hands-918774_1280In an age when teachers are discouraged from touching anybody, I want to exhort teachers to hold their students.

I don’t mean physical holding. I mean emotional holding. Teachers need to figuratively wrap their arms around their students, to create and protect the space around them, so their students can be safe to learn and grow. This kind of holding is actually essential for healthy emotional (and therefore cognitive) development.

My favorite psychoanalyst, Donald W. Winnicott, calls the space parents provide for their children’s growth the “holding environment” or the “facilitative environment.” Healthy holding environments “facilitate” growth and development. They are spaces in which children get to play and experiment safely; in which they get to “be alone in the presence of another”; in which they get to touch base with a trustworthy caretaker when things get rough; in which disruptive impingements are managed effectively; in which limits are established and maintained and “ruthless” tests of those limits are survived; in which reality is represented fairly and calmly and consistently. Healthy holding environments are good places.

In my view, classrooms need to be healthy holding environments. And teachers need to be healthy (in Winnicott’s words, “good enough”; in my words, “great enough”) holders. Not only must teachers provide an environment in which students can experience both structure and creativity, but teachers must be prepared to manage the testing and oppositional behaviors their students will inevitably enact as they come to grips with limits, reality, responsibility, and the existence and rights of others.

But classrooms should not be the only holding environments. In my view, the entire school should be a healthy holding environment. Just as children can play their parents off one another, they can play their teachers and administrators off one another. Teachers (and, whenever possible, parents) need to work together to hold students in ways that facilitate their growth.

That’s kind of obvious, I think. What’s not so obvious is the toll such holding can take on teachers. For holding can be INCREDIBLY HARD WORK. It’s exhausting and maddening to be resisted; it’s exhausting and maddening to be disobeyed; it’s exhausting and maddening to be interrupted, questioned, sassed, hated, and manipulated while all the time maintaining high academic standards and experiencing the relentless pressure to produce acceptable scores on mandated exams.

On top of all that, it can be shocking and traumatizing to encounter students whose psychic contortions have already begun: who have been abused, have witnessed abuse, are engaged in self-destructive or other-harming behaviors, are retreating from adults even as they desperately need caring containment from them. Increasingly, it seems, students come to school having seen and experienced situations that are unfathomable. If teachers and schools do not hold these students effectively, who will?

All this to say: It can be exhausting and maddening and shocking and traumatizing to be constantly adjusting and learning, seeing and feeling, growing and developing.

That’s true for students (which is why teachers need to be great-enough holders). And it’s true for teachers (which is why teachers need to be held, too).

What, then, would a school that is a true holding environment for teachers look like: What do teachers need to feel seen, supported, contained, safe, empowered? How can the development of students and teachers and administrators be facilitated simultaneously in schools? How can each of these constituencies be held caringly as they struggle to grow and learn? Where would parents fit in?

As I continue to grow and learn and take risks as a parent, teacher, therapist, and entrepreneur, I have become convinced that everyone needs to be held by someone at least some of the time. This is no weakness. It is a developmental necessity.