A baby turns her head to stare at a cat; a toddler tentatively kicks a ball; a small child opens a box of bricks. These are fleeting moments in daily life, but they’re full of opportunity for communicating and learning if adults recognise them and respond appropriately, according to the renowned Dutch educator Maria Aarts. She developed the Marte Meo method of communication to support emotional and social development in everyday interactions between a child and their carer.
For example, a smile at the toddler affirms what he has just done. Then a verbal description in a warm tone of voice – “I see you kicking the ball” – not only helps language development but encourages him to do it again and, perhaps, to make a game out of it. Your interest and response to the child’s initiative builds his self-confidence.
That’s a brief, simplistic illustration of the Marte Meo approach, which is named after the Latin for “one’s own strengths” and is based on capabilities that parents and early childhood educators already have. But Aarts herself would be the first to say that, in essence, it is very simple and much of it is something most carers do naturally.
After decades of working in child development, she says: “The more you think and analyse and study, the simpler it gets.”
Marte Meo was founded to help parents and carers of children with additional needs to develop skills for the extra challenges they face. But it is applicable to all children.
"We help people to read the developmental message behind the problem," Aarts tells The Irish Times from her home in Eindhoven, ahead of a visit to Dublin next month to address the annual conference of Early Childhood Ireland (see panel).
The idea for Marte Meo arose through her work with autistic children in the Netherlands in the 1970s. A chance encounter with a mother visiting her son one Sunday afternoon at the residential centre for children with special needs, where Aarts was employed, was the turning point.
“She saw I was able to make contact with him and then she started to cry and she said, ‘Maria, that’s my son, I am his mum. Why don’t you teach me how to do it?’ That changed my whole professional life.”
At the age of 24, it made her start to question why they, as state health professionals, took over 24-hour care of these children and did not show parents how to work with them.
From early in her career she filmed lots of adult-child interactions, so she could see what successful communication between parents and children looked like. Initially this informed her development of Marte Meo, but she has used videos ever since to demonstrate elements to others.
“I analysed in detail what exactly happens when a child develops self-confidence or play skills. I kept looking: that is a little bit my hobby.”
She says that, according to her mother, it was something she did from about the age of four, “always staring at people, really impolite”, fascinated by human exchanges. (Growing up as the eighth child in a Catholic family of 14 children, Aarts clearly had plenty of subjects to observe without even leaving the house.)
Marte Meo therapists working with individual parents film typical daily interactions between a client and child, and then pick out clips to show where the parent has picked up cues and supported that child and other moments where, perhaps, an expressed need was not met.
After parents are invited to practise some suggested strategies, they are filmed again. Watching this video, they can see the positive impact of more considered reactions on the child.
“By helping your child develop a better self-confidence, you are giving them a golden gift for their whole life,” says Aarts, who founded the Marte Meo organisation in 1987 and brought it to Israel that year. At a Jerusalem university she met a Norwegian professor who asked her to introduce her programmes to his country.
The method is now taught in 42 countries and, while circumstances and culture may vary from place to place, the needs of children are the same everywhere. She has tailored almost 30 different programmes, ranging from one for people working with premature babies to another for those involved in the care of patients with dementia.
The latter arose after a Marte Meo therapist used the communication techniques with her elderly mother and filmed the interaction to show Aarts that they were just as effective with somebody who was losing cognitive skills as with children who were yet to develop them.
Marte Meo was introduced to Ireland in the 1990s and the Health Service Executive funded a training centre in Dublin, which is now under the auspices of Tusla, the Child and Family Agency. Many health professionals, as well as parents of children with additional needs, have been coached in this approach.
A Dublin City University study in 2011 concluded that "parents who used the Marte Meo communication therapy method developed greater confidence in their parenting skills and rediscovered their ability to parent their child beyond her/his diagnosis or behaviour problem".
The first three years are crucial to the development of what Aart terms “your inside life”: your interests and talents. When a baby takes an initiative to explore, whether through a look, a touch or a movement, and the parent or carer supports that moment, “you go to develop what I call your ‘goldmine’, ” says Aarts.
Sense of security
A baby who gets a smile from a parent for doing something begins to trust his own initiative and to develop a sense of security and self-worth.
“We know in the brain you get expectation models. It is a model for how you think the next interaction should go,” explains Aarts. “When you have positive expectation models, you deal in a more positive way with people around you.”
She says research shows that children whose self-development is supported in this way are less vulnerable later to alcohol or drug addiction.
“Because you carry with you a kind of joy and you can deal with other people, you have so many joyful moments instead of an empty life.”
What she describes as a “double-trouble situation” is when a child with additional needs is being brought up by “weak-functioning parents”. That combination brings a high risk of disturbed behaviour.
While watching and following the child is a first principle of Marte Meo, this needs to be balanced with leading, she says. “Leading is helping your children to learn to do what must be done.”
Not working on a child’s behaviour, but reading the developmental message behind it is also key. For instance, when children are aggressive it is to do with under-development, she explains.
“They don’t have enough solution models; they don’t have enough respect models; they don’t have enough empathy, so you must work on that.”
This approach means you don’t have to think your child is wrong or you are wrong, it is just that your child has not yet had the opportunity to develop that skill, she points out.
Although Aarts’s career has been dedicated to children worldwide, she was not able to have any of her own. But she consoles herself with the belief that “God had a different plan”, because travelling seven months of the year as she does would not have been compatible with raising a family.
She will be 65 in August, and the passion she exudes for her work shows no signs of abating.
“Who,” she asks rhetorically, “would retire from such an interesting life?”
Play on the Brain conference “Play on the Brain” was chosen as the title of Early Childhood Ireland’s annual conference next month because children use play to grow, learn, explore, develop, express their curiosity and creativity, says its chief executive, Teresa Heeney. From the moment they are born, children are driven to engage with others and to make sense of their world through play. But what happens if they struggle to join in and what can adults do to help them?
Parents are welcome to attend the conference on Saturday, April 18th, to hear from experts about how interaction and play skills can support children to connect and participate fully with others, says Heeney.
Maria Aarts is the perfect keynote speaker, she adds, as her approach “provides skills to build upon the relationship and attachment that are at the heart of all meaningful caregiving relationships”.
“Play on the Brain” is on April 17th and 18th at the Croke Park Conference Centre, Dublin, and Maria Aarts will speak on the second day, for which places can be booked by non-members. The cost is €65, and includes lunch. See earlychildhoodireland.ie