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My first job out of college was in a residential treatment facility, called the Cotswold Community, for emotionally disturbed boys who had been removed from their homes for a variety of reasons, including their behavior was unmanageable, or because of abuse or neglect. Calling it a residential treatment facility makes it sound very clinical and institutional, but it wasn’t like that all. It was housed in a group of buildings that used to be a communal farm for a small German religious group, and the buildings were built out of Cotswold stone, which is a lovely honey color that glows in the sunshine. It was a gorgeous place. I took a ton of black & white pictures while I was there; I’ve always meant to go through them and maybe find a couple that are good enough to frame.
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And there were no dorms. The boys were organized into “cottages”; each cottage had about 10 boys, and a team of adults who took care of them. As much as feasible, everything was done to replicate a family living situation, which meant that I was on duty from 7:30 in the morning to get the boys up and get them breakfast, then after they went to school in another building, we cleaned and prepped lunch. After lunch, when they went back to school for the afternoon, I had about 2½ hours off, then I was on duty again from about 4 until lights out at 10, then we wrote up logs on each of the boys. The short walk from the cottage where I worked to my room in another building was usually amazing; it was a really rural area and the skies at night were fantastic. I got one full day and one half day off a week.
The place was run on principles derived from the work of Donald Winnicott, who was a British pediatrician and psychoanalyst. He worked at a London children’s hospital for most of his career. And during that time the Second World War took place, which caused enormous disruption in the lives of children in London, many of whom were made homeless, or orphaned, or lost a significant care-giver, and thousands were evacuated to the countryside out of the reach of German bombs, often separated from their immediate family.
There have been countless studies since then on the long-term impact on children of separation from their families, including increased risk of depression and reduced ability to form close relationships over their lifespan. But even during the war, Winnicott could see that a safe, predictable, consistent “holding environment” is necessary for children’s psychological well-being—that children who don’t have that because of loss or dislocation or abuse or neglect face reduced odds of growing up to be stable, well-adjusted adults.
But another thing that Winnicott pointed out was that the holding environment didn’t have to be—actually, should not be—perfect, because children whose every need is met for them, or even anticipated, do not develop skills of independence, resourcefulness, resilience, or agency. He coined the term “good enough parent” to describe the caregiver who provides the basics: food, shelter, warmth, connection, belonging, consistency, predictability, responsiveness, the sense that someone believes in me unconditionally, and what Louis MacNeice called “a white light in the back of my mind to guide me.”
And because the caregiver believes in the child—that they are capable of doing things for themselves, that failure is a necessary step on the road to competence and not an indicator of deficiency, that they are fundamentally good and self-actualizing—the caregiver gives the child time and space to figure things out. Allows them to take risks, but not too many or too large. And provides support, but not too much. But it’s not enough that the caregiver believes in the child—the child has to know that they are believed in. (Here’s a decent article on the good-enough parent in The Atlantic.)
Kerry and I started using the concept of the holding environment in our coaching workshops several years ago, to describe the conditions that we think coaches should create when working with their clients. The concept is also clearly pertinent in other adult learning situations, and any professional environment that purports to support the professional growth of its human capital. People need challenge, but that challenge has to feel attainable, and has to be accompanied by just enough support, and faith, from supervisors and leaders.
And lately I find myself talking about the holding environment when talking about high quality instruction, as well. I think there are limits to comparing classrooms and families. But the concept of the holding environment expresses exactly what we should be providing in educational settings as well as familial ones. It should be safe to take risks and to fail, without failure being disastrous. Support should be available, but applied discriminately and topically. Students should believe not only that their teachers have high expectations for them, but that their teachers believe that the students can meet those expectations. Confidence and competence have a reciprocal and positively reinforcing relationship, and teachers should understand that and leverage it.
Just to be clear, the holding environment is closely related to other constructs that encapsulate similar ideas. Here are the ones that I’m most familiar with.
Warm demander. This term was coined by researcher Judith Kleinfeld in a 1975 paper (you’ll find the language a little dated—use with caution). Here’s a paragraph that sums up what she observed (I added this as a slide in the Coaching Letter Slides collection):
Only after rapport has been established do these teachers become demanding. Demands, however, are inevitably accompanied by a warm smile, gentle teasing, and other forms of emotional support. Thus, village students do not interpret the teacher's demands as bossiness but rather as an aspect of his personal concern. For the village student, producing a high level of academic work becomes his reciprocal obligation in a personal relationship. The emotional intensity between teacher and student is difficult to describe in many of the classroom encounters, where academic performance becomes unified into the mutual obligations and privileges of personal bonds. One teacher, for example, made a solemn pact with a withdrawn boy, promising that she would stay with him and help him find the answer as long as necessary if he only would try to say anything except "I don't know" in response to every question.
When I was at the Carnegie Summit last year, one of the presenters riffed on Beyoncé as the ultimate warm demander, and if you watch one of the documentaries about her designing and rehearsing one of her shows, you can see exactly what they meant.
Culturally relevant pedagogy. Gloria Ladson-Billings published an article in 1995 titled “But That’s Just Good Teaching!” It contains my favorite opening paragraph of any research article:
For the past 6 years I have been engaged in research with excellent teachers of African American students. Given the dismal academic performance of many African American students, I am not surprised that various administrators, teachers, and teacher educators have asked me to share and discuss my findings so that they might incorporate them in their work. One usual response to what I share is the comment around which I have based this article, “But, that’s just good teaching” Instead of some “magic bullet” or intricate formula and steps for instruction, some members of my audience are shocked to hear what seems to them like some rather routine teaching strategies that are a part of good teaching. My response is to affirm that, indeed, I am describing good teaching, and to question why so little of it seems to be occurring in the classrooms populated by African American students.
