Science

Laura Batstra’s crusade

So a kid is different. Who cares?

In this day and age, many people are only focused on their own needs and their own families. RUG pedagogue Laura Batstra stubbornly refuses to do the same. ‘Why do so many people only care about themselves and their own spawn?’
By Christien Boomsma / Photo by Reyer Boxem / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

Klassenfeestjes.nl

Laura Batstra and music teacher Wim Venema set up the project klassenfeestjes.nl together. The endeavour helps parents organise parties for their kids’ entire class, using the motto ‘No kid excluded’.

A lot of parents think throwing a party for the entire class will be expensive, Batstra found out. But it doesn’t have to be, especially since various Groningen organisations offer their spaces for free.

Parents are also worried they can’t entertain 23 to 30 children at once. To that end, Batstra and Venema wrote a booklet with tips and tricks for a successful party and made it freely available.

Want to know more? Check out www.klassenfeestjes.nl

People often tell Laura Batstra how ‘good’ she is for doing what she does. ‘Your dedication is amazing.’

It makes her extremely uncomfortable. After all, considering other people should be a normal thing. ‘Why do people think it’s so special?’

Case in point: one of her colleagues in the pedagogy department recently passed away, leaving behind a son. He is a boy of seventeen, low intelligence, and diagnosed as having ADHD and autism. He often stays with Batstra to give his father a break now and then, but Batstra also likes having him around. ‘He’s just a darling boy’, she says. ‘So these remarks kind of hurt him as well. Having him around is not some sort of sacrifice.’

This is what Laura Batstra is all about.

Boast

She is pragmatic, committed, and determined to help shape a society she can be proud of. A society that doesn’t exclude people who are different or treats them like a problem. A society in which people helping people is the norm. ‘But that’s not something I feel the need to boast about’, she says.

Four years ago she caused controversy by publishing her book Hoe voorkom je ADHD? Door de diagnose niet te stellen (How do you prevent ADHD? By not diagnosing it). Her thesis was that it wasn’t the children who were becoming more active; rather, society has become unable to handle them and decided to medicate them. ‘There is so much pressure on overburdened teacher and parents that special children are seen as a problem.’

Special children are seen as a problem

If you think she isn’t speaking from experience, you’re wrong. She has five children, and the sixth is on the way. ‘They’re lively children’, she says. ‘They’ve got a will of their own.’ They are not exactly malleable and they can’t be told what to do. Their teachers have suggested they suffer from a range of potential disorders: ADD, ADHD, PDD-NOS, dyslexia… It’s even been suggested they might be gifted. But Batstra doesn’t want to subject her children to a diagnosis. ‘My son doesn’t like reading’, she says. ‘That means he always scores low on standardised tests. But he wants to be a carpenter like his uncle, so he doesn’t need a good reading score.’ He’s fine the way he is, she says. There’s no need to change him.

Diagnosis

Three years ago she made another splash, organising Festival Apaart, where poets, musicians, and scientists celebrated deviating from the norm. The festival’s message was the same as her book: is it really necessary for everything or everyone that deviates to be diagnosed? To be medicated? Or should we embrace these things and people and accept them as part of the world?

Her latest endeavour is the ‘class party project’. Together with her partner in crime, music teacher Willem Venema, she encourages parents to invite the entire class to their children’s birthday parties, instead of a select group of children. Because every classroom has them: children that are rarely, if ever, invited to parties. These children are deemed too difficult, or they are simply overlooked and forgotten. ‘The social exclusion that happens when you’re not average’, she says, ‘can cause incredible pain.’

Criticising

Fortunately, her own children were never excluded much. But they do have friends who were. She also witnessed the phenomenon when she was working with the parents of ADHD children in a psychiatric clinic. ‘The parents of “easy” children are more likely to criticise rather than help.’

I was never afraid to throw down

But Batstra refuses to treat children like this. She has been going against the tide her whole life. In elementary school she knew a girl called Annie, from a family that had little money. The other children always said she had fleas. ‘I was the girl who always sat next to her. Out of pity, perhaps, but also out of a sense of rebellion.’

Where does this attitude come from? First of all, she’s from a leftist family. She was taught social consciousness from the get go. And she was never afraid of bullies. ‘I was already tall as a child’, she says, laughing. ‘And I was obstinate. I wasn’t afraid to throw down.’

Spawn

There’s one important question she needs an answer to: ‘Why are so many people so concerned with themselves and their own spawn, ignoring other people and their children?’

It’s not an admirable attitude. She once organised a birthday party for her son at the community centre and invited his whole class to the party. It was a spur of the moment decision. And there was one child she will always remember. ‘It was a girl from this poor family’, she remembers. ‘She was so happy! It was the first time she’d been invited to anything.’

She never forgot the girl, who became her inspiration for the class party project. Both parents and society can help to prevent this kind of exclusion; parties where everyone in a kid’s class is invited can give the less socially developed children an opportunity to make friends.

Friction

The way some parents react to ‘difficult’ children shocks her sometimes. She calls them harsh and overprotective. ‘When they hear a certain child will be coming to a party they’ll say their own child isn’t coming because he is being bullied by her. But the first child often comes from a difficult background as well. I always say: “No kid bullies for fun”.’

You can’t just dismiss systematic exclusion

She understands when people report friction between children, since it enables caretakers to keep an eye on the situation. But in most cases, it’s just a flash in the pan, ‘like one kid saying something mean to another.’

Some people say that children should simply learn to deal with disappointment. Batstra agrees with this, ‘but systematic exclusion is something else. You can’t just dismiss that.’

Batstra prefers to talk to her children about such incidents. ‘I take a different approach. My daughter has a friend who’s difficult. When she comes over I have to keep a close eye on her. But I do praise my daughter for inviting her over. Even when things go wrong sometimes. We should teach our children to include everyone, including the bullies and the children who have a hard time socialising. Wouldn’t it be great if that became the norm?’

She wants to provide a counterbalance to a society that encourages individuals to think only about optimising the experience of their own children, a society that doesn’t encourage caring for others.

She uses the class parties, the talks with her children, her blogs, and everything she can to try and effect this change. She wants to show people that caring for others can give them energy. It’s fun and satisfying. ‘The time you would usually spend on yoga, the gym, or mindfulness, could also be spent taking elderly people outside in their wheelchair. That works just as well, if not better.’

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