About us

Working with all those made vulnerable by childhood trauma

Our Approach

Here at The Mulberry Bush, we understand the devastating effects that trauma, neglect and abuse can have on a child’s developing brain.

Since 1948 we have been helping traumatised children and those around them through the creation of therapeutic environments within which children can build healthy relationships, discover the benefits of education and start to rebuild their lives.

Sadly, the need for our services grows every year and we are constantly looking for new ways to reach more children all over the country.

All our work is underpinned by research and a belief in working closely, not only with the children themselves, but also with their families and wider communities, resulting in a shared commitment to improve the lives and life skills for all those made vulnerable by childhood trauma.

The way we approach our work is as important as the work itself

  • We believe in the benefits of a Therapeutic Community Approach.
  • We value and promote a psychodynamic approach to all aspects of our work specifically:
    • A belief in the value of reflecting on experience and learning through reflection and experience.
    • A belief in attempting to understand the meaning of behaviour and understanding behaviour as communication.
  • We work with a belief in the dynamic nature of individual and group relationships.
  • We value and promote an integrated approach to assessment, planning and delivery of services.
  • We are committed to supporting staff through training, professional development, supervision and consultation.
  • We are committed to a way of working which does not punish or judge people and both respects and encourages them to express their unspoken thoughts and feelings.
  • We actively seek new partnerships and collaborations and are always keen to learn about different perspectives and engage in healthy debate.  However, we will not engage in activities which are incompatible with our core values and principles.
  • We value and promote diversity. Our aim is to ensure that everyone we support, regardless of personal characteristics or condition, receives an equitable service in an environment that is free from discrimination of any kind.
  • We also recognise that a diverse workforce allows us to provide the best support for all those affected by childhood trauma. We are committed to providing equal opportunities for all employees and volunteers and value every contribution, regardless of age, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, marital status (including civil partnerships), disability, nationality, face, religion or belief.
  • Activity in the areas of diversity and inclusion is driven by our Privilege and Prejudice Group, with the full support of the Board and senior leadership.

There are 3 building blocks of The Mulberry Bush approach that form the foundation of all our work:

Psychodynamic approach

The key value that underscores all our work is the use of Psychodynamic Theory. The term ‘psychodynamic’ comes from Freud’s work on understanding the unconscious; it is used to try and describe the internal psychic conflict that goes on inside all of us that sometimes results in unwanted behaviours. The work of psychotherapists and those who work in a psychodynamic way is to try and change the person from within, that is to see the behaviours as symptoms of the inner conflicts and to try and address the causes of the symptoms rather than to rectify the behaviours.

Reflective culture

Through working with very disturbed children, the staff are subjected to projections and transference on a daily basis and on occasion they may also experience projective-identification. The emotional impact is considerable, and it is only through a high level of mutual support, acknowledging and understanding these processes, that staff are able to continue working effectively. It is through meeting regularly in teams and identified groups that the impact of the work can be shared and thought about. These meetings form the heart of the charity’s reflective practice. Reflective practice enables staff to question their own reactions and behaviours and also those of their colleagues, with the aim of improving practice and leading to a greater understanding of children’s behaviour.

Collaborative working

The sharing of the impact of the work leads to collaborative working. This takes the form of bringing together different teams (internal and external) to think about the impact of working together with difficult children. Therapeutic communities are well-known for their inclusive meetings.

One of the keys to a successful organisation is communication and often the failure to communicate effectively is at the root of poor performance. The Mulberry Bush encourages open communications at all times, paying due care to the sensitivity of those present. In practice this means being clear about the emotional state of children when handing over to different people, e.g. from the teacher to the care worker. Staff are also encouraged to openly comment on their emotional state with each other so that they can be supported and offer support. Difficult subjects are encouraged to be talked about with parents and other professionals.

These three core principles are closely interlinked, and directly look after the well-being of staff and children; it is by paying careful attention to staff needs (through support structures, training and individual, team and departmental relationships) that the children’s needs can best be met.

