The comprehensive education of his students is the teacher’s task

“A well-functioning and well-instructed classroom community is of crucial importance”

by Dr phil Alfred Burger, Headmaster

It often happens in our school that very interesting children are registered who have failed in school in spite of their high intelligence. In most cases they come to us with a long history of “clearing-ups” and diagnoses, which are not helpful, though. Instead of blaming the genes or looking for other speculative conditions as a cause for the problems, one should come back to and draw on the well-proven insights of pedagogy which are based on sound anthropology, i.e. a personalist view of the human being.

A lot of research has been done on this basis; we can make use of a lot of well-proven results if we are to work with difficult children. One important foundation was laid by Alfred Adler’s individual psychology. Its insights are giving us very relevant approaches for today’s pedagogy and educational work.

We meet Alexander

One day we got a phone call from the school community. The school president asked us to accept the transfer of a student with whom they did no longer know what to do. In the past two years he had been at a therapy institution, but the stay there was limited to two years and the community had to pay more than CHF 100,000 annually. We wanted to meet the boy and invited him for an evaluation at our school. Alexander came to the appointment accompanied by his mother. He was a small, slightly stocky boy, not yet developed. I estimated his age at 12 years. In fact he was already 15. He brought a folder from the therapy school. With some pride he showed me his works. There were some math papers, hardly readable, then a number of presentations indicating a fourth grade level.

Overall it was a mess, no system, no order, the handwriting was an unreadable scribbling; hardly a line was met. I listened to his vivid explanations on the contents of his presentations and soon we were talking. Then we read a small paragraph and did a short dictation. Finally we tackled some math with the basic arithmetic operations. Alexander cooperated willingly during the check-up, was rather quiet and concentrated. He tried his best. According to what we had learned from his parents and the therapy institution starting at a much lower level would have been mandatory. But my personal impression was different: Alexander had shown surprising speed and intelligence which did not match his earlier achievements. We determinedly agreed to the school president’s request.

After I had met Alexander personally, I delved into the mountain of reports and test results. Here are the most important points:

Alexander, born 3 May 1991, diagnosis:

–         Organic brain dysfunction
–         Hyperkinetic dysfunction of social behavior
–         Motoric dysfunction
–         Perceptual disorders
–         Partial performance disorders
–         Normal intelligence

Case history and treatment plan: After inconspicuous pregnancy slightly delayed motoric development, as of young age a motorically rather restless, uncontrolled child. Massive behavioral disorders with aggressiveness, uncontrolled violence and lack of social integration as of kindergarten age. In consequence severely burdened school development: recommendation for treatment at a day clinic. Postponed according to the parents’ wish. Instead school enrollment in a special enrollment class. In spite of individual teaching increasing behavioral disorders (strangling other children, restlessness, disturbing classes), in some cases his dispensation from school was unavoidable.

Although the boy was promoted highly individually and supported intensely, he was not able to make progress at school and was no longer bearable in a group of more than two children. Evaluation as inpatient in a neurological clinic, child psychiatric treatment as inpatient, individual tuition and tuition in a group of two, tuition in the children’s hospital, treatment with methylphenidate, therapy for dyslexia, several schools with small groups, finally referral to a child psychiatric therapy institution at the age of 13. Family intact. Working father, housewife mother. Older sister, inconspicuous. Due to mental problems, the mother was absent for recreation twice.

According to the report by the therapy institution, Alexander is still very restless, especially in case he is challenged. The institution’s recommendation for his further schooling: avoidance of challenges in order to prevent the feeling of excessive demand. In these situations, Alexander might suddenly snap. Psychotherapy is recommended, likewise the administration of methylphenidate.

Character shows at school

At first we tried to get to know Alexander. Reports and tests always describe a current status. We consider humans as developable and dynamic beings forming an indivisible entity. This entity needs to be grasped and understood as a whole in its complexity. This is why it is always necessary to watch the child in its motions when learning and in its behavior within a community. At the beginning of the new school year, the boy started in our school with individual lessons, sometimes together with several other children. Soon my impression was confirmed that Alexander was very intelligent and able to grasp the material immediately – if he felt like it. After two or three lessons I took the papers with basic exercises away which I had prepared and gave him the books of the secondary school level B. I sent him to English lessons, later to French, even though his mother held the opinion that foreign languages would be an excessive demand.

