It all began with a belief that children in school would be excited to learn the Principles of Family Constellations. Who wouldn’t want to improve their sense of belonging in a place where they spend 40 hours a week? It seemed obvious (at least to me) this hypothesis would be easy to prove, except for one small variable: The students I was teaching were eight to eleven years old.
Could the pre-adolescent brain grasp the concepts of systemic thinking? Would eight year olds be interested in ‘going deeper’ or eleven year olds capable of interacting ‘supportively’ with one another? I was already a fan of the school-based systemic work spearheaded by Judith Hemming in the United Kingdom through the nowhere foundation. In the United States, I had
Who wouldn’t want to improve their sense of belonging in a place where they spend 40 hours a week?
been trained alongside fellow educators in a powerful systemic process called The Responsive Classroom. Both initiatives I was familiar with were implemented mainly within the classroom. Since I worked with small groups mostly outside the classroom, I wondered what else might work. In my 20-year career as a school based speech and language pathologist, I work with students in Special Education. My learning group includes those labeled as Learning Disabled, with Attention Deficit Disorder, and Autism. Not yet versed in the principle that ‘we all belong’, many of my students feel ‘less than’ most of the time. Surrounded by peers answering questions more quickly and easily for almost eight hours a day, little beings become deflated. Anxiety and impulsiveness spike as the threads of connection simultaneously become frayed. The chronic effect is that feelings of exclusion begin to outweigh the diagnosed skill deficits
Following the Sandy Hook tragedy, school climate research would indicate that more children than we first realized are not making connections in school. If we could teach the principles of family constellations directly to children, I thought this would place powerful tools for connection gently into smaller hands.
As the creation of the actual program began, dozens of questions swirled through my being like a series of small tornados. How was I going to describe this already ‘difficult to describe’ work? Would my young audience be interested or their parents keen to sign them up? What steps should I take to gather support from administrators and staff within my own school system?
Specifics related to procedure seemed daunting. How was I going to structure the program? Teach the essence of Hellinger’s work? Create activities that children would respond to? What should my group be called?
Deciding to call my group Kids Constellations gave me a starting point. Why an educator with a specialty in Communication Sciences decided to become a family constellations facilitator in the first place, is an important preceding element. Briefly, here’s what happened.
If we could teach the principles of family constellations directly to children, I thought this would place powerful tools for connection gently into smaller hands.
A dear friend who had already enrolled in the Connecticut Facilitator Training Program for Family Constellations suggested that I join. Though I was already a student of family constellations and fellow disciple of Ed Lynch, PhD for more than a few years, I remember countering with: “What is an educator going to do with this training?” I love and value my place in education and had no plans to switch careers.
To my hesitations, my therapist friend replied: “If you enroll, you will find out.” As if Yoda, herself, had spoken, I turned inward and contemplated the statement. I sensed immediately what personal growth might occur by spending a year with 25 fellow students of the Hellinger work I loved and four teachers, including Ed Lynch.
Next, I opened up to the idea that a professional opportunity was standing in front of me. While immersed within a phenomenological space of 30 fellow healers for an entire year, I could create a Family Constellations program for my students. It all came into focus and seemed to make sense, so I enrolled.
In September 2012, Kids Constellations was launched at the elementary school in Connecticut where I was teaching for my eighth year. While hoping to share fun activities for healing, I needed to figure out the actual specifics of adapting the principles of family constellations for children. I borrowed the idea of creating my own constellations group from Dan Booth Cohen. While studying for an MBA on the way to earning his PhD in the Family Constellations process, Dan lacked a client base from which to cull groups. He overcame this obstacle by creating his own group through sharing family constellations with prisoners at the Bay State Correctional Facility in Massachusetts. In a conversation with Dan, he shared that members of his group were very quick to tell him what was or wasn’t working.
Reactions from children also tend to be quick and honest. I was braced for a worst-case scenario – a journey akin to that of Odysseus – where dangerous situations and mutinous behavior were lurking at every turn. At the same time, I was equally optimistic – holding on to my original beliefs that children would simply experience healing while having fun.
With the fiery sparks of after-school enthusiasm, Kids Constellations rolled into the universe. Having just heard the 3pm dismissal bell, nine 4th- 6th graders, raced to see who could capture the few prized seats on the big bouncy purple chairs in our newly renovated library.
I took a deep breath and remained slightly detached from my maternally inherited inclination to protect the furniture at all costs. Unaware of the world of phenomenology and not even knowing each other, I felt fairly confident that these children would respond well to my classroom management skills. On the other hand I was stepping out, constellations style, into the complete unknown. My attempt to teach an after-school enrichment program for children, based on Bert Hellinger’s Family Constellations had begun. In a 60-minute per week, six-week program my plan was to deliver child-friendly lessons that would strengthen their connections to themselves, each other, and ultimately to their school.
At the same time, I was equally optimistic – holding on to my original beliefs that children would simply experience healing while having fun.
