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Teaching Focusing to Disturbed, Inner City Adolescents

The Folio, Volume VI, number 1, 1987

Mary McDonald, M.A.

Can adolescents who are both emotionally disturbed and economically disadvantaged learn Focusing? If so, what impact might Focusing have on their emotional and behavioral adjustment? What impact would there be on school achievement?

These were some of the questions I had in mind when I undertook a pilot project to teach Focusing to disturbed adolescents at an inner city alternative school. In this article I will discuss the initial two and-half-month pilot project intervention. In a future article I will discuss the cases of three adolescents with whom I worked on a long-term basis.

This project was conducted at a small alternative school for emotionally and behaviorally disturbed adolescents, on Chicago's South Side. The population of the school was black (with the exception of one white boy) and was predominately of low income. The students' ages ranged from 11 to 20; many had learning disabilities in addition to their emotional and behavioral problems. Many students had disturbed family backgrounds and some had had run-ins with the law. All the students received both individual and group psychotherapy on a regular basis, so they were socialized at least to the purposes and goals of psychotherapy sessions.

After some introductory meetings with the school principal and the social worker, I arranged to com to the school on a weekly basis to become acquainted with the students and with the school ambience. The social worker felt that get-acqainted period would be essential to the success of the project because she felt the students would only cooperate with someone who had passed through the obstacle course set up by the students to test newcomers, especially blond, white lady newcomers. (It should be noted that the social worker was herself a blond, white lady old timer, someone whom the students had frequently tested and in whom they placed a great deal of trust). A second reason for the get-

acquainted period was to familiarize the newcomer with the way of life in this stressful and potentially dangerous environment.

For three months, I visited the school once a week and spent several hours as a "participant observer”. I spoke with students and teachers, sat in on some classes, ate lunch with students and staff, and underwent the obstacle course of testing. At the end of the three-month period, the social worker and I selected five students who we felt would be able to sit still long enough to concentrate on the Focusing process. Three were boys, ages 13, 16, and 20. Two were girls, both age 17.

The original plan was that I would work with these students once a week during the summer work-study program. Their work with me in "Focusing Group” could be considered part of their work-study participation. We left the duration of the project open-ended, agreeing to re-evaluate the program at the end of the summer to see if it should be extended. My objective with this pilot project was to teach some of these students Focusing, no matter what it took. I did not want to limit artificially the success of the endeavor by limiting the length of my stay at the school.

At. the beginning of the summer program, the social worker and I met individually with each of the five students. We briefly explained the project and invited their participation. They were given a free choice to participate or not, in the project and were reassured that they would not have to reveal anything they felt uncomfortable about sharing with others.

Before we held our first Focusing meeting, I interviewed each student to obtain their responses to the Nowicki-Strickland locus of control scale for adolescents. This instrument measures the extent to which a person attributes causes and responsibility for behavior to outside circumstances or to internal control of an individual. According to the designers of the measure, the ideal would be to have high internal locus of control, attributing responsibility more to individual control than to environmental circumstances. A1l the students in this project had scores below their age level, exhibiting a high level of external locus of control. (The significance of this finding is not clear. Given the inconsistent nature of the social environments of same of these students, an attitude of external locus of control might be realistic.) I hoped to test the impact of the Focusing intervention on locus of control as well as on school achievement and level of achievement of therapeutic goa1s. Unfortunately I do not have consistent outcome data for all five students. I will report limited outcome data below.

The first day of the intervention. the school social worker and I met with - all five students. She and I talked about the process, explaining it in general terms. We explained that it was a way to understand our own feelings better. We discussed with the students what it is like to feel something in the body. The students had no problem at all grasping this; they intuitively knew what we were referring to. In fact, one of the girls responded particularly enthusiastically saying, "you mean, like how it feel in your stomach when you be scared or anxious?" She also mentioned that she got a churning feeling when the other kids at school upset her. We also discussed how good feelings might be felt in the body.

As I noted, the students seemed to understand right away what we were talking about, and they showed interest in exploring it further. However, the level of trust among the group was not high. The girls did not feel safe in the same room with the boys. Although these boys were among the most mature in behavior in the school, the girls were used to feeling like victims of the angry outbursts of boys at the school. They were also used to being put down and insulted by the boys. Because of this tension, the social worker and I agreed that the boys and girls would henceforth meet in separate groups. We felt this would preserve the sense of safety necessary for the Focusing process.

The second week we met with separate groups for boys and girls. My goal for this session was to teach the students to get a felt sense and a handle for it and then to resonate the handle with the felt sense. My strategy was to work at the beginning primarily with good feelings and positive experiences. To me, this was a way of teaching the process without venturing very far into heavy content areas where the students might get stuck or which might lead them to have an aversive reaction to Focusing. I knew these kids had many difficult problems to deal with and that these needed to be approached gently and with care.

