Images on gentle teaching.

There are many different images on gentle teaching. Some people think gentle teaching is just a technique to help people with severe behavioral problems, others think gentle teaching is just a gentle and warm way to help people, without much structure, others think it is what we are already doing when we serve people with special needs. After all, we are nice and friendly persons. All these images may have some truth, but they are not complete. In this article, we want to explain in simple words what gentle teaching is, what are the underlying thoughts of gentle teaching, for whom gentle teaching is good and what it means for caregivers to work with gentle teaching. In this short article it isn’t possible to explain all about gentle teaching, but we hope this will give you enough insight to inspire you to read more about gentle teaching and to apply in into your daily life as a parent, friend or caregiver.



Everybody longs to feel safe and loved, every person longs to express his feelings of love towards others and to feel connected with others. These longings are part of our human nature, as is our longing for food and shelter. This goes for children, adults, elderly people, people in the industrialized world, people in poor countries, people with a handicap or chronicle disease, homeless people, people with Alzheimer, people in prison, etc. Every person longs to have relationships with others in which he feels safe, loved, loving and connected. Of course you don’t have this kind of deep relationship with every person you meet; it is enough if you have a number of people in your daily life with whom you share this relationhsip.

The feeling, connected with this relationship, we call a feeling of companionship. This word comes from the Latin words “com” and “panis”, meaning “together” en “bread”. So literally companionship means “sharing the bread”. Metaphorically it means “sharing life”.

So the feeling of companionship relates to a special relationship which is unconditional and which consists of four elements:


Feeling safe together 
Feeling loved by each other 
Feeling loving towards each other 
Feeling connected with each other.


Feeling loved and loving

When we talk about feeling loved and loving, we don’t mead the kind of love between two partners who live together and also have a sexual relationship. We speak about a more spiritual love which is based in our human existence. We all have the need for this kind of love, but we also all have the power of giving this love inside us. Maybe we can compare it with the love of parents towards their children: this love just is there, no matter what the child is doing. And the child, deep inside, knows this love will always be there. That’s why we say that the feeling of companionship is unconditional. It doesn’t depend on the behavior of a person.


A natural process

Most people know this feeling of companionship and they experience it enough to support them in daily life. When all goes well, this feeling develops in early childhood in the relationship between the parents and the child. Without effort the child learns that he can feel safe with the parents and that the parents love him. The child also learns to share feelings of love: it learns to smile to the parents, give little kisses, hugs, etc. The child also learns to feel connected with the parents: he is helped by the parents, he watches at what the parents are doing and tries to do the same because he feels that what the parents do is good. We know this phase in child-development as the bonding-phase. When the child comes through this phase good, it has developed not only trust in others, but also self-confidence. There is a strong foundation for further development. When in early life there are no dramatic experiences, this foundation will deepen further and the child or grown-up will be able to relate to other people also and share feelings of companionship with them.

Not everybody is this lucky in life. With some children the relationship with their parents is disturbed from birth or from the early days after birth. This may be a result of a handicap or disorder the child is born with, shortly after birth the child may go through a dramatic experience or the parents may by specific circumstances not be able to develop bonding with their child. When in these first year of life the feeling companionship isn’t developed, the child may perhaps never be able to experience this feeling in a natural way.

But also when childhood was good and the child felt really connected with his parents, this isn’t a guarantee for the remaining of the feeling of companionship in later life. By many different causes, like traumatic experiences with others by sexual of physical abuse, a later brain-damage, a psychiatric disease like schizophrenia, being systematical rejected because of the use of drugs, etc., the feeling of companionship may be lost and also the possibility to regain this feeling in a natural way.


The vicious circle

People who don’t know the feeling of companionship, live in an emotionally isolated and often unsafe world. They are not connected with others the can trust and form whom they can learn and the need to find their own way in life. When they do this in a way which is not allowed by others, they will feel more rejected and the isolation will deepen. Eventually this may lead to specific kinds of cooping behavior like, screaming, physical aggression, self-injurious behavior, avoiding contact with others and many kinds of stereotype behaviors.

