Sophie's choice?

19th April 1996 at 01:00
Launching the first in our series on children child development. Sophie always sits quietly at the back. She seems to find it hard to speak in class; she never puts her hand up to ask or answer a question; she does not seem to have a close friend but is to be found on the fringes of the quieter girls' groups. Her written work is average or a little above but seems somehow tepid; her reading has the same quality of being not-quite-engaged. For some time Mrs Gibson has been concerned about Sophie, but this term she has resolved to try to integrate Sophie and another shy child, Ben, more fully into the class.

Ben is a large, awkward boy whereas she is a slight, neat girl. Ben's mother is overtly anxious about him - "Why hasn't he got any friends?" she has asked Mrs Gibson several times, as if it is the teacher's fault. Sophie's mother is as quiet as Sophie and seems too timid to offer her opinions of her daughter, even when asked. Ben is of high or even gifted ability but Mrs Gibson wonders if this is an advantage: he rarely contrib-utes in lessons, blushes when addressed and looks down at the desk when he speaks. Although his written work is well produced and organised, it seems to give him no pleasure. The other boys avoid him in the playground and he often sits by himself.

When Mrs Gibson thought over strategies for helping Sophie and Ben, she realised she first had to find out if there were any bad situations at home festering at the root of their shyness - like physical or sexual abuse, bereavement or family split-ups, illness or employment problems. She used the regular encounters with parents at home-time, when reading books were handed out and discussed, to make enquiries about family circumstances and to watch the children and their mothers. Nothing out of the way had happened, it seemed, and the children neither seemed afraid nor had any untoward physical marks, as far as she could judge. They certainly did not display any over-sexualised or aggressive behaviour. So Mrs Gibson took the parents into her confidence.

"She's always been like that," said Sophie's mum. "She was slow to feed as a baby, she didn't smile or laugh a lot like my other two and hates it when they get into a fight. I suppose she's just like me, really. I like a quiet life myself." "But when do you think she is happiest?" asked Mrs Gibson. Sophie's mother looked embarrassed. "I know you'll think it's silly, but she really likes sorting out the washing with me. Then she's quite a chatterbox".

Next day, at the end of the morning session, Mrs Gibson went over to her. "Sophie," she said , sitting down next to the little girl. "I wonder if you can help me?" Sophie's eyes widened but she did not reply. "I need someone to help me sort out all the art materials and your mother says you are good at sorting the washing " - a half-smile flickered across Sophie's face - "so I thought you would be a good person to help me. We'll do five minutes every day after morning school so it doesn't cut too much into your playtime."

She paused. Should she ask if Sophie wanted to help? She decided against it, not wishing to place that responsibility on the child's shoulders. Unexpectedly, Sophie spoke. "I don't mind missing playtime."

Ben's mother was alarmed at Mrs Gibson's approach. "Oh, I just know there's something wrong," she said. "He never brings other children home and he's always playing these violent games on the computer. But my husband says it's just a phase. He says the other children are too stupid but he seems so lonely."

A few days later, Mrs Gibson announced the new chess club. "Chess is a game with lots of rules where people fight with their minds," she said. She signed Ben up straight away and spent many lunch hours coaching him and a few other hopefuls. Ben was not a good loser but chess did seem to give him a field of contact with others. He was the second best player in the school and, if not liked any better, well respected for this.

He also let slip in the course of discussing chess openings, that his dad was away much of the time and that his mum and dad fought "such a lot - and Mum is always making mistakes". He was never going to lose his temper when HE grew up.

Of course, thought Mrs Gibson, it's hard to be spontaneous if you are trying never to show any negative emotions, and it's hard to offer opinions if you are scared they may be mistakes. She wrote up a new rule on the class board. "We only lern by our mistakes," it said. "Can you spot this one?" "Responding to the Unresponsive, Difficult to Reach Child" is the title of a lecture to be held in London on January 25 next year, organised by FAETT, the Forum for the Advancement of Educational Therapy and Therapeutic Teaching. Ring Gerda Hanko on 0181-998 4224 for details.

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