CYC-Online 5 JUNE 1999 / BACK
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Janusz Korczak: The fervent diagnostician

Kees Waaldijk

Kees Waaldijk recalls one of our century's greatest workers with troubled children – and his insightful and thorough attitude to how we understand them.

We hear so much about Korczak's love and warmth and respect for children that we might overlook how fervent a diagnostician he was. Again and again we read in his books about the orphanage and the summer camps, how important it is to understand the background of the child's behaviour.

The ongoing message seems to be: don't condemn or correct a child's behaviour before you have seriously tried to understand and to “feel" its roots in the character, the mood, the life history, the inner world of the child.

Perhaps what you see as misbehaviour is practised by the child to attain a certain goal, or it arises from hidden old pain, or is a reaction to something in the situation which you didn't notice. It is obvious that since the days of Korczak we have seen a lot of progress in the field of diagnostics regarding child development and problems. Kraepelin's famous classification of psychiatric illnesses is much refined in the modern DSM IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). Binet's tests for measuring intelligence, started in 1904, gave rise to a multitude of psychodiagnostic tests. And behaviour therapy stimulated the development of precise analysis and measurement of children's behaviour.

A diagnostic attitude
Nevertheless there is a lot we can learn from Korczak as a diagnostician. In the first place Korczak's “diagnostic" attitude is not diagnostic in the modern sense, not a way of knowing children in terms of special procedures, measurements, tests, quantifications (such as IQ) and classifications. It is above all an open and thorough attention to the thousand events and nuances of everyday life. The many remarks, spread over Korczak's books, about how children eat, play, sleep, wake up and so on, are convincing reminders to us not to overlook the ordinary everyday occurrences, and not to jump prematurely to conclusions and classifications.

In this perspective the residential worker, the worker in the life situation of the child, has excellent diagnostic opportunities compared with those of the social worker who depends on relatively short visits and conversations; and compared with those of the psychologist who uses psychological tests in an artificial situation.

In the second place Korczak draws our attention in many illustrative examples to the inner world of children, to what in German is called “Erlebniswelt". Which adult will ever understand the dizzy euphoria of a child seeing the first snow of the season? And who will understand the sadness of a child worrying about difficult situations it left behind at home. It may be obvious that for Korczak diagnosis is closely linked with empathy and with the quality of communication. Quite often we blockade our feelings about what is going on inside the child by the hastiness of our communication “or by our eagerness to stop or to change a certain behaviour. Korczak's preference for empathic diagnosis doesn't imply that he undervalued or neglected more objective, science-oriented methods. On the contrary, he spent a lot of time in measuring the growth of weight and height of the children and in following their reading capacity as accurately as possible (Ida Merzan).

We see an ironic coincidence in the fact that in the same decades in which Sigmund Freud explored for the first time the unconscious, Janusz Korczak was making the very little known consciousness of the child, the (for us) hidden inner world, an object of description and study.

In the third place Korczak's diagnostic attention is focused in a very modern way on what we now call interactional processes. Perhaps the child with its strange behaviour is reacting to another child, or to the worker's way of asking a question, or to an unnoticed humiliation of a few moments ago. It is in this context that Korczak makes a surprisingly modern remark. Nowadays in many countries the video camera became an important instrument for analysis and diagnosis in the study of the child. In the Netherlands for instance “Video Home Training" became a method of helping problem families by clarifying the family's interactions using video recordings of daily life situations. Knowing this, I was surprised to find in Korczak's ghetto diary the idea that one day every teacher and residential worker will use his own camera to see and to reflect on the thousand subtle interactions between children, which escape his attention in the normal routine of things. “Then they will understand, for instance, why Jozef doesn't like to sit next to Winston."

Across cultures
In the fourth place it is inspiring to hear from Korczak how difficult it is to understand (to “diagnose") people who are living in or rooted in a culture which is very different from our own pattern of life. Famous is his description of the situation of the child in The right of the child to be respected: “We are living as a people of dwarfs among giants, weak, not understood." In When I am a child again he describes very convincingly how little teachers generally understand what is thought and felt by their pupils. Two worlds, two cultures. But there is another, very actual illustration of Korczak's feeling for the very different life-worlds, (sub)cultures of people. In Children of the street he wrote a very intense dialogue between a street child and a well meaning (social) pedagogue. Summarised: “You will never understand us. You are from a totally different world. We have our own honour". Especially nowadays, in societies which are very mixed from a cultural and ethnic point of view, and with residential settings with a mixed population and a mixed staff, it is important to take seriously Korczak's pleading for diagnostic modesty, especially when the other doesn't belong to our own adult, or western, or urban, or middle-class, or intellectual “culture".

Nicely put by Korczak in one of his later letters to Jozef Amen in Israel: “So many children arrived, so many books to decipher."

We have looked at some inspiring and actual elements in Korczak's “diagnostic" approach to children. They are all related to his fundamental plea for respect towards children. Especially in residential settings where so frequently new children arrive from very different backgrounds and with severe behaviour problems, it is no luxury to be warned again and again: “Don't interfere, don't correct, don't conclude too early. Try to understand. It is their factual daily life, it is their inner world, it is their reaction to their – often unfamiliar – situations, it is their cultural background and history, which counts."

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