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(p. 45) Group Influences and the Maladjusted Child: The School Aspect 

(p. 45) Group Influences and the Maladjusted Child: The School Aspect
(p. 45) Group Influences and the Maladjusted Child: The School Aspect

Donald W. Winnicott

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Subscriber: null; date: 19 January 2020

Originally published in The family and individual development (pp. 146–154). London: Tavistock, 1965. Also published in C. Winnicott, R. Shepherd, & M. Davis (Eds.), Deprivation and delinquency (pp. 189–199). London: Tavistock, 1984.
A lecture to the Association of Workers for Maladjusted Children, April 1955.

My purpose in this section is to study certain aspects of the psychology of groups, which may help towards a better understanding of the kind of problems that are involved in the group management of maladjusted children. Let us think first of the normal child, who lives in a normal home, has aims, and goes to school actually wanting school to teach; who finds his or her own environment, and even helps to maintain or develop or modify it. In contrast, the maladjusted child needs an environment that has the accent on management rather than on teaching; the teaching is a secondary matter and may at times be a specialized affair, more of the nature of remedial teaching than of instruction in school subjects. In other words, in the case of the maladjusted child, ‘school’ has the meaning of ‘hostel’. For these reasons, those who are concerned with the management of antisocial children are not schoolteachers who add a dash of human understanding here and there; they are in fact group psychotherapists who add a dash of teaching. And so a knowledge of the formation of groups is highly important for their work.

Groups and the psychology of groups constitute a vast subject, out of which I have selected one main thesis for presentation here: namely, that the basis of group psychology is the psychology of the individual, and especially of the individual’s personal integration. I start therefore with a brief statement of the task of individual integration.

(p. 46) Individual Emotional Development

Psychology emerged from a hopeless muddle with the now accepted idea that there is a continuous process of emotional development, starting before birth, and continuing throughout life, till (with luck) death from old age. This theory underlies all the various schools of psychology and provides a useful agreed principle. We may differ violently here and there, but this simple idea of continuity of emotional growth joins us all together. From this base we can study the manner of the process, and the various stages at which there is danger, either from within (instincts) or from without (environmental failure).

We all accept the general statement that the earlier we go in the examination of this process of individual growth, the more important we find the environmental factor. This is an acceptance of the principle that the child goes from dependence towards independence. In health we expect the individual to become gradually able to identify with wider and wider groups, and to identify with groups without loss of sense of self and of individual spontaneity. If the group is too wide the individual loses touch; if it is too narrow there is a loss of sense of citizenship.

We take much trouble to provide gradual extensions of the meaning of the word group in our provision of clubs and other organizations suitable for adolescents, and we judge success by the way in which each boy or girl can identify with each group in succession, without too great a loss of individuality. For the pre-adolescent we provide scouts and guides; for the latency child, cubs and brownies. At the first school age, school gives an extension and a widening of the home. If school is to be provided for the toddler then we see that it is integrated in with the home, and that it does not place too much value on actual teaching, because what a toddler needs is organized opportunity for play and controlled conditions for the beginnings of a social life. For the toddler we recognize that the true group is the child’s own home, and for the infant we know that it is a disaster if a break in the continuity of home management becomes necessary. If we look at the earlier stages of this process we see the infant very dependent on the mother’s management, and on her continued presence and her survival. She must make a good-enough adaptation to the infant’s needs, else the infant cannot avoid developing defences that distort the process; for instance, the infant must take over the environmental function if the environment is not reliable, so that there is a hidden true self, and all that we can see is a false self engaged in the double task of hiding the true self and of complying with the demands that the world makes from moment to moment.

Still earlier, the infant is held by the mother, and only understands love that is expressed in physical terms, that is to say, by live, human holding. Here is absolute dependence, and environmental failure at this very early (p. 47) stage cannot be defended against, except by a hold-up of the developmental process, and by infantile psychosis.

Let us look now at what happens when the environment behaves well enough, all along well enough according to the needs that are specific to the moment. Psychoanalysis concerns itself (and it must do so) primarily with the meeting of instinctual needs (the ego and the id), but in this context we are more concerned with the environmental provision that makes all the rest possible; that is to say, we are more concerned here and now with the mother holding the baby than with the mother feeding the baby. What do we find in the process of individual emotional growth when the holding and the general management are good enough?

