Harnessing dreams

Polly Burridge looks at the educational therapist's role in helping the troubled child realise a more positive sense of self

What is educational therapy? The answers to this question are particularly relevant now that teachers are legally required to provide effective education for the "more difficult to teach" children. With greater integration of special needs pupils into mainstream school, many teachers feel overstretched and ill-equipped to deal with strange and disruptive pupils in their classes.

In 1974, educational psychologist Irene Caspari named and defined the discipline that is known as "educational therapy". Educational therapists are experienced teachers who have undergone a rigorous training. We are now working in a range of settings in many parts of the country; this may include work with individual pupils, with groups, and collaboratively with teachers. There are also school-based staff development approaches designed to develop skills in the classroom.

Educational therapy aims to give teachers greater confidence and insight in teaching worrying and difficult pupils. This will enable such children to have greater access to everything that is on offer in the curriculum.

Educational therapy can be effective when the pupils' problems are emotional and they have failed to respond to remedial teaching. The goal of educational therapy is always educational. This makes it acceptable to children and parents, who welcome the fact that, for example, it "will help them with their reading". The school agenda may be more directly concerned with appropriate behaviour, but it will be understood between us that this is part of the package.

Educational therapists recognise that emotional factors are a vital part of every child's capacity to learn and to interact with their environment. We appreciate that negative feelings and experiences can be overwhelming, and we set out to explore and use them. We work with the child or group to move towards effective learning and a more positive sense of self.

The process of educational therapy can best be illustrated by an example.

Steven was 10 years old. Positive feelings towards school and about himself were entirely lacking. He was a constant worry to his teachers. His attendance was very poor, but when he was in class he regularly disturbed others, or disappeared to the toilet. Steven had great difficulty with reading and writing - even a few words seemed to be really painful for him.

The teacher asked me to work with Steven outside the classroom. Though pale anxious and very uncertain about what was expected of him, Steven was keen to talk. The words tumbled out in a torrent, telling of his "real life" - street adventures with a gang. He often had to escape from trouble in a hurry. I asked Steven what he thought about reading. "Everybody else can do it, but not me - I just don't get it," he sad. When presented with pages of words that had no meaning for him, he must often have felt that he was going mad.

First we looked at just a few words that could be useful in "his world". I wrote the words exit, entrance, escape and fire in large letters. With surprise, Steven recalled that he had seen a sign that looked like exit over the supermarket door. Together we wondered how useful this and other signs might be. I encouraged Steven to cut up the words that I had made, then put them together again. This is a helpful method of giving the pupil a feeling of some control over the print, and of releasing fearful or aggressive feelings.

Steven seemed ready to tell his story. When a child is at a loss, I often suggest calling their story "My Dream", giving the indirect message that in this story anything is possible. I explained that I would write for him, be his secretary, and we were off.

"I was watching Ghosts in the cinema ... I smelt fire ... smoke was coming ... everyone was screaming ... I called out: 'Don't panic. I'll find the exit'."

The exciting story with people and a cat in great danger continued - and ended with Steven as a hero, finding the exit door, ringing the fire brigade and feeling proud. I told Steven to sit back after his hard work, and I would read his story to him. His amazement and delight at its length were very real to see. "I could make it into a film," he said.

In Steven's story we can understand much of his feelings regarding his own situation at school. Is it any wonder that the words "don't panic" occurred many times in this story? We can easily appreciate his desire to be clever enough to "read the signs", to find the way and to lead others to safety.

In our next session we planned how we could best tell his story to his class and teacher. Later this was achieved by Steven acting his part dramatically and finally holding up high the essential exit sign. The story was received with surprise and applause. Importantly, it gave his teacher some new ways of thinking about Steven and his needs.

Steven, at last, seemed to feel like a boy who could learn.

It is important to consider how powerfully such children can project their own feelings on to those who work with them. Unhappy and discouraged pupils often make teachers feel frustrated and angry. When teachers have a clear idea of what is going on, they may be able to avoid simply reacting to emotions, and instead think more positively about ways of teaching troubled and troubling pupils.

The organisation that promotes this work is the Forum for the Advancement of Educational Therapy and Therapeutic Teaching (FAETT). For more information about the training contact Gill Salmon, tel: 020 7401 8169.

For events and conferences contact Gerda Hanko, tel: 020 8998 4224.

Polly Burridge is a learning support teacher and educational therapist

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