Robert Steinhäuser, who went on a shooting spree 15 years ago in Erfurt, was described as a loner and outsider. To prevent similar incidents, psychologist Klaus Seifried calls for large-scale counseling at schools.
DW: Fifteen years have passed since the Erfurt killing spree claimed the lives of 16 victims. What measures have been adopted at schools in order to prevent such acts?
Klaus Seifried: Killing sprees are rare, thank goodness. On the other hand, rampage threats are much more frequent. Mostly, these people are copycats. Nonetheless, potential threats have to be assessed in cooperation with the school's management and the police.
However, much more important in our work as school psychologists is the proper handling of personal crises, for example suicide threats or the suicide of a student. But we are also responsible if there are learning difficulties, reading, writing and arithmetic disabilities, or exam anxiety. The number of students' behavior problems has been on the rise for a number of years.
The best way to prevent violence and bullying at school is a good atmosphere in class and a good personal relationship between students and teachers, but also among students themselves. Our job is to support schools in their development. We offer on-site counseling to both students and teaching staff.
How can social cohesion in the classroom be strengthened in order to prevent isolation or bullying?
It is vital that students respond as a kind of early warning system, that they support fellow students when they are not well, that they say "stop" when a fellow student becomes the target of bullying. Students are trained as peer-group mediators and are thus enabled to enhance their social skills. Of course those mediators must be supported by their class teachers, tutors, the school's social workers and psychologists.
What should parents pay attention to, with respect to their children?
It is crucial that parents spend time with their children, that they create an environment for conversation, for example a regular joint breakfast or dinner. If adolescents respond to a question like "How were things at school?" only with a brief "yes" or "ok," parents should nonetheless hang on and try to remain in contact. Trusting one's children is of key importance.
Because of their jobs or because of other burdens, many parents are only capable of taking care of their children to a certain extent. Every second marriage in Germany ends in divorce. As a result, many children experience the most dramatic conflicts. In a situation like that it's vital that someone outside the family is on hand in order to support the students in times of sorrow or crisis. In a situation like that, the school can be an important stabilizing factor. Therefore, it's crucial that schools offer low-threshold counseling services.
When do children and adolescents need support?
In the course of their school years, some 20 percent of both boys and girls encounter difficulties or crises that often require psychological guidance. These can be learning difficulties, concentration difficulties, exam anxiety, bullying, violent incidents, puberty crises or family conflicts. In the course of their lives, many children and adolescents encounter conflicts and crisis situations in which external guidance becomes necessary. In the US, or in Scandinavian countries, it goes without saying that school psychologists, social workers and special needs teachers work together at schools in multi-professional teams.
Are teachers in need of psychological support as well?
Teaching staff make use of school psychologists' counseling hours as often as students. Sometimes teachers accompany students and ask for guidance. A teacher has up to 1,000 social interactions per day, running the gamut from a quick admonition to a massive conflict. In the course of the day, the teacher will reach a certain stress level, which is only worked off to some extent. It's all the more important that teachers are open to guidance, not just in the course of a school psychologist's counseling hour, but also in team sessions and team supervisions. Working with children and adolescents is very demanding, because they challenge the teaching staff primarily on a personal level, because they look for something to hold on to in order to find their bearings and develop their own identity. In a situation like that, teaching staff need regular and prompt psychological support.
What is the student to school psychologist ratio?
The Association of German Psychologists (BDP) ascertains the numbers on an annual basis. At the moment, we have an average of 8,700 students allotted to one school psychologist. But we must take into account that supply differs widely among the German states. In big cities like Berlin, Hamburg or Düsseldorf a school psychologist is responsible for 5,000 students. In Saxony or Lower Saxony we have a ratio of one to 16,0000. The international standard, however, is a ratio of one to 1,000 or one to 2,000. A large school with 1,000 students requires a school psychologist who's available on site every day.
Klaus Seifried has worked as a teacher for 10 years and as a school psychologist for 25 years. He is a certified psychologist and psychotherapist. In addition, he is deputy chairman of the Association of German Psychologists' school psychology section.
The interview was conducted by Sabrina Pabst.