GT Introduction to the philosophy and the methods

In an attempt to outline the framework and understand the significance of Gentle Teaching, Trine Schierff[1] provides with her thoughts on the philosophy and its tools and methods. How does this affect the pedagogical work in the relation between the resident and the educator?

By Majbritt Sørensen, cand.mag. in English and Comparative Literature

Gentle Teaching – a philosophical view of human nature

”To me, the essence of Gentle Teaching is that we do not treat the symptoms; that we go behind the behaviour, and look at the emotion that is behind it.” - Trine Schierff

It is not necessarily easy to define Gentle Teaching as a concept; it does not allow measurement like other measurable methods in the pedagogical field. But this might be explained by the fact that it is not a method, but a philosophy that can be used in the pedagogical work as a tool. According to Trine Schierff, it is essential to reflect on the concept in your work: “It is important to ask yourself: How can I use this concept so that it makes sense? How can I achieve knowledge about this person and help it on its way in life?” Gentle Teaching consists of a collection of pedagogical experiences; when combined, it creates a framework and an approach to that of being together. This is an approach where the relation primarily is for the sake of the relation.

Gentle Teaching can be described as a heart-oriented relational pedagogy where the educator uses himself or herself as a tool. Throughout time, a lot of debate has been tied to being personally attentive, and it has undergone a big development from being frowned upon in the 1970s, to being surrounded by taboo in the 1980s to being accepted in the 1990s. Gentle Teaching was formed in the beginning of the 1980s, and the concept itself was described in 1985 by John McGee, who is a professor in Psychology in Omaha, Nebraska. Gentle Teaching has paved the way for a positive development according to Trine Schierff: “It has become accepted to show that you genuinely care for the individual resident, to create a special bond to a resident or two. It was frowned upon before – but it has become accepted now, among other things because of Gentle Teaching. It is an important factor as everyone needs to have a few people who really matter to them.”

Basically, Gentle Teaching is about the relation between people, meeting the other with love. Gentle is the kind and careful that we find in ourselves, and teaching is the teaching that we gently try to pass on to the other through mirroring in the relation. Gentle Teaching also include gently pushing the resident to the edge of his or her abilities, to challenge the resident on their terms, and to do so without having the resident get to the edge with the feeling of being alone. On the contrary, the edge should be met together, and with someone who the resident can trust.

The fundamental aspects of the philosophy are safety, acceptance, connection, togetherness and interaction – and it is based on the emotion behind the patterns of reaction that we encounter, instead of focusing on the concrete reaction or behaviour. Thus, the pedagogical task becomes a matter of healing the broken or hurt hearts through gentle, kind and delicate teaching in the caretaking.

The gentle tools and methods

”The methods help provide the philosophy a framework so that you can apply it. The used methods supplement the philosophical spirit really well.” - Trine Schierff

In working with Gentle Teaching certain demands have surfaced among the Danish educators, a demand to get more concrete knowledge about the individual person via different forms of elucidations, e.g. life stories, development descriptions, neuropedagogical analyses etc. Professionally speaking, we need to dive into what kind of person we are dealing with; we need to know something about the person in order to know what they need. This knowledge can qualify the professional dialogues which take precedent to the usage of concrete methods, including the practice of Gentle Teaching itself. “Throughout the years, we’ve attached some methods to Gentle Teaching, seeing as it wasn’t born with methods, because it was sought after amongst the employees. Some, we have developed ourselves here in the village of Sølund, and others have been developed elsewhere in Denmark. We constantly need to be aware of new methods when we encounter ones that fit the fundamental perception. New methods will have significance in terms of the development of how Gentle Teaching is practiced.”

In Gentle Teaching, several professional methods are used, such as the contact island, affective correlation, the Skodborg model, putting words on emotions and conditions, environmental therapy and “summer school”. Besides the professional methods, there are various tools used in hopes of meeting the four basic principles in the everyday practice: that the resident should feel 1) safe, 2) loved, 3) capable of loving others, and 4) engaged. These tools are represented through the utmost important resource in Gentle Teaching, namely ourselves.

The hands: the gentle touch that can communicate safety within the individual’s cultural framework.

The voice: paying attention to how you employ your voice, and its tone. The importance of being able to speak the resident’s ”mother tongue”, which does not only refer to the speaking language. It can be a matter of communicating via the resident’s own sounds, symbols or Signs-to-Speech. The most important thing is to communicate your intention to the resident, and thereby achieve a relation.

The eyes: also known as the window of the soul. Your look can send signals to the resident, signals that they thereby can reflect themselves in. A resident who employs nonverbal communication can also use his or her eyes to tell you what he or she wants. The eyes can be used as an amazing coupling agent.

Presence: the consciousness of being 100% there for the resident. Understanding the significance of being able to rein in your ambitions, and thus meet the resident with shared conditions, be present in the unique world that the resident lives in.

These tools provide us with the opportunity to create a space to be a human being – space to be the person you are, as well as feeling a sense of affiliation. “The educator gets ample opportunity to create a space where the resident can be the person that he or she is. It is not a question of changing them, but supporting them in the challenges and needs that they should have,” Trine Schierff explains, and continues: “There is a need for a balancing act in terms of what kind of space the person wishes to create. It should not be influenced by manners, how one should behave, or various norms from our world.” Therefore it is of utmost importance to preserve a dialogue to not limit the resident – there is a tendency of “doing it for the resident’s sake”, but we must always think about whether or not we are the ones who have a problem, not them. “Gentle Teaching promotes understanding, inclusiveness and what it comes down to is the fact that we constantly need to reflect on our own pedagogical practice. That way, it won’t be our personal needs that direct the agenda; but the resident’s.”

In addition, a relation is also created, and a kind of interactive communication – the importance of creating is emphasized as it is a matter of people who cannot always create a space for their own being due to their functional level – therefore they have to find other ways in their inner development. If the resident does not have words, they have a body that can speak. Gentle Teaching opens these possibilities for the individual, and when their story goes through us, and our interpretation, it requires a great deal of ethics and trust. “It is our most precious job: to support the resident in being able to help himself or herself, to become better at dealing with the emotional challenges that they often struggle with. To help them accept and care about themselves; it is as the old saying goes: If you don’t love yourself, you can’t love anyone else. But if they haven’t received the fundamental experience of being wanted and loved, then they don’t have the basis for it either. We need to help them with this.” Trine Schierff explains.


[1] Trine Schierff is the vice-principal at the village of Sølund, where Gentle Teaching creates the basis of the facility’s values. She is also responsible for the daily management of VISS.dk, and teaches at the courses and thematic days on Gentle Teaching.