Then he became part of a -little group where he soon became a pretty good student. But: The commotion that Alexander caused in the group was impressive from the start. As soon as he heard a catchword or something else crossed his mind, he immediately jumped on it, interrupted the lesson and claimed all attention. He started to tell something in a loud voice and could hardly be interrupted. Or he rushed to the window because he saw an interesting car, demanding that we all come and watch it. If he could not say immediately what he wanted to, he was going to forget it, he told his protesting teacher.

When he did not want to learn something, he started to complain loudly. He could not do it, it was boring, we would never need this in our later life, etc. He was extremely glib and always had the final word. If this was in vain, he put his head on the table, demanding that he would be allowed to complete the exercise at home; he would now prefer to draw a car, he said. In lessons he always managed to attract attention. He was so skillful in this that there was hardly a teacher who did not fall for it. He often got a shrewd expression, his eyes wandering eagerly – the sign that he was soon about to start one of his attempts to communicate with a fellow student.

Among children he was always tempted to communicate with the others: He disrupted them verbally or he touched them in some way, always claiming that it was the other child who had started it. There was always action in his vicinity, he laughed overly loud, annoying the other children. At break time, he often ran about, red-faced, always escaping from someone he had irked with his so-called jokes. What started as fun mostly ended in a quarrel because the others felt molested. The other children liked him but somehow, however, on close looking it was clear that nobody really wanted to deal with him. He had little contacts, hardly any friends, even in his village. If he liked a girl, he was hardly able to concentrate on anything else; he wanted to take her in completely, just like he wanted to have everybody else just for himself. In spite of the great commotion he created, he was a likeable boy who had his witty sides. He was not violent; he was responsive and could also behave reasonably.

So, after a short period, we had made a wealth of observations and experiences with Alexander. He was able to think of only himself; everything else had to be busy with him. He never included others in his feelings and in his thoughts. Neither was he aware that he was stopping his fellow students from learning; his sense for community was hardly developed.

What drives Alexander?

We quickly suspected that with his difficult behavior Alexander aimed at persuading the teachers to spend all their time on him. His exaggerated striving for self-assertion constantly drove him to actions that made the adults having to deal with. In fact, we learned from Alexander’s parents, that as an infant, he had kept his mother occupied from morning to night up to the point of exhaustion. She constantly had to look after him and could leave him alone for one minute. In the evening he could not go to sleep, because he always had to find out what was going on in the living-room. So, not even at night the parents were at rest. It was due to Alexander’s great restlessness that from exhaustion the mother had to take holidays for convalescence several times. Causes for this were the mother’s own personal insecurity and anxiety, which were felt by her son. He had realized at an early age that with his restlessness he had her always to himself.

Also, another of his mother’s reports showed Alexander’s aim to seek a particular situation. As things did not go well in the public primary school a check-up in a neurological clinic was prescribed. Soon it was discovered there, that Alexander’s symptoms were not the result of a disease. But he felt so extraordinarily comfortable at this clinic and its school that he wanted to stay there and he enforced his will. Among those children, who had to live with a real restriction, Alexander, without great effort, gave one of the best performances. So, he never had any homework, which he clearly enjoyed. Like a king he was driven from far away in a taxi every day and felt obviously comfortable, particularly because he never had to do any homework. But in the long run he could not stay there. Then he came to a teacher, who didn’t want to let him get away with anything. Of course, he did not like it there, which he loudly expressed. The parents soon took him out of this school, because they simply could not take his dissatisfaction. No man, no school was able to give Alexander this attention, which, in his opinion, he needed.

But how to cure such unrest? How to develop more security and more sense of community with Alexander?

The educational work begins

Every child has some positive sides. This is, where we had to start with Alexander. His cleverness, his intelligence and liveliness were outstanding and we immediately noticed that. Previously one had always tried to stop Alexander or not to expect too much from him, because then his evasive maneuvers began. He had high expectations and he was basically always discontent with himself. We made it clear to him, that we did not at all agree with this level offered by him up to now.

