For me the most important aspect of Waldorf education is its potential to heal and to make whole. As a truly holistic form of education, one which has a unique understanding of the journey each human being takes during his or her lifetime, Waldorf is able to penetrate the deepest levels of each child it touches and to offer the potential for each child to develop all aspects of her being. By understanding that each human being is at the same time a unique individual but also is on a path shared by all of humanity, Waldorf has a profound ability to meet the deepest soul questions of each child. While many of those questions may remain unanswered, the power of a curriculum and a pedagogy which seeks to honor those questions has a profound healing effect on children.
In today's world we are surrounded by a seemingly limitless number of children characterized as having one - or more - of a range of challenges, from ADD/ADHD to autism-spectrum disorders, from a range of attachment disorders to obsessive compulsive problems and sensory integration issues. Who are these children and what are their questions? Are their questions the same as those of other children or do they seek other paths, ask new questions?
My own vast and varied experience working with "children with challenges" has kept me busy and intrigued for over 25 years. What is going on here? Is there a common thread that runs through these problems we are seeing or is it all a random mish-mash of issues plaguing our children and their parents?
Over time I have come to a few tentative conclusions. The first is that many, many of the children who are diagnosed with disorders such as autism spectrum and, especially, ADD/ADHD as well as certain SI issues simply do not have organic problems. Rather, the symptom picture which many of these children are manifesting is directly due to the way they have been raised and/or educated. Harsh words if one thinks that by saying them I am blaming parents. I do not blame parents - not in terms of "here are ignorant people who have willfully done this to their children". Not at all. But what I do say categorically is that our societal understanding of what a child is and what her needs are are, for the most part, so far from the reality of a child's experience and needs that it is no wonder that so many children are manifesting such extraordinary difficulties. It is typical and acceptable in our society for 6 week old babies to go to institutional day care. It is typical and acceptable for pre-school children to go to all-day day care. It is typical and acceptable for pre-schoolers to spend all day in pre-school from 7 or 8 am until 4 or 5 in the evening - and sometimes later. It is typical and acceptable for children to have no routine at home; to be viewed as small but illogical adults who need to be reasoned with; to be allowed to watch videos and television and to play with hand held computer games at will.... to go to school where there is no recess (see Susan Ohanian What Happened to Recess and Why Our Childrenare Struggling in Kindergarten for more) and yet are expected to sit still at desks all day; it is typical and (almost) acceptable for children to be sent to school ill because parents cannot take off time from work to be at home with their children.... And on and on. Yes, parents make those choices - and their surroundings say those are the choices to make. It can be a bitter circle and of course, people can only do the best they can at any given time. But Waldorf presents an alternative - and part of my mission is to share this with you so you can, if you choose, make other choices.
So that's Conclusion Number One which I chew on. Conclusion Number Two is really more of an observation than a conclusion - what is the thread that connect these children? Is there something in common here? And what I see are problems with "I/Thou" issues. Who am I and who are you? Where do I begin and end and where do you begin and end?
And then a third conclusion I have reached is that Waldorf education is the brightest hope we have to help heal these children and their parents and to help them move into a more comfortable and peaceful life together. I have read more books and articles than I care to think of by more doctors, therapists and experts than I ever thought the world contained, and time and time again I think "yes, yes - this is good - this is right..." and then the writer goes on to suggest some sort of therapy or approach to the child which I know - which I know - is counter to the developmental needs of that child, regardless of whether he has one of these conditions or not. Then I shake my head sadly and relegate that book or article to the Helpful But Limited pile.
So for me, Waldorf shines brightly as a guide for so many people. But I don't necessarily mean Waldorf in terms of Waldorf schools. For many parents of children with challenges who cannot, for a variety of reasons, be accommodated in a Waldorf school, homeschooling is the saving grace. The homeschool environment with its emphasis on the home is, I would say, even more helpful to many children with challenges than even the best of Waldorf schools. The close, nurturing and peaceful home environment can bring more healing than a school situation - even in a Waldorf school - can ever bring for many, many children.
