Just different – children who are trailblazers for a world worth living in

Henning Köhler

To be precise, “behavioural disorder” is a neutral term for statistically rare ways of behaviour and communication. As a rule, a child is described as having a behavioural disorder if he or she displays – not just temporarily – unusual behaviour associated with social tension which is difficult to cope with educationally, without there being an illness or developmental impairment immediately in evidence. 

Individual blueprint for life

I approach the current trend of putting everything that is not environmentally determined down to the genes with some scepticism. Instead, I am guided by the fundamental idea of an individual blueprint for life which can get into conflict with the need to adapt to “normal” life. These are creative conflicts which can, however, assume pathological traits under difficult circumstances.

The situation is particularly difficult if the surrounding world with its preconceptions instantly interprets a conflict associated with adaptation as an adaptive disorder and does not even consider the possibility that it might be an expression of something which is profoundly justified and meaningful. In contrast, I am guided by the assumption that every human being follows their own intrinsic “guiding intent” from the beginning of their life. We are born not just with an ability and willingness to learn but clearly also with particular tendencies to learn in specific ways: an individual “developmental organiser” which can be recognised in early particularities in the way children live their way into the world.

Could there be a third factor determining development alongside genetic factors and environmental influences? It is not just the followers of Rudolf Steiner who consider such a possibility. There is quite a lot to indicate that there is an individual biographical guiding impulse. Or, in other words, a core subject which does indeed strive for “free development” and in doing so follows its own laws in accordance with Rudolf Steiner’s motto: “From a spiritual perspective, every human being is a species for themselves.” And so, it her or she could, the newborn child would say to us: I want to follow my star, even if it is a stony path and the whole world tells me it is the wrong one …

Children who are different

Many children who are by no means ill or disturbed to begin with but who are perceived as being different because of their particular style of perception, learning and communication, are utterly ground down over time through the lack of understanding from their surroundings and because they trigger defensive, annoyed reactions wherever they go. They are constantly given to understand that they are unacceptable as they are. How is any person supposed to endure that? Frequently their path of suffering does not start properly until the second or third year of school. At some point the special child has become an unhappy, frustrated, unmotivated, deeply disappointed child with paranoid defensive and avoidance behaviour. It is not uncommon for all kinds of physical complaints to arise as a result of the permanent psychological stress. In such cases we should look ahead with concern to the adolescent years because the ruined feeling of self-worth is a bad omen for the identity conflicts which arise during puberty. Here we have come to the crucial question: is our beautiful new world really teeming with “dysfunctional” children? Apart from the fact that such labels are questionable in themselves, there is in my observation a problem which is still much too little debated: richly gifted and actually also highly motivated children are put under such pressure and are misjudged to such an extent that they have no option other than to behave “weirdly”. And at some point their insecurity reaches a level when therapeutic intervention does indeed become necessary.

The homeless human being

The hectic, noisy, media-ruled, imagination-killing everyday world in urban and semi-urban living conditions places a great stress on children, there can be no doubt about that. On the one hand they are subject to permanent sensory overload, on the other hand there is without doubt a lack of areas of experience which promote their development in an unforced and natural way. The alienation from the realms of nature has removed an irreplaceable school of life. Playing in nature contributes not just to the maturing of the physical senses but also transmits to children a primordial religious feeling which I would like to describe as a reconnection with the sphere of the archetypal creative forces. In concrete terms it means that the impairment of tactile and sensomotor integration has become perfectly normal today.

Most people suffer to a certain degree from sensory impoverishment on the one hand and sensory stress on the other, and often this is associated with painful feelings of a lack of reality or states of inability to act, restlessness and anxiety. Many children feel “homeless”. Their body is not a secure fortress for them. We could continue to list the increased civilisational risks and nothing is further from my mind than to deny them. But we rarely speak about the risk of the completely unhealthy pressure to adapt to which children today are subjected. A thinking in categories of normality and functionality rules the adult world which is little short of neurotic and does not stop even at the smallest.

Breaking out of the consciousness cage

Such hostility towards children is primarily a structural problem today which in turn reflects a problem of consciousness. Our culture turns against the inner and outer needs of children – and thus against itself. In order to counter this – or to put it another way: to discover what could have a therapeutic effect on our culture – I sometimes think we have to look above all at those children who can expect no sympathy before the tribunal of conformist thinking. What if they had come to shake us awake? In the clear light of day, many of those who are deemed to be unable to conform are a hundred times more “healthy” than your ordinary conformist citizens who no longer even know what they are lacking so that they can feel themselves as whole human beings; who have silenced their longing , placed their inner artist in chains, unlearnt how to marvel and forgotten how to play. In short: have successfully undergone the process of self-denial and dulling we call “socialisation”. We should be grateful that increasing numbers of children are arriving who are sending us the message: you have to break out of the cage of your “ordered circumstances” which imprisons your consciousness because in such a climate we cannot thrive.

Blind in the face of originality

In many cases children react with perplexity, shock and confusion when their special gifts go unrecognised. We then interpret the signs of not being understood as deficits. We often fail to see the appellant character of originality and this failure can trigger a dynamic which leads to his or her potential abilities not finding the necessary room to develop so that a “mental disability” arises in the truest sense of the word: through our inability to recognise the treasures which are contained in the child, he or she is disabled from retrieving them. We are possessed and guided by the image of the smoothly functioning person. Hence the equation of “healthy” and “normal”, the immediate therapeutic action when there is any kind of conspicuousness. The spell of uniformity is one aspect of the spell of functionality: ever more minor deviations from the uniform line are classed as intolerable abnormal developments and directly or indirectly turned into a pathology.

