Tutor as A Container

Just imagine you are upset about something; you are struggling to concentrate and feel distressed and distracted. You go out for coffee with a friend. This friend notices that you are not yourself and can see something is wrong. They let you know they can see you’re not yourself before you have a chance to pretend you’re fine. Your friend asks you if you want to talk about whatever is bothering you.

You feel relieved that someone noticed you were upset but equally worry that if you talk about it that you will become upset in the coffee shop. However, you begin to tell your friend about the issue you are having. They listen and offer a lot of empathy for your feelings about the situation, you can tell your friend understands why you feel the way you do and you don’t feel silly about it anymore. You suddenly feel a lot better for having spoken to your friend and although the issue is the same, you feel better about it.

Zak comes home from school upset and distressed about something. His mum tries to find out what’s wrong, but he doesn’t want to open up as he feels embarrassed about being upset and the situation.  If he talks about it, it feels like he will not be able to cope with his feelings.

After some encouragement from his mum, Zak does begin to explain how he was bullied in the playground that day and what happened.  His mum reassures him that the situation was not okay and he can see she understands how scared he was. He no longer feels embarrassed by what happened, instead he realises that anyone would feel the same way.

Zak also feels reassured by his mum explaining she will talk to his class teacher. He feels much better about what happened now. Even though it was a horrible thing to have happened to him, he feels safer having spoken about it.

Julie has started a new job and she is feeling overwhelmed. There seems too much to learn and she’s feeling like she’s never going to get it right. This overwhelmed feeling begins to create thoughts about never fitting in and maybe not belonging in this job.

Julie’s mentor books time with her to talk about how she is getting on. Julie feels worried about telling her mentor how she is feeling as she is imagining she will be seen as weak, laughed at, or her mentor having a low opinion of her. However, Julie does open up and tell her mentor how overwhelmed she is feeling. Her mentor lets her know she could see a problem and wanted to help, hence the reason for the meeting. She lets Julie know that her feelings are common as this is a job that initially feels overwhelming as there is so much to take in, but it does get better and within a few weeks she will feel like she has been doing this forever and is a part of the furniture.

Julie and her mentor sit down together and create an action plan of some steps that can be taken to help Julie feel less overwhelmed. Julie’s feelings of being overwhelmed have gone, already it feels manageable, she felt understood and reassured that other people feel like this too when they start. Due to Julie being able to speak out about how she felt, she now feels supported, she was glad she spoke to her mentor and feels like she does belong in her new job.

All the above are examples of containment. Containment is vital to tutoring and working 1:1 with children and young adults whose learning is hampered by any negative emotional responses to their learning.

What exactly is containment?

Bion first used the term containment in (1962). Containment describes the process of when a mother receives overwhelming and distressing feelings from her infant, she picks up on them, makes sense of them and responds to her infant in a way that makes the feeling manageable for the infant, often solving the problem like changing a nappy, feeding or winding.

Whilst this is a term that was first used to describe early mother baby relationships, containment has been used to facilitate learning relationships in many settings from education to business.

To feel contained, students (and anyone who is distressed) need to feel recognised and understood by a safe adult who can make sense of their feelings and feed those emotions back in a way that feels manageable.  Containment is also a sense of being thought about and about being seen as we discussed in an earlier lesson.

Containing behaviour involves the person who is helping (the container) communicating ‘I know what you are feeling and why you are feeling it’.

Why containment is important?

When anyone feels uncontained, they have a ‘falling apart’ feeling. We can hear the concept of it in every language.

‘I fell apart’

‘I felt like I was falling apart’

‘I thought I was having a breakdown’

‘I had a meltdown’

‘I couldn’t get it together’

It’s all about not feeling whole and not feeling together.  Bion called it a sense of falling ‘apart’ and other researchers have termed it ‘nameless dread’.

If someone feels uncontained, they cannot think and they cannot rationalise. Often there isn’t an actual anxiety they can feel, but their mind goes blank, or they can’t think and focus.  Without containment the emotional reactions to learning can feel overpowering and bewildering, paralysing the student from being able to think. This blank sensation leaves the student mentally paralysed with no ideas or thoughts.

If you can offer your students containment and you can help them feel contained, they will regain the ability to think, problem solve and rationalise. Without containment the learning task will be lost and you will sense your student has shut down or drifted off somewhere.

Containment is thought to occur when one person receives and understands the emotional communication of another without being overwhelmed by it, then processes it and communicates understanding and recognition back to the other person. The process can restore the capacity in the other person. Douglas (2007) p33

Kohn (2005) describes the containment process as the professionals ‘absorbing’ the child’s experience of distress in order to better understand and meet the child’s needs. The professional does this by identifying and verbalising. In this way they are making the uncomfortable feelings manageable, and the child can continue doing what they were doing.

How containment can happen when tutoring 1:1.

If a student is struggling with their learning and has a negative relationship with it, or perhaps feels not good enough, not clever enough or like they will never ‘get’ it, they can suddenly feel overwhelmed when faced with work that triggers these underlying feelings.

We have all worked with students of all ages who have clearly gone into a panic about the work in front of them. However, it’s students who are not so visibly panicky that might not get the containment they need.  You might suddenly notice that the student isn’t the same, is not engaged as they once were or starts saying I don’t know without any signs of thinking.

Remember that being overwhelmed causes an internal bewilderment, either feeling cut off or strong feelings of anxiety can occur, and the student can no longer learn to their full potential.

It is important to remember that this lack of feeling contained is probably not related to something you do, it is related to the student’s perceived expectation of the work or learning material in front of them. It’s a perceived expectation that the work is going to make them feel horrible or bad. Students with maths anxiety will visibly change with just a mention of their least favourite maths topics (e.g. algebra or fractions).

