A troubled child finds its way

How empathising can have an impact on children’s development and learning

A teacher tells about her work

by Miriam Spalinger

cc. Teaching is a highly complex process. During lessons, the teacher often has to make several decisions in parallel in the shortest possible time. How these decisions will turn out depends largely on the teacher’s view of the children and the teaching process. Without reflecting on this in the individual situations, the teacher’s knowledge of a child’s history, of its current interaction with schoolmates, parents, and educators flows in involuntarily. The understanding of the learning process, the teacher’s view of the human being and the resulting – resp. lacking – optimism prove to be decisive for the situational and long-term successful activity in the classroom.
Today, unfortunately, there is an increasing tendency to assign a psychological, not infrequently also a psychiatric diagnosis to every child with learning or behavioural problems as quickly as possible – often associated with the idea that the anomaly was congenital and not accessible to normal educational influence. With fatal consequences for the child which is thus unnecessarily determined in its development. Unfortunately, it also happens that parents, educators, or teachers are glad for such diagnoses due to false guilt or shame feelings – they supposedly feel disburdened by such diagnoses.
Not so in the following example of an experienced primary teacher. Miriam Spalinger traces the path of her pupil “Paul” in a primary school class of 20 pupils. She succeeds in describing complex psychological processes in an understandable and simple language. In addition to the empathic attitude with which she understands her students, she also has an understanding of the child’s psyche, from which she develops a constructive pedagogical approach to solving problems. The descriptions show what is possible, if one incorporates the broad pedagogical experiences and fundamental findings from personal development and personality psychology, if one realises the human being as a social being, whose personality development and learning takes place in an interpersonal context. And they also illustrate the importance of shaping the class community – in contrast to an isolating “individualisation” that often frustrate children and leaves them alone.

Before the winter holidays I was informed by the headmistress that a new pupil was assigned to my class. She told me about the unhappy start of this child’s schooling. The boy, Paul, had had great difficulties in every class since kindergarten: He was displaying behavioural problems, shouted loudly into the classroom, and instead of working at his desk, he ran around in the classroom and watched the others working quietly. Paul made high demands on himself when learning; everything had to be perfect the first time: If something didn’t work out right away, he got angry. Other children soon excluded and bullied him, which put a strain on him. In addition, he was said to be the only cause of disturbance and quarrelling in the classroom. Cooperation between teachers and parents had been described as difficult. In the last class, in a private school, the parents of his classmates exerted pressure until Paul had to leave class. His parents then taught him at home and hoped that their child would get a new chance in public school. They wanted the school management to have their son accompanied by a remedial teacher who would take special care of him. But that was not possible at our school. However, the class teacher could apply for support. The headmistress reassured the parents: She had consciously made sure that Paul was coming to a teacher who attached great importance to a quiet learning atmosphere and who time and again succeeded in creating a good classroom community out of a scratched group of pupils. She knew that the teacher also dealt with the questions of how to understand and help children with learning and behavioural difficulties in her free time. As the parents did not see any other solution, they agreed to admittance to my class.
It turned out that the cooperation with the parents worked very well. It was important, however, that they experienced that their child was understood correctly and that their serious concerns were taken seriously.

My concerns

Usually, I am keen on such new challenges. However, that evening, I was also concerned about whether I would be able to get a child with so many negative experiences in the first years of schooling on a positive path in my pupils group. I started to deliberate what I have learned in the seminars on individual psychology and developmental psychology with Dr Annemarie Buchholz* that I had often attended: I know that every child – no matter how difficult its behaviour is – does not want anything more than being a successful pupil. It wants to be well received and accepted by the teacher and his classmates. I can imagine well how a child feels that has not been able to experience the feeling of being in good hands in a class, yet. I know from my own experience that it is important for Paul to start with the positive and put trust in him that he will be able to change with my support and that he will continue to develop. With this assurance and confidence, it has always been my interest and my greatest concern, to give a child – on the basis of the knowledge of the human nature – the courage to learn and to enjoy the togetherness in class. These thoughts and insights encouraged me, and I gladly awaited the first encounter with the child.

