate a lot of chaos. It’s difficult for teachers, because they’re graded on discipline.” Students aren’t supposed to talk in class – but Dr. White gets them talking. “They haven’t been in a place where people want to listen to them, and where they’re able to talk to each other.” Eventually, she reports, teachers see the progress and begin to understand some of the problems the kids are having. Then, they are able to help students “give and receive new messages” – that is, to help them learn.

Dr. White continues her efforts in the public schools with her work as a supervisor for BGSP students working with children in the BGSP Therapy Center’s School Outreach Program. In the School Outreach Program, BGSP’s Mental Health Counseling interns work with public school children individually or run therapeutic groups in the classrooms.  One former supervisee, Ms. Amy Fleischer, notes that therapeutic groups in the schools can provide a much-needed outlet for students’ thoughts and feelings. “By applying psychoanalytic theories and methods in these settings, kids can feel that they can say things without hurting or being hurt, that all feelings are OK – and most importantly – spoken, not acted upon.”

Dr. White also teaches in BGSP’s Certificate of Advance Graduate Studies program in Child and Adolescent Intervention. In the CAGS program, teachers, counselors, administrators and parents learn psychoanalytic and child development theory and techniques relevant to the problems in today’s classrooms.