And later in the article:
While much has been written about the need to improve the self-esteem of African American students, at base students must demonstrate academic competence. This was a clear message given by the eight teachers who participated in my study. All of the teachers demanded, reinforced, and produced academic excellence in their students. Thus, culturally relevant teaching requires that teachers attend to students’ academic needs, not merely make them “feel good.” The trick of culturally relevant teaching is to get students to “choose” academic excellence.
There are many other excellent writers on the topic of culturally relevant pedagogy, including Zaretta Hammond, Yvette Jackson, and Adeyemi Stembridge—this excerpt is taken from the latter’s book, Culturally Responsive Education in the Classroom:
Our students’ humanity isn’t neatly divided by academic and non-academic partitions. Their academic selves are also intimately connected to their motivations, aspirations, and vulnerabilities of the other parts of their selves. And finally, teaching self-regulatory behaviors and traditional academics simultaneously isn’t a burden but rather an entirely reasonable expectation of instruction. Our students learn best how to manage their own engagement when they are taught (and given support in constructing) the tools and techniques to engage in productive and disciplined ways.
In other words, we should be demanding high academic achievement from all our students, and providing them an environment where their identities are honored and nurtured is not an optional extra, it is central to the mission.
Belonging. I wrote about Geoff Cohen’s new book, Belonging, in Coaching Letter #176, and here’s a collection of quotations from the book that I have pulled for various uses. The big idea here is that belonging is a really powerful emotion, and lack of belonging causes social pain, which we feel very much as we feel physical pain. Read the book! Chapter 9 is specifically about schools. And Cohen uses language very similar to Stembridge’s: belonging is not an optional extra, it is central to the mission.
Developmental Relationships Framework. The DRF does a really great job of communicating that expressing care, which is what a lot of people think that “having a relationship” with a colleague or a student means, is only a small portion of a powerful and supportive relationship. Other elements—challenge growth, provide support, share power, and expand possibilities—are also key. Rather than reading my interpretation, you should check out the website, it’s really helpful. Just ask better questions when you hear someone say, “it’s all about relationship”.
Psychological safety. I wrote at length about psychological safety in Coaching Letter #158, which you should read, but even better, you should read Amy Edmondson’s book, The Fearless Organization, and you should definitely subscribe to Tom Geraghty’s newsletter, “Psychological Safety”. He does really great work.
Two codas to this letter. First, both my parents were evacuated during the Second World War; my mother with her mother to the countryside, where they stayed for two or three years; my father also with his mother and siblings, but only for a couple of weeks (the practice of sending only the children away was ended, largely because of the work of D. W. Winnicott and his fellow child psychologists). My parents lived in Clydebank, a major industrial area on the west coast of Scotland. The town was home to John Brown’s Shipyard, a very famous shipyard where some of the greatest of the ocean liners were built: the Queen Mary, the Queen Elizabeth, the QE2 among them. And during the war, the shipyard built battleships. The town also was home to Singer Sewing Machines, whose largest European factory was just a short distance from John Brown’s. Singer’s manufactured ammunition during the war, and small parts for airplanes and guns. The town, therefore, was a target of German bombing, in March 1941. This episode was known as the Clybebank Blitz, and relative to the size of the population, was one of the deadliest bombing raids of the war. The bombs largely missed the industrial targets they were aiming for, but a large number of houses were damaged or destroyed, and over 500 people in the town were killed. My dad was in Clydebank at the time, and spent the nights of the Blitz away from his house, which was near an above-ground coal gas tank. My dad sent me this YouTube video, which has photographs of the devastation starting at 2:30, and the two women in the foreground of this photograph are my great-aunts, Betty & Mary Barrie.
Second coda. I was watching my friend Tosh coach basketball the other day. I told him afterwards how interesting it was to watch him, and how different from my mental model of coaching a sport. He was really gentle, his movements were really controlled and deliberate, and he was quiet and calm. I know squat about basketball so I don’t have the language to talk about the playing itself, but he was clearly scaffolding up, going through progressively more difficult moves. And also obviously, all this was intentional and planned. It wasn’t until much later that it occurred to me that this was a metaphor for a warm demander—maybe not even a metaphor—I have often used the line that the warm demander is the hand on your back, offering support and encouragement but also pushing a little bit, all at the same time. And there was Tosh, literally with his hand on this kid’s back as he guided him where he should go. It was cool.
Finally, thanks to Kerry, Khary, Tosh and my dad for help with this Coaching Letter. Let me know if there’s anything I can do for you. Best, Isobel
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I developed a method for coaching abrasive leaders (bosses who engage in bullying behaviors) and subsequently founded The Boss Whispering Institute (www.bosswhispering.com) to share the method with other coaches. I found Winnicott's concept of the "good enough mother" to be pivotal in working with this population, as so often, they are driven to be perfect because of internalized parental voices that demanded this. To help them see that it is good enough to be good enough has been important. In the course of coaching, clients will so often reflect: "I realize now that I don't have to be perfect." My response: "Welcome to the human race." Thank you for your wonderful article, Isobel.
Fantastic letter! Thank you and a very good reminder of the way we should approach coaching school leaders!