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Basic needs; special needs: Implications for the classroom teacher

Fritz Redl

This article, in three sections over this and the next two issues, is a condensed version of the Keynote speech that Dr. Redl gave at the 1975 New England Kindergarten Conference sponsored by Lesley College in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The talk was summarized in the Conference Proceedings which are currently out of print. Dr. Fritz Redl was at the time Adjunct Professor at Massachusetts State College, School of Education in North Adams, and Visiting Professor at the School for Criminal Justice at State University of New York at Albany.  (see second and third sections).

I. The “Special Needs Package.” Please Open with Care, You Never Know what Else May Have Been Stuffed in There!

Let me start with an illustration (though for obvious reasons of space, I may have to squeeze it down to its bones):

Bobby, age 7, has been well diagnosed as a case of rather extreme form of “restlessness.” He is clearly hyperkinetic. The fact that he can’t sit still for any length of time is not just due to lack of good will or nastiness or disinterest. He just “can’t help it,” his inability to stay put is a symptom in the truest meaning of the term. Previous attempts at penal ties and bribes have long proven futile. He is, in fact, in therapy for this very affliction. He also has improved enough so his therapist approaches the school in the hope of finding a teacher who can help him try it again.

Miss Jones is lucky, she has a classroom of only about 24 children who are, in general, in pretty good shape. She has had them for two years, the kids trust her, so she is elected to be the one to give Bobby his chance. Of course, by the way, she is aware of the problems she will run into on both sides: she will have to give Bobby some leeway beyond what the other kids need, for without some degree of “symptom tolerance” no real affliction can be helped. She also knows that the “deviation tolerance” of the rest of the kids will be limited, so she handles it all with proper care. It is important that the other kids “understand” that whatever leeway Bobby gets must have some good reason behind it, or else they would badly misinterpret her symptom tolerance toward Bobby’s restlessness.

Miss Jones also knows that Bobby may need some help by legitimizing part of his restlessness, so she suggests to him the following policy: Of course he is supposed to try as best as he can. If he absolutely cannot stay put, though, she makes a suggestion, such as, “Why don’t you get up, go over to that pencil sharpener by the door, and come back to your seat as quietly as you can?” This works like a charm for a while, it at least shapes some of Bobby’s lack of sitting capacity into semi-legitimate forms. Now, however, new trouble begins: Bobby is more relaxed, his improved feeling of being off-the-hook of constant admonishing and threats has its good effects. Being more relaxed, he is now really getting interested in the other kids, and would like to play with them. Only he doesn’t know how. In a very natural but not very fortunate way he now produces a new sequence of behavior: after sharpening his pencil, he turns it around and with the rubber end of it, on the way back to his seat, starts playing xylophone on the other kids’ heads.

No need to describe any further. His restlessness was his symptom, and partial tolerance for it had to be built into his classroom life. What he does now is not his symptom any more; it is extra mileage, and of course this behavior cannot be tolerated at all. The other kids are not gadgets for Bobby’s recovery. If his behavior was not stopped quite visibly, the other youngsters would have no reason to tolerate it. They either would start to retaliate, or they would think that their teacher was dumb, didn’t see what was happening, didn’t care about them or kept Bobby as a pet at their expense.

In short, whether Bobby’s “special need” for some symptom tolerance in the area of mobility can be handled in this group would depend on whether this part of his behavior can be controlled without the return of the old symptoms, or a return of the previous techniques of penalties or bribes. The leeway the classroom teacher has in order to be helpful to Bobby in support of his therapist’s work on his hyperkinesis, has clear-cut limits; they do not only depend on the teacher’s own symptom tolerance or willingness to cooperate in the treatment of a “special needs child.” Let’s not forget, by the way, that we started out with an optimum assumption, namely a small class of children who are basically comfortable and have already developed deep trust in their classroom teacher’s judgment and sense, and strong affection for the teacher. Without this precondition the idea of loading the teacher with Bobby would have been an irresponsible mistake.

This case of “the other end of a symptom” and the complications it contains especially where we are successful in arranging an optimum situation, might well lead us to additional speculations about the complexity of the theme of “Children with Special Needs.” Only a few of several dozen items that should now be looked at might still be squeezable into this summary.

Next month: Old Labels, New Labels, and the Difference between a “Label” and a “Noun for a Disease”.

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