From now on, this writing, this presentation of his notebook, his refusals to learn anything was absolutely out of the question. We told him, that the examination had shown that he was extraordinarily intelligent, and that any protection would be wrong for him. The objective would be to catch up on the missed subject matter and, in individual subjects, also to change to the secondary school level A, and finally to target a challenging apprenticeship. We would not have in mind to continue dealing with him in the previous way. Alexander immediately agreed and he entered into a kind of working alliance with us, because he wanted to stay at our school, by all means. So, with immediate effect, we demanded a normal program. Behold, he began to improve his performance continuously. The notebooks were better kept, the writing became legible. We gave -Alexander a detailed instruction on how he could achieve the objectives, and also talked to him again and again, when he fell back into his old learning behavior. So, over many weeks we tried to demand more from Alexander in this manner and to give him the feeling: I can do, what I have planned, I can do, what is required of me, and I can do it as well as the others.

The earlier efforts had all fell flat without an effect, because they had addressed Alexander’s uncollaborative behavior. -Alexander’s disruptive behavior during lessons was unstoppable. He imposed his will most of the time. The actual reason of his behavior was rooted in his feeling not to be able to stand up to the comparison with the others and in his permanent imagination that he was not as smart as others.

A widespread phenomenon

It is not difficult to see nowadays that children at schools are more restless and more nervous than in former times. When difficulties arise in school, children as Alexander are readily sent to the so-called “Abklärung” (psychological check-up), where diagnoses such as ADHD and the like are soon provided with appropriate therapies and medications. On the one hand, schools and teachers try to protect themselves from later accusations, because not a few of those maladjusted children later end up in psychiatry or in crime. On the other hand, we may actually speak of a surrender of pedagogy. A pedagogy dedicated to the education of the future generation, unfortunately does hardly no longer exist – committed teachers must be excluded, here.

Today, schools spend all their potential on reforms and structural changes, the computerization of teaching and the adaptation to the so-called globalized world with quality management, quality testing, etc. Meetings and discussions chase one another, everything is reorganized. The teachers are harnessed for trivialities and administrative tasks and really worn down – many lectures are cancelled. At best teachers are mere learning guides. One wonders, where in this whole arrangement the children are. “It is the school system, the system of the theory of education and didactics, the system of psychological and pedagogical understanding that breaks down here,” says Wolfgang Bergmann, a psychologist who has extensively dealt with the so-called ADHD (Attention-Deficit-Hyperactivity-Children).

Coming back again to our example, I would like to mention, that under no circumstances, I want to blame teachers, psychologists or psychiatrists, who have spent their time on this boy. Alexander has always been and still is a difficult child, who surely brought the educators quickly to the brink. However, the example also shows, how far the school and the assisting institutions have become detached from basic psychological and educational considerations that have already been well-known for quite a long time.

Difficulties at school are rooted in the child’s personal environment

Alexander’s feeling of insufficiency had a lot to do with his elder sister. But she is hardly ever mentioned in the reports. The constellation of siblings as a factor in the development of inferiority feelings is hardly considered today. The child is too much considered merely as an individual without regard to its environment. The diagnoses are correspondingly one-sided as are the respective measures: individual work, play therapy, etc. Often legions of specialists deal with such children. In almost all cases, they are removed from the community with other children. Thus each child will soon think of itself it is the only one that is afflicted by this problem.

As Alfred Adler already emphasized, the birth order of siblings is quite significant. He ascribes a large part of inferiority feelings and damage of the “Gemeinschaftsgefühl” (sense of community) to the position and the rivalry and jealousy problems in the siblings’ relationship. The only child’s jealousy is often even more problematic, because it constantly competes with adults. The family situation is different for each child.

Greater activity of one child may severely discourage the other one; the younger sister’s success at school may lead to the older sibling’s failure. Siblings often specialize. The older one is good at mathematical subjects, a younger one is better at languages, and vice versa. A middle sibling may completely fall back into old habits when a new child is born. It also wants to be small or starts to bother the younger one.

All this clearly shows how important siblings are for the person’s emotional life. Siblings are always comparing to each other, which is quite normal. This jealousy among children may be significantly increased if the parents carry inequality into the siblings’ community by privileging and discriminating or if they think they might prevent jealousy by measuring and apportioning accurately. But this will only fuel jealousy. There should be an atmosphere of equivalence within the family.

