FOCUSING IN SCHOOL
A manual for ‘clearing a space’ and focusing in the classroom
Marta Stapert, 1997
First a little story that one of my teacher colleagues told me in the very beginning of this program.
Michael hurt his hip during gymnastics this morning. Previously I would have said: “just go on and then you won’t feel anything anymore”. The rest of the day he would disturb everything in every way he could think of. Now I thought: “how can I do it Marta’s way”, and I said to him: “your hip is hurting, isn’t it... is it bad?”. He looked surprised at me, a little bit suspicious. I asked: “where do you feel the pain?” Michael pointed at his hip and said: “It happened because Peter was pushing me”.
I said: “Is there something about it you can feel inside?”. Michael said: “here in my belly....but it is not that bad” and ran off to the other children. Nothing was wrong with him during the rest of the day. That saved me a lot of energy.
In the beginning teachers are afraid that it will take a lot of time to give this kind of individual focusing attention. Now my colleagues have discovered how easy it is and how quickly child and teacher are in good energy state again, without loss of time.
This teacher could react like this after following a first basic course in focusing and voluntarily participating in a group project to integrate Focusing, especially ‘clearing a space’ in the school. This project has been supported by the management of the school as the advancement of expertise.
I attended the certifying Intensive workshop at the Chicago Focusing Institute in 1993.
A Japanese videotape showed me the ‘Clearing a space in the classroom’. This Japanese project is under supervision of Shoji Murayama. It immediately had my full attention and love. Together with the article of Mary McGuire, Psy.D. about her school project in Canada, it was enough to get me to start this project in my school.
Later I read articles of G.Neagu, Gloria Bruinix, Bala Jaison, Susan Lutgendorgf, Diana Marder, Marianne Thompson and especially of Bart Santen about focusing with children. What I read was very helpful to continue on my path.
The workshops of Mia Leijssen, Norbert Groddeck and Laury Rappaport, who are working with drawing and painting in the Focusing process, gave me further inspiration to integrate drawing in the ‘clearing a space’ because of the importance of symbolization in an visible way.
After preparation time, in which three colleagues followed the basic focusing course we started our project ‘clearing a space by drawing in the classroom’ in September 1994. Gradually more colleagues followed a basic course, both teachers and other colleagues, assistant-directors, a speech-therapist, a psychologist and one of the supporting staff. Altogether 22 persons. Some of them left our school and went on to other jobs, others got other positions in the school. At this moment 11 teachers are regularly working with the focusing program ‘clearing a space by drawing’ in their groups. All of them are busy integrating the focusing attitude with the children in their work.
Two years ago I had the opportunity to do a program on focusing with the whole staff with all disciplines represented during three sessions as part of the advancement of expertise.
The third session we trained how to talk with parents in a more focusing attitude.
In our school we work with children between the ages of 6 and 13. What I’m going to describe about ‘clearing a space in the classroom’ is meant for this age group. Our school is a primary school for children with learning and emotional problems, and mentally retarded children, where I am a child-psychotherapist for only 8 hours a week. Our experiences which I will describe in this article are with our children and this affects the development of our program.
We have a subject ‘social-emotional education’ in our school. Focusing has become part of this program, and we call it ‘heightening concentration’-program.
When Ann Weiser Cornell met my colleagues, she shared her expertise with them and gave them support, she called us pioneers. We can hardly believe that it is true because the participants in the project are convinced that teaching children to focus is the first thing we need to do to help them grow up and become competent adults.
I thank all the teachers who I proudly call my colleagues, because we are working together in the school and in our focusing program.
I am going to write down what we put together from the experiences of my colleagues. We developed and wrote down this program so that colleagues, new to this program, can use it in the classroom. We have regular intervision meetings of all the participants to exchange experiences, questions and problems in the classroom.
The goal of this article is:
- teachers all over the world, who followed a basic focusing training, use this as a guide to work with in their groups
- focus-trainers, who are involved in or have experience with working with children, bring this program to the teachers
- school management gets insight in the significance of focusing in the school, so they can introduce and support this program
I’m much aware that there is a different climate in every classroom. That is true for our school, but still more across the world. So this is no more than a guideline from one Dutch school for special education, hoping you will make your own program.
