A time to tackle tigers

18th April 1997 at 01:00
Polly Burridge explains how educational therapy can help troubled children

Danny is nine years old. He has made very little progress at school. Recently, his behaviour has become so violent that his teacher fears for the safety of the other pupils. Danny's "absent" father has just moved back into the family home. Danny and his sisters are afraid of their father. His mother has been ill for some time, and is due to go into hospital soon for another operation.

Danny was referred to me for educational therapy. Educationally, therapy is effective because it sets out to work with the emotional factors that have inhibited children's learning and progress. Educational therapists provide specialist treatment for children with entrenched learning and behaviour difficulties. The work could be said to stand somewhere between psychotherapy and remedial teaching but the goal is always educational.

In his first session, Danny frowned and clenched his hands together. He found it hard to look at me, and at the same time seemed afraid and very angry; he seemed to be holding back his anger for fear of it exploding.

On large pieces of paper, I wrote sentences for Danny: "Today we are starting work in this room", "It is hard to begin." I read them out slowly, and then encouraged him to cut them up. At first unsure of what was really allowed, he soon attacked the words with scissors, until the floor was covered with jagged scraps of paper. Destroying the words gave Danny some feeling of control over the print - he had never felt this before. Later, Danny was able to start putting words together again, and this time they began to make sense.

Then I decided that Danny might be ready for a paired story. I explained that we would take turns in telling the story, and that I would write it down. I began, "There was once a boy called Dave. One night he had a dream about . . . " ". . . a tiger. It was scary," said Danny. We were off. Uncertain at first, the story speeded up as Danny-Dave searched for the angry tiger. He could hear it roaring, but it was always out of sight. Finally, he found instead a wounded elephant. There was a change in his voice as he described the poor creature that needed help, "I gave her a drink. Then she'll get better and look after the baby elephant," he said. At the end of the telling, Danny seemed exhausted but relieved. He looked proud and surprised to see it written down, and asked me to read it to him over and over again. It seemed this was a real first step in Danny feeling like "a boy who could learn". It seemed that through the story he had somehow reached an understanding.

The next week, Danny burst excitedly through the door, "I've got a reason, a reason why." A reason, he meant, for getting into all this trouble. "It's my mum, she keeps going into hospital - she nearly died!" This was the breakthrough. Two weeks later, his teacher reported that his behaviour in class was much less angry: "He seems able to listen to me now, and yesterday he finished his writing."

Educational therapists are experienced teachers who have passed a rigorous training. They work in a range of settings, including mainstream and special schools and child guidance units, offering a range of support to schools, including work with teachers and pupils.

The organisation that promotes this work is the Forum for the Advancement of Educational Therapy and Therapeutic Teaching. It aims to promote the insights of teachers into the emotional factors of learning and failure to learn.

Some schools find that parents are reluctant to take their child to a psychologist or a psychotherapist, but that they welcome the opportunity to meet with a specialist in school. When this happens, both parent and child may have a clearer expectation that "we will help them with their reading". This focus can be helpful for all concerned. The pupil will be offered an individual session once a week; the time and place will be consistent and confidential; and we appreciate that the nature of the relationship between teacher and child will be of considerable importance.

The children we are asked to see have often been unable to make use of what is on offer at school, they have limited access to the curriculum, have caused concern for some time and may be on the point of exclusion from school.

In educational therapy, our task is to combine therapy - the freedom for the child to use the time and materials in their own way - with teaching, where we ask the child to deal with language. Our range of equipment includes books, games, and creative materials.

Educational therapy is unlike any other. We work indirectly. We seldom make direct interpretations to the child about what is going on, but may, for example, consider their feelings by talking about the character in a story. Working "at one remove" from reality makes it possible to share thoughts about difficult things in an acceptable way.

There are also school-based staff development approaches designed to help teachers develop skills for use in the classroom. Many teachers are unaware of how unhappy children can powerfully project their feelings of frustration and failure into the adults around them. When teachers have a clearer understanding of what is going on, they may be able to think more positively about ways of reaching troubled and troubling children, instead of simply reacting to emotions.

The 10th International Conference on Educational Therapy, "Learning and Emotions Steering the Course from Infancy to Adolescence" will be held at Hertford College, Oxford on September 19-21. Contact the conference administrator, Alfington House, Church Lane, Alfington, East Devon EX11 1PE. Tel: 01404 850 329 Polly Burridge is a learning support teacher and educational therapist

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