At the same time it is quite normal that a younger child can do less than the older ones. If the parents are unsure on this point, you can be sure that the jealousy of the younger child will grow strongly and that it will desperately claim to do, what the older children are allowed to do. You cannot treat the children as the same, but as equals. Today we often see that younger children fall into a great nervousness, because they can hardly bear to have an older sibling. They are constantly trying to catch up, are unable to find any peace of mind and will soon be considered as hyperactive children. Of course, this restlessness has also much to do with today’s environment of children, where only counts what is going fast, what is extraordinary.

The difference between Alexander and his older sister was striking. Unlike Alexander, his parents never had any problems with her. She was a good student, was pretty, had many friends and was well liked. Alexander did not get on well with her. He annoyed her whenever possible. Thus the mother was always kept busy. Alexander could never get used to the fact that the older sister just knew more. Instead of emulating her in a constructive spirit, he expanded his position as difficult boy more and more and was soon known for that in the whole village. When we told his sister in a conversation Alexander could learn as well as she and others could, she was outraged and insisted that there was something wrong in Alexander’s head and that this was the reason why he was such an outrageous person.

School would have to take into account the changed situation of many of today’s children in their families and their sibling position, if they wanted to help the children on their way on. Today there is unrest and uncertainty in some families. Many parents do not dare to demand anything from their children. From this point of view the education reforms with their free and open types of teaching, with self-directed learning and with teachers who see themselves as animators are a catastrophe for many children.

Many children are like Alexander

Children like Alexander are egocentric children with few social skills. With such children it is often the mother who is in the focus, and there often is an absent or weak father in the background. Their mothers are often overprotective and harmonizing and barely able to really empathize with their children and to act spontaneously and genuinely in the educational process. The kids are always in the center. Therefore, nervous children would not need anything of what is the fashion of the day, the trend of our times, which many schools offer today. Children like Alexander need benevolent but firm guidance, they need reliability, they need external and internal order. Education requires authenticity in behavior and a sense of self. Today this is missing to a large part. Parents and teachers do not dare to demand something from their children, to switch the television off right in front of them, to make them participate in a sensible association and to ensure that they go there. Where chaos is reigning, troubled children are restless.

Therefore, a school with structures would be important. That gives them support in the confusion of their feelings. They calm down. It is a mistake of our time that it is considered unfashionable to demand keeping a nice book and acquiring a legible handwriting from the children. People believe it is no longer appropriate in the computer age. And yet spelling, writing and keeping one’s exercise books are extremely important to give the missing support to the children. They are more satisfied when they have designed a beautiful page and can rejoice in it.

We found that was also true with Alexander. When the teachers firmly demanded from him what must just be requested at school, he calmed down, started to work. If this clear guidance lacked, he got nervous and even more nervous. For Alexander it was important to be challenged and to be demanded to do tasks he found too difficult. It was important not to fall for his evasive maneuvers. He had developed a huge repertoire in this field, as a teacher you can only marvel. But it was worth doubling one’s own forces and leading him on to a positive path with even greater endurance. Again and again, when he managed to tackle a task which initially seemed to be too large in his view, we helped him to gain a bit more self-confidence, a bit more confidence among the other children. In fact, he felt extremely inferior to them just as he felt in the relationship with his sister.

As a side note: If the teacher does not evaluate the problem correctly, if he thinks that there is something wrong with the student, that needs a check-up and diagnosis, etc., the cause is lost with such a child. Or even more so if he feels pity for the student from his own personal story. Therefore school and teachers have to ensure that the children can cope with the subject matter and that as many as possible think: “That is something for me, I can do that.”

The significance of the class community

A well-functioning and well-guided class community is of immense importance for the integration of children, who have had a lack of preparation at home. Here a small excursion on the importance of the class community would actually be necessary. In the 20s of the last century students of Alfred Adler ran schools, in which the well-functioning class community was of central importance. In each class there are children bringing with them a sense of community. The teacher can count on them, they will help him with his task, to win children with a less-developed sense of community over, that is, children with less exercise and familiarity with social interaction. School must provide a model training already on a small scale the intellectual, but above all the social skills of children for their later life as adults.

