Building and maintaining the therapeutic structure, and some thoughts on the consultant’s role.

By John Burton | July 2018.

In The Handbook of Residential Care (Routledge 1993) I wrote a chapter called “Creating helpful organisation”. It covered buildings, furnishings and decoration, using money, boundaries, public and private space, kitchens, bathrooms and lavatories, food and catering, team and community meetings, supervision, staff support groups, training and development, rotas, routines and habits, smoking, and rituals and celebrations. In there were of course such essentials as bedtimes, mealtimes and getting up. In my current consultancy work with children’s homes I now call “helpful organisation” therapeutic structure; in other words the organisation’s fabric, culture and processes that are needed to support and contain therapeutic work.

Over the years I have seen much good therapeutic work done at all levels and in many homes, but the structure holding this work is often fragile and temporary. A home will have a good run for a while and then things begin to fall apart, and have to be rebuilt all over again. Good staff leave; discipline around the use of the office slips; teams fracture; bedtimes become chaotic; staff get tired and grossly overworked; morale falters; the home looks a mess; the residents are in charge; keys get lost and stolen; crockery, furniture and windows get broken; people start eating and drinking from plastic and paper; meetings are poorly attended; staff take refuge in the office where eggs are kept; community meetings are forgotten and handovers don’t happen; sanctions are imposed and found to be useless; placements dry up; people become more concerned about parking their cars or taking a smoking break than preparing breakfast; notices don’t mean anything; children run away; day staff blame night staff and vice versa; there are “strong” teams and “weak” teams; supervision doesn’t happen; staff are sick . . . and so on. All of those don’t often, if ever, happen all at the same time, but they do happen and they are all signs of a failure to build and maintain a reliable therapeutic structure.

Children’s homes (and all residential care homes) exist in their environment – the managing organisation, the legal and regulatory regime, their wider social and political context, all of which have a part to play in a reliable therapeutic structure and frequently fail to provide it. So, there is only so much that a children’s home can do to build and maintain a therapeutic structure if the structures around it let it down.


It’s been my practice to write notes to the manager when I get home in the evening after spending a day with a home. The manager then distributes these notes to the team. Getting to the home as early as I can in the morning, I usually say hello to at least some of the children and may sometimes be with the team when they are handing over. Later I attend the team meeting, have lunch with the team and any residents who are still in the house, and then in the afternoon we have a whole team consultancy session. Finally I meet with the home’s manager. It’s a packed day for me during which I get a sense of the whole home and how it is working. While I may be able to offer some useful thoughts about the children, they are not my focus. I work with the team and the manager – and, of course, the whole home as a system.

Periodically I work with the directors of the provider organisation, and have workshops with the whole senior team. They are responsible for the overall therapeutic structure of the whole organisation which needs to be designed, developed and
maintained to be in tune with the core task of therapeutic child care. (The same principles apply to all therapeutic residential care for all ages.)

The therapeutic structure is a whole construction made up of many parts which are ALL connected. The strength or weakness of any one part affects all the other parts. There are foundation stones, keystones and cornerstones in this construction; without them the therapeutic work that they support, hold and contain will crumble and fall.

Recently, having worked with an organisation for several years, I realised that I had become part of the system in a way that was blocking change. I was following the same pattern and so were the homes. What had been helpful and challenging observations two, three and even four years ago, had now become what everyone was used to. Countless times I had fed back to staff and managers (at all levels) when the structure was crumbling or had been insufficiently developed in the first place, but we were discussing the same issues over and over again. (Of course there are perennial issues in residential care, but a home should become more alive to those deep underlying anxieties, more adept at identifying them for themselves, and resistant to reaching for stop-gap “solutions”. Locking doors is a typical one that arose only yesterday.) And their consultant should be helping them to do it for themselves rather than holding on to being ineffectually perceptive. So, I repeatedly circulated notes and articles about such things as the rota and the budget, and while I acknowledge that they may have been read and discussed, I still didn’t see that deep change had taken place. And, of course, I had highlighted failures in the structure in my consultancy notes and in discussion with teams and managers. I was finding that I could take this horse to water, but try as I might, I couldn’t make the good creature drink! (And these were very good therapeutic homes in a thoughtful, honest and well motivated organisation. Poor, fly-by-night, quick-buck organisations don’t go to the trouble and expense of engaging a consultant to do this sort of work.)

Our resistance to structure

As residential workers (I’m proud to call myself one) our ambivalence about structure is deep seated. We know the value of reliable structure yet we resist it. Structure seems to contradict the creative and liberating potential of therapeutic relationships. Nor do we want to face the difficulty of challenging ourselves or our colleagues when we fail to follow a structure we have all agreed to. When you work so closely and are so dependent on good working relationships, it is tempting not to question your colleagues but to turn a blind eye to avoidance of duty. We weave ourselves a tangled web of little collusions. Collusion breeds collusion, and the guilt is silencing. People really do mean it when they resolve to adhere to structures, and it is a hard thing to say “You failed” to a close colleague. Poor timekeeping is a common example of this avoidance. Rarely do we say to each other, “You’re late and that’s not good enough for the children or the team. I won’t put up with it.”

The lure of heroic work

Some experienced workers can manage difficult situations by using individual techniques while ignoring agreed structures; thereby, they undermine the therapeutic structure and make themselves indispensable. With a background of creating personal authority in unstructured settings, and a remarkably intuitive feel for the emotional atmosphere of a children’s home, some managers, without meaning to, maintain their heroic and charismatic aura, and they can even unconsciously collude with creating incidents which demand their emergency intervention.

The consultant should not be a soothsayer

A parallel process may entangle and seduce the consultant, especially one (like me) who has experienced the work at first hand, and has inevitably colluded with resisting and undermining the therapeutic structure while telling everyone else how vital it is to build and maintain it.

In the short term it may be satisfying to draw the team’s attention to your prediction of two months ago that has now turned out to be spot on; in the longer run you have to ask yourself how useful – or, indeed, useable – was that prediction? When we make predictions – even dire ones – we have some investment in them coming true, so that we can say “I told you so.” It may make the consultant feel and look clever, but the role of the consultant is not to be a soothsayer with mysterious powers of perception and prediction, but to help people to internalise a lively and practical awareness of what’s happening and a theoretical conception with which to understand it.

In writing this article and re-reading it just now, I see that I have used the soothsayer ploy in the opening paragraph: “I told you all of this 25 years ago!” So, perhaps it is legitimate to start a consultancy engagement by demonstrating that you are capable of perception and prediction, that you can provide a theoretical framework within which to understand what’s happening, and that you can communicate all this in a useful way. However, I’ve argued at the end of the piece that a consultant should move the engagement on from this stage to helping the team or organisation to internalise consultative perception and theory.