This is not the final word about such a focusing program in the school. I would very much appreciate getting to get a lot of reactions from you who are reading this, who want to add something and want to make comments to help make this program even more easy to use.
Let us however never forget that most children easily focus, even without such a program!
At first I will describe our program. I have written the examples in italics, and comments and reflections in small letters. The pictures are reduced versions of the originals with translated text between brackets
The description is a guide how to start the program in the classroom with solutions for all beginners problems. It may be clear that after some time teachers and children get used to parts of the process recurring.
After the description of the program I will write about some effects and problems focusing brings into the school and how we deal with the parents.
Children learn to make a connection with their inner bodily awareness.
Children learn that they can involve their bodily felt sense in their life.
Children learn that this bodily feeling has truth and meaning in itself.
Children learn how to relate to and deal with their problems.
Children learn they don’t have to deny their problems and trouble, and they don’t have to drown in their problems.
Peter is unusually quiet and withdrawn during the morning. He cannot concentrate on his work. The teacher asks him to draw what is distracting him this morning. He draws his home and the neighbors home. When he starts crying the teacher is with him, asking him if he wants to tell her something about the picture. “My neighbor will be buried today. He was my good friend. We went fishing together. He died all of a sudden”. His tears are diminishing. The group is asking the attention of the teacher. So she asks him to finish his drawing with what came now, when he likes to do so. After some time he starts his schoolwork again and can work in a concentrated way during the rest of the day.
Children learn that they may feel their sad, angry, scary feelings, and that it is helpful to do so.
Children learn to clear inside space by putting their bodily sense of a problem outside by drawing or painting the problem or the bodily felt sense of it.
Leonard (10): It feels like a fire in my belly. I don’t know what it is. It is red and some blue.
Children learn to know who they are.
(translation text with picture: “I am drunk and an alcoholic”)
Susan (9): Now I have put everything outside by drawing all my problems I’m Susan
again. My drunken father is there on my paper and not inside anymore. Now I’m as normal
as the other children are.
Her self-image can change by putting this heavy issue outside by symbolization.s
Children learn to trust their inner place that knows their truth and what is right.
Children learn that they themselves can have control about their feelings in their own situation.
Children learn to concentrate better on what they are doing.
Children learn to ask for help.
Teacher: Mary (8) stays on the sideline against the wall, while the other children are skipping. Spontaneously she tells me: ”I’m feeling creepy itches in my belly....it is like a spider.... who doesn’t want me to jump....but I do want it....could you help me how I can jump”.
Before this she was too anxious to consider the possibility of help
Children also learn to listen to other children in an empathic way.
Children learn to accept each other more.
For the teacher
In the beginning this project is not easy, especially when you expect that everything will immediately succeed the way you have in mind and when you immediately expect direct results.
The children are looking for their own way in this process because most of the time it is quite new. Some children can’t find quietness in themselves in the beginning. They are asking how they have to do it all the time, because that is what they are used to.
You can only go step by step. Take your time. This process requires your patience and each time your focusing attention on yourself.
Take this manual as possibilities and proposals. Most children can do focusing easily. To do focusing in a group is more difficult because of all the possible distractions. Focusing asks for a special climate that is different from what they are used to in the classroom.
The classroom is a very task-oriented place, however, last years more time is available for creativity and personal development. Still, most of the time, the atmosphere is: The teacher determines nearly everything what is going to happen, especially the child’s’ behavior. Discipline is coming more from outside than from inside the child. Generally the teacher is more for the child than with the child.
The first and most important lesson we need to learn is to stay with the child.
You know the children in your group. Take your time to find your own unique way together with them.
Basic attitude of the teacher
How would it be to start with a nice ‘hallo’ to yourself, creating an accepting and friendly climate inside yourself for everything that may come.
Your own focusing is the basic attitude in your work with children.
Being in contact with your own Felt Sense helps you to do what feels right for you and for the child. Your Felt Sense will help you to find a new communication with the child.
Your real Felt Sense listening and your reflecting helps the child to find his/her own solutions.
