“Jacob – a warmhearted, lively and dynamic first grader – caught our attention due to his apparent social problems. He had a tendency to become aggravated and got into fights with his peers which ended in mutual accusations and tears. The teachers became nervous and the parents of his classmates started to get worried […] We then tried to get a better picture of Jacob and had a first meeting in which we shared our impressions with just a small circle. Next morning I observed the first effect of our effort: I welcomed the pupils by the classroom door. - Jacob appeared. He came towards me with an outstretched arm and in his tight fist there was a small bunch of flowers. […] Jacob later became an amiable, social, warmhearted and conscientious class mate.” (i)
Anna Seydel describes here how our awareness of a pupil can quickly change a situation. Child Study meetings have become a firmly established part of the pedagogical work in Steiner/Waldorf schools. To put it shortly, it is a helpful instrument by which a group of people focuses on a particular child and tries to have a positive influence on the child.
Nowadays, many teachers see the children's need for guidance. However, this also opens up many questions. Today, the protection of a person's privacy is rated highly. Are we allowed, then, to still hold such Child Study meetings? Are we invading the child's and the family's privacy? Could there possibly be any negative results for the pupil? Does the teacher lose sight of the rest of the class? Is it just too much work?
Learning to understand each other
A Child Study meeting is an opportunity to encounter the child on a different level, a possibility to get to know each other better. Rudolf Steiner states, "But when you accustom yourself to making real efforts to get to know the children psychologically, you gradually form a different relationship with them, simply as outcome of such endeavour. Getting to know them more deeply does not just mean recognizing their characteristics; a different relationship arises with them when you try to get to know them better." (ii)
Child Observation is an important method also in mainstream pedagogy, especially in early childhood education. Teachers and parents share their observations of the child's development and coordinate their efforts to accompany the child in the best possible way. (iii) Possible topics are the child's wellbeing and interests, her strengths and needs, as well as the expectations of parents and teachers. (iv) In the context of state education, the term “diagnosis of resources and deficiencies” is sometimes used. In this method there is an emphasis on analysing the pupil's more successful and less successful school work. (v)
Child Study, on the other hand, emphasizes the teacher's individual observation of the child. If we want to help a child, it is important to understand that every child presents us with a unique “riddle” which teachers are called to solve.
Let us now turn our attention to the organizational aspects of Child Study meetings. Which groups and professionals take part in the meeting depends on the institution, the people involved, the situation and the method. Does it take part in a school or a kindergarten? Are we talking about a kindergarten child, a pupil in the lower or the upper school? Are the parents and the child or teenager present? Are all or only some chosen teachers present? Does the school doctor or a therapist take part?
Christof Wiechert recommends holding the Child Study meeting with the full college of teachers, including the colleagues who do not know the child. (vi) Klaus Hadamovsky suggests that the parents should decide who takes part. (vii) Further, Henning Köhler proposes that everyone who plays a part in the child's life should come together as a “protective circle”, particularly when we are considering a child with behavioural difficulties. For a so-called status review, the student, the teacher and the parents sit together; and the whole class is present for a class-circle (viii) Thus, a lot depends on the child and the method when deciding who should take part in the meeting. The author would love to hear of any other methods.
Regarding the time frame, many teachers worry that a Child Study meeting will take up too much of their time. It is important to note that once they have established a certain routine, the meetings can be kept quite short; Christof Wiechert suggests that it should not take longer than about eighty minutes. (ix)
If the entire college of teachers is present, the meeting should be chaired so that time and process are kept in focus.
Let us not forget the role of the parents: they must be informed beforehand and their agreement obtained. Whether they will be present or not must be discussed early on. Further, we have to bear in mind that the meeting should be conducted in a manner as considerate and respectful as if the child herself were present.
Kindergarten teacher Franziska Spalinger states that it is important to observe the child very carefully in the days leading up to the meeting; in fact the observations should become an omnipresent instrument in our daily routine. (x) In the kindergarten, the main areas to consider are the child's physical development, the ability to imitate, the way the child plays and how she interacts with others. Such observation helps the teachers to become aware of the child's development. We want to stress here that different areas of observation should be chosen, whether the children and youngsters are in kindergarten, in the lower or the upper school.
Example of a Child Study meeting with the college of teachers
How a Child Study meeting is conducted cannot be planned in detail because it is a process that focuses on the individual child. We can, however, describe some distinct stages of this process.
