Giving children a chance

by Dr Eliane Perret, curative teacher and psychologist

An unexpected encounter: Recently, when I was in the electronics department of a store, I heard my name. When I turned around, a young man came towards me, an embarrassed smile on his face. I recognized him immediately. It was Miguel. Three years ago, he left the senior class of our school. Meanwhile he is an apprentice in electronics - his dream job. We had a short chat, and I invited him to visit our school. It pleased me immensely to see him so happy at work.
Seeing him made me think about the controversial debate regarding the integration of children with behavioural problems. Miguel was one of these children and was a pupil at our special school.

“... is intelligent, but [...]”

After we said goodbye, I remembered the time I spent with him in my middle school class. It wasn’t easy with Miguel. He was often tired and bad-tempered and put his head on the table. Every effort was abhorrent to him, and it took humour and determination to coax him into learning. But he could also be charming and work with great care. His mother reported of similar behaviours at home. She often found him asleep on the bed. But he could also play lovingly with his much younger siblings and help her in the household. But he never did his homework. His learning curve was erratic. When he was admitted to our school, his problems were described as follows:

“[...] is intelligent, but does not work at school; is impulsive and hardly follows rules [...] has little perseverance [...] is repeatedly absent at school under questionable circumstances [...] a child psychiatric clarification is in progress [...]” Such reports were not unusual for us, on the contrary. Our school is specialized for children with these types of behavioural problems.

Becoming a well socialized fellow human being

Did Miguel have behavioural problems? Yes indeed, he certainly attracted attention, he certainly had a lot to learn, so that he could later become a well socialized fellow human being. But by identifying these findings the task is not solved, it is just beginning.

 To clarify: children should not all behave in the same way. Creativity in the shaping of life of each individual is an enrichment. After all, we do not want small, well-trained creatures who have been forced to be well-behaved and obedient, but people who live together with their fellow human beings based on humanity, equality and a sense of responsibility for themselves and others.

Always a topic

What are behavioural problems? In the corresponding (curative) pedagogical textbooks, children with such behaviour patterns are well documented and discussed. Understandable! They are challenging and often also overwhelming.

The labels of these behaviour patterns vary depending upon the year of publication and the textbook’s orientation. The labels reflect the progression of time. Behavioural patterns are emphasized differently through new pedagogical and psychological findings, they are seen in a new light. Today, it often seems to me that the focus is limited and does not understand the child as a whole person.

Different perspectives - different concepts

Tendencies, norms, values and objectives responsible for a cultural area and period have a decisive influence on what is considered conspicuous and what is considered normal. But is the norm always the normal? Today, it is normal that people in trams are always staring at their mobile phones. Does that person display behavioural problems who is looking out of the window, is talking to someone or is even reading a book?

 Of course, the different perspectives also result in different diagnoses and pedagogical concepts. They can be a guideline but working with the individual child or adolescent needs somewhat more. We must succeed in understanding them as human beings in their uniqueness in their individual life context.

Learning to understand a child

It is one of the exciting (curative) pedagogical tasks to learn to "understand" a child. Where did the difficulties begin? Did they begin with the birth of the sibling? When entering kindergarten or school? Has the child lost important relationships or is s/he in conflict with them? Does s/he feel up to the current challenges? Where are her/his strengths? How does s/he manage to build a relationship?

As I have observed, problematic behaviour is often introduced by a feeling of insecurity regarding an upcoming life task, which overwhelms the child and results in withdrawal from the task. S/he feels unable to cope and expects relief from the surrounding people. In doing so, the child falls back on coping patterns that were formed in early childhood, with corresponding expectations towards the other person. Against this background, (curative) education is needs to concentrate increasingly on forming relationships. This means to encourage and guide the child, to take part in the difficulties and successes of his or her learning, and to encourage and challenge him or her. In this way, the path to more inner flexibility can be opened, which is needed to tackle new life tasks in a more constructive and cooperative way. This was also the case with Miguel.

Classroom teaching as a healing element

This task demands a high degree of balance and emotional maturity from the teacher. He or she must be aware of his / her own value system with which s/he assesses and influences the child's behaviour in a positive or negative way.

Children who were not able to practise cooperative feeling and behaviour can do so later. The often frowned upon classroom instruction is an excellent training ground for children and adolescents with behavioural problems. The experienced community and teachers who support and guide them become the starting point for the development of social competence. In a protected environment they gain confidence in their own abilities and more security in living together. From the slowly growing solidarity and the positive exchange of feelings with their peers, they can gain experiences that further enrich and strengthen their personality and bolster their courage to continue learning according to their age.
Of course, this approach requires a common understanding of the child's difficulties on the part of parents, teachers and psychological specialists in order to bring about a change on the emotional level.

In accordance with many

I am certainly somewhat opposed to current trends, where behavioural problems are often recorded by counting, measuring and ticking boxes on a list. But I am in line with research on anthropologically based curative education (Kobi et al.), attachment research (Ainsworth, Grossmann, Julius et al.), anthropology (Tomasello et al.), child psychopathology (Trevarthen, Hobson) and individual psychology. 

Giving a real chance

My aim is to give children with behavioural problems entrusted to us a real chance with my work, so that they can develop a comprehensive relationship ability. We must not succumb to the temptation to manage their behaviour or to "keep it in check" without bringing about a real inner change. This also seems to me to be in line with the relevant committee of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which in 2015 pointed out to Switzerland that the diagnosis of attention deficit (hyperactivity) disorder AD(H)S was made too often and that there was also concern about the associated increase in the prescription of methylphenidates such as Ritalin, Concerta and so on.

The encounter with Miguel continues to occupy my thoughts. He has regained his composure and is on his path. Certainly, always with smaller or larger detours. But he will make his way!  •

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