You will discover for example that shouting and giving severe monologues to the child are no longer needed: A teacher told me that she had been warned for a new 6 year old boy Benny, coming into her
group. It was said that he was a very angry and even dangerous child. After one morning she was nearly desperate, because he had disturbed the group the whole morning by shouting and unadjusted behavior. At the playground he had threatened other children with a sharp knife. “Help me, Marta, what can I do, isn’t it too complicated for a focusing attitude? I could only be strict to him, reminding him of the rules in this classroom, but I could not get a grip on him”.
I asked: ”You must have had a terrible morning. Can we feel with our empathic Felt Sense listening what we could suppose that is going on inside his small body”. She said: “he must be very angry, maybe like a black color inside. It must be terrible for him to come in a group where all the children know each other. Maybe he is feeling himself very lonely, but I told him to play with the other children and I spent a lot of time with him, didn’t I”.
I asked: “how would it be if we mirrored what he is feeling. You remember the beautiful sentence ’there is something inside you that....’. How about using this repeatedly”. The next day she told me: ”It is not yet easy going with him, but he is more quiet than the first days and listening to me
Feeling the tension of the difficult behavior of a child ourselves, it is often difficult to take a step back and reflect on what is going on in ourselves coming from our own Felt Sense.
Feel each time if your relationship is helping the child to grow.
A climate in which the children can grow is also the right climate to do their schoolwork because of the safety. Then they can learn that they themselves have their true wisdom inside.
You respectfully acknowledge the inner knowing what is right and the wisdom of the child’s’ body about something.
Environment for the child
You do something special to define this time of ‘clearing a space’. You can write it down on the blackboard in advance so children know that this special time is coming, for example ‘me’ or ‘my bucket’ or ‘concentration’.
A teacher for the young children (6-7 years old) told it like this: “What does this ‘me’ with the little circle around it on the blackboard mean? Today we will work on ourselves. We will really be inside ourselves and I’m going to teach you this. And the circle around ’me’ means also that you are only with yourself, not talking with each other or disturbing someone else.
Guiding a process means first of all creating a safe and free environment for everybody
You let the children put their tables and chairs separate to get the feeling they have space for themselves. And the children can disturb each other less. You can give children who are going to move a lot a special place in the back of the classroom, so they can move without disturbing other children.
You can give a quickly distracted child a separate place in a corner in consultation with the child. Restless children can for example be given a soft cloth or a small ball to hold in their hand.
A teacher told me that it caused a problem when she gave one child a little piece of cloth, because several children asked for a cloth and she was not prepared for that.
Building up the program
We discovered that going slowly is the best way to get children used to focusing. So we developed the next step by step process. Each time you introduce a new step you can repeat some experiences of the former step to build up the whole process.
- Sensory discovery of the body
- Bringing awareness inside in the body
- Discovering the Felt Sense
- Discovering the Felt Sense and drawing it
- Felt Sense of good experiences and drawing it
- Drawing from the Felt Sense all problems you have
- ‘Clearing a space’, the whole process
For each step you take as much time as your children need, not hurrying, pushing, expecting too much. When the children can easily do one step you can go to the next.
Instructions the teacher can give to the children
Sensory discovery of your body
To get children used to sensing inside their body we are using some movements and exercises.
At first this is a preparation phase in its own right. Later on you can use some of these instructions to bring awareness into the body.
Here are some examples. Use your imagination to do more different things. The children will enjoy it very much.
- trample with your feet, and then touch your heart to feel how it is beating
- pull your shoulders up as high as you can towards your cheeks
- clench your fists and feel what is happening in your body
- clench your teeth.... what do you feel?
- watch your breath and feel with your hand on your belly how it moves up an down
- feel the difference between breathing in and breathing out
Teacher: some of you like to breathe very strongly. Feel how high your belly is going in that case. Now breathe softly and deep and feel what is happening now.
- how is it inside your body when you are going very high on your swing
- what is happening inside when you imagine biting in a piece of lemon / something very sweet? (depending on your local favorite delicacy for children)
This sensory training brought a boy (11) more sensory awareness, so his teacher could easily refer to it.
Marc has cramped fingers, arm and shoulder when he is holding his pencil. His teacher in individual interaction:
Teacher: how does it feel in your shoulder
Marc: it is like iron and now it becomes softer!
Because the boy learned to go with his awareness through his body he could let go his tension.
