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School and thought: a psycho-pedagogical response to an act of vandalism

In July 2014 an intervention was requested by a first grade secondary school on the outskirts of Rome, regarding an episode of vandalism carried out by some students of the last year who had entered the school building in the period following the end lessons. 
The fact that boys who had attended the last year were involved in the vandalism, positively concluding their path in that school, made the need to give logic and meaning to what happened even more urgent. Hence the request for an intervention by the TSMREE of the Asl RmB, with the participation of a team composed of Dr. Latini, with the collaboration of Dr. Nastasia and Dr. Piombo service specialists and members of the Psy + Onlus psychological team.

 

INTRODUCTION

psy logoIn July of this year, an intervention was requested by a secondary school in the outskirts of Rome, regarding an episode of vandalism carried out by some students of the last year who had entered the school building during the period after the end of the lessons.
The relevance of this episode and the material damage caused, made it necessary for the school authority to formally report to the local law enforcement agencies, albeit anonymously. In addition, the Executive Staff took steps to give an immediate first response to the deviant action committed within the school, through an informal communication to the parents of those children who were aware of what had happened and who had taken part in different ways to the episode.
The school has summoned students and parents for a real assessment of the damage committed and to agree on a concrete remedial method to restore the use of damaged school environments.
The fact that boys who had attended the last year were involved in the vandalism, positively concluding their path in that school, made the need to give logic and meaning to what happened even more urgent. Hence the request for an intervention by the TSMREE of the Asl RmB, with the participation of a team composed of Dr. Latini, with the collaboration of Dr. Nastasia and Dr. Piombo service specialists and members of the Psy + Onlus psychological team.

THEORETICAL REFERENCES

The Service that deals with the protection and rehabilitation of the developmental age, has undertaken to respond urgently to the request of the school (thanks to the previous collaboration between the two Institutions which has facilitated communication) starting from the idea that psychological intervention in these cases have as their first objective that of empowerment: to build a meaningful link between action and intention that allows the person to regain possession of the sense of his own behavior. This objective can be achieved through spaces and places to "think" in which it is possible to mentalize the communication implicit in transgressive action.
Taking back Fonagy, mentalize it is a process by which a person implicitly and explicitly interprets his own actions and those of others, considering them significant with respect to intentional mental states, for example personal desires, needs, feelings and motivations.
Adolescents generally express experiences, emotions and thoughts, of which they are not aware, more easily through gestures and actions, behaviors that only later become verbally communicable. Making sense of the enigmatic gestures of adolescents, both considered individually and in groups, is a specific task of adults who carry out educational functions or organize interventions to support growth or prevent discomfort towards adolescents.
The deviant action, the extreme action, is a dramatic communication, a sign of a serious mentalization difficulty. It was therefore decided to involve the students and their reference adults (parents and representatives of the educational institution) in the intervention, offering a space in which to reflect on what had happened and its consequences, give voice and contain the feelings that emerged and encourage a more direct and constructive communication between the parties involved through mediation.

METHODOLOGY OF THE INTERVENTION

The intervention project initially thought by the team was organized in three distinct moments.

A first phase dedicated to the presentation of the team and reflection on the motivations and methods of intervention.

A second phase in which parents and children were invited to work separately on the emotions related to what happened.

A third phase, plenary, in which one spokesperson per group, adequately supported by the team, read and recounted what emerged previously. The main objective was to allow clear and direct communication of the respective positions, as well as facilitate the understanding of the meanings of the boys' actions.

To avoid as much resistance and embarrassment as possible, we chose to ask each of us to write anonymously on 5 sheets of emotions related to the experience we had, so as to then reflect in a group on what emerged.
The intervention was carried out in a flexible way, based on the context, participation and availability found, in part the times were not respected since above all the group of adults was not very participated while that of the boys was more numerous.
As for the group of children, they appeared available to collaborate, albeit in the individual diversity of expression and definition of their emotions, with evident difficulties on the part of some to deepen their reflection. However, the climate was positive and peaceful.
The boys agreed with each other that they had not premeditated the vandalism, but rather that they had sneaked into the school with the intention of cleaning up the damage of another group of peers. They feared they would be blamed unfairly, as they had previously entered the school and had been photographed by a local resident.
The ease with which these and other children could enter the school during the afternoon hours and how this had long since become a "ritual" emerged. The school represented for them a home, a familiar place, protected from the attacks of other kids in the area, where they could experience group belonging and freedom but always respecting the rules since any transgression was followed by a sense of guilt and reparation. There was no hostility towards the school or the teachers, but on the contrary the boys clearly and emphatically expressed how much they had loaded that place with intense and pleasant emotions that it was not possible to experience in other places. The fact of illegally entering the building, which the boys appeared aware of, also allowed to feel a certain excitement.
None of the boys is able to explain or make sense of the sudden transition from repairing damage to others to the destruction of a place that is, moreover, so important and positive, so much so that there has emerged a need to be reassured by not being considered "crazy". In any case, the will to leave a mark before the end of school emerged, as the boys had thought of something striking, but beautiful.
It was after the action that negative emotions emerged, the awareness of having made a mistake, but above all the fear of the consequences and the displeasure of not being able to enter school anymore. Only a few of the boys overcame the fear and confessed to the parents what had happened before they were notified by others.
Compared to the request to write the 5 emotions they felt related to these recent events, almost all the children responded very quickly, showing a good awareness of their feelings. The emotions that emerged were written on the blackboard, showing the children that there were many things in common between them. Negative emotions mainly emerged linked above all to the moments before and after the act:
  • Anger towards the "traitors" (those who have been spying) and anxiety, also in the form of somatization (insomnia, lack of appetite), of being discovered;
  • Anger for his inability to self-control and sense of guilt for having transgressed the values ​​and rules transmitted by parents;
  • Guilt for the act committed;
  • Regret for having caused the loss of a space they cared about and for the at least partial separation of the group with the transition to high school;
  • Fear of the possible consequences of the action, in particular with respect to the possibility of being reported to new schools and of being labeled negatively. Upon explicit request, the boys distinguished the correctness of such a consequence given their behavior and fear of how it could affect their future;
  • Fear of confronting parents
  • Joy, happiness and fun not related to the act, but to the previous moments lived in the school.