Our Vision:

To transform the lives of all those affected by childhood trauma, through education, training, research and specialist therapeutic services

Our Mission:

To be a leading charity for advancing the education, training, research and specialist therapeutic services for emotionally troubled and traumatised children, young people, adults, their families and communities

All our work is underpinned by relevant theory that helps us navigate the complexities of working closely with childhood trauma.

Advances in the understanding of trauma and abuse

In recent years there have been huge advances in our understanding of the effects of trauma, neglect and abuse on a child’s developing brain. Research has shown that the brain of the newborn baby actually grows in response to nurture, love and positive touch.

We also now know that Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and environmental risk factors associated with childhood trauma can lead to an insecure/disorganised attachment style and poor outcomes for children. Environmental risk factors that diminish resilience in the personality include: family breakdown, parental drug addiction, major losses such as bereavement, neglect, sexual and physical abuse and domestic violence. These factors often become co-morbid and compound to decrease the chances of the child’s successful adaptation to his or her home, school and community environment.

Openness to new theories

Since its birth in 1948, The Mulberry Bush Charity has been evolving, firstly as the Mulberry Bush School and now with MB3, Mulberry Bush Outreach, Research and our International Centre, our work has required an openness to new theories and ideas. Recent advances in neuroscientific research tell us that just as traumatic experiences freeze and dysregulate children’s emotions, over time the experience and delivery of empathic caring relationships can work to ameliorate and modify these states.

This supports and complements our understanding of the importance of building close relationships. Through the provision of empathic and nurturing experiences ‘reflected’ by adults and ‘mirrored’ by the child, young person or family members, we can help increase resilience and help them understand that meaningful relationships and positive social living are possible.

Creating safety through the management of projective processes.

Working closely with trauma is anxiety-provoking. The effective management of anxiety is therefore a critical and key concept in providing a safe and nurturing environment. In our daily engagement with our client groups, we often work with a background ‘field’ of the projection of early trauma. The impact on staff of working ‘close in’ with levels of deprivation, neglect and abuse is very powerful. Regular ‘reflective spaces’ and other support and training structures equip our staff to develop a ‘conscious use of self’ so they are able to engage thoughtfully. Reflective groups enable staff to reflect on the feelings invoked in them, and help them disentangle which feelings belong to them, and which to the person they are working with.

If left unprocessed these intolerable and ‘unwanted’ feelings are ‘passed on’ from child to adult, adult to adult, and team to team. Without an implicit understanding of the management of these processes, they can create a ‘contagion’ of unthinkable feelings, which can immobilise and create splits in the staff teams of the schools, children’s homes and organisations we work with.

Our trauma-informed practice continues to evolve from the synthesis of a number of theory bases, traditions and legacies. We believe it shows that well-managed, relationship-based work really can contribute to the psychological well-being of our society’s most emotionally troubled children and young people.

Our History

Barbara Dockar-Drysdale (known as ‘Mrs D’) and her husband Stephen (known as ‘Dockar) founded the Mulberry Bush School in 1948 in Standlake, Oxfordshire. Over a period of 16 years they worked with staff, academics and the children in their care to develop a therapeutic model that remains at the heart of the Mulberry Bush Organisation today.

Mrs D’s formal work with children began in 1931 when she set up a small day nursery school for local children in the village of Blewbury, Berkshire. Following her marriage to Dockar in 1936, Mrs D moved to Radley where she re-established the nursery school and began to employ teaching and domestic staff to keep up with demand. However, it was the outbreak of war in 1939 and the start of the government evacuation programme which would take her blossoming interest in child care and make it her life’s work.

With the arrival of evacuee children in Radley, a local GP began to notice that some families were struggling to cope with the behavior of the children in their care. He recognized Mrs D’s natural talent for understanding and communicating with children, and asked if she would be willing to house, care for and educate the younger children, a task she dedicated herself wholeheartedly.

Throughout the War Mrs D moved the location of her school several times as she worked to understand and respond to the needs of the growing number of children in her care. It was in one of these interim properties on the Foxborough Road that the children began to sit in the shade of a large mulberry tree to take their morning milk. This led to the informal use of the name ‘The Mulberry Bush’.