Unfortunately we learned more to look at the outward appearances and not so much to what is under the surface. This goes for many aspects in our lives and also for our human relationships. When we see that somebody is asking for a lot of attention, we label this behavior as “demanding” and we don’t see the need of the person to be  seen and loved; when we see somebody expressing himself with aggression, we say he want to harm others and we don’t see the fear which may be the cause of this aggression. There are many more examples where we judge a person on his instead of who he really is and how he feels. This judgment determines our reactions toward him and together we come in a vicious circle which drives us more and more away from each other.


Another direction

Gentle teaching gives another direction to our relationships. With gentle teaching we want to start a process of stopping this driving away from each other and to literally teach the person (again) to feel safe and loved by us, to feel loving towards us and to feel connected with us: we want to teach him the feeling of companionship.

So gentle teaching can be seen as “teaching a person the feeling of companionship”. The tools we use in this process are the tools we always use in our communication with others: 

  • our hands
    • our eyes
      • our words
        • our presence

It is very important that we use these tools in a non-domineering way . This means that, no matter what the person is doing, we don’t yell at him, we don’t grab him, don’t look angry at him or use our presence to impose on him. The most difficult is, that it isn’t important that we don’t want to be domineering; it is important that our actions are not seen as domineering. With all our good intentions, we can be very domineering in the eyes of the other because of his life-experiences of being rejected, not understood, abused, etc. He looks at our behavior from the point of view of his life-experiences and not from our intentions.


Attitude and methodology

Gentle teaching is an attitude as well as a method. It’s an attitude in the way that we integrate the principles in our daily life and our daily relationship with the special people we serve. We learn not to look at the behavior of the persons, but at who they are and how they feel and we constantly try to make them feel safe with us and loved by us. In a normal parent-child relationship this goes spontaneously and without thinking. In care giving for people with special vulnerabilities we will have to this more consciously. We constantly have to be aware of the fact that every - even short- interaction with the person is a moment when he can learn something from us. When he experiences us as being loving and connected with him, he will learn more about the feeling of companionship; when he feels we are domineering or rejecting, he we learn to turn away from us further. It is as simple as it sounds.

Many people, also people with special vulnerabilities, will learn the feeling of companionship with us when we integrate the principles of gentle teaching in our daily attitude. There are however people, who are so emotionally isolated and fearful, that they need more intense warm experiences. Here we apply gentle teaching more intense as a methodology. This means that we create special sessions when we can teach the person more intensely to feel safe with us, loved by us, loving towards us and to be connected with us. These moments of intense teaching can be scheduled and we can arrange a special environment, but it is also possible to integrate these sessions in our daily contacts with the person. For instance: when waking up the person every morning, we can take some more time to spent with him and make him feel safe and loved when starting the day; or when the person comes home from his daily work or activities, we can take some time for him to listen to his story and really connect with him from heart to heart.


The psychology of interdependence

Gentle teaching is more than just a way of serving people with special vulnerabilities. It is the expression of a concept of man(kind) in which a central thought is, that every human being deeply longs to have the feeling of companionship and that people who are really connected with each other, form strong loving and caring communities. This concept on human existence is described by John McGee in what is called the Psychology of Interdependence.

McGee has worked for many years in the slums of Brazil with people who are the poorest of the poor and who were isolated from the rest of the society. There he found deep and warm relationships among these people and a strong community of people who share their lives and unconditionally help each other. He also saw that, if you really want to help the people in the poor third world countries, you can’t do this by imposing values and “solutions” from the rich countries. You need to build relationships based on equality and you have to support the potentials of the countries and people themselves.

Back in the US McGee entered the support of people with an intellectual disability. There he was confronted with violence and the domineering behavioristic approach which focused on controlling people instead of supporting there potentials. To change this, McGee was challenged to translate his experiences from Brazil into an approach for serving people with “behavior problems”. In the early days of gentle teaching, it was focused very much on helping people with an intellectual disability and severe behavior problems. Later on gentle teaching developed to a way of care giving for all kind of people with special vulnerabilities and also for “normal” people en children in regular schools. The psychology of interdependence and gentle teaching are applicable for everybody.



It is good to say some more about the word “interdependence”. We easily think that we are independent individuals: “we are who we are, independent from people around us”. In care giving it is seen as very important to make the people we serve “independent”.

