The Vault

Getting In Touch With the Child

By Ronald Colyer

 

When you look at the writings of the great educators of young children—Montessori, Suzuki, Steiner, for example—you notice a common tendency to speak in terms of spirituality and intuition, and to draw constantly on themes of universal and philosophical import. The 'scientific' approach, in the limited sense which we often use nowadays, is not often a prominent part of what they have to say, or the way that they say it. In the popular search for the ultimate instructions on 'what to do' about our lives and problems, we lose patience with such writings. They lack that fashionable combination of jargon and pragmatic description which renders them scientifically acceptable, and provides easy step-by-step recipes to remove the inconvenience of creativity from living.

There used to be a book, used commonly in primary schools in England, called Man Must Measure. The title highlights a particular compulsion of contemporary society which is by no means always useful to us—a habitual reaction, you might say, where we should do well to stop, and consider whether it will really constitute a useful 'means-whereby.' This is nowhere so apparent as in the raising and educating of children, where the activities of the 'measures' so often obscure the issues.

To take one example: in a famous experiment involving model mountains and a doll, Jean Piaget seemed to prove that children under the age of 6 or 7 are unable to 'decentre,' that is, to take account of someone else's point of view. Subsequent experimenters reproduced the test and confirmed Piaget's results. However, in the seventies, a version of this test was developed, with a few crucial differences:

1. Great care was taken to ensure that the child understood what she was asked to do;
2. The test itself related closely to the child's experience and interests; and
3. The new test actually demanded consideration of two other points of view.

Thirty children, aged 3-5, were given the task, and 90% of responses were correct. The ten youngest, with average age 3 years 9 months, achieved an 80% success rate. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Piaget's subjects did not understand what they were being asked to do.1

As a parent and teacher I don't find that this tells me anything new about children. As Michel Odent remarked cynically, "Modern science is moving ahead so fast now that it can even explain, in a variety of ways, that a newborn baby needs its mother."2 It does tell us rather more about the experimenters themselves, and it does seem to indicate that unless you are prepared to explore, and trust, the area of reciprocal communication with children, which will mean using intuition, and perhaps inhibiting the impulse to measure , you may miss the truth, and do injustice to the children in the process.

In my early days of teaching I was lucky enough to find a few fine and experienced teachers who were open enough to allow colleagues to observe them at work.3 One of them gave me some simple but far reaching advice. "You can't blame a child," she said, "for what she doesn't know." You can blame children in many ways. One way is to give them tests which they do not understand, and say that the results indicate what the children can't do.

The way in which the impulse to measure and test has influenced and, in my view, obstructed educational progress is an example of adult needs and preconceptions superseding the interests of children. I feel that in considering how best to bring our Alexander work into the world of the child we must be wary of such tendencies, and do our best to discern whether we are swayed by our own preconceptions. By way of example, I should like to mention some of the preconceptions I, for one, have tussled with.

For some time after I qualified I was reluctant to use my hands on children, although I had every chance to do so in my violin teaching. I felt that a child's delicate mechanisms would be ill served by hands which had been stiffened and narrowed by years of playing the violin. At least my adult pupils would perhaps be a bit worse than I, and so I couldn't do much harm to them! Laudable reservations, I am sure you will agree, but that isn't the point. Behind them lurks a limiting preconception—that 'proper' Alexander work had to be putting my hands on according to the procedures which I knew to work well with the grown-ups. As Marjorie Barlow has said (looking at her hands), "This terrible skill one gets is a drawback." The obsession with the mechanisms and the equipment can prevent us, as it prevents the educational experimenters, from seeing the things that matter most to children: communication, relationships, trust, love, the preservation of their own integrity, the right not to be invaded, imagination, and play. This is why the questions of a wide ranging nature which characteristically occupy those who are truly in touch with children (such as, for example, Grethe Laub in a paper also presented in this book) are so important, and cannot be bypassed in pursuit of this burning question we all have about 'what you actually do.' It is a question which so often misses the wood for the trees. My favourite illustration is something I often get asked— "Do you put hands on your own children?" To which I usually reply, "Yes... I cuddle them—every day!"

The experience of the birth of my own children had a profound effect on my approach to teaching children. I should like to recommend the study of Leboyer's book Birth Without Violence,4 or Michel Odent's Birth Reborn.5 Examine the pictures of a newborn baby thrust into the noise and glare of 'technological' birth, and contrast the fear and anguish in his face with the expression of a child born without 'violence.' Are the eyes of this latter babe, a few minutes old, those of a creature in some limbo of unknowing? People often say, "Oh, when they are six months old and they can communicate, it's so much more rewarding." Needs and preconceptions again.

Can we really believe that the tiny being at the breast, gazing into her mother's eyes, is not communicating, and that the mother cannot reciprocate? The eyes of small children are like pools of truth. Like the mirror on the wall they are hard to look into sometimes, but creating the opportunity to do so could be a wonderful way of learning about children and ourselves. It is at any rate a good way of losing the obsession to measure, test and judge.

It would be nice if at this point I could produce a child and give a demonstration, except that it would be grossly unfair to the child, and with these numbers it wouldn't work anyway, so perhaps I could convey something of the flavour of it by telling the 'story' of a lesson I gave recently.