Another girl looked at her teacher with a very confused expression when the teacher asked if she was aware that she was permanently pulling her shoulders up high. She had never attended a class in which this sensory training with ‘clearing a space’ takes place.
Bringing awareness inside in the body
The teacher can give the next instructions:
- feel your feet on the ground
- feel that your body sits on the chair and leans against the back of the chair
feel with your eyes closed how your breath is going in and out
- make it very quiet inside and if you like it, close your eyes
Children often focus with their eyes open. Never insist on them closing their eyes.
Now you ask the children to say to themselves inside: ‘Hello, dear child’.
In this way children get more respect for themselves and they create a warm climate inside.
Discovering the Felt Sense about something
Say with each instruction to be patient with what comes up in their body and how it feels.
Emphasize that taking your time is very important, because such a feeling can be very soft and vague in the beginning.
Tell them that those bodily felt feelings can have important stories to tell. Because the Felt Sense is always about something.
- stand like a tree, a rose, a dwarf, a giant
- imagine something hard / something soft / your dearest pet-animal / a very dear person
Discovering the Felt Sense and drawing it
This time you ask them to put paper, colored pencils and crayons on their table.
Tell them today it is not drawing time as usual, even though paper and pencils are on their table. It is important to tell them that they don’t have to make beautiful drawings today and that they don’t need an eraser.
Teacher: because you will know what is meant by your drawing.
They can also use the other side of their paper or take a new sheet.
The new step here is that they are going to draw their experience, situation or event, and to let them ask inside what the color is that goes with this experience, and what kind of movement their hand wants to make on their paper.
Imagine yourself on the beach
playing with your friend
listening to your favorite music
lying in your bed
After each question you can ask if they are aware that paying attention to the good feelings makes them bigger and gives a good feeling.
Be aware with these questions that there is chance that they will evoke a difficult feeling. For example because even their bed is not a safe place for every child, because of feelings of loneliness or nightmares. In that case you will give them individual attention.
When they have their eyes closed, don’t forget to tell them to open their eyes to draw.
Once I was very surprised that a new girl in therapy kept her eyes closed and didn’t start to draw anything, till a little voice came: “Marta, may I open my eyes, otherwise I can’t see my paper”. I didn’t tell her and as an obedient girl she was used to waiting for instructions.
The empathic Felt Sense-listener knows how it is to be immediately there with your “sorry, it is my fault”. And I would keep in mind to come back to this issue of dependency.
Introduction of the Felt Sense about good experiences and drawing it
The next step is to make the experiences more connected with their daily life.
Today we continue to learn, how you can do more than just think about nice matters. We already learned that we can feel all our experiences in our body.
You can feel nice things in your body, for example in your belly or your chest.
When you experience nice things in your life then there is something you can feel in your body about it.
Teacher: Who experienced something nice you went through.
Children: My mother’s birthday / the amusement park / playing with my friend.
Teacher: Now imagine how nice it was, and when you become more quiet you can feel that nice feeling somewhere in your body. Where do you feel that in your body....
The teacher immediately makes what she is saying into an experience for the children.
Teacher: Feel if it is easier with your eyes closed. Now let us get very quiet and listen inside and say to that feeling place: ”Hi, nice you are there”
When something comes, you take time to feel inside what picture, word or color goes with that. Just what comes up in you. Draw it on your paper so you can look at it to make the nice feeling lasting, staying with you. Drawing a nice feeling makes it still bigger.
You know it doesn’t have to be a beautiful drawing. Just how it comes from the inside is nice.
Sometimes only a color or different colors may come.
Isn’t that nice to put it on your paper?
Drawing all the problems from the Felt Sense
We have also difficult, nasty things, something bothering you, or what doesn’t feel good in your life. Your body is like a bucket where those things are stored. And you can feel that somewhere in your body. Feeling and acknowledging what is happening inside helps us a lot to solve our problems. I do this myself too and it helps me a lot to feel better.
Start with some sensory exercises.
Teacher: who sometimes has a sad, an angry feeling an anxious feeling in the morning when you come to school?
Children: o yes, I do
Teacher: where do you feel that?
Children pointing and explaining
Teacher: how does that feel inside your body?
