It needs an educational therapist to unravel the worries that pupils conceal in their writing and drawing. Karen Gold reports.
Nobody could understand why James, an intelligent, story-loving, phonically well-drilled nine year old, couldn't read. So his school referred him to Jenny Dover, an educational therapist . In his first session, she asked him to draw a picture of his family. He drew himself, his two sisters, his parents, and a little brother who had wings instead of arms.
When Jenny talked to James's parents, they told her there was a tragic family secret that none of the children knew. She suggested to them that James probably did.
"My little client had stumbled on a piece of knowledge that he wasn't supposed to have. Reading is about gaining access to knowledge, and he had just stopped himself in his tracks. Once we talked about his dead brother, he began to read."
Learning is about feeling as well as about thinking, say educational therapists. When children within the normal ability range continue to fail to learn, despite remedial teaching, then schools need to look at whether emotional factors are involved. For, lurking within apparently ordinary activities such as breaking down words into syllables or writing to the bottom of the page, may be a child's symbolic fear of destructiveness or unresolved endings.
Heather Geddes, an educational therapist in south London, recalls one boy who saw monster shapes within the letter e. Every time he drew it, the curve of its mouth was filled with menacing teeth. Another young girl was too fearful of nervous tension, even in pleasurable suspense, to bear reading or listening to a story without flicking the pages forward to find out if everything ended safely.
These children may have experienced trauma, bereavement, violence or neglect which left them swirling with unresolved feelings and unable to trust adults, she says.
"The child thinks: 'Will I know what to do? Dare I even try?' You have to be able to tolerate not knowing something before you can learn something.
Many children don't know how to engage in a relationship with a teacher that would enable them to do that."
Educational therapy tries to enable children to learn that trust specifically connected to academic work. It is not just therapy on school premises, but is focused on learning. In every session with a therapist - usually 50 minutes weekly, for anything from a few weeks to a year - the child will undertake activities such as drawing, writing stories, reading, maths.
The therapist can supplement classroom observations and shed light on where and how the child's learning may be blocked. Some of the work is simply about "noticing aloud what children do - what they are trying to communicate," says Heather Geddes. "Some children don't feel held from one day to the next so they can't hold on to things either."
Sometimes it gives the child a new experience with an adult: she might delay helping a passive child far longer than a classroom teacher could. Or play competitive games with a child afraid of winning and angry at losing.
Or do jigsaw puzzles with children who need hope that things which are broken can be restored.
And some of it is enabling children to express feelings in a small, safe place, instead of uncontrollably in the classroom or playground: "I'm a person who can contain and hold the powerful feelings which children haven't expressed," says Heather Geddes. "I can put them into words, so they can be thought about. It's the same with teachers: they feel unbearable worries about dealing with some of these children. Part of my job is to help them think about the meaning of what a child does. To turn anxiety into thought."
One place where she has done that for two years is The Alton primary school in Roehampton, west London. The school pays for her to work one day a week with five pupils and sometimes their parents, but also to listen and support its teachers.
"You can't tick the box with these children and say they're fixed" says Ann Debono, Alton's headteacher. "But a team of people can say 'I can't bear the sight of that child: I don't want him in my room', and Heather can unpick that."
Many schools try educational therapy, says Jenny Dover, who works for the Caspari Foundation, which trains teachers as therapists and runs short courses. "We say 'Don't just do something: stand there.' Teachers feel such relief to think about what's going on in their classrooms."
Though thinking itself is often painful, she adds: "I had a 14 year old girl who used to write these stories in big six-year-old writing and style: my name is, I have a brother. One day she got violent with me and we managed to sort it out together. After this, she wrote a story about a girl who had terrible fights with her mother, told her to fuck off, broke plates. Then she made everybody make up. It was a 14-year-old's story.
"She wanted to show this story to her mum. I was very worried: her mum was a scary lady. But she insisted. Next week she wrote a six year old's story again. I said 'Could you write a story like last week's?' She said 'I can't'. She never wrote like that again. She ended up having a massive psychotic breakdown. Children sometimes disable themselves for very good reasons."
* Attachment in the Classroom by Heather Geddes; Worth Publishing, Pounds 16.99, www.worthpublishing.com
Caspari Foundation www.caspari.org.uk
All children have had their names changed. None attend The Alton School.