The recent PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) scores highlighted yet again that strange phenomena of education in South Korea: very high test scores, but at the same time very low scores on individuality and happiness.
Life for students in Korea can be very hard, and it starts very early. Professor Kim Yang Soon, of Jeju National University is concerned: “Recently a couple asked me for advice about whether they should send their three-year-old child to an English kindergarten or not? I doubt whether such a thought will help the child to become a happy child in the future...”
More and more Korean parents are realizing that the extreme emphasis on results is only making their children deeply unhappy. Kim is one of a few pioneers not just on Jeju but in South Korea as a whole who has been helping children cope with their psychological needs.
On Jeju one of the few organizations helping children with such needs is the “Jeju Children's Counseling Center,” started by the professor. Kim is a specialist in the field of Play Therapy and Parent-Child Relationships Therapy (CPRT). “Children can't verbally properly express themselves, even at 10 or older. This is even more true when they are hurt. But while playing toys can take the place of words.”
“There are so many problems here; for instance, Korean children can't play.” That may sound strange to Westerners, but the professors gave several examples: “In my work I have seen many Korean children asking for permission for almost anything, even while they are playing. And when they play, they play with toys which simply reinforce the idea that you must confirm to rules. Puzzles for instance can only be made in one way; you must conform to the rules of the game to be able to play with them.”
Inspired by Swiss psychotherapist Carl Jung, Kim explains how she feels it is the parents who are often the real problem, turning their children into study robots: “The lack of self-confidence is stunning in this society.”
Such ideas are not widely accepted in Korea, where long hours of study are deemed more important than “wasting” time on things like playing. “Anything that doesn't conform with the parent's idea of what is useful is deemed nonsense and wasteful. But the burden on the children in this rat race for the highest score is terrible.”
Professor Garry Landreth, of the University of North Texas, where Kim was a visiting professor in 2001, initially introduced her to the value of playing; his central idea is “toys are the child's words and play is the child's language.” Although learning to play is crucial for children in Korea, it isn’t the only thing children learn through Play Therapy.
“Taking responsibility is very important. Traditionally in Korean culture responsibility is often located outside of a child. When a child is hurt after hitting a big stone the mother and the child used to punish the stone for causing the pain. This led to the idea that you are not responsible for your problems, the responsibility lies somewhere else. Accepting responsibility for your own problems is one way of discovering a way out of problems,” Kim said.
If these problems are tackled during a play situation the child can experience the feeling of helping itself; developing limits is also important: “During the therapy, while playing, children can play with guns, if they like to do so. However, they are never allowed to point these toy guns at people. We always tell them that people are not for shooting. That way they learn to set limits.”
The professor feels it is the parents who often create the problem in Korea: “A young child comes home after receiving her first result, a 100 score in writing. Instead of being happy, the first thing the parent asks: why not 100 in math? And what did the other children have? We feel that many of the children that are being sent to us do not have much of a problem themselves; it’s the parents that need help.”
And so often the professor ends up talking to the parents, not the children. Some of the parents do take this very seriously: “Before opening the center in Jeju I knew a family who actually went to Seoul every few weeks [for therapy]. That was not only costly, it was also tiring. But they did do it, I admired that.”
Sand play is also practised at the center, through which children can express their unconscious thoughts by using sand to create figures and tell a story. For other children, animals can be very helpful: often it is easier for a troubled child to “talk” to a dog during animal-assisted play therapy than to an adult. Other forms of therapy are available due to links with JNU, such as horticulture, music and art.
Although not all staff speak English, the Center can be contacted daily and Kim, an English speaker, is welcome to receiving contact from non-Korean speakers. After initial contact, the parents and child visit for an interview. Kim stresses that she looks for “difficulties,” rather than “problems.”
“I never use the word ‘problem’ - I don't think problem children exist. There is a difficulty and that is what we have to try to solve.”
There will be standard checks, of course, to check for specific disorders, such as autism or ADHD: “Such tests are produced externally,” said Kim. After the results have been interpreted a number of sessions will be proposed, usually 24 or 30: “This may seem a lot, but for my dissertation research I observed several children for 2.5 years.”