Paul arrives in the new class

Over the past one and a half years, I have managed to form out of the scratched group of students a positive class community: The children liked learning together, accepted, and helped each other. I knew that everyone would like to help integrating and supporting a new pupil.
The children had already learned how important it is to tell me about their difficulties with each other – being on the playground, in the dressing room of the gym and swimming pool or on the way to school. They had also experienced that their teacher was always ready for a helpful conversation to discuss the conflicts and find a solution to reconciliation. These important discussions helped them to build trust in me and their classmates. Thus, in addition to my own observations, I was always up to date on how the kids were getting along with their new classmate even in my absence.
In advance, we talked in class about Paul, who would join us and how he might feel. All had to think about how they could help him to feel comfortable in the new class soon. The children listed various examples what would help themselves if they were in the same situation: invite Paul to play with them in the break, share the snack with him, comfort each other, let him go first, show him the classrooms or walk home together.
When Paul came to school the first time, I noticed that he showed great interest in school, in learning and in his classmates. Paul is an eager and interested child. He could hardly wait for the next learning step and already asked further questions, which were not suitable at this moment. In addition, my assumption was confirmed that he had gaps in subject matters, since he had not attended school for a long time. When Paul saw my carefully noted writing as I turned the blackboard in the first lesson he immediately shouted: “I cannot do that!” Obviously Paul was very attentive and wanted to learn quickly. He expressed this repeatedly. He also did not yet know both the word-classes and the multiplication up to 100.
Paul was often very restless. Apparently, he was used to getting up from his seat at any time and without asking, to walk around, to go to the toilet and run to the lavabo. Only with the passing of time, he learned that it is nicer to join his classmates and prepare the school material in time, like all the other children do in the morning, and to start the lesson together. During the lesson, he regularly shouted his answers aloud into the class, as if he were the only one. He also had both legs on his swivel chair and turned around in all cardinal directions. When he had to work in writing, it took him a long time to find the material he needed and to start. Repeatedly he said that he could not solve the tasks. He expressed that he was unable to cope with writing tasks. I was amazed by such statements, as he often liked to participate the oral teaching and worked well when the subject matter was introduced. Since my class was already very well established in independent work, I could work with Paul individually, after I had explained the new learning material. When he started working with my extra support, he kept taking the rubber and erased the numbers, although he had written very beautifully and carefully. He was never satisfied with his work, even though he made little or no mistakes because of my extra help. When he complained that he did not know how to do it, and that he could not do it, I reassured him that it was just because no one had ever shown him. I would explain everything to him, and he would be able to learn the missing subject matter from me. I added that this did not happen overnight, but that we would work on it every day. By the end of the school year, he would catch up and be on the same level as all the other children in the class. Immediately, I realised how Paul calmed down and could work much more concentrated with this confidence. I also told the whole class that they were able to work well independently and that all children have already learned a lot. This helped Paul a lot. Therefore, I was now able to help him even more, and he would soon catch up thanks to them. I noticed how Paul always liked to come to my desk and was very happy that he could take advantage of my additional help. It was also a helpful experience for the whole class to see that every child is expected to understand the same learning material.

The classmates’ reactions

Paul always wanted to be the first to claim the time of teaching and to have it longest for himself alone. He wanted to do all the arithmetic problems on the blackboard himself and also commented on topics that did not fit into the lesson. He wanted to be at the centre of attention, and so the other children would hardly have had their turn. Some classmates complained that it annoyed them that Paul had so little consideration for them. In such situations, I told the children that they had already leant very well to listen, wait, let other children have their turn, and that Paul would learn quickly because they showed him so well how to do all this. I also discussed such situations with Paul and told him that he also had to learn to listen to the other children and to let them have their turn. Gradually Paul began to trust me more and more and felt that my greatest concern was to help him. When he made mistakes in his dealings with the other children, he told me that he wanted to do it differently next time. It was also a great help and relief for him to see that the children did not laugh at each other when mistakes happened.
After a joint excursion, a classmate came to me during the break and told me that it had been difficult in the museum with Paul. He had always pushed her back when she wanted to look at the exhibits. He had always wanted to be the first and foremost and decide for himself where he stood. He had hit her in the stomach with his elbow, saying, “That hurts!» The girl had previously told Paul that he should not always be the first. I discussed with the girl how we might solve this problem. I encouraged her and told her that it was right that she informed me, that it was not right, and I would not allow Paul to punch her in the stomach. I would talk to him about this. She should avoid Paul in another similar situation and look for another good place. Meanwhile, I spoke to Paul, telling him that he had to learn to sometimes make place for his classmates and that it was out of the question for him to assert himself by force. I asked him how he wanted clear up the situation with the girl. He told me that he would apologise to her and assure her he would never do that again. Since I heard nothing more about this incident, I later asked the girl how things had turned out with Paul. She told me that from then on he had always been very nice to her and that he had never hit her again.
After a ten o’ clock break, a girl complained in front of the whole class that Paul had run into several children so fast that they had fallen over. Before the girl had been able to finish what she was saying in peace and quiet, Paul shouted out loud to the class: “They’re snitching! Tattletale! That’s not true!” When Paul noticed that the girl was supported by others, he began to cry, hiding his face in both hands and looking down at his desk. I calmly explained to Paul how important it was that the class told me about this. Like this I would be able to help him do better next time. At that moment Paul stopped crying, he raised his head and looked at me amazedly and for a long time, as if he had expected a different reaction from me. He stopped denying what he had done and just sat there quietly. His classmates were completely silent and observed closely what was happening. They stopped being indignant at Paul and were ready to shake hands with him. Paul took up a girl’s suggestion to run less recklessly and to keep more distance, like the others did. Everyone was satisfied and confident that Paul would learn to keep other children in mind. Why, they had learned it too!

