View of Can Therapy in Education be Dangerous?

[Position Paper]

Can Therapy in Education be Dangerous?

By Daphne Rickson

I have been examining the ways music therapists work in schools for some time and with Katrina Skewes McFerran have begun to write about the potential for music therapists, music educators, and community musicians to use music to enhance well-being in schools (McFerran Skewes & Rickson, in press). Schools appear to be increasingly affected by negative behaviour such bullying and violence (Swearer, Wang, Maag, Siebecker, & Frerichs, 2012) while simultaneously trying to manage increasingly diverse student populations (Graham & Harwood, 2010; Hammel, 2004; Hwang & Evans, 2011; Tutty & Hocking, 2004). Our work is grounded in the assumption that subjective well-being is associated with academic success and positive school functioning (Bird & Markle, 2012), that musical engagement can positively influence emotion, relationships, engagement, achievement and meaning (Croom, 2012; Hampshire & Matthijsse, 2010; MacDonald, Kreutz, & Mitchell, 2012; MacMillan, Maschi, & Tseng, 2012; McFerran, Rickson, & Bolger, 2011); and thus contribute to individual and whole school well-being. The arts provide pleasure and have a therapeutic role in everyday life, as well as in medical settings (Belfiore & Bennett, 2008).

We argue that there is a need for a diverse education system which focuses on the development of the whole student in addition to transferring meaningful academic knowledge; a system that enables students and teachers to express their humanity; to connect in reciprocal ways on an emotional level; and that promotes respect, trust, active listening, mentoring, compassion, high expectations, and interest in students’ overall wellbeing (Rickson & McFerran Skewes, in progress). In the course of my research for our book I came across another by UK authors Ecclestone and Hayes (2009) called the dangerous rise of therapeutic education. I think it might be one of the most important books I’ve read in a while.

These authors note that in recent decades contemporary schools have taken an extreme turn from teaching subject knowledge to focus on student confidence, self-esteem, relationships, general wellbeing, and so on. They believe the shift is significant enough to argue that a therapeutic ethos is “dominating education systems” and that the overall aim of therapeutic education is to “dismantle subject disciplines and to use them as vehicles for the latest manifestation of social engineering” (p.145). Their position then, on the surface at least, seemed to contrast significantly with Katrina’s and my views and thus I was highly motivated to read on!

I discovered that Ecclestone and Hayes do not believe emotional intelligence, emotional literacy and emotional wellbeing should be classed as educational activities. Instead they call for a “radical humanist education” in which students are taught traditional subjects, including the arts, so they might transform the world by making scientific and social progress through reason. This approach reflects “a strong belief in the importance, power and optimism of progress” and promotes the vision that students have the potential to understand and create if they are afforded a broad education (Ecclestone & Hayes, 2009).

Secondly and perhaps more importantly, I read their account of a what they perceive to be a well-established therapy culture borne from specific well-being programmes that demand children and young people identify and share their issues with teachers and peers. Ecclestone and Hayes provide numerous and powerful anecdotal examples where students have been asked to focus on issues or problems when they might not have any concerns, and where students who can’t identify a problem are presumed to be suppressing or denying their issues. While Ecclestone and Hayes recognise that teachers are being asked to teach programmes which are beyond the boundaries of their training, it seems that the issue here is not just about inappropriate teaching styles. Rather it is about cultural assumptions that it is ok for children to be constantly reflecting on problems and the ways in which they are coping. Ecclestone and Hayes argue that programmes which aim to improve well-being and self-esteem actually create and perpetuate vulnerability in students. We now have a “strong cultural change in society towards the diminished self” which in turn has resulted in “a deeply pessimistic and instrumental view of education” (p. 146) where students are not viewed as capable learners.

Ecclestone and Hayes are not the first authors to highlight the dangers of bringing therapy into the public arena. In 2004, Furedi noted that the media has played a significant role in changing the way in which we understand and deal with problems. ‘Media therapy’, as enacted in the ‘Oprah Winfrey Show’ or ‘Dr. Phil’ for example, encourages public disclosure of stories of illness, addiction, and personal tragedy. Furedi argued sharing private issues as a way to solve problems or cure mental health difficulties has become part of popular culture. The increasing numbers of celebrities who disclose or write autobiographies of overcoming their addictions or breakdowns have led to a therapeutic culture which understands that admitting one has a problem earns the respect of the public. In contrast, seeking privacy can be seen as running away from one’s problems. When celebrities expose their pain and, in the case of drug, alcohol, or abuse issues, express their remorse, they earn public acceptance and approval. Unfortunately this also leads to increasing numbers of public people being defined by their problems rather than their achievements (Furedi, 2004).

Definitions of what constitutes psychological distress seem to be widening, the number of people diagnosed with specific disorders is increasing, the criteria for specific diagnoses is expanding, and new disorders are being added to diagnostic manuals.

Furedi (2004) and Ecclestone and Hayes (2009) suggest children are influenced by powerful cultural signals which provide medical explanations for their worries, and they are literally being invited to ill-health. Furedi (2004) reported for example that children as young as eight understand the concept of stress, are increasingly reporting and being encouraged to seek help for their psychological stress at school (Furedi, 2004). Similarly, they argue that since low self-esteem is increasingly considered to be a societal problem, and individuals are encouraged to develop unconditional self-acceptance, children are learning that it is ok to avoid changing or improving.

Furedi (2004) observed that as the therapeutic culture has become more universal, claims about efficacy have become increasingly modest and vague terms such as “helping people to cope” or to “come to terms with their condition” have become more popular. He further notes that the purpose of therapy has become more aligned with survival than enlightenment, recovery rather than cure, and acknowledgement rather than change.

The scenario these authors outline is sobering. It is even more sobering to think about the potential for music therapists to reinforce the culture of vulnerability they describe. With the rise of inclusive education music therapists are increasingly focused on collaborative work with teachers and others in classrooms and other school environments. This is as it should be. Inclusive education aims to ensure that teachers and other regular school staff members can recognise and respond to student diversity without removing them from regular school activities. The philosophy of inclusive education involves educators actively identifying barriers to learning and participation, and taking steps to eliminate these. Teachers and others need to be resourced to provide the types of intervention needed for effective inclusion. Collaborative partnerships between educators, specialists such as music therapists, parents and others, are therefore crucial in the process. But could we be reinforcing a culture of vulnerability among students in doing so?

Katrina and I think it is important for us to consider the potential for music to support well-being, and feel that music therapists have a lot to offer schools in this regard. Nevertheless, we have resisted using the word therapy to describe the kind of whole school work we have been describing. And although there continues to be calls for school curricula to offer more instruction in interpersonal skills so that those students who may be more introverted can develop strong relationships and, in turn, increase their well-being (Bird & Markle, 2012) we have also resisted developing specific programmes that teachers might follow. Instead we are advocating a process of collaboration which will enable students, staff, and others, to identify how music might be used to enhance their specific school culture. Engagement in music is an inherently therapeutic activity, a resource that draws on interpersonal strengths. Children can feel better after they have engaged in music activities, without needing to know why. Rather than disrupting our ideas to promote music in schools to for well-being, Ecclestone and Hayes (2009) have provided impetus to propel our ideas forward.


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McFerran Skewes, K., & Rickson, D. (2014). Community music therapy in schools: Realigning with the needs of contemporary students, staff and systems. International Journal of Community Music, accepted for publication November 2013.

Rickson, D., & McFerran Skewes, K. (in progress). Creating music cultures in the schools: A perspective from community music therapy. University Park, IL: Barcelona Publishers.

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