I started with the "Love Exercise". In this exercise, you ask the Focuser to get a felt sense of something he or she likes or loves and to find a handle for that felt sense. I asked each of the students if they could think of something they liked or loved (not a person or a pet). I was very surprised by the response I received from the boys. Dijon, age 13, said, "I have one, but I ain't gonna teIl rou what it is!" I said, "That's okay, as long as you know what it is. You can keep it private". After I ascertained that each of the three boys had chosen something, I attempted to guide them in a group to get a felt sense and a handle for the thing they loved. Dijon interrupted to say, "I ain't gonna close my eyes for this. I gotta keep my eyes open". "You can keep your eyes open," I responded, "but you shouldn't look at me or anyone else in the room. You won't be able to concentrate on the feelings in your body if you're paying attention to other people. Why don't you try looking at a spot on the rug"? He finally agreed to find something in the room to look at, and we again proceeded with the exercise.

Dijon and Andreas, the twenty-year-old, were able to get a felt sense and a handle and resonate it. Calvin, however, had more difficulty. "Ms. McDonald, I got one alright, but I can't let myself really feel it. It wouldn't be right". He explained that he had a sense of what we were doing but he I didn't feel really comfortable letting himself think about things he liked in front of other people or at school. He would only really feel comfortable to open himself up to these feelings when he was alone or with his girlfriend. I worked with him some to recapture some of the sense of relaxation he felt when alone or with his girlfriend. We made some progress with this, but Calvin still was not comfortable enough to let himself Focus on the thing he loved. He agreed to try this exercise on his own at home, and we ended the session.

After this session with the boys and a somewhat more straightforward one with the girls, I discussed what had transpired with the school social worker. She noted that she knew from the start that Dijon would not want to close

his eyes. She said that many of the students felt constantly on guard and would feel too threatened to close their eyes for fear a classmate might attack them (a not unknown occurrence in this school). She was relieved that it was possible to do the process with the eyes open.

We also discussed Dijon's unwillingness to discuss the thing he loved and Calvin's discomfort in exploring his positive feelings in this setting. Apparently, many students had built up defenses against discussing what was most important to them because this could make them most vulnerable to being hurt. Some parents and teachers used favorite items or activities to punish the students, no matter what the nature of that item or activity. For example, if a child liked to read, books might be taken away. Some parents even went to the extreme of taking away favorite things before a child had misbehaved to prevent the child from becoming "spoiled". This led the students to be very guarded when it came to discussing positive experiences.

I decided to continue my strategy of emphasing positive experiences because I felt it would be even more difficult for them to open up about negative feelings. I taught the students that they could protect their feelings from attack, whether external or internal, as we do in the Focusing process. And I strongly emphasized their right to privacy; they were not required to share the contents of their Focusing experiences with me. I just needed enough feedback to know how to guide the process and make sure they were learning Focusing and not getting stuck along the war.

Eventually, the students began to feel more comfortable with the Focusing Group and began to share more of their positive experiences. After working with the "Love Exercise" for several sessions and expanding it to "asking"

what about the experience brought the felt sense, I began to use their felt sense for the thing they loved as a means for finding the right relationship to problems. In a way, this was clearing a space in reverse. First, we found the good feeling, and then we looked at problems from the perspective of the good space inside. For example, Calvin shared that he loved Motorcycles, though he was somewhat wary of admitting this in the beginning for fear it would be used against him. I led him through a guided imagery session in which he rode a Motorcycle and felt how that would feel in the center of his body. Then from the perspective of the Motorcycle ride, I asked him if there were any problems in his life that he felt kept him away from feeling this way. He could then glance at his problems which he

visualized at some distance from the road he was driving on. This was the means I initia1ly used to introduce Focusing on problems.
Calvin, Andreas, and Dijon all had some experiences of relating to their problems from the perspective of the good place inside and then gaining insight into their problems. Cynthia, the girl who from the start grasped what it was to feel something in the body, had no problem using Focusing with good things. (She most often referred to feelings about music or going to Church). However, it was at first difficult for her to have new insights into her problems. She was perseverative and inclined to say all her problems were due to being 17 years old. It took a lot of careful Experiential Listening on my part to help her get beyond the stereotypical response of "the problem of being 17".

Sondra, the other gir1 in the group, had the least success in learning Focusing at the beginning. She had been diagnosed as having childhood Schizophrenia and was afraid to "go inside" herself or close her eyes (and she could not really attend inside with her eyes open). During the summer Focusing sessions she let herself feel positive felt senses two or three times for a few seconds each, but that was as far as she would go with it for herself. She did appear to benefit from being in the group with Cynthia, however, and from witnessing her Focusing experiences. She slowly began developing a vocabulary for expressing feelings. And she slowly started talking about some of her own feelings, something she had never done before. I believe she absorbed a lot about the "Focusing Attitude" during those sessions.

After the summer, I continued to work with Sondra and Cynthia for another two and a half years. (I also worked sporadically with Calvin for about a year and a half). I will report more in depth on their stories in a later article.