Finally gathered into a quiet enough circle, we began our first session by sharing about ourselves, including why we had come to this group. There were individual reasons for joining, including one response from a boy who thought he had signed up for after- school basketball. The overwhelming theme was that most had joined to do fun activities and make new friends.
During the course of the six week session, I focused on teaching Bert Hellinger’s Orders of Love: We All Belong, Life is a Balance of Give and Take, and Big and Small have differing responsibilities.
I made up most of my own activities. One week we constructed family trees, using graphic organisers and a tree visual that I had found online. Approaching genealogy with children took time, but they loved it. They found common ground, talking about who was oldest, or youngest, or a middle child. Stories about pets, especially those predating the students, were important elements of their ancestral connections.
For the Balance of Give and Take, I entrusted students with the task of playing tug of war with a large therapy band. Everyone loved the idea of pulling the band a bit too much, then allowing it to go slack. The analogy to life was pretty clear, and of course, the band did manage to snap a few times during the exercise, despite cautions to be careful.
I borrowed a nature constellation from Francesca Mason Boring. In her exercise with adults, she asks participants to pair up and take turns sharing about a tree from childhood. For my group of youngsters, still in childhood, I gave them a week to investigate the trees around them at school and to identify a favourite. When we came together, they shared about their selections. Our collection included a strong poplar used as a base in Freeze Tag, a haggard conifer, and a solid oak at the outskirts of the school perimeter. We took pictures to celebrate ourselves with our trees and to honor the collective system.
At first, I found the principle of seniority the most challenging order to teach. With visions of uniformed school children and stern nuns from my former elementary school dancing in my head, I was afraid of this principle sounding dictatorial. Not entirely sure of what to do, I taught into the discomfort. I initiated a discussion, asking sixth graders to share their experiences of being the oldest members in our school, and fourth graders to express how it felt to be the youngest. An eleven year old opened up about the social pressures of sixth grade, describing cliques to younger students not fully aware of what was to come. A quiet third grader shared that she was a little bit afraid of walking down the hall in the sixth grade wing. The honesty and depth of the conversation amazed me. Our group members were feeling safe with each other, had developed a sense of trust, and were sharing concerns close to their hearts.
Following the discussion of seniority, I expanded the exercise by setting up two lines of children – older and younger. I suggested stem sentences from each to the other, followed by healing statements.
“I’m a little bit afraid of you,” became: “I’m a little bit afraid of you, but want to know you.”
“I’m curious about you,” became: “Even though I am a cool sixth grader, I am interested in knowing you, and helping you, too.”
There were individual variations on the sentences, such as:
“I’m taller than the normal fourth grader, so I’m not as afraid of you older students.”
Giggly responses from pre-adolescents not quite ready to say anything at all were also common. Some of these giggles were crushes, later discussed with the school psychologist in individual therapy sessions. About mid-way through the first session of Kids Constellations, the excitement for our weekly gatherings gained momentum. Positive comments as well as questions about what we were doing became the buzz in the school hall throughout the week. Supportive emails arrived from parents. Amanda Shaw, my school’s Principal, offered her full support. I began to touch base regularly with Jen Harris, our school’s psychologist, about children’s needs for individual support. As the children’s connections to their school strengthened, so did mine.
At the end of the six weeks, they were still enjoying the program and it was clear that a second session should be offered. More than 75% of the same students re-enrolled in the program, and additional children took the remaining places.
After a year-long investigation, it seemed clear that children were capable of understanding Bert Hellinger’s Orders of Love and were excited to participate in fun activities that also helped to heal them.
More than 75% of the same students re-enrolled in the program, and additional children took the remaining places.
To get feedback about how the work had helped, we interviewed parents, administrators and the children themselves. Emails and cards of appreciation arrived of their own volition. Children, who did not always make good friends in school, were finding deeper connections. Parents not only noticed, but also demonstrated support when the overwhelming
majority of them re-enrolled their children for a second session.
When we interviewed Amanda Shaw, our school Principal, her feedback about Kids Constellations was that children were able to feel a sense of belonging at school by developing deeper relationships with an adult as well as with peers. According to current research in school climate, Mrs. Shaw shared that developing these connections to adults can help to prevent school violence.
As for what the children thought? When our senior member of Kids Constellations and soon–to-be graduate of our elementary school was asked if children of different ages and at other schools would benefit from our program, he replied: “Yes, you should start Kids Constellations at my new school!”
The Knowing Field ISSUE #23
Initially founded as the Systemic Solutions Bulletin by Barbara Stones and Jutta ten Herkel, the Knowing Field is currently the only international English-language journal available on constellation work. In each issue, you will find articles representing a broad spectrum of how Constellation Work is moving throughout the world. Articles are published from long time leaders in the field as well as newcomers. From deep philosophical and scientific discussions, to practical tips and techniques, to soul stirring stories of healing breakthroughs, you will enter a radically inclusive space that helps shine a light on the professional practice of Constellation Work as well as the mysteries that continue to surprise, confound and humble all involved in this work.