It is however wrong to think that a human being can develop himself independent from others. Everybody is during his life more or less dependent of others. When we look at a functional level, our daily activities, being independent may be a proper goal in life. It will have value for a person if he can take care of his own affairs and care for himself. But even on this functional level we see that every person sometimes needs the support of others: of the parents when he is a child, from friends when he is an adult, from their children when they get old or from caregivers when they get sick. Everybody needs the help of others, nobody is independent.

When we look at the absolute level of human being, independence is a complete illusion. One can only develop as a human being in relationship to others, because being connected with others is an essence of being human. You develop yourself by learning from other people; specially those you feel a strong connection with. The way you see yourself depends on how you see the others and on how

you think the others see you. You get your self-image mainly out of how others interact with you.

In many day-activity centers, people have their own task which they have to perform by themselves. Hardly ever you see that tasks are arranged in such a way that it invites people to work together and help each other.  The concept behind this is, that it’s good for your self-esteem to do something by yourself. But it’s a wrong concept.


By performing a task by yourself, you develop your skills
By working together, you develop your SELF


Out of a strong self, connected with others, comes the need and strength to develop your own talents, like a seed in good soil will become a flower.

Being a professional

Often the question is asked whether it’s professional and good for a caregiver to be personally connected with a person he serves.

Our answer is, that it’s professional to give a person what he needs. If he needs to feel loved and loving and if he needs to feel related with you, it is professional to give her this. It is not professional to close your eyes for these needs and tell yourself that this doesn’t belong to your work. You connect with the person from your heart, but of course you also use your knowledge, skills and awareness of what you are doing.

It’s also professional to complete the contact with the people you serve before going home at the end of your day. For the persons this means that you them that you are going and when you will be back, so you don’t just suddenly disappear. You don’t do that with you other friends in personal life either.

For yourself, completing the contact, means that you are aware of what you encountered during the day. If there are unfinished emotional experiences, you face them and discover what they can teach you for the next day. You can do this by taking some time for yourself, being fully aware of your emotions and calmly let them go. You may also need to talk to a colleague or your team manager about how you feel.

By the way, it is an illusion to think that not relating with the people you serve, will not set up your emotions. Every contact evokes emotions and if you don’t realize this, and if you don’t really deal with these emotions, sooner or  later it will break up with you. Especially when there are many thrilling interactions at work.


Gentle teaching in institutional settings

Another frequently asked question is whether gentle teaching can be applied in institutional settings. Specially care for people with a intellectual disability or people with a mental illness or Alzheimer in many countries is still organized in institutional settings: group homes, nursing homes and also in rather large institutions. Many people live in groups from 4 – 12 persons with a high staff turnover.

Of course the most desirable situation for people with special vulnerabilities would be to live in family-like homes with caring and loving people around them to support them. This would also be the best circumstances for gentle teaching. The reality however is that this is not how most people with special vulnerabilities live. The parents may not be able to care for their handicapped child anymore or the child himself chooses to leave the parents, maybe the normal environment is to complex and dangerous for a person to live, maybe – and in most cases it is –there aren’t enough recourses to create family-like settings for all people with special vulnerabilities. Fact is that most of them live in groups, mostly to large. Fact also is, that most of these people don’t experience the feeling of companionship and that we can do something about that; in spite of the conditions. By doing nothing, we don’t help them at all.

Important is that, while developing companionship, we are fully aware of, but also accept the conditions as the reality of life. If we start complaining we aren’t helping anyone.  We do as much as we can and important above all is that we try to get more people connected in the feeling of companionship for an individual person: we involve all caregivers, we involve the home mates, we involve parents, volunteers,  etc. This way we create a circle of companions so the person won’t be lost when familiar caregivers are leaving.


Quality of life

However the feeling of companionship is very important, it isn’t all in life. To feel happy we need more than companionship. There are more things that make our quality of life and it is important that within gentle teaching we also pay attention to those aspects. When we have established a strong feeling of companionship with a person, we can also support him realizing a general good quality of life.

Quality of life is not related to common standards in a society, but it is related to personal feelings and expectations about what will make you feel happy. So you might say that every person has his own personal standard. To support a person’s quality of life we have to see what he wants in life – what him feel happy – and how we can support this.

To make this idea more tangible for caregivers we use a model in which quality of life is seen as a translation of eight basic values, underlying the more concrete aspirations and longings we all have when we think of what makes us happy in life.


