Our Founder and Clinical Director, Mandy Miles, has designed an innovative program for working with ‘high needs’ young people that empowers them, helps them to see their own greatness, and inspires them to become their best self.
Mandy’s work with marginalised kids who have been thrown out of mainstream school, who may be semi-illiterate as a result of their troubled school participation, and who might also be living in disadvantaged if not criminalised environments, has shown clearly that it is impossible to develop close, collaborative relationships with these children using a model where adults are primarily agents of control.
Mandy went on to design an innovative model where adults and children are equal, and they equally share responsibility for control within the group. In addition, adults – although being peers – provide the children and young people with plenty of engaged and supportive attention, and relate to them authentically, sharing elements of their own lives in a way that allows the young people to learn from them about life and develop aspirations in relation to what is possible.
It is important to note that ‘sharing equal responsibility for control’ doesn’t mean that there isn't an authority structure, just that authority is vested in the group as a whole, and not in adults, or in any individual or sub-set of the group. We find that given the task of self-management, the group exercises authority over itself at least as stridently as any adult would have.
Accountability for one’s own actions is also fundamental to the model, and the young people form a ‘jury of peers’ to respond to problems that arise. It appears that authority is no longer toxic for these children when it is governed by peers. Adults, in this model, are encouraged to be ‘the last ones to speak’, so that it is the young people who lead in the implementation of the self-management of the group.
The mutual respect inherent in this approach has allowed a kind of intimacy to develop which is rare indeed in any program, let alone in one working with a supposedly ‘difficult’ client group. There is no yawning chasm of emotional distance between the adults and the children in this model, as appears to be the case in many other programs attempting to work with this group.
Being valued and treated with respect inspires even hard-to-reach young people to want to be part of the program, and the connections they form with each other, and with our outstanding leader group, lead them to develop aspirations for themselves that they may otherwise have had no opportunity even to conceptualise.
The young people form a bond with the adults, and benefit from seeing a group of happy, balanced adults relating well to each other, and to them – something many of the children have not experienced before. They see a quality of life and relationship they may not have been able to imagine, and it inspires them to develop exciting goals and ideals for themselves.
What is becoming clear is that each retreat group has its own evolutionary process, and the way each group deals with its issues, and its members, and the culture it develops, will be unique to it – a subtle and complex blend of the personalities, both adult and child, who make it up, and the history they build together gradually over time.
Some adults who currently participate in our retreats may not have seen the model applied yet, because it cannot be implemented until the group has experienced a need to ‘manage’ itself. That is, a certain level of tension or stress is needed before a group is ready to consciously implement a system of control.
The boys’ retreat group has now reached that point, and has negotiated and is developing a democratic system of management and problem-solving to manage itself.
The girls’ retreat has not experienced internal stress, and at this point, operates collaboratively with no major issues to resolve which would require a structured system of control. This may or may not change over time.
It has been a fascinating journey to develop this model, and now to build our retreats around it.
Our broader vision includes, in addition to running our weekend retreat program, operating a medium-to-long term residential facility on our land at Kangaroo Valley. This is designed to cater for children and young people who do not have a secure adult attachment figure, whose behaviour is seen as being quite problematic, and who are at risk of homelessness or other serious problems.