Different talent profiles

As an educational consultant and therapist, I have over the decades encountered with increasing frequency the shy, timid children, inclined to listen and always a little sad without being fully present, like for example Eduard Mörike. They really do appear to come from another world and are evidently reluctant to engage unconditionally with this one here. We might refer to them as poetic souls or travellers in the land of fairy tales – due to the incredible wealth of images which rests in them. They are very clever in their way but only learn if we appeal to their specific kind of cleverness and know their tempo. Leisureliness, patience and level-headedness are their vital principles. They love silence. They are often joined as friends by the earth children: mostly boys with a lovable mischievous trait, a little dark, thoroughly stubborn, experts in everything that is palpable and practical, born mechanics. They love stories about inventors because they themselves are inventor souls, albeit with an outlook and interests which would fit better into the seventeenth or eighteenth century. Many of them have a close connection with nature and a pronounced sense of the qualities of substances. They are intimately familiar with stones, earth substance, different types of wood. Their landscape is the mountains. Everything connected with trees is also connected with them. The elemental beings associated with the earth are their friends. They love experiments in chemistry and physics, but are less keen on arithmetic. When I am faced with these children various images arise: herbalists, alchemists, wood carvers, goldsmiths.

We could call them the guardians of reality. Their problem: they learn either in a practical context with all their senses or they don’t learn at all. Many of them are seen as underachievers with impaired performance, less able. Their strengths, if they are recognised at all, do not count for much today. They love clear, simple words.

Every teacher knows the delicately skinned, finely perceptive, soulful, very caring and empathetic type of feeling child, often girls (or boys with girlish traits). They are very anxious and as a result sometimes also tyrannical in the expression of their need for security. Some of them give the impression into their adolescence as if they were alarmed at being on earth at all. Let us call these children comforter or carer souls because that describes their greatest strength. From a remarkably early age they feel responsible for their fellow human beings and sometimes, in contrast to their basic mood of anxiety, are willing to take astonishing risks to support someone, for example an animal that has got into difficulties.

Anyone who treats another child unjustly in their presence also affects them. Some of them are almost worryingly hard working and serious at school but also have a tendency to fear school because they are constantly overexerted. Others cannot hide their difficulty in the field of formal, abstract learning. They are intelligent – cue: emotional intelligence – but the realm of soulless “facts” scares them. Not until the age of thirteen or fourteen does this fear gradually subside. Comforter souls need the experience of the interpersonal meaning of learning in order to really concentrate on the matter in hand with interest. Otherwise they are simply bored despite their hard work. There is no better motivator for these children than doing something for someone else. Learning in order to be able to help someone later on – that they find convincing. If the school can succeed in putting knowledge and abilities in the context of “care, welfare, healing and giving”, these feeling children have been won over.

Finally, there are the impatient, “hyperactive” children always pressing and storming ahead and hungering for experiences, or souls in search of something. In order to make them enthusiastic about learning, we always have to offer them a new and exciting challenge. They want to move, be involved in discussions and decision-making, revel in daring plans, experience adventure. They want to be as close as they can to what our present time has to offer. It is therefore educationally counterproductive in the long term to try and keep such storming ahead children away from new technology. Not only do they feel attracted to it but they also have the skill to use it! At the same time they find relief in nature. That is where they calm down. Their thirst for freedom surprises us, their lack of restraint poses great educational problems. On the other hand there are few children who are more willing to help, creative and original than these, of whom it is sometimes said they are pubescent throughout all of their childhood.

Integrative daycare centres and schools keep reporting that the children with these searching souls are found quite naturally and with great commitment at the side of those who are in particular need of help. Energetic learning in an open, relaxed workshop atmosphere suits them. Or outside in the open air. If they are allowed to slip into the role of a researcher investigating animal behaviour, for example, the perseverance and concentration with which they remain at their observations can be utterly amazing. They also like to be involved in sumptuous artistic or craft projects (music or theatre), and love to improvise with drums, claves and so on. Everything small-minded and monotonous drives these children mad. I would not go as far as to say that they can read thoughts, but their ability to respond to questions which have not yet been asked can make one begin to wonder. 

These natural traits have undoubtedly always existed. But never have they been so radically, I might almost say unrelentingly, distinct in so many children.

The virtues of attentiveness

Common constitutional and character features should not be overemphasised to the extent that the individuality disappears behind the type. Much more important than any assignment to specific categories, however much the latter may have been cleansed of negative preconceptions, is a profound, undivided, undisguised, unprejudiced interest in the other, the “you speaking to us from out of your mystery” (Martin Buber). This creates an atmosphere in which the child can reveal himself or herself: “Look, here I am!” If more thorough diagnosis is required, this will acquire quite a different character with the attitude set out above than would be the case if it is intended primarily to identify deficits. We come upon a mystery here. A new organ of perception for the beauty of the other human being opens up beyond any evaluative pressure. What touches us in that situation of course has nothing to do with maudlin sentimentality. Being constantly entranced by the children would be just as wrong as a fixation on deficits. What I am talking about has to do with respect. Beyond any sympathy or antipathy. Our time requires adults with inward openness, indeed, the ability to be enthused by what is different, unexpected, unconventional.

About the author: Henning Köhler is a special-needs teacher and director of the Janusz Korczak Institute in Nürtingen