First, we are trying to perceive the child, to create a first picture of the child. At this stage we might describe the child's physical appearance, her biography, her skills and abilities. We might want to focus on her particular characteristics, look at her school work or drawings, her health, her inclinations, the social interaction and her expressions of thinking, feeling and volition. It is very important to abstain from expressing a personal opinion or interpretation. It is crucial to strictly separate this stage from the following stages in order to avoid early interpretation and the danger of pre-judgment!
During the next stage, the participants look for motives and try to fine-tune the picture of the child. This stage requires some knowledge of anthroposophical concepts, the knowledge of the other participants, everyone's involvement and the ability to comprehend deeper connections. We might ask what everything that has been said so far can tell us or what we have truly understood. It often happens at this stage that insecurities come to the surface. These are not to be understood as weaknesses but rather as a sign of a transition period.
For Anna Seydel it is very important to be in tune with the child at this stage. She indicates that we should try and perceive the child within ourselves, within our limbs, our breathing and indeed in the whole body. One might choose some peculiarity, a distinguishing feature, of the child and try to “live into” it; one tries to feel how the child experiences this peculiarity within herself.
Christof Wiechert suggests to concentrate on the expression of the etheric in the physical––for example, how the child draws––or to look for the expression of the etheric body in the senses –– for example, the child's intellectual abilities. And finally, we might want to study the expressions of the soul, such as how the child handles and experiences colour. He further recommends working with flexible mental images such as the temperaments, the three-fold and four-fold human being, the powers of thinking, the child's powers of imagination, her interests or the image of the Self in relation to the physical body. We can also try to create a more comprehensive picture: to ask ourselves if the pupil has a tendency to be bright, wakeful, cool or rather dark and warm.
Finally, the last stage is concerned with the search for suitable assistance. We need to ask ourselves what would really help the child or the adolescent. We are called to develop a creative, educational willingness to help.
We need to take into consideration that effective action is inherent in the school curriculum, that detours are often necessary and that the teachers' commitment is needed to implement the action. Further, it is important to find and apply new ways of teaching. Christof Wiechert has dedicated a complete chapter of his book Solving the Riddle of the Child: The Art of Child Study to the effects of the lesson content on the children.
For Ingrid Ruhrmann and Bettina Henke, the Child Study meeting is part of the teacher's self-development, a chance to practise scientific precision, “ritual concentration” and creative-imaginative thinking. (xi) They have developed exercises to practise intensive perception which are used at the Bernard Lievegoed institute in Hamburg.
It is important to plan a review and to report back to the college of teachers about the pupil's development after a certain length of time.
Child Study meetings are intensively used and discussed in curative education. However, in the context of schools, Child Study can mean more than the process described above.
Some schools offer status reviews, meetings in which the teacher, the student and the parents review the past six months. The student evaluates his or her work and creates an action plan; this strengthens the student's sense of responsibility. (xii) At this point we might consider the possible difficulties connected to a Child Study meeting in the upper school. If we fear that issues about privacy or the parents' agreement could arise, we might consider the status review as a suitable alternative. There needs to be a discussion within the Waldorf movement about which forms and methods are suitable for Child Observation and Child Study meetings for the various age groups.
Some teachers conduct class-circle meetings with the whole class, possibly with the help of a ball or “talking stick” which the children pass from one to another. Only the child who has the ball or stick is allowed to speak. This method facilitates discussion and contemplation with all the pupils present, starting from grade one. The aim is for the pupils to get to know each other, and it is also a possibility for the teacher to see the children in a new light. (xiv)
It has become clear that Child Study meetings are in themselves a very effective method. Sometimes, only stage one can be implemented, due to a lack of time and knowledge, and no practical action is decided upon. However, in most cases this leads to an increased focus on the child, to a new perception of the child and to some positive change.
If we go through the whole process, we realise that we have learned to understand the child and we will be surprised at our new educational ideas. It would be very interesting for the editors to hear about further experiences. Readers are invited to submit their stories and new ideas on Child Study.
Take part in the discussion. Join our Child Study forum.
Katharina Stemann is thrilled by the growth of the international Waldorf movement and admires the brave people who are starting up new schools under challenging circumstances. Further, she is an editor at Waldorf Resources and part of the Pedagogical Section at the Goetheanum.
Translated by Karin Smith
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