Foundation of the Mulberry Bush School

In 1948 Mrs D found a permanent home for her school in Standlake, Oxfordshire and The Mulberry Bush School, affectionately known as ‘The Bush’, was officially established. This final move was followed by a period of rapid improvement and growth as Mrs D, supported by Dockar, began to fully realize the potential for residential work, combined with education and everyday community living, to address childhood trauma. The Dockar-Drysdales remained active in the treatment of the Bush children and management of the School for the next sixteen years leaving an indelible mark on the character, mission and ethos of The Mulberry Bush Organisation.

At the new school site from 1948, Mrs D and her young family shared their home with the children who had been referred due to their experiences of trauma and dislocation from their families. Via monthly clinical consultations with Donald Winnicott, and later a psychoanalytic training, Dockar-Drysdale provided the children with one to one therapeutic sessions. Her husband Stephen, recently returned from war service, supported the enterprise by providing a robust boundary setting – a ‘live’ authority for the group. We can imagine how this familial experience offered deprived children an experience of parental roles. In 1948 their work achieved School status, as a hybrid ‘special school and child guidance clinic’, and from thereon they were able to employ a few staff, and the school began to grow.

Out of this experience Mrs D developed the residential treatment methodology that she later named “the provision of primary experience” (1990). She conceptualised this work in a series of papers which were later published in her books ‘Therapy in Child Care’ (1968) and ‘Consultation in Child Care’ (1973).

Robin Reeves, a former Principal of the school, and consultant child psychotherapist writes:

‘Dockar-Drysdale’s primary experience seems to be an amalgam of the Winnicott concepts of ‘primary home experiences’ and ‘primary maternal preoccupation’. The term encapsulates what Dockar-Drysdale came to see as the essential element in therapy for children who had missed out on that early maternal provision….her view of primary provision could be summed up by saying that it was a matter of the caring adult having to feel and act like a mother with her new born baby, and with the same preoccupation and sense of vulnerability. This is what the ‘frozen child’ required as an absolute condition of change’ (Reeves, 2002)

Within this concept of “the provision of primary experience” Mrs D carried out her most renowned work, defining different syndromes of deprivation, and formulating treatment approaches to these syndromes. (Maurice Bridgeland, 1971):

“Dockar-Drysdale has done her most important work in seeking to explain the nature and needs of the ‘frozen’ child. The emotionally deprived child is seen as ‘pre-neurotic’ since the child has to exist as an individual before neurotic defences can form. The extent to which there has been traumatic interruption of the ‘primary experience’ decides the form of the disturbance. A child separated at this primitive stage is therefore, in a perpetual state of defence against the hostile ‘outer world’ into which he has been jettisoned inadequately prepared.”

The early therapeutic milieu was managed by the staff who provided ‘close in’ relationships and lived experiences of containing and nurturing routines, to support the emotional growth of each child. “It was this familial or social factor Dockar –Drysdale particularly attended to. It led her in due course to a greater appreciation of the therapeutic potential of ‘ordinary devoted carers’ within a setting such as the Mulberry Bush. She seized on the fact that, even without specific training and qualification as therapists, carers could become the critical focus of a child’s regression to dependency, provided that the requisite therapeutic support systems were in place’’ ( Reeves, 2002)

This relational model of meeting need, with attention to symbolic communication, still underpins our work today. In Mrs D’s view, for chaotic ‘unintegrated’ children the traditional ‘psychoanalytic hour’ was not enough, they required a total environment in which therapeutic interactions could take place within the routines of child care. She did not place the primacy of therapy as being outside of daily child care routines, hence the development of the concept and methods now known as ‘therapeutic child care.’

The Mulberry Bush Charity today

Since 2007 we have focused on taking our services out to the wider community. The development of our Outreach team,Research Department and the establishment of MB3 have enabled us to extend our charitable mission by reaching out and sharing our core values, expertise and skills to schools, families, adults and communities and to support organisations working with emotionally troubled and traumatised children.

In October 2008, under the Registrar of Companies in England and Wales, the School was incorporated under the name the Mulberry Bush Organisation, to better represent this growing range of charitable services.

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