Of all that we find, that which chiefly concerns us here is that part of the process which we call integration. Before integration the individual is unorganized, a mere collection of sensory-motor phenomena, collected by the holding environment. After integration the individual IS, that is to say, the infant human being has achieved unit status, can say I AM (except for not being able to talk). The individual has now a limiting membrane, so that what is not-he or not-she is repudiated, and is external. The he or the she has now an inside, and here can be collected memories of experiences, and can be built up the infinitely complex structure that belongs to the human being.

It does not matter if this development happens in a moment or gradually over a long period of time; the fact is that there is a before and an after, and the process deserves a name all to itself.

No doubt the instinctual experiences contribute richly to the integration process, but there is also all the time the good-enough environment, someone holding the infant, and adapting well enough to changing needs. That someone cannot function except through the sort of love that is appropriate at this stage, love that carries a capacity for identification with the infant, and a feeling that adaptation to need is worth while. We say that the mother is devoted to her infant, temporarily but truly. She likes to be preoccupied in this way, until the need for her wanes.

I suggest that this I AM moment is a raw moment; the new individual feels infinitely exposed. Only if someone has her arms round the infant at this time can the I AM moment be endured, or rather, perhaps, risked.

I would add that at this moment it is convenient when the psyche and the body have the same places in space, so that the limiting membrane is not only metaphorically a limit to the psyche, but also it is the skin of the body. ‘Exposed’ then means ‘naked’.

Before integration there is a state in which the individual only exists for those who observe. For the infant the external world is not differentiated out, nor is there an inner or personal world or an inner reality. After integration the infant begins to have a self. Whereas before, what the mother can do is to (p. 48) be ready to be repudiated, afterwards what she can do is to supply support, warmth, loving care and clothes (and soon she starts catering for instincts).

Also in this period before integration there is an area between the mother and the infant that is both mother and infant. If all goes well, this very gradually splits into two elements, the part that the infant eventually repudiates and the part that the infant eventually claims. But we must expect relics of this intermediate area to persist. We do indeed see this later in the infant’s first affectionately held possession—perhaps a bit of cloth derived from a blanket, bedcover, or shirt; or a napkin, mother’s handkerchief, etc. Such an object I like to call a ‘transitional object’, and the point of it is that it is both (and at the same time) a creation of the infant and a part of external reality. For this reason parents respect this object even more than they do the teddies and dolls and toys that quickly follow. The baby who loses the transitional object at the same time loses both mouth and breast, both hand and mother’s skin, both creativity and objective perception. The object is one of the bridges that make contact possible between the individual psyche and external reality.

In the same way it is unthinkable that an infant should exist, before integration, without good-enough mothering. Only after integration can we say that if the mother fails the infant dies of cold, or falls infinitely down, or flies off and away, or bursts like a hydrogen bomb and destroys the self and the world in one and the same moment.

The newly integrated infant is, then, in the first group. Before this stage there is only a primitive pre-group formation, in which unintegrated elements are held together by an environment from which they are not yet differentiated. This environment is the holding mother.

A group is an I AM achievement, and it is a dangerous achievement. In the initial stages protection is needed, else the repudiated external world comes back at the new phenomenon and attacks from all quarters and in every conceivable way.

If we continued this study of the individual’s evolution, we would see how the more and more complex personal growth complicates the picture of group growth. But at this point let us follow up the implications of our basic assumption.

The Formation of Groups

We have reached the stage of an integrated human unit, and at the same time someone who might be called mother who supplies covering, knowing full well the paranoid state that is inherent in the newly integrated state. I can hope to be understood if I use the two terms ‘individual unit’ and ‘maternal covering’.

(p. 49) Groups may have origin in either of the two extremes implied in these terms:

  1. (i) Superimposed units

  2. (ii) Covering.

  3. (i) The basis of mature group formation is the multiplication of individual units. Ten persons, who are personally well integrated, loosely superimpose their ten integrations and to some degree share a limiting membrane. The limiting membrane is now representative of the skin of each individual member. The organization that each individual brings in terms of personal integration tends to maintain the group entity from within. This means that the group benefits from the personal experience of the individuals, each of whom has been seen through the integration moment, and has been covered until able to provide self-cover.

    The group’s integration implies at first an expectation of persecution, and for this reason persecution of a certain type can artificially produce a group formation, but not a stable group formation.

  4. (ii) At the other extreme a collection of relatively unintegrated persons can be given covering, and a group may be formed. Here the group work does not come from the individuals but from the covering. The individuals go through three stages:

    1. (a) They are glad to be covered and they gain confidence.