Children: itching, heavy, pinching, can’t breath....
children can easily indicate these Felt Senses in their body
When you feel such a heavy or itching or pinching feeling in your body it is sometimes as if it will never again be nice in your life. Then it is difficult to listen to me and to concentrate on your work, isn’t it? Sometimes you try very hard not to feel that and not to let it come out. So you push that down in your body, for example by swallowing your tears so that you get a constricted throat, or by drawing your belly in. It comes all in your bucket. And then you get a hard or heavy or dull feeling inside in your body.
Teacher: Do you recognize that?By asking their reactions the teacher keeps the children company, being with them instead of for them.
We are going to pay attention inside to those heavy, difficult feelings and you know what? Then they are slowly going to disappear.
Sometimes you already know which problem or situation that itching, or heavy or dull feeling is about. Other times you just have that feeling and you don’t know what it is about. Then you can wait and listen inside your body till something comes what it is about, because such a feeling in your body has a story to tell and your body slowly discovers: ‘it is about that’.
It is amazing that those feelings and messages like to come softly around the corner when we are very quiet and friendly with them, no matter what comes. You can say a nice ‘hello’ to them as you can say to yourself or to a nice friend.
And then you can draw this problem or situation. You know that it doesn’t need to be a beautiful drawing. Just how your hand wants to express this. Sometimes the feeling only brings some colored stripes, circles or scratches.
When you draw your nasty, heavy, difficult problems and feelings you will discover that they will disappear out of your body. And it gives us the opportunity to look at them.
(“I”, “lonely”, “wham”, “bullying”)
You can feel empty, cheerful and more quiet again, and you can breathe better. You will discover that it is all right to feel those nasty feelings about problems.
‘Clearing a space’, the whole process
Help them to bring awareness into their body.
Ask them to say inside themselves: ‘Hello, dear child!’.
Now you ask inside if there is something that doesn’t feel good....something that you experienced....today....yesterday....or long ago....that is still bothering you....you still feel that somewhere in your body....take your time to draw it....or there may come a word or a sentence that fit....you write that down....you open your eyes to do the drawing or writing....
After drawing you go back to that place in your body, where it was....does it somehow feel different now....?
More often we have more than one thing that is in our way....so take your time to go inside again.... maybe you close your eyes again....you let another something that feels bad inside your body come up .... sometimes it is just a bad feeling without knowing what it is about ....maybe this feeling has a color....let your hand move across your paper....
You can go inside another time to bring still more outside....and each time you will get more space inside....till you have drawn everything....
now you can feel your whole empty space.... now you can draw that....perhaps you’d like to do that on a new sheet....you still have 5 minutes to do so.... you can all use this time to finish your work...if you are not yet ready to put everything out, you know you will get a new opportunity....so you can promise inside you will come back.
Ending after ‘clearing a space’
The teacher is clear about the moment of ending the drawing.
After ending the drawing four or five children get the opportunity to tell something about their drawing. Not more children, because the whole group talking about it would take too much time. And the other children become distracted. Five children in a row, and every now and again the teacher asks each child if s/he wants to tell something. If not, s/he will get his/her turn the next time.
After the 5 children have talked about their drawing, the teacher asks if there are any children for whom it is urgent to say something about their drawing.
In this way a child, who worked on a difficult problem, will not feel left out.
It is important how the teacher formulates the questions.
Teacher told me: In the beginning I asked “can you tell me what you have drawn”, “what is on your paper” or “what did you draw”. Then they started to explain more technically what it was, and the feeling side did not come up. Now I ask: “what do you want to say about what you have drawn” or “can you say something about your drawing” or “would you like to say something about your drawing”, and that produces much more openness because the child itself knows what it wants to tell.
At this point in the process it can happen that the child starts crying again when s/he is talking about the drawing. The classmates are getting used to the crying now and listen with much empathy and support.
Teacher: it was very revealing for the children and me that the toughest boy (11) of the group started to cry. After this we al saw him through different eyes, and he was more accepted in the group.
In the beginning children often ask: “do you like my drawing”, or “is my picture beautiful”.