Paul is getting calmer and confident

Even in the morning, Paul often came to the classroom uneasily. For example, he did not find his flippers or had to go to the toilet at the last minute or ran – even if all the other children were already sitting at their desks – through the classroom, which I understood as an expression that he did not dare to learn. It always bothered him a lot when he realised he was not doing as well as his classmates. Although Paul came to my class only in the middle of the second semester, it was still possible that during the last quarter he was able to finish the missing series of the multiplication up to 100. Paul also enjoyed learning from me and quickly understood the multiplication tables. At the end of the school year we came to the repetition of the material of the first semester, the plus and minus tasks up to 100. The next morning, Paul came into class quite angrily and as the last, did not greet me, and slammed his unfinished, wrinkled math worksheet on my desk. In addition, he ran through the classroom when all the other children were ready, and wildly threw his slippers around. At that moment, I did not know at all what the reason for this unrest was and what bothered him so much, had I seen that Paul orally eagerly participated in more demanding mathematic-topics such as “dividing with a remainder” – a third-grade topic. Paul learned the new material quickly and wanted to solve tasks that were even more demanding.
On the way home, his strong reaction was still concerning me. I deliberated that Paul had gone home with this restlessness and that the weekend was approaching. At home, I calmly looked at his worksheet and noticed that he had not solved a single calculus correctly. Suddenly I realised that he had not been in our class in the first semester. During the repetition, he had realised that he was the only one who did not understand these calculations, yet. I had not thought of that, I was very sorry about that. I decided to call him on Saturday to calm him down as quickly as possible. My goal was to invite Paul to spend half an hour in maths learning school for two or three days over the last two weeks of school to work on the missing material with him alone. When I told Paul this on the phone, he was very happy. He wanted to come immediately and could hardly wait. The mother told me that Paul immediately calmed down and became very confident. We agreed that he could come to me half an hour earlier each afternoon before the beginning of the lessons. He was standing in front of the classroom earlier than agreed, while some of his classmates went to the pool. When calculating with him, I realised that he had not yet learned to add two numbers that overstep the ten. He explained to me how he adds up 7 + 8. He calculated: 7 + 5 = 13 and + 3 = 16. Since he did not know how to fill up the tens first, he could not solve the calculation 17 + 5 =, 27 + 8 = and so on. It did not take much until he understood the logical arithmetic. Also in dealing with his classmates, Paul was much calmer by working through his material gaps and was less aggressive. It became more and more important to him to try to do it in a different way and better. He gladly accepted my assistance. At the morning welcome, I helped Paul implementing this nice purpose: “Do you remember your purpose to be nice to the other children?” Paul confirmed to me that he wanted to do it the way we agreed. Then I told him that I would help him, that he should come to me, if he was angry with someone.