The original JNU institute - which also has several labs for the students who study with the professor - grew out of the personal activities of the doctor: “I had been providing play therapy since 1997, in my own office, but that was when I only helped two children a week. Once I took on more children, it was obvious I needed more space.”
In order to accommodate the increasing number of children attending the therapy sessions, a second site at Iedo 2-dong was needed.
“The new location is a separate nonprofit organization, which can help more children and where student internships, separate from JNU, are possible.”
This nonprofit organization employs two staff, whose salaries are actually paid by the professor herself. Part of the costs of the center are covered by the counseling fees, but this is only a very small fraction of the total cost. Earlier in the day some high school students had been referred by their school, for which the Provincial Office of Education will pay a nominal fee, far less than what private institutes charge: “You can't say no, that's not possible. Helping is more important to me than the money.”
Helping families on low incomes is particularly important to the professor, so increasing fees is just not an option: “The local government pays 25,000 won for children from low-income multicultural families, or for North Korean refugee families, and sometimes parents themselves pay a little bit more. But money shouldn't be our first concern of course!”
However, the rent, the heating and the electricity still have to be paid, which means the professor has been using her savings to pay for most of the costs: “I am planning to hold out for 10 years, if possible, but I hope I can integrate our institute with the local government's activities. In Seoul and Busan such centers already exist, but in Jeju only the adolescents have such government centers; there is not much for the younger children.”
The staff are also not free: “I did not only want to help the children, I also wanted to help my students at JNU to find a way of gaining more experience. In Korea, with its very high percentage of very unhappy children, so many children need help. But there simply are not enough well-trained and properly certified counselors or therapists in Korea. In Jeju, the situation is even more difficult.”
This center has a professor and PhD and master’s level students running the programs, which guarantees high quality. This was recognized by the local government when a questionnaire showed that the center was one of the best servicing the needs of children on the island according to parents: “That felt very good, it showed we are on the right way.”
“I really wanted to do it all alone, just like I had done for years, without any regard to money or government or anything else - just the children and me. But then, without an organization you can't get anything done in the long run.”
In many American hospitals there are special wards for psychological cases, where students can get valuable experience, but on Jeju that is not easy to come by for students studying counseling: “Sending students to Seoul is really not optimal for us, and we don't want to lose the knowledge, of course. Giving them a chance to learn the basics here and then sending them to the US, for example, for more study is much more worthwhile.”
Kim is not in it for the money anyway: “Besides teaching at JNU I have been doing this for 15 years now simply because I feel this is my mission. Even as a graduate student I already decided I wanted to help children. Especially counselors like Garry Landreth, a play therapist, have been a huge inspiration to me. I feel every child should be happy, anywhere. But Korean children are amongst the unhappiest in the world, even now that we are amongst the richest nations, our children are still unhappy simply because they have to study all the time, study for success."
Going commercial is simply not an option: “In Seoul there might be enough clients, but not on Jeju. But even then, a counselor can't help more than three children a day; it would probably never really be financially feasible to do this on a commercial basis - and why should I?”
Despite the workload, the professor continues to lecture at the university too: “Either subsidized or otherwise supported by the local government, that would be by far the best option in the future.”
The professor has seen suffering elsewhere as well, witnessing the aftermath of the September 11 attacks: “I went there together with UNT doctoral students to help children cope with what had happened. Such a situation happens only very rarely; it was very unreal. Many children had lost their parents, and one Korean couple had lost their son.”
After the tsunami hit Sri Lanka in December of 2004 she also went there to help the children. “There I helped teachers to be able to continue helping after we had left. That way after all the material goods that were sent had been used up, at least the knowledge was still available.”
Her international experiences makes non-Koreans especially welcome: “We have a lot of experience on Jeju with multicultural families. In Korea this usually means people with a parent from Vietnam, China or the Philippines, but with the international schools opening in Jeju more and more Western children might come here...and are very welcome, too.”
Whether it is about preventing school violence or attention improvement, the center can aid children on Jeju becoming happier humans.
Dr. Kim is a certified and registered play therapist and supervisor (in the USA) and a counseling supervisor (in South Korea).
More information about the centre can be found here: http://cafe.naver.com/jccc55 or call 064 725 1379.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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