Neglect of spirituality costs dear

All carers of children, including their teachers, have an obligation to recognise their human dimension, says Robin Jackson

There now seems to be a growing recognition that the spiritual dimension in a child's development is still neglected.

At a conference in Aberdeen as part of the national education debate, Margaret Crompton, author of Children, Spirituality, Religion and Social Work, noted that the right to spiritual well-being is embedded in the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. While reference to meeting a child's spiritual needs is explicit in only a few clauses, recognition of these needs is implicit throughout.

Thus, there is no question of permissiveness in regard to training or practice in the fields of education and social care. A duty is clearly placed on all relevant bodies to ensure that children's spiritual well-being is nurtured as well as their physical and intellectual well-being.

Spiritual well-being can be defined as a sense of good health about one's self as a human being and as a unique individual. This is not so much a state as a process of growth and development. It happens when people are fulfilling their potential as individuals and as human beings. They are at ease with the world around them.

As John Swinton, of Aberdeen University's school of divinity, indicated at the conference, religion and spirituality are among the most important factors that structure human experience, beliefs, values and behaviour: spirituality being that aspect of human existence that gives it its human dimension. Dr Swinton stressed that all carers had an ethical responsibility to recognise and respond to spirituality as it is presented within all humanity.

There is, of course, always a danger of adopting a top-down, officially approved set of procedures for promoting spiritual well-being, as these might become another set of standards - complete with check-lists to be ticked, another set of "competencies" to be tested for. The awful possibility was raised of work-sheets, online material and glossy booklets being produced for teachers to use with classes of slow or fast learners.

At its root, there seems to be agreement that promoting spiritual well-being in whatever context can only be achieved through the medium of personal relationships between adults and those they work with or are responsible for.

Professor Andy Kendrick has noted that the present preoccupation with different forms of abuse, especially sexual abuse, has led to measures being introduced, such as the "no touching" policy, which deny the child the affection, reassurance and comfort that can be offered through physical contact, thus removing an important means for developing relationships and thereby promoting well-being.

Sealing children in a protective cocoon and denying them tangible expressions of warmth, compassion and understanding are likely to affect their intellectual, social, emotional and spiritual growth. And what kind of message does this stultifying proscription communicate to children - particularly those with special needs?

If spirituality is developed partly through experiencing it in another, then what do we need to look for in those who teach and care for our children? How do we find teachers and carers who are aware of their own spiritual needs and who are willing to help others meet theirs? How do we support parents, who are struggling to secure the services their children require, to understand the importance of spirituality in the lives of their children (and themselves)?

The Camphill-Rudolf Steiner School in Aberdeen promotes these ideals by reinforcing the philosophy that the spirit essence in each person is eternal and carries a divine spark which cannot be affected by illness or disability. As a result, Camphill communities have never subscribed to the deficit model of disability, for each child is seen as unique and possessing potential.

So the Scottish Executive should look for practical ways to promote the spiritual well-being of children and young people with special needs. Establishing a national working party would be a welcome and long overdue first step.

Robin Jackson is development and training co-ordinator with Camphill Scotland, Aberdeen.

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