Basic values of quality of life

The models identifies the following basic values:

  1. feeling good about the body
  2. feeling self-esteem
  3. feeling safe
  4. feeling loved and loving
  5. feeling connected
  6. feeling supported
  7. having meaningful daily activities
  8. feeling inner contentment

In all what we are doing we try to feel good about these basic values. We want to feel good about each value separate, but also about the total of all eight. And when we feel good about the total of all eight, we say we have a good quality of life; if the sum of all isn’t good, we don’t experience a good quality of life.

Not every basic value is even important, nor is there a strict hierarchy of importance which goes for all of us. Every person has her own hierarchy of importancy due to personal experiences in life or the circumstances she lives in. This hierarchy will also change during life just by growing up, or because of special circumstances, like illness, loss of dear ones, losing one’s job, etc.

From basic values to concrete longings.

The choices we make in life and our daily behavior is based on wanting to realize a good feeling on the basic values. In our mind however, we hardly think of these basic values. We think of more concrete longings which are the expressions of these basic values. We might think of the following expressions of the basic values:

Feeling good about the body: being healthy, having a good physical condition, being well fed, being well clothed, feeling that your body is beautiful, not being hindered by a physical handicap.

Feeling self-esteem: having a positive self-image, being proud of what you accomplish, getting attention and complements, feeling respected, being able to make your own choices in life, having person properties, being seen as an individual.

Feeling safe: not being afraid of people you live with, having people to protect you, having no fear of violence, being able to avoid threatening places or events.

Feeling loved and loving: experiencing the feeling of companionship, having loving parents, having loving brothers and sisters, having a life-partner, having children, feeling confident in expressing your feelings towards others, liking to help others

Feeling connected: feeling connected with the environment you live in, not being excluded from society, partaking celebrations and other events, being member of  a club, being able to go for chopping like others

Feeling supported: Having structure in your life, being able to predict what will happen next, having a life-plan, knowing what to expect of other people, being able to have your own rituals, having spiritual / religious beliefs to hold on, having friends you can rely on.

Having meaningful daily activities: having work or activities you like to do, having work that fits in your life-plan, doing volunteer activities you want, going to school.

Feeling inner contentment: feeling self-confident, being able to express your emotions, being able to cope with disappointments, being free of traumas, being free of psychiatric diseases.


Appropriate or impropriate behavior

Most of us generally feel good about our quality of life and the eight basic values. We also have developed many ways of achieving what we want in a socially accepted way. By temporary circumstances one or two of the basic values may feel less positive or even negative for some time, but then we have enough alternatives left on the positive side to compensate these negative feelings. We don’t need to feel in despair. We also are able find new and also socially accepted ways to find happiness if old ways don’t work anymore.

There are also people for whom this isn’t that easy. If you haven’t been able - because of a handicap or your living conditions - to develop a balanced pattern of expressions of the basic values, you have less possibilities to create your own happiness  and you may get feelings of despair sooner. From these feelings it’s more difficult to always find socially accepted alternatives and your behavior will be seen as impropriate. When you, for instance, don’t get the attention you so badly need, you will do everything to get what you need: you may even start screaming, smashing things on the floor or hit others. People around you will likely try to ignore you or punish you for your behavior and your problem of not getting the positive attention you need will get worse instead of less. Your need for positive attention will not decrease, but rather increase. And you will likely do more of the same to get what you want, because you know no other ways.

Usually we classify behaviors as positive or negative. From the perspective of quality of life we make another classification.
This goes for appropriate behaviors as well as for improper behaviors. When a person behaves in an improper way, we don’t try to manipulate the behaviors, but we try to make him happy

Supporting Quality of Life

In gentle teaching we don’t speak of improper behaviors. We see the behavior for what it really is.

We do things in order to become happy or avoid unhappiness
We do things to express our feeling of (un)happiness

And if the behavior of a person is harmful for himself or others, we don’t need to solve our problem by trying to change this behavior, but we try to help the person by making him happy. We see his longing of being happy as fully legitimate; but we also see that it is sad that the person has no other means to get what he needs.

