Sascha does not speak

by Marita Brune

In Current Concerns No 14 from 25 June, Ursi Scheibler told about Hilal, a student who did not speak. Today we are talking about Sascha. The two cases examplarily show that the same symptoms cannot necessarily be traced back to the same causes nor that the same treatment is required.

Sascha does not speak, at least not with me or other adults. He only talks to his parents and other children. This is how he comes into my primary class of the special school. It quickly turns out that he is an attentive and alert boy. He learns with me, he does what one should do in school and he also performs his homework. It’s just that he doesn’t speak a word to me. This was already the case in kindergarten and the previous school, I understand. Clarifications by school psychologists did not lead to any enlightening. Neither can the parents explain the behaviour. At home he speaks normally. This is why at first I take Sascha as he is, without making much fuss about his somewhat strange behaviour.
It is clear that he follows the lessons. I am looking for ways to find out what he means and to give him opportunities to participate in the lessons. Therefore, I tell his neighbour, Timo: “Ask Sascha what he thinks about it.” Whisperingly Timo passes the question to Sascha (although he heard me) and Sascha whispers his answer into Timo’s ear, worried not to be heard. Timo gives me Sascha’s answer again. This is how a way is found, albeit a more complicated one. But Sascha can get involved in the lessons, and I can give him an echo to his thoughts and contributions. I sense that Sascha is relieved about this possibility. That’s how it is working for a while.
Soon, the other children ask me: “Why does Sascha not talk to you?” And I truthfully say: “I don’t know. He will know why. Perhaps one day he will talk to me when he decides to do so. But it doesn’t matter that he doesn’t say anything at the moment, he learns with me and participates”.

“The pedagogue works in a class community in which the student is embedded and where he or she can feel secure without being too exposed. The relationships in the class are formed by the subject matter, the common cause on which one works. The pedagogue does not have to start with the pupils’ problems and weaknesses, he can have a corrective and strengthening effect on the emotional life in the common work on the subject material, even if he does not exactly know its genesis. The prerequisite is that the teacher is certain that all pupils want to participate and learn, that it strengthens them to have meaning in the community and success in learning.”

Sascha, of course, listens to this dialogue, and that is what I want. My point is not to problematise Sascha’s behaviour, he should not become a “case”. I want him to be as normal a child as possible in the class community, whose little peculiarity is neither particularly disturbing nor does it require greater attention. Furthermore, Sascha should know that I do not judge his reasons from the outside, but that I leave the explanation to him and that I respect his emotional world. At the same time he should know that I think that he himself controls his behaviour and that he therefore can also decide if and when and how he changes it. I can help him by building a trusting relationship with him. I show him that I like him and that I enjoy his learning progress.
Soon our communication channel is shortened. Now I can address him directly and he whispers the answer to Timo. But at some point I want to know whether Sascha can read and how. I ask him to read a text to me on a tape at home so that I can get to know his reading, and I give him a tape. The moment for this request I chose intuitively. I have the impression that much trust has grown in the meantime and Sascha’s silence is becoming more and more unnecessary. Perhaps all that is needed is an impulse, a bridge. This bridge is the tape. Sascha crosses this bridge. At home he reads aloud and gives me the tape the next day. I listen to it when I am alone and give him happily echo the following day, not on the fact that he has read to me, but on his reading skills! This continues a few times until one day, with his consent I play a tape in front of the class so that the others can hear how well Sascha can read. His voice sounds now loud in the classroom and everyone hears it. Now the way is not far anymore. It happens naturally, when Sascha just starts to talk, first together with me and soon also with the other teachers of the school. He has found his way into a normal togetherness. The way into psychiatry, as we know it from many cases with often stigmatising consequences for the child, could be avoided. Now, Sascha is a very normal, lively, sometimes silly and cheeky boy.
I never found out why Sascha didn’t talk to adults. I sensed that there was some reservation, and I tried to meet him on the basis of the relationship, thus countering his reservations and growing trust. This is the possibility for the pedagogue.1 He does not work with the student alone in a therapeutic setting. The focus is not on the student’s personality or a possible disorder in his personality. The pedagogue works in a class community in which the student is embedded and where he or she can feel secure without being too exposed. The relationships in the class are formed by the subject matter, the common cause on which one works. The pedagogue does not have to start with the pupils’ problems and weaknesses, he can have a corrective and strengthening effect on the emotional life in the common work on the subject material, even if he does not exactly know its genesis. The prerequisite is that the teacher is certain that all pupils want to participate and learn, that it strengthens them to have meaning in the community and success in learning. It is helpful that the teacher understands something about the origin and function of feelings and also about emotional irritations, that he knows what a lifestyle is, how it develops and what sense it has. All this and much more is background knowledge, which helps the teacher to grasp each pupil ever better emotionally. The study of these psychological basics in theory and practice helps the teacher to ever better sharpen his tool, his empathy. Thus, intuition is the result of knowledge about human nature and the practice of relationship ability. The better the teacher has developed this instrument, the better he can help the student.    •

1    When I speak of the “pedagogue” and of the “teacher” or also of the “pupil”, I do not mean the male representative of each of these professions (and in a certain sense also being a pupil is a profession), but the job title as such, the exemplary person who exercises this profession.