Counselling for Teachers Pt.5 - Unconditional Positive Regard

Following on from our article two weeks ago about the locus of evaluation, we thought we'd delve a little deeper into the work of Carl Rogers, who is regarded by many as the godfather of modern counselling, and whose ideas are particularly applicable to education.

Rogers called his style of counselling person-centred because he believed that the counsellor's role is not to interpret, diagnose or advise their client, but to respect each individual's right and ability to find their own answers to their own questions. 

The phrase 'person-centred' has since been adopted by various professionals (e.g. child-centred education, patient-centred care, client-centred social work) who try to replicate Rogers' attitude of respect for the individual. They do this through three 'core conditions' which together constitute the person-centred approach:

  • unconditional positive regard
  • empathic understanding
  • congruence 

In subsequent articles we'll look at empathy and congruence, but today we'll be focusing on unconditional positive regard.

Unconditional Positive Regard (UPR)

The person centred approach is fundamentally positive and optimistic. It holds that people are essentially good, self-regulating and social, if allowed to feel and express their feelings freely.

Thwarted potential

Unfortunately, most of us are not in that ideal, free situation. We are taught early on in life to adjust ourselves to the rules of those closest to us, learning that unless we behave in certain ways we won't be loved or valued or cared for. For the most part these lessons are not harmful: we learn to ignore the impulse to throw our dinner on the floor because we don't want to lose the warm smiles from our parents, and overall this is no great loss. However, many of us learn that certain fundamental aspects of ourselves are not welcome, and that we won't be as loved/valued/cared for if we express them. For example, parts of ourselves that may be rejected include:

  • basic emotional needs ("I remember falling over as a child and crying because I had this really big cut on my knee. I just wanted her to pick me up and tell me it'd be alright. There was blood all over me, but my mum just said 'get up and stop whinging'. I remember that like it was yesterday. I still won't cry now.")
  • the way that we express emotions ("I was never allowed to get angry at home; if I did I got sent to my room, and I could only come out when I'd calmed down. I learnt that anger is bad and that you were bad if you felt it.") 
  • our beliefs ("I remember Mum taking me aside and telling me "Whatever you do, don't tell your Dad you've joined the Young Conservatives; he'd never have you back in the house".")
  • aspects of our identity ("As soon as I told my brother I was gay, I could see the way he looked at me change. He acted like he was cool with it, but you could see in his eyes that he was, well, I think he was scared. I never mentioned it again and neither did he.")

In all of these cases, the person has to keep a fundamental aspect of themselves hidden. And it is the tension between this hidden self and the self they show to the world, Rogers says, that causes anxiety and distress. Being unable to express important aspects of ourselves, we can become blocked and frustrated, unable to grow freely and positively. 

How to undo the damage

If the damage is done by having our identity judged and rejected, Rogers thought, then healing can only come about through being treated without any judgement. This is what he meant by unconditional positive regard: by refraining from any judgement (and this goes just as much for positive as for negative judgements - he would neither praise, celebrate nor criticise his clients) we make space for the true, hidden self to emerge and grow.

How does this help?

UPR has a number of effects on the person receiving it:

  • It helps them to feel safe to explore hidden or scary aspects of themselves, knowing that (unlike in normal life) they can take risks here and not be criticised for them.
  • It stops them from seeking answers outside of themselves, demonstrating that their counsellor has faith in their own ability to find the resources needed to solve their problems. (In other words, it helps the individual to internalise their locus of evaluation).
  • It makes them feel prized, important, and heard. Very rarely in our life are we truly centre stage (or if we are, we often find ourselves putting on an act), but by communicating UPR, the counsellor helps the client to feel that, for the duration of their session, their experience is all that matters. 
  • It slows things down. As the person isn't worried about someone jumping in and contradicting them, they can be more reflective and access parts of their experience that normally get ignored or buried away. This gives time and space for new parts of themselves to emerge and have a voice.

How can we apply this to teaching?

You may be thinking that this all sounds well and good, but hopelessly idealistic and impossible in a busy school. And you'd be right. There's no way that we can offer individual UPR to a class of 30 children with all their different beliefs, experiences and desires; at least, not if we want to get anything done! But the attitude of UPR is of great importance in two areas: healing ourselves and healing others.

Healing ourselves

As teachers, we live in a very judgemental world. As we saw in the article on locus of evaluation, there are lots of voices in school life who are ready to offer us respect and regard only if we fulfil certain conditions. These conditional voices often leave us scared to expose important parts of our experience (confusion, worry, self-doubt, anger), and feeling frustrated and constrained that we can't properly be ourselves. Without the safety and security of knowing that we are loved and valued even if we're wrong, we will not be able to learn, to take risks, or to make good decisions.