Teacher: I myself contributed to this behavior, because as teacher I am so used to praise the child. About every picture I said: “you did it very well”, or “what a beautiful drawing”, contradictory to what I told them that it doesn’t have to be a beautiful drawing. Through focusing myself I learn much more to listen to my own words, to what I’m saying. I become aware sooner when I’m not with the child and then I can change my attitude.
Especially this ending the program by listening to each other helps the children to listen to each other in an special atmosphere in a respectful, empathic way. It is striking that children accept everything that children have drawn or are telling, when we give them the opportunity.
A teacher: Rick (9) is a very quiet, withdrawn boy with a soft voice. During drawing he burst out and asked: “how do I write ‘godverdomme’”, a curse that is strictly forbidden in the school. When talking about his picture he repeated the word with a powerful voice. Otherwise all the children would have reacted with disapproval. Now we all accepted it, including me. We kept quiet, understanding the importance of what changed in him.
Special subjects and other forms of expression
(translation text with picture: “nightmare”)
When children are used to do the whole program you can sometimes do a special subject.
We discovered the following subjects:
- to you, what goes with going to a friends’ birthday-party
- to you, what goes with the night
- to you, what goes with having and not having friends
- to you, what goes with going to school
the subject ‘to you, what goes with your family’ seems for us to intrude too much in the private life of the family.
Symbolizing by drawing is a strong means to help to form feelings and to express them. It helps to make distance between the child and the bad experience or problem, or bad feeling. The possibility to look at that drawing liberates the child from the problems.
It is striking that accidents and death or anxiety about death of loved ones is a recurring theme in the drawings. These drawings are very precise most of the times.
And how would it be to do the ‘clearing a space’ on a special occasion with painting or physical expression with movement and dance?
Protecting the privacy of children and family
The teacher keeps all drawings till the end of the year. Nobody else outside of the classroom may have a look at the drawings. Sometimes the teacher asks the child if I may have a look at them to help the teacher or for me to learn from it.
When a child does not want anyone to look at the drawing it may fold it. We are very strict then at sticking to that agreement.
At the end of the school year the teacher will discuss with the children what each of them wants to do with his/her drawings: take them home or whether the teacher can keep them till they leave school.
Parents and educators
At the first ‘parents’-meeting’ when the children come into a new group, the teacher will explain about this program. Emphasis is on ‘program to heighten concentration and to solve concentration problems’. The teacher explains that it is a private experience for their child about which the child may talk, but need not talk.
Several times we discovered a problem through the drawings of the children which were more severe and for which ’clearing a space’ was not enough. In that case the teacher will make private time with the child. In the case where that is not enough, we made the next procedure, with agreement of the director:
When it appears to be important to also involve the parents in a problem, the teacher will first talk with the child and ask his/her agreement. This can take more than one talk with the child.
In a severe case the teacher can consult me and the director and as a result tell the child that we as the school take the responsibility of telling the parents. Sometimes it results in play therapy with me, including focusing, also coaching the parents. Or help from utside could be necessary.
Difficulties in carrying out the program
Children disturbing each other
What I described so far was how the program can work, but it does not always go that easily in the classroom. There are a lot of organizational problems to overcome. This could have to do with the children with emotional and behavioral problems in our school.
Disturbing each other is the biggest problem.
Teacher: before I start with our program I go to Richard to prepare him about what we are going to do, otherwise he is so nervous about something he is not yet used to, that he begins to disturb everyone. I give him a special place, which he chooses.
Our teachers give a lot of personal care to the children
Sometimes a child doesn’t want to cooperate and is very negative about this nonsense
The best thing we found out to do is to ask the child just to sit and make a drawing for him/herself. However the child has no instruction what s/he has to draw, they are nevertheless very personal drawings. It appears that these children gradually - at their own speed - join in the program.
A difficult moment for the teacher came with the young ones (6-7 years old).
Teacher: The children showed their drawings and told about them. And Rosa did not stop shouting with every drawing: “not good, not beautiful, very ugly”. It was so disturbing and nothing worked out to get her quiet without spending a lot of time with her, and I wanted to stay with the other children. Finally, I put her aside. I felt irritated. I stayed with a bad feeling about it.
She promised herself to focus on it in the hope to get more space to be with Rosa.