Containment is noticing the student’s response, mirroring back that response in a way that makes sense of it and altering your teaching or how you are presenting the task to break it down in a way that’s more manageable.

Sometimes just reflecting back the student’s response and assuring the student that there’s no judgement, that you are going to take the work at their pace and that they can say at any time if they don’t understand will be enough to help the student feel contained and held together.

What can block containment?

How not to act is to advocate the tough love approach or criticise the student. Most educators will say they don’t do this and it’s not until they are videoed working with a student that they see they actually do take the tough love approach.

There might be signs that a student is not wanting to be there in the lesson, or the student shows lack of engagement or motivation and thus the tutor gives a mini lecture of how it’s in their best interests to try. Some educators will tell the student off, believing them to be lazy or just not able / willing to put in the effort without a motivational speech. Any educator who takes a behavioural approach, does so leaving containment behind.

Containment also requires the tutor to have high levels of self-awareness. Some tutors have a personal reaction to students getting overwhelmed or a student zoning out as they harbour doubt in their own ability. Thus, tutors who have deeper fears they are not good tutors feel they must have done something (or not done something), and the student’s response is a reflection of their lack of ability in tutoring.

If the tutor does not take the student’s sadness, anxiety or fear as a personal attack, or a reflection of their teaching ability, containment will be possible.

Whilst taking students’ responses personally does go away with experience and mentoring / line manager support, new educators will always be vulnerable to feeling like they don’t know enough or are not skilled enough. New tutors will always be at risk of feeling responsible if the student is suddenly overwhelmed and confused.

Without containing students’ emotional reactions of fear in their academic work or expectations of bad feelings, the student will continue to not be able to think and the whole lesson may feel like you are both treading through treacle. The lession will remain slow and laborious for both educator and student.

Adults can also dilute containment by instructing, shouting, criticising, showing frustration, telling off, belittling and the worst still, ignoring and trying to pretend that nothing is wrong.

Without any containment the student will continue to feel the fear when working and probably also fear the 1:1 relationship. If their parents continue to force the student to attend, you will find their lessons are painfully slow and the students remain as distant as they can from the learning. Once these students have learned something, instead of feeling self-achievement, they will just be frightened that there might be something else to learn, so will be resistant to going further. As an educator you may feel confused as to why the student isn’t growing in confidence with each incremental learning step they accomplish.

What happens over time if feeling contained?

Once the student has experienced containment by the tutor, all the complex feelings and emotions that were associated with the learning will feel smaller to the student.

Through being contained the student will have a more positive learning experience, as they will internalise (unconsciously remember) being held together when they were so stressed. The tutor will also need to contain the student less and less. Tutors who can contain students when they are overwhelmed will often feel like they are sat next to a different child in terms of their learning after a few months. Students who were fearful and frightened will be confident and engaged, asking questions, almost as if a light has been switched on for them.

Bion describes the container – contained. This is when students will be able to contain themselves when they are unsure or worried and they no longer rely on a safe ‘other’ to help them manage these learning related feelings.

In regard to tutoring the container – contained means the student no longer needs to the tutor to make the emotional responses to their work manageable, they can reassure them they have enough skills and can ‘have a go’ or ‘do their best’. Every student needs to be at this point to sit their end of year / course exams.

What tutors will also experience is that their students can tolerate longer and longer frustrations and gaps before the tutor jumps in to help. There can be a greater time lag before asking if the student needs support to help tackle something they are stuck on. In a nutshell, the student has learnt to think, and this thinking needs to be supported.

Skills for containment.

The main skill needed for containment is to be able to recognise when a student is feeling overwhelmed or struggling.

The following signs will be a good indication your student is not contained, some are more obvious than others, but with practice you will get to pick up these signals.

  • The student stops being able to think and seems to be just reacting / guessing.
  • The student shows signs of being overly confused which doesn’t settle with further tutoring explanations.
  • The student has withdrawn into themselves.
  • The student seems to have drifted off somewhere else in their mind.
  • The student who was once engaged now replies ‘I don’t know’.
  • The student viably looks upset.
  • The student becomes frustrated.
  • The student changes how they communicate and appears closed off.
  • The student is distracted and cannot remain focused on tasks.

Containing the student’s emotional response requires the ability to be spontaneous to the student’s potential feelings and a sensitivity to pick up the subtle cues.

Removing expectations as to how the student will feel before a task is a key component to being spontaneous and picking up on what the student is emotionally communicating. This requires the 1:1 session to naturally flow.

It is very common for new educators or those who are new to working 1:1 to seek validation or praise from the student. This is often very subtle and out of awareness. Asking the student if they are enjoying the work or how it’s going for them too early on, means the student may feel like they need to give a socially desirable response. Also new educators or professionals working in a 1:1 way may feel like the student has to ‘enjoy’ the lessons all the time and, although not meaning to, seek reassurance that the student is having the desired enjoyment. You will not be able to contain your students if the focus is on validating enjoyment.

Being too target or goal driven may shift your focus to the academic task in hand, rather than on monitoring how the student is feeling or experience the work required. Whilst it’s true that students are coming for a reason and there is, for want of a better phrase, a job to do.

Supporting struggling students to be self-containing (through your internalised containment) with their academic fears, will provide better academic support than you will ever be able to give without practicing containment. You are seeking to build resilience as well as academic skills.

Lastly, it is only possible to be a container for a student if you are also contained in your world. Seeking supervision when you are uncertain or support from a mentor will help you to feel contained within your work. If you as the professional feel supported and secure in what you are doing, you will be able to provide clear containment for your students.


Douglas (2007) Containment and reciprocity

: Integrating Psychoanalytic theory and child development research for working with children. Home: Routledge

Kohn, W. W (2005) Holding first: The struggle to create resilient caregiving organisations. East Sussex, Hove: Brunner. Routledge