Rifts have been opened. “The debate was very disappointing.
But Germany has committed itself to inclusion.
Is Henri an isolated incident?
Stoch had recently warned against turning the wish of Henri’s family into a symbolic case. It does not depend on this individual fate whether the integration of disabled pupils in mainstream schools is successful. After all, there are already 400 children with special educational needs in high schools across the country.
Meanwhile, a second secondary school has also rejected Henri.
The decision by Minister of Education Stoch is highly political because the green-red state government of Baden-Württemberg promised in the coalition agreement that parents of disabled children would be given the right to vote.
Politically explosive: focus on the success of inclusion
The case shows how many unanswered questions the joint teaching of disabled and non-disabled students raises in practice. All countries have the issue of inclusion on their agenda. But there is a problem with the subtleties. The inclusion of physically handicapped children has long been normal at many high schools, including at Henri’s parents’ dream school. But the Walldorf case is about a mentally handicapped person who would probably never get a high school diploma. Mother Ehrhardt knows that, but that’s not what it’s about. "We just want to continue our inclusive class, right here" she says.
But nothing seemed simple in the past few weeks. And even after the decision of the Ministry of Culture, it is unclear how things will go on with Henri. The only compromise for Ehrhardt so far has been the secondary school in the same school center, but she also decided against her son. And here, too, the Ministry of Culture does not want to rely on coercion. It shouldn’t be inclusion at any price either.
Indicator for schools and society
The topic is an excitement nationwide – for both sides. Many supporters of Henri’s parents accuse skeptics of being hostile to the disabled and the Walldorf grammar school of Dünkel. A petition for the boy’s high school attendance has more than 25,000 supporters. The counter petition brings it to a good 3700. Here it says: "Henri was supposed to go to high school for and for the good of all." Many see this as an indicator of how far society is already in terms of inclusion.
"Debate turned out to be disappointing"
Not very far, thinks Henri’s primary school director Werner Sauer. "What bothered me is that people have their say who don’t understand anything about the matter" he says. "Heavy artillery was brought up at once. Trenches have been opened." The debate was very disappointing.
"It’s a very hypocritical discussion: you want inclusion, but you don’t create the conditions for it." Many prejudices have come up, for example that disabled children hold up classes and slow down high-performing students, says Sauer. The increase in social skills for the children was hardly an issue. Sauer is annoyed that he did four years of preparatory work and that there is now no solution in sight for Henri. "It can’t just end after elementary school."
The Walldorf high school has been on the defensive for weeks. After the decision, the chairperson of the parents’ council is relieved. The hostility towards the school was difficult to bear and very hurtful. At the moment, the grammar school is simply not equipped to teach a child with an educational goal other than the Abitur, says Regina Roll. In a few years it will certainly look very different.
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Physically handicapped children at high school are no longer uncommon. But what about the mentally handicapped who could never pass the Abitur? Opinions are divided here, as a case from Baden-Württemberg shows.
Henri studied and played with his classmates for four years. After primary school, the eleven year old with Down syndrome would like to switch to high school like his friends from Walldorf in Baden-Württemberg. He could not follow the lessons mentally and would therefore have a different learning goal than the Abitur – it would be one of the first cases of this kind at a south-west high school. The school has so far refused.
"He should stay with the children he knows"
Henri’s mother Kirsten Ehrhardt is very clear that her son could never graduate from high school. But that’s not the point. "He should stay with the children he knows" demands it. "Otherwise the normality that we have now built for four years would be lost."
The high school fears it will not do Henri justice
The grammar school feels pilloried. Physically handicapped children have been taught here for decades, says the chairman of the parents’ council, Regina Roll. However, unlike Henri, they are able to follow the lessons mentally. The teachers couldn’t do the boy justice right now. "You have no special needs education." The pace at grammar school is very different from that at elementary school. He couldn’t get the funding Henri needed here, says Roll.
The state government wants to mediate in the dispute
Mother Ehrhardt takes a different view – after all, her son is supported by a special education teacher. She sees a fundamental problem: "The subject of inclusion has not yet even reached secondary schools." The school management of the high school in Walldorf near Heidelberg no longer wants to comment publicly on the case. The state government is now trying to mediate the deadlock.
