‘Thinking under fire’: managing therapeutic boundaries in inner-city secondary schools

Lawson, Pamela C. (2017) ‘Thinking under fire’: managing therapeutic boundaries in inner-city secondary schools. Other thesis, Middlesex University.


School-based counselling has become widespread over the last ten years as schools and clinics struggle to cope with the dramatic increase in young people presenting with mental health problems. Until recently, there was little research on school-based counselling in the UK. However, several large scale quantitative studies along with a handful of smaller qualitative studies have now been published. One clear gap in this literature concerns how counsellors experience the educational context, particularly the nature of boundaries in schools. It has been recognised that secondary schools present numerous challenges to practitioners, particularly with regard to boundaries which create the appropriate conditions needed for therapeutic work.

This study used constructivist grounded theory in order to explore the nature of boundaries and boundary management in school-based counselling. It focused on practitioners working in the complex setting of inner-city secondary schools where stretched resources and highly vulnerable young people pose numerous challenges to the work. Ten school counsellors were interviewed. The findings which emerged from this research demonstrate that the management of therapeutic boundaries in schools is a complex process which develops over time. A theory is proposed whereby boundary management evolves over three stages driven by internal and external processes. Three boundary dynamics are put forth: reactive, responsive and reflective. This study argues that these dynamics serve as useful and important constructs for thinking about boundaries and maintaining a sound, ethical stance in schools work and other related contexts. This may be the only study which explores in depth the impact of the inner city secondary school environment on therapeutic work with adolescents from a therapist’s point of view. The findings therefore provide a unique and valuable snapshot of therapy at the ‘chalkface’ of urban secondary education in the UK.

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