I was asked to see a girl of seven, a very promising little musician whose ability shone through the results of the very poor teaching she had suffered. The violin was, to begin with, much too big and heavy for her age and size, and put her at a severe mechanical disadvantage, not least by forcing her to put her neck forward and down. In addition her teacher had prescribed repetitive mechanical exercises which she could not possibly perform well —but may well have been pushed to do so by an ambitious parent. She had actually managed, at the age of seven, to trap a cervical nerve. This had caused severe pain in her left arm, although when I saw her the symptoms had been relieved by osteopathic treatment. She was, of course, left with the old way of playing this cumbersome instrument.

I first found an instrument of a more appropriate size. Then I knelt down6 to talk to her, about brothers and sisters, pets, ballet, school, etc. Then I said "Do you mind if we try something a bit different with your playing which might help you?" She agreed, and I began by suggesting that "...when you get busy with your arms and fingers it is really important to be properly 'planted' in the ground, otherwise you become like a wobbly windmill which will eventually get damaged when the sails turn." I showed her that if she tried to stand very straight and firm in the stiffening way, I could easily unbalance her with a gentle push, and that if, on the other hand she did not try to do anything, but just thought about her tummy, her balance was less easily disturbed. This tickled her fancy, and we did it again for fun. Then I asked her to think of the sunlight on the crown of her head, saying, "There's the sun shining on your leaves," and touching her head briefly to draw her attention. "Then your roots are reaching down from here (touching her tummy lightly and briefly) down to the ground. Now let me cradle the violin in your branches, while you go on letting the sun shine and the roots reach down..." and so on, trying to combine inhibition and direction, fun and imagination in a simple way until she was playing a few notes. Because the thinking is so easy for children she was soon lengthening and widening nicely, and afterwards told her mother, "It was as if the violin wasn't there."

The point is not that this is a great success story. It simply illustrates the basic principle of first communicating at the child's level, and then allowing the rest to arise out of that.7 How it arises is difficult to quantify, but if you have this pair of clear, bright eyes looking at you, and don't you worry, and you let that wonderful smile of a child stimulate your own lengthening, the rest follows. You don't necessarily need to use your hands because the thinking and communicating can be enough. Of course when you get to know the child better you can, and if there is trust and joy, it will work.

I think you have to do a lot of application work if it's going to have a real effect on their lives. "Experience convinced me that children who came for the ordinary half hour lesson ... without being watched from the point of view of carrying on the work in their daily activities, were not getting a fair chance..."8 On the other hand, young people can readily understand that, fundamentally, "...it's all there in the thinking." I once asked a fifteen year old what she had got out of her year of lessons so far. I suppose I expected her to mention her stronger back or freer hips. She had dramatically improved her running, which had been an embarrassment to her at school, and this had 'sold' her on the Technique in the first few months. What she actually said was, "Well, it makes it easier when things are difficult—like exams, or concert nerves." I remarked that some people found it most difficult to apply the Technique, when things are difficult, but she said, "Oh no, because it's such a natural way of thinking."

I don't make a habit of fishing for feedback, and with teenagers it is sometimes difficult to know how you are getting through. So often however, something will emerge if you wait. Another fifteen year old had had about a dozen lessons, and I really could not figure out what she thought of it all. She was shy and nervous, and a bit withdrawn, and I decided to say nothing and wait. One day as I went to open the door at the end of the lesson I sensed that she was hesitating, and stopped. Suddenly she blurted out, "I feel so happy after my lesson!" That was all the reassurance one could want. Later her mother said that her tendency towards 'black' moods at home had substantially receded.

Over and again in my Alexander teaching training it was emphasised that what you do to the pupil is secondary to how you are yourself. Nowhere is this more important than in teaching children. Your own inhibition and direction counts for more than anything else. You don't have to invade their world with strategies and procedures. Children love to do what they can do. They love the present moment, they are into sensations, movement, fun and relationships. Perhaps when we ask "How can we give them the Alexander Technique?" we are, like Piaget in the mountains test, putting the wrong sort of question. Perhaps we should ask, "Where is the Technique in what they already do, in what they are, and how can we preserve and nurture it?"

"If we are not willing to try, and keep on trying, in the light of knowledge attained, to help our children meet the demands which we impose on them, then we must not call them stupid. We must rather call ourselves indifferent or afraid."9

FOOTNOTES

1. A fascinating account of these experiments appears in: Donaldson, Margaret, Children's Minds, Fontana, (1978)
2. Odent, Michel, Primal Health, Century Hutchinson, (1986)
3. I would recommend anyone thinking of working with children to find a Montessori school or a good Suzuki programme, and try to arrange to observe the teachers who have the most rapport with the children.
4. Leboyer, F., Pour une Naissance Sans Violence, Paris, (1974) (available in translation).
5. Odent, Michel, Birth Reborn, New York, (1984)
6. If you approach a friend who is seated, one of you will do something so that you can chat at eye level. You can't really communicate with a five year old if you are towering above him, however good your monkey. Why not get down on the floor with him?
7. Marjorie Barlow relates that "...the first thing FM did with children was to make friends with them."
8. Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, appendix, London, (1932)
9. Donaldson, Margaret, op. cit.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Ron Colyer started professional life as a musician, was a member of the Philharmonia Orchestra of London and later of the B.B.C. Symphony Orchestra. While on tour in Japan, he met Shiniki Suzuki, investigated his work and began a long association with Suzuki teaching in Britain. Ron gave up orchestral work to train with Walter and Dilys Carrington and has since continued musical work with children aged 3 to 18 alongside his Alexander teaching practice.

 

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