Age-Appropriate Working with the Will

William Forward

In a child-centred approach to education there are many lenses through which one can look to gain a deeper understanding of the child. One such is the thinking, feeling and willing nature of the human being. The thinking is centred in the head and the brain, the feeling in the chest and heart and lung activity, the will in the limbs and metabolic system. All three are present in the whole human being but focused as described. One can perhaps understand the will nature best by looking at its extreme manifestations: at one extreme in the picture of a raging torrent surging towards its goal, at the other in that of a dam holding back the water irresistibly; in human terms Mo Farah running one marathon after another and Nelson Mandela enduring 27 years in prison for the sake of civil rights.

As the human being comes into life, we do so in three roughly seven year phases: from birth to 7, the focus is very much on the will aspect, from 7 – 14 the emphasis is on the feeling aspect and from 14 – 21 on the thinking. In each the will needs to be addressed, but in a different, age-appropriate way.

Look at the baby, and you will experience the immediacy of its needs, then how from lying on its tummy on the carpet it gradually and repeatedly begins to lift its head, then edge up onto its knees and elbows, whereupon the child will crawl off to wherever it wants to go. The next step, usually around the age of one, is to raise itself up onto its feet and stand upright, a major triumph over the mighty forces of gravity. Then comes the acquisition of language, the mother tongue, and at around 3 years old the child is able to express its identity by saying “I” for the first time. That is usually also when we can start remembering the story of our life. All this is driven by the urge to imitate what is going on in one’s surroundings. In these years we are watching those around us and trying to do likewise.

The next step might be Kindergarten, and there the child enters a world of “doing” guided by loving adults who strive to be worthy of the unquestioning acceptance and willingness to imitate that the child brings with it. The underlying message in this environment is ideally “The world is good”. This is expressed in the care taken over the quality of the speech, singing, gesture and attitude of the adults as the daily “doing” is guided. Even the days of the week are known as “Painting day”, “Baking day” etc. The older children in the group then get to help the younger ones do what belongs to the day and so a social aspect is added to the unfolding of the will. “This is our common will” is the mood, and this strengthens each child.

Around the age of 7, the milk teeth are replaced by the teeth one will carry into life. As this happens a new capacity for memory emerges and with it the aptitude for formal learning. The mood coming from the teachers towards the children in everything they do is “The world is beautiful” and the motivation comes through the feelings. Nevertheless, on the first day of school, the teacher draws the children’s attention to their hands and to what they are now going to do, namely what the adults can already do. The beginnings of literacy lie in shaping lines, curves and the symbols that will later be recognised as letters. Thus the journey is from doing to knowing with a long-term sense of purpose and direction. The child’s will is addressed. Moreover this will is not that of impulse but of goal-orientation. In the next couple of years the child’s will can best be addressed indirectly through the feelings. The theft of your desk partner’s whistle is not followed by an admonition or reprimand but by an educational story, told in such a way that the “thief” recognises herself in it and can feel the pain caused. The next day the child’s feelings will tell her to try to make it good, and to avoid repeating the harm. Many of the fairy tales told in Class 1 work in this way, as do the parables and stories of the lives of the Saints in Class 2. It is as if the will were somehow asleep and needed approaching through the dreamy world of the feelings before awakening in action the next day.

Another way in which the teacher can work with the child’s will is by engaging with each child’s interests, and speaking of the teacher’s own interests, what kindles their inner fire.

As the child gets older one can give it a challenge along the lines of “Can you do this?” or “Can you change that?” Above all the will needs to feel connected to a meaningful task in order to gain strength. The Main Lesson in Class 3 where the children explore what it takes to build a house is one such task. Here too it is not all about doing, but also about impulse control. There must be moments in each day where the children are silent and attentive during a story, say, and learn to hold that stillness. The images taken in like this are then allowed to pass into sleep that night and are then processed by a kind of inner metabolism that enables them to flow into the work of the next day with added vitality and a sense of ownership. As adults we often say about this extra dimension “I’ll sleep on it”.

The child’s will can also be nurtured by encouraging it towards aspiration to great goals. In Class 6, walking the length of Hadrian’s Wall, the child can experience the power of the Roman empire and how the land could be taken hold of and transformed in the service of the aims of the leader. At this age a young person might be learning an instrument or taking part in a sports club where skills and abilities, endurance and motivation are trained up by frequent repetition and practice – all hallmarks of the work of the will. The teacher will allow and encourage leadership in activities such as recorder playing, games and also in shaping and evaluating the learning process from lesson to lesson in so-called formative assessment.

In Class 8, at the end of the Class Teacher years, the pupils will put on a class production of a play, strengthening their will as a team towards the goal of the final performance. Then also each individual will at the beginning of the year choose their own challenge and bring to fruition a project that they can present to their peers, parents and the school. Each will involve thinking, feeling and willing, but the overriding experience for the pupils is of a feat of will completed.

Thus strengthened, the student in the Upper School finds in the expertise of the various subject teachers the goals, skills or qualities they can aspire to and the growth of the individual is increasingly in the thinking realm. Nevertheless, the survival quest in Class 9 allows the student to meet Nature on its own terms and to pit his or her will against sometimes quite challenging odds. The emerging will the students experience to leave their mark on the world which they are now meeting, is supported by the opportunity to change their environment with a project in service of their community: a new climbing frame in the playground, say, or a new path into the grounds. The will can be fired by the motive of service and team spirit.

In Class 11 there is a Social Practical which involves contributing something to the wider community, say on a visit to a Camphill institution, where the student can feel during the process “I am needed here”. This can also provide a powerful stimulus to the will, often leading the student on to volunteer work in later life. High aims are then experienced as a motivating, will-strengthening force in one’s biography.

We have seen then that a whole culture of the will can be developed through the school years by imitation, repetition, goal-orientation, self-restraint, aspiration, sense of service, empathy, admiration and endurance, each offered to the growing human being in a tactful, timely and age-appropriate way, enabling what Marie Steiner expressed in these words

“Our highest aim must be to develop young people who are able of themselves to give purpose and direction to their lives”.