Workshop Joins Frontline Educators and Academics
Gathered in the stately meeting room of the Center for Modern Psychoanalytic Studies on West 10th Street was a crowd that included dropout counselors, truant officers, special education teachers, and assorted other professionals who work on the front lines with special needs students in our city schools. But there were also an equal number of psychoanalysts in the room, from academics and clinical practitioners, to graduate students with little exposure to inner-city schools. What brought them together? Dr. Sheila Zaretsky, an author, family counselor and veteran inner-city educator, was there to forge what she sees as a vital collaboration in the field of education.
Her talk, “Kids in Treatment,” was a presentation for therapists, teachers and parents that took place in early December, was more of a workshop than a lecture. Throughout the lively program Dr. Zaretsky illustrated her approach to working with resistant, disruptive and often self-destructive adolescents and teenagers.
“I think a lot of harm is done when we resort to structural remedies and standards of control for students,” Dr. Zaretsky said. “This may seem to be the best way to handle unruly students, but it’s the worst. Empathy and identification are the only reliable way reach the hard-to-reach.”
Peppering her talk with colorful anecdotes from her over 30-year career teaching at Seward Park High School on the Lower East Side and West Side High School in Spanish Harlem, Dr. Zaretsky frequently referred to her creative use of what is called the “joining technique.” A hallmark of modern psychoanalysis, joining strives to reduce stress and lower resistance by validating all feelings, even negative ones.
“When a student of mine got up to leave my class without permission, I didn’t tell him he was out of line, wrong, or going to get in trouble. I didn’t forbid him to leave. All these techniques would fulfill his master plan, which was to disrupt. He wanted to be oppositional. But when I asked him what I had done to make him want to leave, I got him to reflect, just for a second. He pulled this several times, and eventually he stayed.”
When a participant asked why she couldn’t just ask such a student to explain his reasons for leaving, Dr. Zaretsky was clear. “The point isn’t to put him on the spot and make him justify himself. You’re pushing him to become even more egotistical,” she said.
“We need to help students be comfortable with all feelings. There is so much stress in life, but an inordinate amount with children facing adversity,” she said. Joining acknowledges feelings so that students can gain awareness and even become accountable. A litany of bad behaviors were mentioned, many in vivid detail, by the teachers and guidance counselors in the room. In each case, Dr. Zaretsky advocated joining. “Sometimes you have to out-crazy the crazies,” she explained. “Do not be afraid of what’s inside. If it doesn’t have a way to come out, it will be surely become pathological.”
At the conclusion of the talk, the frontline educators and counselors happily mixed with the academics, clinical practitioners and graduate students. Dr. Zaretsky mingled freely, noting that she was pleased to “join” these two groups. “A group like this really has a chance of figuring out counter-productive behaviors and helping students change the patterns to help themselves.” #
Dr. Sheila Zaretsky is the author of “Reaching the Unreachable Child: Using Emotional Wisdom to Help Children Recover from Negativity and Despair” (Full Court Press).