In the work with the parents, which was shorter for the few participants and which was also attended by the Dean and Vice-Dean, the mothers expressed emotions of anger, resentment, despair and disappointment, but also concern, pain, dismay and sadness. Feelings of shame, guilt, failure and doubt have emerged, especially with respect to one's way of educating children.

In the last part of the morning what emerged from the children and parents was exposed.
In particular, the positive role that the school has assumed for the children and the possibility that their gesture could be connected to having to leave it and more widely to the ambivalence and pain typical of this phase of growth has been highlighted.
The action was also reinterpreted as a "tribal ritual" in which the boys got carried away by group dynamics without being able to restrain themselves. The individual's individual responsibility and the importance of maintaining a capacity for discernment as much as possible was therefore stressed.
This has also been underlined with respect to the sense of shame of the parents, who felt that their role and their good intentions were affected by the actions of their children, they appeared very uncomfortable in dealing with the school and with evident difficulty in understanding how much It happened. They were helped to reflect on the importance of parental responsibility for their children's behavior, and the need they somehow communicated for containment and guidance in growth.

CONCLUSIONS

The work carried out with the youngsters made it possible to bring out strong feelings of belonging to the group and to a scholastic context lived above all beyond class time. The school did not appear to be characterized by negative emotions such as hostility or indifference, but - on the contrary of how damage could be thought - as a significant container, familiar and protected by an external world that is not always welcoming. In it, these teenagers felt they could experience freedom and the ability to limit themselves, but above all ritual group experiences characterized by emotions of joy and fun, all in a dimension hidden from the adult world. The destruction of a place so loved by children about to change school refers to the ambivalence typical of this phase of life, in which the release requires the breaking of the previous balances and therefore also brings out the sadness for what is left behind self. In this sense, a similar action can be read at least in part as an expression of pain due to the loss of a context and particularly significant links.
The original desire to leave a positive sign of one's passage in that school expressed by the children can also make one think of a desire to make oneself visible, perhaps out of fear of having gone unnoticed and forgotten.
Transgressive group action as initiation, often bloody, appears to be a ritual to permanently separate from childhood and at the same time to "be reborn as grown-ups", it has the function of creating discontinuity between childhood and adolescence, it can be connoted as an action-bridge, bridge that for many to overcome is painful and frightening, the "strong" action allows you to jump over without worrying about the consequences. What matters is belonging, albeit momentarily, to the group and going together to face a new reality.
The deviant actions in themselves call for complex answers since their communicative dimension is manifold: instrumental and expressive, individual and / or group, on the one hand therefore solicit an ethical-normative function that responds to the request for containment expressed by the adolescent through the deviant action and on the other a supportive function aimed at promoting a process of attribution of meaning and acquisition of skills by the adolescent.
The emergency nature of the request for help from the school and the need to contain, through the intervention, a containment at a time of severe crisis did not allow to investigate aspects that in other circumstances would have had adequate space. Indeed, the gesture and sense of acting of the children can only be fully understood in the specific context in which they occurred, and in particular in the relationship of these children with the educational institution. The school seems, apparently, cut off from any involvement / responsibility with respect to what happened.
The difficulty expressed by the parents of the children in containing their children affectively can be read as a difficulty that, implicitly, also affects the school, which, being unable to give safe borders (see the permeability of the building, which refers to other types of border), obviously has difficulty in containing its students and in setting those limits that they - with the typical ambivalence of their evolutionary phase - on the one hand criticize, challenge , they attack but on the other, they strongly seek. It can be assumed that the boys react angrily not to the institution's attempt to set limits, as to its own inability to do so, failing to place themselves in an authoritative and adult way with respect to them.
In this sense, the difficulty expressed by parents in placing themselves in a contained manner with respect to their children also seems to affect the educational institution, which is the bearer of a more complex and ambivalent question than the officially advanced one.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Charmet GP The new teenagers. Raffaello Cortina, Milan, 2005.

Fonagy P., Target M., Attachment and reflective function, Raffello Cortina, Milan, 2001.

Maggiolini A., Riva E., Transgressive teenagers. Deviant actions and adult responses, Franco Angeli, Milan, 2003.

Masiello S., Della Rovere P .. Fierro C., Latini L., Deviant adolescents: psychological intervention in the criminal context, in "Psycho-objective" n. 2 year 2008 pag. 87-98.

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