    2. (b) They begin to exploit the situation, becoming dependent, and regressing to unintegration.

    3. (c) They begin, independently of each other, to achieve some integration, and at such times they use the cover offered by the group which they need because of their expectation of persecution. Great strain is placed on the cover mechanisms. Some of these individuals do achieve personal integration, and so become ready to be moved to the other type of group in which the individuals themselves provide the group work. Others cannot be cured by cover-therapy alone, and they continue to need to be managed by an agency without identification with that agency.

It is possible to see which extreme predominates in any one group that is examined. The word ‘democracy’ is used to describe the most mature grouping, and democracy only applies to a collection of adult persons of whom the vast majority have achieved personal integration (as well as being mature in other ways).

Adolescent groups may achieve a kind of democracy under supervision. It is a mistake, however, to expect democracy to ripen among adolescents, even when each individual is mature. With younger healthy children the cover (p. 50) aspect of any group must be in evidence, while every chance is given to the individuals to contribute to the group cohesion through the same forces that promote cohesion within the individual ego structures. The limited group gives opportunity for individual contribution.

Group Work with the Maladjusted Child

The study of group formations composed of healthy adults, adolescents, or children throws light on the problem of group management where the children are ill, illness here meaning maladjustment.

This ugly word—maladjustment—means that at some early date the environment failed to adjust appropriately to the child, and the child is therefore compelled either to take over the cover-work and so to lose personal identity, or else to push round in society forcing someone else to act cover, so that a chance may come for a new start with personal integration.

The antisocial child has two alternatives—to annihilate the true self or to shake society up till it provides cover. In the second alternative if cover is found then the true self can re-emerge, and it is better to exist in prison than to become annihilated in meaningless compliance.

In terms of the two extremes that I have described, it is evident that no group of maladjusted children will adhere because of the personal integration of the boys and girls. This is partly due to the fact that the group is composed of adolescents or children, immature human beings, but chiefly because the children are all more or less unintegrated. Each boy or girl therefore has an abnormal degree of need for cover because each is ill in just that way, having been overstrained in this matter of the integration process at some point or other in early childhood or in infancy.

How, then, can we provide for these children in such a way as to ensure that what we offer them will be adapted to their changing needs as they progress towards health? There are two alternative methods:

  1. (i) By the first, a hostel keeps the same group of children and is responsible for seeing them through; it provides what is necessary at the various stages of their development. In the beginning the staff provide cover, and the group is a cover-group. In this cover-group the children (after the honeymoon period) become worse, and with luck they reach a rock-bottom of unintegration. They do not all do this at one moment, fortunately, and they use each other, so that one child is usually much worse than the others at any one time. (How tempting it is to be always getting rid of the one, and so to be always failing at the critical point!)

    (p. 51) Gradually one by one the children begin to achieve personal integration, and in the course of five to ten years they are the same children but they have become a new kind of group. Cover technique can be lessened, and the group starts to integrate by the forces that make for integration within each individual.

    The staff are always ready to re-establish cover, as when a child steals in the first job, or in some other way shows symptoms of the fear that belongs to a belated attainment of the I AM state, or relative independence.

  2. (ii) By the other method, a group of hostels work together. Each hostel is classified according to the kind of work it is doing, and it maintains its type. For example:

    • A hostel gives 100 per cent cover

    • B hostel gives 90 per cent cover

    • C hostel gives 65 per cent cover

    • D hostel gives 50 per cent cover

    • E hostel gives 40 per cent cover

The children know the various hostels in the group through visits that are deliberately planned, and there are interchanges of assistants also. When a child in A hostel achieves some sort of personal integration he or she moves up one. In this way the children who improve progress towards E hostel, which is able to cover the child’s adolescent plunge into the world.

The group of hostels is itself covered, in such a case, by some authority and by a hostels committee.

The awkward thing about this second method is that the hostel staffs will fail to understand each other unless they meet and are kept fully informed as to the method employed and the way it is working out. The B hostel that gives 90 per cent cover and does all the dirty work will be looked down on; there will be alarms and excursions at this hostel. Hostel A will be better placed because here there will be no room at all for individual freedom; all the children will look happy and well fed, and visitors will like it the best of all the five. The warden will need to be a dictator and he will no doubt think that the failures in the other hostels are due to lax discipline. But the children in Hostel A have not yet started. They are getting ready to start.

