Greece: Schools Failing to Provide Psychological Support
10/12/2007 - Submitted by: Tilia Bousios
The scene of destruction left in the wake of a sit-in at the 28th Senior High School in Pangrati. In this case the damage was caused by outsiders. Few schools have trained psychologists who can offer support to children and raise the awareness of parents and teachers.
Every day his neighbors see Vassilis, 16, accompany his young brother to get treatment at a physiotherapy center in the inner Athens suburb of Kato Patissia. Vassilis feels bad about his brother and uncomfortable with his own role. Do his teachers know about this duty and how it affects his personal and school life? Could he end up being one of the children who resort to bad behavior to release the accumulated anger and bitterness, the feeling that they are at a disadvantage compared with their schoolmates?
There are thousands of such cases at Greek schools. Yet those schools, where children receive their first experience of socialization, suffer from a severe lack of trained psychologists who could help pupils.
Education Ministry figures show that in all Greece there are only 15 fully operational Youth Advisory centers with child psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers. A ministerial decision in 2006 provided for the establishment of another 45 centers, and a bill containing the details is being drafted, Maria Sotirakou, head of the ministry’s health and environmental education department, told Kathimerini.
“Unfortunately we have cases of children with problems which are not known to their teachers, who could help them. It’s hard for teachers to assume the role of psychologists,” said Dimitris Ifantopoulos, headmaster of the 28th Senior High School of Pangrati. “I remember a pupil who came to my office once in a very bad psychological state. At first she was withdrawn, then she opened up. Her father was pimping her and she wanted my help. How many other such cases must there be?”
He saw his school trashed during the recent sit-in. Most of the culprits were not from the school. But were there among them some pupils who wanted to lash out over hidden troubles?
“There are many such children. Our role is a difficult one, you know. We have to transmit knowledge, mold characters, and put across messages. It takes dedication. But it also takes special knowledge. That’s why there’s always a danger that a teacher’s intervention may be counterproductive,” Popi Kontomichi, a teacher at the 29th junior high school, told Kathimerini. “If we can’t help, we mustn’t harm. You can’t play with a child’s psyche.”
“Shouldn’t there be a psychologist, at least at the largest schools in Greece?” asked Sofia Linardou, who has two children, one in junior high and one in senior high. “They could sensitize parents and teachers, whose behavior is often unacceptable. Many parents don’t know how to behave toward their children, especially in the crucial stage of puberty. It would be good if schools rang the alarm bell. Teachers need to be made aware, but most seem to have no interest in such matters.”
Leonidas Kolettis, a teacher-psychologist who works at the Aghia Paraskevi Youth Advice center, believes attitudes are not easily changed. “But parents, teachers, and the political leadership must change their attitude. They must all understand that a school that merely serves up knowledge is outdated. The character of the teacher plays a role. Recently a teacher of Greek came to ask my advice on how to deal with a child who had learning problems. You don’t come across a teacher like that very often. Teachers need training in such matters, and it would be good too if university subjects typically taken by future teachers (such as languages, maths, physics) put some emphasis on teacher training and psychology. And the Advice Centers should have more staff. Change demands persistence.”
“There has been much discussion about having psychologists in schools but no decisions have been reached,” explained Evgenia Soumaki, president of the child psychiatry branch of the Greek Society of Psychologists. “Some private schools have them and it is a help. The psychologist’s role is to support teachers so they can approach a child who appears to have a problem. They can also help the teachers themselves who, in many cases have their own troubles. For instance, teachers who have problems with their own children cannot see their pupils’ issues. Many teachers cover up problems that they can’t handle. Of course we can’t ‘psychiatrize’ schools. School must be a neutral space and psychologists must play a purely advisory role, raising awareness.”
In general, Greek schools need a change of strategy, philosophy and objectives. Eleni Karayianni, psychologist-teacher at the Piraeus Youth Advice Center, told Kathimerini that the World Health Organization envisages another dimension for education that involves the timely detection of problems and support for pupils who have issues with drugs, aggression and violence that are often associated with psychological problems.
Is it possible for Greek schools in their present form to offer such support?