The teachers show the children how to cope actively with difficulties in learning, how to solve difficulties in being together with other children, how to learn to live with different opinions, how to get along in a peaceful and non-violent way with children, who may be different. That is educational work. The teacher does not only lead them to the beauties of nature and of science, to the beautiful feeling of having understood something, but he also shows them how other people feel and are doing and thus raises their social interest for their neighbors and for the people around the world. It is important in this context that the teacher totally and genuinely dedicates himself as a person, applauds, and also assesses and classifies, what children do. That he also has the heart to demand something and to say if he finds that something is wrong. A child, anchored and trained in such a manner, has learned to confront the problems in a more courageous way and it is more immune to withdrawing and reacting with depressions to the storms of its future life, in cases of disappointments, of loss and of other difficulties coming across him or her in his life.

Therefore, schools are needed, which start out from a pedagogical approach and seeing their most sacred duty not to discourage the children and to make them co-players in the community. Reviving this beautiful concern would be a task of today’s education. As already mentioned, unfortunately, our schools are moving in a different direction.

Returning to our example Alexander: School had also failed on this point. The reports show that some educators managed to establish a relationship of trust with the boy. But no one succeeded in accompanying Alexander to be part of a larger community, in demanding an adequate behavior from him and in ensuring that a peaceful atmosphere prevailed in classes. In almost all cases children want nothing more than to get along with the others in the community. For that to happen they absolutely need the guidance of their educators. The bibliography of this actually lovable boy showed that a natural contact with the other children was lacking. Already at an early age he was removed from the community because of his enormous difficulties in it. Obviously, no one realized that his behavior – admittedly inept – was an attempt to get in contact with other children. What he had trained with his mother, namely to attract his mother’s entire attention to himself at all costs, he as well tried with the children at school. During his first class he was constantly walking around in the classroom, because he wanted to see how far the others had proceeded with their work. This behaviour had been construed as a lack of control of his urge to move and as an inner restlessness. But actually he was unsure whether he was as good as the others, and he wanted to keep trying. In order to direct his nervousness to a collaborative effort, it would have been better, for example, to appoint him assistant teacher of mathematics.

The consolidation of the achievements

The development of Alexander was marked by many ups and downs but over time he calmed down more and more and began to play a positive role in class. We also noted that he liked helping others. So we gave him tasks at school which he had to accomplish. Even with the parents, we discussed how he could make himself useful at home. He supported his mother in cooking. He showed her what he had learned in the cooking lessons at school. He had to assist his father with more difficult tasks. We thought that this was important, so that he begins to align himself more to his father. So far, his mother had taken the dominant role. At school we put also emphasis on the fact that Alexander helped the other children. First he helped younger ones and later peers. In doing so he could show his strenghts and make a constructive contribution to the community.

Alexander had grown contented with himself to the point that we thought about a next step. He was to be re-integrated into a larger class in the municipality. This had to be prepared carefully as we knew that Alexander’s mother would oppose vigorously. In some discussions with the authorities, we discussed Alexander’s development and convinced the parents to take this step. Then, after the period of two years, Alexander left our school and entered a normal class in his municipality. I did not inform the teacher, I wished that he could see a normal boy in Alexander from the very beginning. And lo and behold, Alexander behaved perfectly, no longer disrupted the lessons, cooperated and took an active part in lessons and achieved good grades. Six months later, he got an apprenticeship as a plumber, which he had wished for. Today he has already successfully completed his apprenticeship and has become a young man living his life and you would not suspect him having had those difficulties previously.

When he popped in a few weeks ago and talked about his development at school and during the apprenticeship, he finally said with pride: “Come out for a little while, there is my car out there in the parking lot!” Obviously it was important for Alexander to demonstrate to us what he had achieved. The orientation of children towards adults, even when those children are grown up, can simply not be explained away. The human being is a person and a social being that would like to get an echo from other people. Only a school that is committed to the image of man as a person, only a school that guides and educates is able to train children who will later help as citizens to shape democracy and to actively improve their own lives and the lives of others.        

Quelle Zeit-Fragen Nr. 31/32 vom 15.10.2013


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Willy Wahl


Willy Wahl
Hadlaubstrasse 41
8006 Zürich

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