In Hostels B and C, where children lie about on the floor, cannot get up, refuse to eat, mess their pants, steal whenever they feel a loving impulse, torture cats, kill mice and bury them so as to have a cemetery where they can go and cry, in these hostels there should be a notice: visitors not admitted. The wardens of these hostels have the perpetual job of covering naked souls, and they see as much suffering as can be seen in a mental hospital for adults. How difficult it is to keep a good staff under these conditions!

(p. 52) Summary

Of all that can be said about hostels as groups I have chosen to speak of the relation of the group work to the plus or minus quantity of the personal integration of the individual children. I believe this relationship to be basic: where there is a plus sign the children bring their own integrating forces with them; when there is a minus sign the hostel provides cover, like clothes for a naked child and like the personal human holding of an infant newly born.

When there is a muddle of classification in respect of the factor of personal integration, then a hostel cannot find its place. The illnesses of the ill children dominate, and the more normal children who could be contributing to the group work cannot be given opportunity, since cover must be provided all the time and everywhere.

I believe that my over-simplification of the problem in this way will be justified if it can give a simple language for the better classification of children and of hostels. Those who work in such hostels are being all the time avenged for innumerable early environmental failures which were not their doing. If they are to stand the terrific strain of tolerating this and even in some cases of correcting the past failure through their tolerance, then they must at least know what it is that they are doing, and why it is that they cannot all the time succeed.

Classification of Cases

On the basis of acceptance of the ideas that have been put forward, it is possible gradually to enter into the complexity of the problem of groups. I conclude with a rough classification of types of case.

  1. (a) Those children who are ill in the sense that they have not become integrated into units, and who therefore cannot contribute to a group.

  2. (b) Those children who have developed a false self which has the function of making and maintaining contact with the environment and at the same time of protecting and hiding the true self. In these cases there is a deceptive integration which breaks down as soon as it is taken for granted and called upon for a contribution.

  3. (c) Those children who are ill in the sense of being withdrawn. Here the integration has been achieved and the defence is along the lines of a rearrangement of benign and malign forces. These children live in their own inner worlds which are artificially benign although alarming because of the operation of magic. Their outer worlds are malign or persecutory.

  4. (p. 53) (d) Those children who maintain a personal integration by over-emphasis of integration, and a defence from threat of disintegration which takes the form of establishment of a strong personality.

  5. (e) Those children who have known good-enough early management and who have been able to employ an intermediate world with objects that derive importance through representing at one and the same time external and internal objects of value. They have nevertheless suffered from an interruption of the continuity of their management to a degree which broke up the use of intermediate objects. These children are the ordinary ‘deprived complex’ children, whose behaviour develops antisocial qualities whenever they begin to hope again. They steal and crave for affection and claim that we shall believe their lies. At their best they regress in a general way, or in a localized way as in bed-wetting, which represents a momentary regression in relation to a dream. At their worst they force society to tolerate their symptoms of hope although they are unable immediately to benefit from their symptoms. They do not find what they want by stealing but they may eventually (because someone tolerates their stealing) reach some degree of new belief in having a claim on the world. In this group is the whole range of antisocial behaviour.

  6. (f) Those children who have had a tolerably good early start but who suffer from the effects of parental figures with whom it is unsuitable for them to identify. There are innumerable subgroups here, examples of which are:

    1. (i) Mother chaotic

    2. (ii) Mother depressed

    3. (iii) Father absent

    4. (iv) Mother anxious

    5. (v) Father appearing as stern parent without earning the right to be stern

    6. (vi) Parents quarrelling, which joins up with overcrowded conditions and the child sleeping in the parents’ room, etc.

  7. (g) Children with manic-depressive tendencies, with or without a hereditary or genetic element.

  8. (h) Children who are normal except when in depressive phases.

  9. (i) Children with an expectation of persecution and a tendency to get bullied or to become bullies. In boys this can form the basis of homosexual practice.

  10. (j) Children who are hypomanic, with the depression either latent or hidden in psychosomatic disorders.

  11. (p. 54) (k) All those children who are sufficiently integrated and socialized to suffer (when they are ill) from the inhibitions and compulsions and organizations of defence against anxiety, which are roughly classed together under the word psycho-neurosis.

  12. (l) Lastly, the normal children, by which we mean children who, when faced with environmental abnormalities or danger situations, can employ any defence mechanism, but who are not driven towards one type of defence mechanism by distortions of personal emotional development.