Holocaust survivors help children cope with school

17th March 2000 at 00:00
ISRAEL'S Holocaust children are set to provide the template for a new effort to raise attainment and improve behaviour among children in difficulty at school.

Dundee is the first Scottish authority to adopt the methods of Reuven Feuerstein, the eminent 79-year-old psychologist, who pioneered ways of improving the thinking of children with special educational needs. Professor Feuerstein refused to write off children who survived the concentration camps and devised a largely pictorial programme called "instrumental enrichment" to raise their cognitive abilities.

Students are asked to pick out increasingly complex shapes, patterns and stories from a series of pictures, symbols and diagrams and work through their reasoning with close guidance from a teacher. Professor Feuerstein's methods were originally deemed cranky but have since been implemented and assessed across the world.

More than half of the city's 40 behaviour support staff went through a five day training course last week and will hone skills at a second five-day course in May.

The city was persuaded after hearing of the progress made by pupils at Kittoch School in East Kilbride, believed to be the only other precise follower of the Feuerstein approach north of the border, although many mainstream schools use other methods of improving thinking skills.

Billy O'Neill, the school's depute head, has been using the approach for more than five years and has two 40-minute periods a week with all 24 senior pupils.

"We have a girl who was into drink, drugs and truancy who was making no progress at school. Previously she would have solved her problems with violence and now she deals with problems in a rational, efficient manner. Sh talks about 'second thoughts'. The work helps analyse her own behaviour, work out options and act on them," Mr O'Neill said.

Many children with difficulties act impulsively and fail to think coherently.

"The programme gives kids the cognitive tools to analyse their thinking processes, which means they can analyse their behaviour," he said.

Alison McKenzie, a former colleague who moved to Dundee as a behaviour support teacher, said: "This is a belief that you will make changes in children."

Ruth Deutsch, a London-based consultant and last week's course trainer, one of two in Britain, said: "You may not be able to change genes and chromosomes but you can improve thinking skills and cognitive functioning."

Ms Deutsch believes teachers should be able to help children "learn how to learn" and cope with problem-solving.

In Dundee, staff plan to use the techniques in small groups and with individual pupils to raise attainment. Ken McAra, support for learning adviser, said: "It's more likely to impact on achievement first. Children will feel better able to cope with what they are being asked to do, as this raises self-esteem and allows them to become more focused.

"The approach is trying to get them to slow down, take their time and focus on tasks. Many of them do not. Many want to jump in and attempt to get the answer very quickly."

Several schools in Dundee already use thinking skills but Mr McAra said the intensity of the new method and its subject-free status set it apart.

Greg Tocher, head of behaviour support, said it was a "tool" to be used alongside others and had been strongly endorsed. "It was the staff who wanted to move this forward," Mr Tocher said.

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