Let me take a minute here to make something clear before I continue - I am not saying that parents cause organic autism or similar organic conditions. By organic I mean conditions arising from whatever internal workings it is in the particular child which creates or leads to that problem. This is opposed to non organic conditions, those which arise from environmental or outside causes. Of course, one could argue for quite a while why one child manifests issues in one way and another child in another way.... but that would take us further than I want to go here. My point is that many, many children manifest symptoms which look like autism-spectrum or ADD/ADHD due to environmental causes - and that these also include, let me hasten to say, problems arising from vaccinations, food allergies and environmental toxins. I know I risk hurting the feelings of many parents who have carefully nurtured their children's senses and protected them wisely as little children but whose children still have autism or whatever. PLEASE - I am NOT talking about those situations! I am talking specifically about the children who manifest their problems in response to the crazy, stressful upbringings they have and who, critically, shed those symptoms once their environments change. Again - I cannot stress enough that I know there are also those children who - for lack of a better term - have had perfect Waldorf upbringings but still have autism or another condition. Absolutely - no argument there. But it is the ones who manifest symptoms in response to our out-of-control society that I am mainly speaking about. They are a different kettle of fish altogether.
So we have two groups of children here - the ones who organically DO have some sort of challenge and those who manifest a challenge but who can shed that challenge. These are two very different groups of children. But.... and here's the beauty of it all... both of these groups of children AND their parents can gain an enormous amount from brining the healing power of Waldorf education and parenting into their homes.
THAT is what is so exciting to me and THAT is what prompted me to make a free audio download on this topic. BECAUSE I HAVE SEEN IT!!! I HAVE EXPERIENCED THE UNBELIEVABLE JOY THAT HAS COME TO PARENTS WHO ARE WORN TO THE BONE FOR CARING FOR CHALLENGING CHILDREN AND WHO HAVE GOTTEN RELIEF AND INNER JOY FROM WORKING WITH WALDORF EDUCATION.
So I want to share this recording with you all. My hope is that people will find it useful and that they will send it to other people, friends and relatives who have a challenging child in their life and who could be helped as well. I know this sounds terribly proselytizing, but I honestly believe that Waldorf is the soundest way to nurture children and to support them throughout their childhoods so that they can be avoid or heal many of the problems that plague vast numbers of children today.
Once you have seen a 3 year old contentedly playing with just a pot and a wooden spoon, you know how peaceful a young child can be. Once you have been to a household where the children sit quietly at the dinner table, contributing to the conversation but also mainly listening to what is going on around them, you know how peaceful family life can be. Once you ride in a car with a family where the children amuse themselves by talking to their dollies or sing with the family during the journey, you realize that children can be pleasant to be with. The images on television and the movies do not have to be true. The scenarios in woman's magazines, the shrug of the shoulders from the doctor as she reaches to prescribe Ritalin is not the only way. There would be no call for Nanny 911 programs on television if people knew what children are and if our society honored their needs. The goal posts for what is normal and acceptable would be moved and thus the diagnostic pictures which fill the medical books used by doctors and therapists would shrink way down to include only those children who truly do have problems which need medical intervention. And that would be a fraction of what we see today.
And of course Waldorf is not the be all, end all - there are many, many other paths to wellness and healing. But..... there is no other way that I have found of understanding and nurturing the child as a whole - as a spiritual, physical, emotional, intellectual being - that is as profoundly healing as Waldorf. There is no other understanding of child development which is as holistic and therefore as healing as Waldorf - and that is what makes it so powerful.
So have a listen to my talk and see what you think. And if it resonates with you and makes sense, then I invite you to join us... on my discussion forum, in other Waldorf lists and yahoo groups... in Waldorf schools and in Waldorf homeschooling groups... working together with other people determined to understand and nurture their children in the way that children need.