Stroking, grooming, spoon-feeding. The theory is that nurturing older pupils can compensate for a lack of parental bonding in infancy. Madeleine Brettingham reports on an unusual therapy.
She bottle-feeds them, she strokes their hair, she washes their hands and feet. But Jo Williams is not their mother - she is their therapist. And these are not babes-in-arms but children of up to 10 and 11-years-old.
Welcome to the world of Theraplay, a US treatment that emphasises the importance of a strong, loving bond with a mother figure. So far it has not had a huge following in the UK, but support is growing. And Rockingham primary in Northamptonshire is the first mainstream state school to install a dedicated Theraplay unit.
Naturally, there will be those who disapprove of this kind of hands-on therapy, especially since it is the first time a laboratory-style observation unit, complete with one-way mirror, has been installed in a mainstream school. But Juliet Hart, the headteacher, argues it has been vital in improving behaviour.
"For years, teachers have laboured with resistant children and wondered, 'How can I unlock this person?'" she said. "Once you have emotional literacy, then the learning can begin." The Theraplay technique is based on the assumption that children with behavioural problems have often failed to bond with their parents in infancy. It aims to redress the issue through nurturing activities designed to make the child feel loved and secure.
Ms Williams, Rockingham's therapist, said that some are resistant at first but "soon curl up on your lap like a baby and let you bottle-feed them".
In a typical session, she might comb a child's hair, spoon-feed them, put cream on their cuts and bruises or wash dirty hands, as well as devise activities to encourage patience and teamwork. "It's all about making them feel they're worth looking after," she said.
The children who come to her are often from poor and fractured families.
Sometimes they come in groups - bereaved children, or those with low self-confidence. Others come alone or with a parent who watches from a booth.
"I had one mother who was having trouble bonding with her child," she said.
"There was little touching and eye contact. By the end, she was bottle-feeding him, he was stroking her hair. She said it was one of the best things that had ever happened to her."
Ms Williams has even subdued a group of rowdy Year 6s who were sent to her for bullying. "By the end of the session they were feeding each other. They love it," she smiles.
Teachers can refer children directly to the group and they are enthusiastic about the results.
Sessions are monitored by the Chicago-based Theraplay Institute which has certified around 60 therapists in the US and Canada, but, so far, only a handful in the UK.
Ms Hart realises the approach might not be right for every school, but for Rockingham, "a very loving school", where both pupils and parents can expect a hug at the door, it is welcome.
"We have a fantastic relationship with the children," says Fiona Douglas, assistant head. "It's not always a transformation. But when they come back, they are calmer and beginning to trust adults. Soon that will come through in their learning."
But Dr Dennis Hayes, an opponent of the use of therapy in the classroom and leader of the education forum at the Institute of Ideas think tank, said:
"This is part of the infantilisation of adult life. It's about keeping people permanently as children, not helping them to grow up."
* Theraplay was developed in Chicago in 1967 as part of the US Head Start programme, the inspiration for Sure Start over here. There are around 60 certified therapists in the US and Canada.
* It argues that warm and loving relationships are essential to a child's self-worth.
* Children who do not bond well with their parents may have a negative self-image and develop behavioural problems, practitioners say.
* Children can engage in Theraplay alone, in a group or with parents.
Activities include bottle-feeding, spoon-feeding, and games.