Germany is committed to inclusion
The UN Disability Rights Convention came into force five years ago. Germany thus committed itself to implementing inclusion in schools. The aim is to support children with disabilities as well as learning difficulties, migrants and the gifted. Since education is a matter of the federal states, the implementation succeeds differently depending on the federal state.
"I would have wanted a regular school"
At Henri’s primary school, the joint lessons have so far worked well, says headmaster Werner Sauer. "I don’t know if Henri would have learned that much in a special school." He does not want to give a school recommendation for the boy, but emphasizes: "I would like it to continue in some form, at a regular school." Otherwise he would feel fooled, says the headmaster. "We put so much time, passion and nerves into it."
What is more: regular school or special school?
The head of the Karlsruhe Max-Planck-Gymnasium, Uwe Müller, understands the reservations of the Walldorf Gymnasium. A teenager with Down syndrome is in sixth grade at his school. "I doubt it’s good for the student concerned." The teachers were initially optimistic, but now sobered and frustrated. In the special school, the pupil would learn things that he really needed for life, for example cooking, reading the bus timetable or buying a ticket, says Müller. "With us he learns Latin and mathematics, which he cannot follow."
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You come out of school and learn. They cancel meetings with friends and learn. For them, only a grade of one in each test and a very good Abitur counts. Play? Fun? Good mood? Rare. What at first glance sounds like exemplary students worries many parents. The child and youth psychiatrist Michael Schulte-Markwort has long puzzled what pulls many students down. His diagnosis: burnout.
"Five years ago I saw increasingly depressed and exhausted children who didn’t fit into the normal category of depression" reports Schulte-Markwort, who teaches and works at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf. With his experience he has the book "Burnout kids" that has just been published. He is also a guest at the German Teachers’ Day in Leipzig to raise awareness among educators about the topic.
"If you don’t get a good high school diploma, then your life is over"
The experienced child and youth psychiatrist was deliberately invited to be the main speaker at the conference, says Udo Beckmann. He is the federal chairman of the Association for Education and Upbringing, which organizes the teachers’ day. "Many teachers have noticed changes in the students" he confirms. "Colleagues see that children are often overwhelmed at an early age." The Abitur is the longed-for graduation, which puts pressure on the children – more and more often in elementary school.
Where does the pressure come from? Schulte-Markwort says that it is less common than expected that the so-called helicopter parents overwhelm their children with countless additional offers. "Rather, these are the performance orientations that we have anchored in our society, coupled with the children’s feeling that if they do not get a good Abitur, then their life is over."
Many school children feel exhausted
Schulte-Markwort estimates that on average about two affected students present themselves to him per week. That would result in 500 burnout kids in his treatment alone. There are still no valid studies on the phenomenon. However, 20 to 30 percent of school children said they felt exhausted. The 58-year-old assumes that two to three percent of them suffer from burnout – and the trend is rising.
The Federal Association for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (BKJPP) also refers to a lack of statistics on the subject, but confirms that the phenomenon already exists in children and adolescents. "In our practices, children are very often presented because of school stress and stress" BKJPP chairman Gundolf Berg describes the more general tendency. The children often showed a mixture of symptoms such as insomnia, difficulty concentrating, upset or abnormal behavior.
Symptoms of burnout in children
Schulte-Markwort recommends that teachers and parents alike should watch out for sudden changes in behavior. "If parents have the feeling for a long time that something is wrong, then they should go to a specialist." So far he has been able to help all those affected, often supported by learning therapists who teach the children other strategies.
Bodo Reuser from the Federal Conference for Educational Advice (BKE) explains in more detail how parents can react at the first signs: Warning signs could be, for example, that children are permanently exhausted and listless, can concentrate poorly or their performance is declining.
Some children are also more volatile, jittery and impulsive, but they cannot really get involved or enjoy something. This often happens in families in which there is high pressure to perform and there is little family coexistence and communication, says Reuser.
Make offers, but don’t lapse into action
Parents should first seek the conversation to find out why the child is no longer enjoying anything. It is important not to be reproachful, but to show interest and ask what the child would like. "Then you can try to make him happy, for example through joint activities or suggestions for leisure activities. Parents should not, however, lapse into action or make too many offers to the child, but rather try to awaken their initiative" says Reuser.