In the beginning it is very difficult to get a free, respectful climate so the children do not disturb each other. Maintaining the usual rules of the school is very important here and for teachers and children it is a change to go from: ‘I know what good is for you and you will do what and how I want you to do it’ towards ‘I trust you in who you are and together we are going to discover what your way is to do the best thing you can do with respect for yourself and for others’.
It appears that the longer the teacher works with the program, and the longer the children get experience with ‘clearing a space’ to heighten their self-respect, the better and easier it will work. So children will get a climate to grow in their own direction, to unfold their own possibilities.
The young ones
Until six months ago we only worked with children above the age of 8. We now have 3 enthusiastic teachers of the young ones in our group. It appears that the language we use is not always appropriate for the children of 6 and 7, there are also mentally retarded children in the group. We are trying to adjust to their age and possibilities, finding new words and sentences and even an experiment with pictures to look for what will be appropriate for young ones.
I guess that my English is still more at a language level of adults. I hope you will translate this to the level of your children.
When several children start to cry at the same time
Sometimes a lot can happen in the classroom during ‘clearing a space’ when more children are getting in touch with sad feelings, difficult problems in their lives at the same time. Once a teacher had 5 children in tears and she did not want to leave them alone, but she could not be at 5 places at the same time.
She put a crying child together with a friend, who was able and ready to listen to him. So they could share his tears and maybe the story that went with that.
The only thing the teacher asked: “can you just listen to him in a friendly way?”
So at that moment she found a way to combine the ‘clearing a space’ with teaching children how to listen to each other. We will make a program about listening to each other in a reflective way.
Children learn how valuable it is to help each other.
Lack of time
The complaint is often that the teachers have too little time. In our school there are a lot of extra programs. The teaching program is so full already with so many tasks and duties that the teachers have difficulty in finding the this half an hour to carry out the ‘clearing a space’ program.
We are lucky the focusing attitude and small focusing interventions don’t take extra time.
Effects in the school
Effects for teachers and school management
Teachers have a personal gain by focusing for themselves. The teachers can keep more distance to their work using ‘clearing a space’ themselves, and that saves energy during the day as I wrote down in the first experience. A teacher told me:
Previously I could not get asleep, my head was filled with worries and problems with children and parents. Now I am able to connect with it.. I put it aside and so I can sleep.
The colleagues who are joining this program form an added dimension to the school. They are more involved with each other in a real listening way. They feel more connected and are getting more real support from each other, speaking the same ‘language’ more.
They are more aware of their relationship with the children, not only telling what and how they need to learn and in what way they must behave, but being more in contact with what is going on inside the child, being more with the child than for the child.
One colleague distanced herself and doesn’t want to be involved in the focusing program anymore. She is afraid focusing is taking the involvement in the child too far, and that it will be dangerous for the child when it comes in touch with emotions. She is afraid of taking on the position of the psychotherapist. She can’t take the responsibility for that towards the parents. And we respect that.
Some colleagues fear that with the focusing attitude there will be no discipline in the school anymore, and that there will be more exaggerated behavior among the children, as if the teachers must give up the rules of the school, which are grounded in order and safety.
We hope that it will become clear that for focusing you never give up things that are good. You can add focusing to any other method or approach and then it will give more space and calmness to the children and the teachers.
Teacher: Lately I’ve taken a new step. After playtime children often come into the classroom being very loud and boisterous. Previously it was difficult to get them quiet, only raising my voice seemed to work. Now I go and sit down on my chair, and pay no my attention to them, but I focus inwards by feeling my body in contact with the chair, my feet on the ground and I focus my awareness on my breathing. I ask the children to do the same and give some instructions.
In a short time everybody can go to work quietly.
During the development of this program it was the teacher’s choice to be involved in the program of focusing. Inherent to focusing it can only happen on a voluntary base.
The problem we have now is that not all teachers are part of the program, so that children can do ‘clearing a space’ one year, and not the next year. Some children don’t worry about it, others do. One child, being angry in the classroom, said to his teacher:
Last year I could make a drawing when I was angry. The teacher said: “you know how to do that so go on”, and gave him the opportunity.
One teacher, not yet involved in focusing found a new solution. She asked her colleague next-door if a boy with obvious problems and very disturbing behavior might join her group for ‘clearing a space’.
The next step for us is to deliberate with each other and on school management level how to handle this gap.
