What is anthroposophical curative education?

Rudolf Steiner, the founder of anthroposophy, initiated anthroposophical curative education in 1924. Curative teachers today work in a variety of specialist settings including curative education schools and homes, life communities, psychiatric hospitals, special needs kindergartens, early intervention and educational guidance centres, or, with adults, in social therapy centres.

Methodology

Anthroposophical curative education uses methods based on the intensive observation of phenomena: ‘disabilities’, ‘conspicuous characteristics’, ‘disorders’. Anything that does not appear 'normal' at first sight means that specific tendencies have grown dominant and often also out of balance in body, soul and spirit or at the social level. A 'hyperactive' child moves excessively outwardly, while there is little inner movement in terms of attention and listening (which, even at an anatomical level, rely on continuous internalization and concentration). Compulsive behaviours are another example. Independently of possible psychic origins or the connection with characteristic neurobiological processes, compulsion can be seen as a one-sided memory process that manifests right down into the physical body, while the process of forgetting is neglected. The human organization involves a great number of polarities, processes and layers that curative education strives to explain and differentiate based on the anthroposophical understanding of the human being. For an overall healthy development, these processes must be brought into balance again and again. The phenomenological approach does not replace medical and psychological diagnosis, it extends the diagnosis to a level where the expressions of the disabled person are not merely classified, but are perceived as phenomena by the experienced observer.

Learning

It is for this reason that the arts play such an important part in curative education and therapy. Artistic activity lives in the formation of pure elements such as colour, form or sound. These elements offer their own polarities, such as high and low, short and long notes, or major or minor moods in music. Every musical rhythm or melody unites these opposites in a different way, while each sound or rhythm speaks its own language. The same is true for the other arts and also for the basic forms of craftwork. Educational and artistic methods respond to one-sided developments because their language is similar. Musical rhythm, for instance, represents a body-bound movement that is more outward directed, while melody can be experienced as a more inward, more conscious movement. The ability to forget appears as a “sinking down” or “fading away” of the contents of consciousness.

Children or adults with disabilities or conspicuous behaviours can be supported in finding a connection to the polarity that is less developed in them. At the same time they can be encouraged to further develop and transform the potential that is present in any kind of one-sidedness. The attempt to bring about healing therefore means to stimulate the process of integration inwardly as well as outwardly.

The role of the teacher and educator

In their encounter with the children or adults in their care, teachers and therapists start from their own individuality. This individuality with its special possibilities and limitations is their instrument. Between the personality of the teacher or therapist and that of the child or adult a resonance arises that can form the foundation of the educational or therapeutic process. Teachers and therapists must have a degree of self-knowledge and be prepared to continue to work on their own development. Anthroposophical curative education is therefore above all a path of gaining insight and of applying pedagogical and therapeutic expertise. Rudolf Steiner provided a number of exercises for the inner development of teachers and therapists. The developmental path is highly individual rather than institutional, although the institutions need to make the individual development possible. In summary, anthroposophical curative education relies on the following elements:

  • the perception of children’s self-expression; classical diagnosis
  • the phenomenological study of the human being
  • understanding ‘the language of the phenomena’ that speak out of a person’s self-expression and individual characteristics
  • curative teachers who seek self-knowledge through inner development

Disabilities can be seen as the impaired “capacity to receive impressions” (as with sensory impairments) but, above all, also as an impairment of the capacity to express oneself. A perceiving of the phenomena can enable the curative teacher to experience them as the expression or language of a person’s deeper self. This self with all its conspicuous characteristics was initially inconspicuous and concealed and it now emerges with all its unvoiced questions, wishes and developmental needs.

Personal development and social context

Curative education shares its principles with other pedagogical and psychological approaches that equally take their orientation from the individuality of the child or adult. Over and above that, curative education sees the human being as part of a wider development that started before birth and will continue after death. During earthly life, we seek to develop and be active in ways that are only possible on earth. Our physical body, temperament and intelligence, as well as our social environment, constitute a vessel or ‘garment’ for this earthly development. To understand this we need a higher standpoint from which the individual biography can be seen as a work of art or educational process. After birth the individuality gradually connects with its physical foundations and with its environment. Anthroposophical curative education sees it as its task to accompany and support this process.

It needs to be pointed out that this approach is fully compatible with the findings of science, medicine and psychology and able to accommodate a variety of therapeutic schools.  Anthroposophical curative teachers and social therapists live in awareness of a spiritual essence in every child or adult - and in themselves; they know about the dialogue between these spiritual entities, a dialogue that may not be immediately apparent. Such awareness is not knowledge in the classic sense, but rather a cautious ongoing seeking and searching.

Every human being is capable of development, and every human being also has one or several tasks in life. Social therapy in particular aims at recognizing and supporting the capacities and interests that gradually come to the surface in the course of a person’s life. Social therapy is not only about the actual work activity since a person’s social effect reaches far beyond his or her self; it includes everything that he or she can evoke in others.

Anthroposophical curative education brings together medicine and therapy, education and special education as well as social endeavours. The education and therapy of children and adults with special needs relies on specific social forms which cannot be derived from conventional methods; these social forms must give sufficient space and autonomy to children, adults, teachers and therapists in their working together. Over and above that, curative education and social therapy relate to the social reality in an often subtle but significant way. As the concept of 'normality' or ‘functionality’ is ever more narrowly defined, individuals with disabilities ‘stick out’, they are seen as a disturbance and are being marginalized. This rejection is a failure to perceive the important contribution that people with disabilities make in society, a contribution which needs to be acknowledged to become truly fruitful. Parents often speak of this when they describe the effect their disabled child had on the rest of the family and the journey they themselves went on in trying to understand and support their child.

There are also general, though hidden, connections between society and illness or disability. Some developmental disorders in children seem to be a reflection of the social reality (certainly in industrialized countries): many features of 'hyperactivity', for instance, can be found in our social life today. In creating an environment where the affected children can live and grow, we provide an example of what today’s society and civilization desperately need.