Cooperation with the parents

After getting to know Paul for several weeks and having several serious shorter and longer conversations with his parents, I invited them to a final discussion at the end of the school year. They gladly accepted my invitation because they wanted to ensure the best possible development for their son and because a trusting cooperation had developed between them and me. They came to the conversation very calmly, because they had realised at home that Paul used to come home from school quite differently. The mother told me that Paul was happy to go to school and that he also expressed his pleasure in coming to my classes. I described Paul’s positive development to his parents. We talked about how to support Paul in his progress at the end of this term and also in the next grade, when he would have new teachers. For me, the particular question was how we could help Paul not to get depressed or give up if he made a mistake. On that point, I gave the parents the following example:
Once, Paul made the mistake of going to lunch one hour early instead of attending physical education, and he was very unhappy about this. When he realised that he had forgotten PE, he hid himself in the far corner of another room. He no longer wanted to eat with the other children; he cried and said, “Now I am going to jump out of the window, if I make such stupid mistakes!” I reassured him by telling him that things like that had happened to many other children, too. Why not go and eat together with the other children now? Paul calmed down and returned to the table.
I asked his parents if they had also noticed this at home that in the case of everyday mishaps, Paul quickly had the feeling of having made a terrible mistake, and that he was even often very nervous and troubled in advance, doubting whether he would do something right. One reason for this could be the fact that he had no brothers and sisters to compare himself with, where he could see every day that they did not get everything right, either. Maybe he only had his parents to compare himself with, and of course they did everything perfectly in his eyes.
I also explained to his parents how near Paul regularly was to despair and to giving up when doing written work and test, how afraid Paul was of his work not being good enough and how quickly he wanted to give up when his performance was mediocre. I told them that he wanted to learn quickly and well and was disappointed if things did not go well from scratch. In those cases he then used to tell me that he definitely did not want to get only a four but at least a five-to-six and that he wanted to show his parents only good grades.
Paul’s parents became very thoughtful as they listened to me. They said they were well acquainted with their son’s struggles. His mother was able to see the connection between her son’s fear of not doing well enough and her behaviour as a mother. She recognised their significant contribution as parents for Pauls pointed emphasis concerning good grades and mistakes.
She also explained that Paul was pursuing a demanding hobby. He was interested in paleontology, always liked to break stones and visited museums with great interest. Therefore she had explained to him the necessity of good grades for studying paleontology. Having only grades four would not be enough. She wanted to show him the importance of learning at an early age as a prerequisite for a challenging job. She had told him it was important to give it all he had, since it is only be possible to accumulate knowledge like this if one tries very hard. Now she realised that they as parents had to change something. She was sure that it was too early for Paul to be spurred on to extraordinary achievements. I agreed with her and reaffirmed that she did not have to admonish him to be good. Paul had enough self-motivation. It would have a calming effect on him, if he were allowed to bring home less good grades. I added, “It is not necessary for him to think about what will happen if he only gets a grade four in tests. Paul still has a long time to study for high school. He will learn more calmly if you as parents enjoy his progess at school and are interested in what new things he has learnt. Also you can help Paul by showing certainty and confidence, and you do not have to worry whether he will succeed or not. If Paul is disappointed with a grade, it will be important for him to make the experience that he can get help and continue to learn, based on the benevolence and encouragemenst of his parents and teacher. After his successful integration into this class, he has already been able to catch up a bit – despite his earlier bad experiences. It is very fortunate that he has been able to keep up his zeal. He deserves to enjoy the coming time together with his parents. Paul would very much like to repeat and consolidate the subject matter of his first semester, which he does not yet master completely, with the aid of individual exercises that I have prepared for him.”
Paul’s parents were very grateful for this interview and told me that they saw my support for their son as a very positive experience. Earlier on, they had made the experience that school was unilaterally based on results from personality and performance tests carried out as clarification of any behavioral problems and performance weaknesses. They had wanted to help their son by looking for a teacher who could help him with his difficulties and thus enable him to have a positive school development. Now they had seen that Paul had caught up in the class community and with me. This had shown them that there still are teachers with passion. •

Kaiser, Annemarie. Das Gemeinschaftsgefühl – Entstehung und Bedeutung für die menschliche Entwicklung. Darstellung wichtiger Befunde aus der modernen Psychologie/Annemarie Kaiser (aus d. Psycholog. Lehr- und Beratungsstelle, Leitung: Friedrich Liebling, Zürich). – Zurich: Verlag Psycholog. Menschenkenntnis, 1981. ISBN 3-85999-007-1