Effects for the children
Most of the children who are now used to the ‘clearing a space’ easily show that they enjoy it very much, whatever difficult things can happen. They already prepare themselves before the teacher starts.
When a child comes with a problem during the day, the other children will advise him/her to draw it.
The program ‘clearing a space’ doesn’t only have an influence by itself. Teachers are going to learn that the focusing attitude is fundamental to daily interaction with the children. It is slowly becoming a little bit more usual to ask an angry child:
where do you feel the anger and how does it feel there
With this short sentence children are going to take more responsibility for their own behavior and emotions. By being in touch with their own experiences they don’t have to point at the other child and make accusations about what s/he has done to them.
In our school teachers take time to have individual talks with children who have difficulties.
Beforehand teachers complained that it would take still more time to approach children in the focusing way, especially in the one on one situation. Teachers are discovering that they are now more effective when they spend time with a child and that it saves time and energy. They can enjoy seeing their children grow.
Teacher: Roy(10) is an anxious child with bad concentration. In the group he could not express himself during ‘clearing a space’. He was withdrawn after that. The teacher made time for him. He told the teacher about his scary dreams. Again and again a creepy ‘spirit’ came in his dreams. Now he could draw it and the teacher asked him if he wanted to say something to the spirit. Roy said: ‘go away’. After repeatingonce this short session the creepy spirit was gone.
Anxiety for the swimming lesson is a returning difficulty in the school. Previously the teacher would persuade the child and say “I know you can do it”.
Now one teacher gives Barbara (7) a piece of paper to draw her anxiety one hour before they leave the classroom for the swimming pool. Unexpectedly there is a lot of progress in her swimming.
Another teacher is with a child that doesn’t dare to jump into the water.
Teacher: where do you feel that?
Sandra: in my throat, I can’t breathe.
Teacher: could you say ‘hello’ to the feeling in your throat?
After a short time she jumped into the water.
In describing this program I have given you guidelines which we have gradually put together.
I could write this manual based on our experiences. In practice there still is a gap between what I have described and the practical application, whil the school is a complex organization.
In view of the nature of focusing you can’t impose such a program on a school on every teacher. It should be practically impossible and it is contradictory to the focusing attitude.
When you are going to start focusing in your school, stay in close contact with your school management.
Teachers have a huge task in pedagogical / didactic respect, and they have always their responsibility for the whole group. Focusing can contribute to relieve their heavy task. They need regular guiding, coaching, intervision and the possibilities of consulting about their focusing work.
You have read a manual how you can handle ‘clearing a space’ in the classroom. At least a basic course in focusing is necessary.
The examples I gave are often the moments that something happened in a growing, forward way. Maybe it seems more positive than it is in reality. So don’t be disappointed when it doesn’t immediately have great results. You know that focusing is going step by step. Small movements, a small bodily felt shift and yet altogether it is so rewarding to see children grow in their own direction.
‘Clearing a space’ helps the children to get their own way to stay in the world.
(translation text with picture: on forehead: “nothing” and “no more problems”
During my 8 hours of work I can only see 7 children each week, and make regular visits to the parents. I am aware of how many children in the school need special care and attention in a focusing way. We are aware that focusing is not therapy, and has forward going direction in the personality-development of the child. The teachers can reach them with focusing!
I’m very grateful to all my colleagues who went with me on this path that still continues.
I wish all children the benefit of it.
About the Author
Marta Stapert (born 1935) a Youth Social Worker since 1957. Since 1975 she has had a private practice. Since 1985 she is a Child psychotherapist and connected to a primary school for children with learning disabilities and social/emotional problems. Since 1986 she integrates Focusing in psychotherapy. She is connected to the University of Professional Education of Amsterdam. In 1993 she became a certified Focusing-trainer.
She gives Focusing courses and Focusing training. She developed a project ‘clearing a space in the classroom’ with her teacher-colleagues at her school. Since six months she has been giving courses ‘Children Focusing’.
She is married, her husband is a Senior-supervisor and -lecturer, and certified Focusing-trainer. They have 5 children (between 26 and 39 years old), and 3 grandchildren (4, 8 and 10 years old).
They both work in Hungary regularly with focusing and supervision.
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