Indeed, we know that children do not learn or grow if they do not feel safe, so how can we expect to flourish if we operate within these conditions? Rogers would suggest that we can not, and that if we are to flourish we need to receive unconditional positive regard.

So ask yourself: where do I go for unconditional love? Who in my life provides it? How ready am I to accept it from others?

And as we're a community, ask yourself: whom do I provide UPR for? Whom can I offer it to? Can I offer it to myself? 

(If you're wondering how to offer UPR to someone else, it's simple: just be with that person without judging or trying to change or advise them. It's not easy, but it's incredibly powerful. You can find some more tips about that in our first article in the Counselling for Teachers.)

Healing Others

For many children, early experiences will have taught them that they are loved only insofar as they succeed, or are quiet, or are replicas of their parents. Our assessment-focused school system can reinforce this message, telling them that they are good only insofar as they perform well, and that their perspective doesn't count for anything.

Consider a not-too-uncommon case:

Tim had an argument with his best friend yesterday. He woke up worrying about this and wanted to tell someone, but his mum seems much more interested in his baby sister now she's come along, and last time he told his dad about his friends his dad had got angry and told him he needed to stand on his own two feet. He knows he should be dealing with his problems differently, and is ashamed he's not more grown up, but he doesn't know how to do this, so he keeps quiet.

When he gets to school he approaches his teacher to ask her what to do, but she gives him a look that says "I'm busy and this is not the time". So he goes to his table and starts his early morning work, but he's struggling with the spellings and getting anxious about it (he remembers how the rest of the table got gold stars last time and he didn’t because he put the apostrophe in the wrong place).

Tim's anxiety isn't helped by the fact that his best friend - Mohammed - is sat on another table and is laughing with some other boys. Tim gets up to go to talk to him but as soon as he does he hears his teacher's voice cut across the classroom reminding him about the rules. He sits back down, flushed and ashamed - it's another mistake, he thinks, I can't get anything right. I may as well just give up. He can feel tears prick his eyes and he looks over to the teaching assistant - she's been nice to him before - but he can't tell her anything. He worries she won't understand either, and he can't bear to make another mistake. He couldn't deal with the rejection, so he looks back at his spellings, trying to get through without breaking down. 

What does Tim need in this situation? Confused and full of embarrassment, Tim feels worthless and alone. He can't process his emotions and fears rejection if he tries. The only thing that can cut through his self-doubt is someone who can demonstrate to him that he is loved, regardless of what's going on inside him. Someone who can prove to him that he's not a hopeless case.

UPR is a way to break through shame and fear, but it is not easy to establish, and it’s hardest to establish for those who need it most: those who do not trust the world. As teachers we can use UPR to show children that we value them for who they are, warts and all, not just for their achievements or attributes. We can show them that even if they think or do bad things, that doesn’t mean that they are bad people.

And how? To show UPR to a child all we need to do is interact with them without trying to change, advise, or judge them. It is not possible to offer it all of the time, for obvious reasons, but in moments of contact, when a child is particularly distressed or alone, it can make them feel safe to know that you are not going to reject them, no matter what. So ask yourself: how often do the children I teach have the opportunity to show me who they really are, without my having an agenda for them? Who really needs to be heard? Can I make time and space for this?

We can also demonstrate UPR on a broader level in our attitude towards our class: how much do our class know that they matter? When are they valued just for themselves, not for what they do? How does the feedback I give them leave them feeling valued or not?

But a note of caution: UPR does not mean accepting everything the child does. Indeed the mantra"love the child, hate the behaviour" comes from person centred approaches to childcare: UPR tells the child they will be loved no matter what, but it doesn't tell them that there are no consequences. 

A word on love

To finish this introduction to UPR, I thought it might be worth discussing the elephant in the room: love. Rogers called it UPR, but essentially it is love. Like love, you cannot demonstrate UPR for someone unless you really - really - feel it. Like love, UPR is a moment of human-to-human contact that takes place outside of hierarchies. Like love UPR is not a tool or technique you use to manage, but a lived feeling which communicates something profound and transformative.

It may feel uncomfortable to think about love in the context of education - we're becoming an increasingly technicalised profession, encouraged to see teaching as a series of skills and techniques. And mention of love puts us immediately in mind of appropriateness of relationships and safeguarding. So how do you feel about it? Is there a need for love in our schools? Is there space for love? Should there be?