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Mess and containment: Reflections on counselling children in education

Children’s mental health has been making headline news recently, particularly with the Prime Minister’s announcement of plans to tackle mental health in schools. Here I reflect on my first term volunteering as a Counsellor in a primary school; outline why counselling can be so beneficial to children; and how it can be different from counselling adults.

So much has been going on in this first term. Seemingly ‘easy’ sessions have been laden with unconscious communication. Testing my boundaries has been important – am I able to contain the children’s’ emotions? None of the children have been able to articulate verbally what they are feeling – hence the art and play therapy. Can I be trusted? How much can they take from me? Will I set boundaries?

Mess has been a theme. The children want to know if I can tolerate the mess - their mess. This is not always easy when working in a school, a disciplined environment with so many rules.

There’s also the issue of the counselling organisation’s very small budget – how much should I put a limit on the use of materials when, having trained as an Art Therapist, I value free expression but also need to uphold boundaries.

Yet mess has been so important… how else can the children (aged between 5 and 11) communicate to me about the mess in their lives? And how can they find out if I can cope with their ‘mess’.

If not careful, the artwork and play can become uncontained and it’s up to me as the counsellor to contain it and set limits. Despite the counselling organisation’s rule of having the children help clean up after sessions, some of the mess has usually been left for me to clean. This is often unconscious and symbolic – the child is communicating that they have a lot of mess in their lives that they need someone else to help them clear up.

It can also feel better to leave the ‘mess’ with others to deal with.

The ‘mess’ that children have in their lives varies but can include issues such as bullying; witnessing and/or experiencing domestic violence; abuse and/or neglect from carers; being in foster care; homelessness; being an asylum seeker or refugee; having a disability and; loneliness. Due to this ‘mess’ children present in a range of ways including acting out in class; being withdrawn; having self-esteem issues - and it can also block their ability to learn.

My ‘process notes’ i.e. responsive imagery to the session has often involved me mopping up the mess.

Many a session has ended with me feeling flustered, chaotic and overwhelmed – unconscious projection of feelings that the children feel unable to deal with.

Like the ‘mother as container’ (Wilfred Bion) the mess has been left with me to digest, process and hopefully give back to them in a more manageable form in the future.

Could this communication have happened without the artwork and the play? I don’t believe so.

Children often find it very difficult to sit down for 50 minutes and talk about their experiences. Counselling using art and play gives them the chance to work through what is going on for them in a way that feels natural.

Children in counselling will not usually tell me directly about their issues – but will act them out through play. They use the play or the artwork to try and process what has gone on and gain some mastery over the situation. With children, the work is often about staying with the metaphor.

I have found that all the children at some point or another in counselling have enjoyed paint mixing – often just for the sake of paint mixing and not necessarily to produce a picture. One boy, aged 5, delighted in mixing paints. The more colours he added to the palette, the sludgier and browner it became – “poo” as he described it.

Hopefully, seeing me not fazed by the mess (outwardly) and calmly later helping him mop up the spillages he could come to realise that I can handle the mess (the ‘poo’) in this life, and he will also become more able to handle it.

Indeed, at the start of the new term he has been much more talkative in sessions, and has asked for my help during play rather than play on his own with me observing.

Working with these children has been so incredibly interesting and rewarding for me. In turn, the school values the counselling service because when pupils are experiencing emotional difficulties they find learning very hard and their inclusion in school life can be affected. By having time with a counsellor for one-to-one attention and the chance to play, the child becomes more able to deal with their emotions and their attendance and attention in class improves.

Authors Bio


Emma Clarke has trained as an Art Psychotherapist and has experience working therapeutically with children; and adult learning disability. She is currently a Volunteer Counsellor with Place2Be in primary education. If you'd like to can get in touch with Emma you can do so via Twitter or Linked In

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