In addition to the Focusing lessons I described above, I worked in individual Focusing Sessions with each of the students except Dijon (whose mother suddenly removed him from the school with no warning). I also did some sessions on Active Listening in which I listened to the students and then asked them to listen to one another. The intent of this exercise was to enhance the students' empathy for other people and to develop their listening skills so that they might better listen to themselves while Focusing. The boys were able to master the basics of Active Listening, but they felt uncomfortable with the process (possibly because "it involved opening themselves up to receive another person). The girls enjoyed the process but gained less mastery with it, tending to identify
with one another and to say “me, too. One time that happened to me, and this is what I did”...

To sum up the summer sessions I would say that each of the students had some experience with having a felt sense and finding a handle (although for Sondra it was minimal experience). All the students except Sondra were able to find a right relationship to their problems (clearing a space), to go through the entire Focusing process, and to gain some insight into life areas. The teaching strategy employed involved working first with positive experiences and then looking at problems from the vantage point of the good felt sense inside. Safety and privacy were fundamental to the whole process. They were prerequisites for developing the Focusing Attitude.

As I mentioned above, I do not have consistent outcome data for all five students. Dijon left the school abruptly, and I could not re-administer the locus of control measure to him. His records were removed from the school before I could record outcome data about his therapeutic goals.

At the end of the summer, Calvin left the school to go to public school. His records were also removed. I did see him sporadically for another year and a half (a testament to his interest in the Focusing process), but I was not able to examine any school records or obtain another locus of control measure. I do know that he adjusted to the public school both socially and academically and that he felt Focusing was of benefit to him, saying at one point, “I’m going to keep re-reading this book (Focusing) 20 times until I really get it down right”.

Andreas graduated from the school at the end of the summer, so there were no follow-up academic scores for him. His social worker evaluated him as making “good improvement” in all the therapeutic goals addressed during the summer quarter. This was an improvement over the previous three quarters in which he made “some improvement in all therapeutic goals addressed. Among his therapeutic goals were: 1) to help rum reestablish self-confidence; 2) to help him avoid bad company and negative influences; 3) to help him learn to accept responsibility for himself; 4) to help him to achieve a stronger sense of self and strengthen his ego; 5) to reinforce his successes in an effort to build self-esteem. There is no follow-up locus of control score for Andreas because he did not show up for the appointment at the scheduled time. He came at a time when I was not present at the school.

Both Sondra and Cynthia showed improvement in their academic achievement scores. One month before the intervention Sondra scored at the 3.5 level (third grade, fifth month) on math and reasoning and at the 4.3 level on reading and language skills. Seven months into the intervention (i.e., after the fall semester), she was at the 6.1 level in math and at the 6.3 level in reading and language skills. Similarly Cynthia improved from 1.5 to 5.1 in math and from 2.2 to 4.8 in reading and language.

These improvements might seem dramatic, but they should be interpreted with caution. A primary reason is that different achievement tests were used by the school at the two testing periods. A second reason is that both girls

had uneven scoring histories, at previous times having scored both higher and lower than their pre-intervention scores. However, it should be noted that neither had ever previously reached the level achieved seven months into the Focusing intervention.

In terms of therapeutic goals, Sondra had "some improvement" in each of the goals addressed during the summer. This was similar to her pattern for the previous quarter. By the fall quarter, however, she showed "good improvement" in: 1) increasing her relatedness to others and her sense of reality; 2) enhancing her ego strength and her ability to integrate materials; 3) building her relationships with peers, particularly with boys.

During the pre-intervention quarter, Cynthia had had "good improvement in 40% of her goals and "some improvement" in 60% of them. During the summer session, she had "some improvement" in all the goals addressed except one new one (to help her face and deal with her feelings about sex). By the end of the fall quarter, she had "some improvement" with the new goal, too.

Both girls had improved locus of control scores when I re-tested them two years after the initial measurement. It is not clear how much this improvement was due to the Focusing intervention and how much was due to maturation.

No definite conclusions about the effects of Focusing (or holding a Focusing Group) can be drawn from the outcome measures because of the inconsistencies in data collection. However, it seems clear that Focusing had no detrimental effects on these students. And the evidence suggests that it might have had a positive impact on both academic and therapeutic achievement. (The school social worker believes it had a major therapeutic impact on the girls who participated in the group). I personally feel that the intervention helped the students to gain a positive sense of themselves as being distinct from their problems and provided them with a tool for comforting themselves and gaining insight into their problems.

I believe the evidence from this pilot project is strong enough to suggest that further research in this area would be beneficial. I think the efficacy of a Focusing program in a school setting could be greatly improved, however,

if the teachers received ongoing training in Focusing and the Focusing Attitude. The impact of Focusing on the school environment could thus be more widespread and transformative.

I wish to thank Beth Carlson, David Clark, and Gene Gendlin for their support in this pilot project.