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working with troubled kids

The problem of learning

F.G. Lennhoff, writing over forty years ago, refers to issues still commonplace today

Our children’s greatest trouble, as we have often said, is that they cannot form healthy relationships with others. This affects their learning ability. The normal child, secure in his background, is able to widen out, explore and compete, is less involved in human contact with the teacher and can accept the subject matter he is being taught more easily. If not given continuous encouragement, the maladjusted child, who is without the reassuring background of a stable home, is afraid of the slightest frustration and therefore cannot make an effort.

At school, the normal child works, at first, more for the adult than for the subject. His learning difficulty usually begins only when he has to learn something of which he cannot see the use, but his trust in the adult is such that he can be persuaded and encouraged to widen his horizons and gradually reach maturity towards the matter of learning.

The maladjusted child, however, lacks this confidence in the adults who teach him. His complex attitude towards adults makes him identify them with the subjects they teach; since he distrusts them, he soon learns to distrust the subjects as well and consequently learning of any type becomes very difficult for him. He cannot explore, is afraid of all things new and therefore cannot mature any more in his capacity to learn than he can in his emotional development.

The recognition of a teacher as a leader, someone with whom the child can identify himself and want to emulate, is the first vital step towards learning — only in this way can a child reach a sufficiently receptive state to make academic progress. Unfortunately, the maladjusted child is rarely able to identify himself with an adult in this way. His resistance towards learning is generally very strong, particularly when be is required to learn in the formal classroom setting which may so often have been the scene of earlier unhappiness and possible feelings of humiliation.

In our community, therefore, the classroom can form only a part of the approach to learning and general education. Just as everything about our life together has some therapeutic purpose, so many out-of-the-classroom activities are designed to further training and learning, but in a disguised form, like sugar on a bitter pill. We must devise many different methods to give children a chance to take things in, without the emotional tensions they have created in and around the classroom, until they are ready to take school in their stride, with the help of our specially patient teachers.

At first, an apparently unorganized activity can begin to teach. One child may be able to work for a time with animals, or in the garden, and thereby obtain an outlet for his restless energies, and a sense of achievement, while the adults also working there can pass on to him information which widens out his ideas beyond the immediate task and its surroundings.

At first another child may be so immensely restless that he needs some activity to help relieve his tension — if possible one that is useful to the group and consequently satisfying for him. Tasks as varied as beating madly at a carpet to get out the dust, or taking a sickle or bill-hook and slashing down a troublesome bed of nettles, are ones which have served a useful purpose to different boys at different times.

Any kind of learning in a group has difficulties for our children, particularly if only one adult is in charge of eight or ten children. Each disturbed child wants all the adult’s attention, once he has been persuaded to endure it at all, and feels unable to share that attention with the rest of the group. He needs constant encouragement in performing even the simplest task, and the instant he needs adult help and it is not immediately forthcoming, he feels lost and unable to bear the situation. In moments like this he will give up or, if he is making something or writing or reading, will destroy the work before there is a chance to encourage him.

The maladjusted child is often so immature that every setback in his efforts is a major disaster to him. He is unable to see that the process of learning is a series of experiments which sometimes go wrong and that there is no need to be afraid of disappointments. He is afraid of them, however, and so feels guilty because he has not come up to expectations. Whenever something does go wrong with his experiment, he is inclined to fasten the blame on to the adult concerned or on to other members of the group. This is not, as some people from outside our circle sometimes think, out of ‘wickedness’ or malice, but because he feels that his failure to achieve his aim is due to something he does not understand. He does not realize that his misadventure is rooted in his earlier unhappy experiences and so blames it on to the nearest external factors.

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A teacher, asked for individual viewpoint on the matter of learning, gave the following opinion:

The teacher of maladjusted children inevitably finds herself on the horns of a dilemma — indeed, there is more than one dilemma for her. The basic one is that of the rival claims for instruction and therapy. One knows that the most adjusted person also needs skills in order to make his way in this highly competitive world. On the other hand, the maladjusted child may not be able to acquire these skills at the moment, because of his disturbed state, and it is one of the teacher’s problems to know just when the child is ready to forge ahead in his school work. Failure to choose the right moment may increase the child’s disturbance.

Lessons for the majority of maladjusted children must always be stimulating, because such children find it difficult to concentrate for any length of time. On the other hand, some may be subject to “crazes”. The first type need encouragement to proceed to a conclusion. These boys are always wanting to run off like a very young child would, to see what comes next.

‘One lesson was ruined because this had been forgotten. On the whole, lessons that day had gone well and the children were proud of their efforts, incomplete though they were. For the fifth lesson I said: “Today we shall finish all the things we have begun, then next time we can start on something new.”

Most of the boys, aged about eleven to twelve, had no more interest in the work on hand and because they could not begin the next lesson at once, were not prepared to do anything at all without a great deal of persuasion from me. It would seem that it was a mistake to mention the new work to be started in the next lesson.

We must make every effort to use their passing interests and it is necessary to be on the look-out for these all the time. Often a storybook will help here; for example, one of Arthur Ransome’s books led to an interest in the Norfolk Broads and pictures of wild life there, maps and charts were made as a result. Again a story about the hills in our own county has led to the study of ordnance survey maps: this leading on again to lessons on contour lines, relief models in clay of the county, and a visit to the hills, armed with maps. It is interesting to note in passing that the clay relief models only appealed to a small number of the boys. It is difficult to say why — perhaps because clay was used for the first time in an ordinary lesson, whereas it had been encountered by some of the boys in play sessions in therapeutic circumstances before.

A new approach entered into suddenly, threatens our class’s security it seems, at any rate for the time being. On other occasions, with other groups, a new approach has succeeded at once, perhaps because it has been planned and introduced by the teacher with extra care and subtlety.

When a craze is sweeping through the group, a lesson planned as part of a series may fail if the teacher is not able to introduce the new fashion into it. One such craze passed through the older group when they were always pretending to buy and sell stocks and shares, studying the City news with great care each day in the newspapers and making charts and notes of gains and losses on the Stock Exchange.

This upset at least one history lesson, as the boys could think of nothing else and were as completely lost in their world of pretence as a tiny child can be in his imaginative game. Normally, these boys found sketches of Elizabethan heroes interesting and absorbing, but they were obviously not sufficiently mature to come back from their make-believe world to order.

When two of our teachers were asked to sum up in simple terms the complicated network of qualities in the teaching staff which go to make up educational work at the school, the list emerged as follows:

Readiness to wait; a sense of humour; genuine interest in individual progress or difficulty; ability to gain interest in anything positive, however small; ability to maintain a permissive atmosphere without allowing the group to drift so far that boys lose their sense of security and of having a framework to support them; and finally a highly sensitive attitude to tensions and an ability to divert them by a change of interest.

It is all, like the general therapeutic work we carry on, extremely difficult to pin down, to analyse, and to set down in writing. So many circumstances go to make each tiny situation — one’s mood, some underlying trouble of the individual, the personal situation at home or letters from parents, the particular stage of academic progress and individual taste or interest all play a part in the particular method to be employed by the teacher at any moment. A method so complex, in fact, that it really defies description, and is best experienced at first hand.

This feature: F.G. Lennhoff. (1960). Exceptional children. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd. Pp. 73-75; 83-85