It happened again. I just finished reading another trauma-informed education piece that proposes treating students with unconditional positive regard (UPR). UPR as a concept is brilliant, and supported in evidence for it’s positive impacts. Separate the person from the behaviour - it makes intuitive sense, particularly when applied to how we respond to children in our care. If you treat someone with the inherent respect they deserve, the patience and compassion we all crave, then we create the conditions for everyone to thrive. I know that writing about UPR is seductive. I’ve done it many times myself.
The problem (that I’ve contributed to) with writing about UPR as the answer is that it is a small part of a broader framework. Touting UPR as the answer is like espousing how wonderful showers are by talking about taps. The taps are necessary. It’s tough to have a shower without them. But with only the taps, you are about to have one seriously underwhelming shower.
Stay with me. I’m about to move from a very flimsy shower metaphor to a massively reductive history of therapy. After Freud was thinking that the patient had problems that the therapist could solve with their superior knowledge (hint: the answer was, your parents messed you up), Carl Rogers posited that a client could learn to manage their own issues, if only a thoughtful therapist could act in certain ways (hint: your parents still messed you up, but this time you get to sit in a chair instead of lie on a couch). According to Rogers, the ways that the therapist acted could help people to leverage their innate ability to become the best person they could be - to self actualise.
So in 1957, Rogers had an article published in the Journal of Consulting Psychology, entitled:
The necessary and sufficient conditions of therapeutic personality change.
According to Rogers, to allow for ‘constructive personality change’ to occur, the therapist just had to sustain 6 conditions over time. If this article were to end here, it would suffice to mention that of the 6 conditions, Rogers placed the therapist experiencing UPR for the client at number 4. The article won’t end here, but if you do stop reading, this is the part where you might enjoy googling Rogers’ article. It is a clear and powerful piece of academic literature. Anyway, onwards.
He didn’t say treat the client with unconditional positive regard, he wrote,
‘The therapist experiences unconditional positive regard for the client’.
The underlining is mine. The distinction is critical. It is not just that you treat the client with UPR. It is that you actually experience that feeling of openness towards them. That you believe that they are an inherently valuable person. When Rogers gets to the 6th condition, he starts to really challenge our practice. I’m skipping the 5th, and leaving out part of the 6th, but I promise to come back to it in another article. Part of the 6th condition is that our UPR for the client (or student) is successfully communicated to them. As in, they have to actually get that we feel that way about them. If a student doesn’t believe that we think about them that way, or if we experience UPR for them, but fail to show or tell them that, then the conditions aren’t fulfilled.
And the relevance to our educators?
If we are to adequately be faithful to the intent of UPR in the context of our education system, we need to be helping educators to process the difficult emotions that underpin maintaining a disposition whereby you actually feel UPR for all of our students for as much of the time as is possible. It’s no small task. For anyone who has ever had a student swear at you, whilst questioning your ability to teach, whilst also commenting on your most vulnerable physical and emotional insecurities (hint: this happened to me, repeatedly) - I’d suggest that the constant exhortation to act with UPR might also be supported with the structural backing that is necessary to sustain it. Psychologists call it clinical supervision. Educators don’t have a name for it, because it hasn’t been provided for them. As the system currently operates, it relies on hoping that educators feel positive about all of our students all of the time. I’m not a betting man, but…
At Greater Space we are providing that reflective space for educators. We are experienced. We have worked in the education system, and we have trained as mental health practitioners and then developed our own structures and methods to support the growth of all professionals, and particularly educators. We are independent, so we work for the benefit of each individual client - unburdened by the strategic and interpersonal complexities that permeate all workplaces. And we have demonstrated and measured our success. Our clients are our strongest advocates. We seek and act on their feedback, and we are better for it. We know that students are at the centre of the whole endeavour, and that only with calm, congruent and supported adults can we have any hope of a thriving educational system.
It’s not just that our students and educators deserve this sort of support, it’s that it is unreasonable to expect them to do their best without it.
And if you ever feel as if you are failing at UPR, Rogers also included a thoughtful caveat buried in the footnotes to give you some succour:
The phrase “unconditional positive regard” may be an unfortunate one, since it sounds like an absolute, an all or nothing dispositional concept. It is probably evident from the description that completely unconditional positive regard would never exist except in theory. From a clinical and experiential point of view I believe the most accurate statement is that the effective therapist experiences unconditional positive regard for the client during many moments of his contact with him, yet from time to time he experiences only a conditional positive regard— and perhaps at times a negative regard, though this is not likely in effective therapy. It is in this sense that unconditional positive regard exists as a matter of degree in any relationship.