When children are mind readers

August 2020

Interview with the development mentor Michael Harslem.

Erziehungskunst The Hofschule Gaisberg learning research project in Salzburg, which cared for highly sensitive children and which you led during the six years it was in existence, has been evaluated by Dirk Randoll and Jürgen Peters from Alanus University. What was the result?

Michael Harslem An important result was that most of these children with dyslexia or dyscalculia or other behavioural disorders one the one hand perceived and thought primarily with the right side of their brain and, on the other hand, displayed abilities which other children do not have in this way to the same extent, such as for example that they could perceive and articulate the feelings and thoughts of other people, something that was quite normal for them. That is how I came into contact with highly sensitive children.

EK The concept of high sensitivity is used in an almost inflationary way today: visual thinkers, indigo children, rainbow children, crystal children ... the characteristics are so broad that in principle every child could be highly sensitive today. What are the unambiguous signs of high sensitivity?

MH The result of the research project is that today many children are indeed highly sensitive in very different forms, which explains the many designations. There are essentially four causal fields which can trigger forms of behaviour which are perceived as being abnormal: spiritual and emotional causes lying within the child, physical causes, social and external causes.

EK Highly sensitive children are often described as aggressive, unruly, tyrannical and difficult to manage. How can we distinguish high sensitivity from obstinacy or hypersensitivity?

MH These forms of behaviour are not necessarily tied to high sensitivity but can also be caused in normal children through their social environment or physically. In my experience a thorough case history by a therapist or teacher with experience of high sensitivity is essential from which it can be seen relatively clearly whether there is high sensitivity or not.

EK What are the reasons for high sensitivity?

MH On the one hand it is mostly inherited as a disposition so that parents or grandparents are already highly sensitive. On the other hand it can also be acquired – for example through trauma in early childhood or also later on which makes all the senses of the child wide awake because the child wants to protect themselves from further trauma.

EK Are these really new kinds of children or has high sensitivity always existed and is now projected on to the children by hyper-attentive parents?

MH The research of the American psychologist Elaine Aron which was published in 1997 has shown that at the time about 15-20 percent of people were affected. But it is clearly evident that since the turn of the millennium increasing numbers of children are born with these traits. It is also my experience, of course, that certain primarily symbiotic parents consider their children to be so special that they see them as highly sensitive and gifted no matter what. But it often turns out that this is wishful thinking on the part of the parents which their children cannot, then, live up to.

EK What typical conflict situations with highly sensitive children occur in school or at home?

MH Characteristic of these children is their unconditional sense of truth out of which they resist all lack of truthfulness. When small children perceive a lack of truthfulness in adults and call it by name, they are often considered to be insolent or rude. Another phenomenon is that they are very autonomous and know exactly what they want and what makes them feel well. They want to be allowed to make their mistakes themselves and not be prevented in doing so by adults. Another trait is that they cannot be forced to do anything! In any kind of coercion they resist either actively or passively. This means that strict or forcible enforcement will not get anywhere with these children. This often leads to fruitless and constantly escalating battles at home or in school which cannot be won with these children. Too little account is taken of the fact that they often slide into the media world, above all computer games, at which they are always successful. Highly sensitive children tend towards such addictive behaviour more than others.

EK You mean that high sensitivity is often not recognised as a cause and the children are given the wrong therapy? On what observations do you base this assumption?

MH That is a great problem often as early as kindergarten but above all in school. The children display difficult behaviour. That makes the adults dealing with it insecure. That is why the attempt is made to categorise these behaviours as specific deficits for which there are special support programmes, such as reading difficulties, dyslexia, attention deficit disorders, hyperactivity, emotional and social disorders, autism and so on. Here it is mostly a failure to understand that these behaviours should actually be seen as cries for help from these children and are mostly an over-reaction triggered by stress or panic. Then there is the additional factor that the various tests which are done to determine a diagnosis are also stress situations in which highly sensitive children often can no longer react normally.

EK Can the one-to-one care of the children concerned which you advise be managed at all by the school or at home?

MH I am not asking for one-to-one care of these children by adults but an understanding of the particular conditions which they bring with them. I always have to ask myself: what does this child need? What do they want to tell me with their behaviour? For a number of them a situation can be created in class in which they don’t have to be subject to sensory overload. Specifically in individualised, cooperative, self-organised learning with independent responsibility situations are created in which all children work quietly for themselves also for longer periods and then can, for example, work and learn together in self-selected learning tandems. Such a one-to-one situation helps not just the highly sensitive children but also all those who do not accept adults as role models or leaders because they develop different mechanisms with other children from the ones they do with adults – and it can help all other children as well.

On the other hand there are children for whom a larger group already represents sensory overload in itself. They require smaller groups to be able to learn. But that, too, can be done in school across age-groups or classes. Others again require more physical activity to turn their need for movement caused by the sensory overload into meaningful activity.

EK Is high sensitivity always associated with intellectual giftedness?

MH There is no necessary connection since there is both high sensitivity and intellectual giftedness in very many different areas, but it does happen quite frequently – but not just in the intellectual field but also in artistic and social spheres.

EK What can parents who suspect high sensitivity do specifically?

MH To begin with, I think it is important that the child is accepted and loved for whom they are! Because highly sensitive children take in the thoughts and feelings of their parents, nursery teachers and teachers without a filter so that they appear to them as their own. They don’t know, after all, that they have come from outside. That is why adults are particularly called upon to understand these children – and if they have already developed difficult behaviours, not to respond to them. Furthermore, a thorough case history and diagnosis should be made such as we have developed in our Freie Hofschule Gaisberg learning research project. That allows us to find out how the child can be helped.

Mathias Maurer asked the questions.

Note: A case history questionnaire can be requested via the author’s website. A diagram relating to the subject can also be found there: www.harslem.de

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