So when we see that a person has hardly developed any longings on some basic values, or just longings he can’t achieve in a socially accepted way, we help him by giving him what he needs and perhaps helping him develop new longings which he can achieve more easily by himself. We can do this without domineering, without punishing, without being disciplinarian. WE just look at his needs and his talents and other qualities he has and help him to make use of them and make use of whatever possibilities the environment offers.


Is gentle teaching the medicine for all problems?

Gentle teaching will make a huge difference in life for all people, no matter the special vulnerabilities they may have. This however doesn’t mean that gentle teaching is the medicine for all problems. We can make a person who is hallucinating experience the feeling of companionship and make him feel sure that, whatever he is doing, we unconditionally love him and support him. We may perhaps also help him during his hallucinations to keep in contact with us and with reality a bit, but we cannot stop his hallucinations or cure his mental illness. The same goes for people who are autistic. A person with autism needs the feeling of companionship, but he also needs that life is predictable and the everything and every person is in its place. Like the person who is hallucinating needs medication together with the feeling of companionship, the person with autism needs companionship and a supporting structure. Gentle teaching gives a strong foundation in life, but it doesn’t solve all problems. So when we deal with people with special vulnerabilities like autism, schizophrenia, borderline, ADHD, etc. we combine gentle teaching with a more specific approach for his vulnerability. Working with gentle teaching doesn’t exclude other strategies. On the contrary: if we do it good, one plus one becomes three.


Do we want this and can we do it?

After reading this text you may ask yourself :”do I want this and can I do it?”. Do I want to be loving to the people I am serving, including the ones I don’t like or I’m afraid of. How can I be genuine in a loving posture if I don’t like him? Some people we like more than others, isn’t that natural?.

These questions are very reasonable and it is good to ask them for yourself and discuss them with others. These questions whether we can and want to work with gentle teaching has three underlying questions:

  • Are we motivated?
  • Do we feel it fits with us?
  • Are we skillful enough to do it?

Are we motivated?

The motivation to work with gentle teaching comes from our conviction that everybody longs for the feeling of companionship. So when we see that the people we serve do not know this feeling of companionship, or when we see that this feeling isn’t strong enough to help him cope with difficult moments, this can be our motivation to help him. It would be strange if we, as caregivers and fellow human beings,  see such an essential gap in the life of a person, and we wouldn’t want to help him.

In order to see if the person we serve experiences the feeling of companionship, we learn to look at them in another way. We shouldn’t just look at his daily skills or his intelligence and at his behaviors, but at how he feels. Sometimes it will be helpful to use special evaluation-tools, developed from the perspective of gentle teaching.

A stronger way may by changing places: Imagine  you are in his place…. how would you feel?


Does it fit with us?

When we have the right motivation, we may come to the question whether the posture of gentle teaching fits with us. Can we give love towards everybody who needs this from us? Can we overcome our resistance towards a person or our fear of him?

Now we come to one of the essential parts of gentle teaching. Gentle teaching is not about changing the other, but about changing together. We both have to change to develop a feeling of companionship.

And because I, the caregiver, have the best means to do this, I have to start this process of interdependent change. So I, the caregiver, have to find out what my resistances are and how I can overcome them.

Often in discovering our resistance, we also see the solution. We can see that the resistance isn’t so relevant. It’s caused by our own emotions. If we investigate the roots of these emotions, we can transform emotions which cause distance and domineering responses into emotions which evoke joy and compassion for the person.

We also can start with looking better at who we are ourselves. Who are we really? We think who we are by looking at how we act, forgetting that our way of acting and of coping with life events is mainly determined by the defense-mechanism we have built up during our life. Behind this shield is our real self, which has an enormous power of giving love. We can make contact with this power by opening our shield.

There is a good saying: “Being invulnerable by allowing yourself to be vulnerable”. So there is no need to be afraid to open yourself towards others give them your love; we all can do this and it is for all of us the essence of our human being.


Are we skillful enough?

Having the right motivation and having confidence in the power of our love is most important, but we also need some skills. Skills in good observing, skills to see and overcome the fear and resistance of the person and ourselves. Specially in situations where gentle teaching is used explicitly as a method with people who are severely emotionally isolated and fearful, it is important to be skillful in how to prepare for a session and how to use your gentle teaching tools: hands, words, eyes and presence. These are all skills everybody who want to can learn.