Who was Marianne

The following article was written by Mariette Sawchuk and appeared in the September 1985 issue of Mount St. Mary's College Magazine, Los Angeles, California.

I am very grateful to Mariette Sawchuck for her effort to present an accurate and balanced presentation of the life of my mother.

Marianne Frostig

A small table in front of a window overlooking Doheny's lawns and trees stands a statue of a child, arms raised to embrace the bending figure of a woman. It is an award for Distinguished Professional Service to Children with Learning Disabilities given to Dr. Marianne Frostig in 1968 by the Association for Children with Learning Disabilities. Next to it is a much-prized silver cup awarded to Dr. Frostig by the Los Angeles Times in 1970 when she was chosen Woman of the Year. Sitting in her office above the Child Development Center at Doheny, Marianne Frostig is surrounded by awards and mementos of her remarkable career.

The walls are covered with honors testifying to her major contributions in the field of educational therapy. Among them are the Golden Key Award for Outstanding Professional Service in the Field of Learning Disabilities also given by the Association for Children with Learning Disabilities (1968), the International Honor Award given by the International Federation of Learning Disabilities in Amsterdam (1974), and the Humanitarian Award of the California State Psychological Association (1977) to name only a few. An ornate scroll from the Los Angeles City Council commends Dr. Frostig's work on behalf of the children of Los Angeles and the world.

Wall shelves hold objects collected on speaking engagements in many foreign countries where she is a sought-after speaker for conferences, lectures and short courses. Her seminars have been sponsored by universities, medical schools and professional associations in England, Australia, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Austria, Sweden, Switzerland, Norway, The Netherlands, Peru, Argentina, Venezuela, South Africa, Mexico, Canada, Hong Kong and Japan.

In person, this distinguished woman, founder of the Marianne Frostig Center for Educational Therapy, Professor of Education and scholar-in-residence at Mount St. Mary's since 1969, looks like the perfect grandmother. She is short, slightly plump, with a cap of white hair and sharp, unfaded blue eyes. As she talks about her work in a soft voice which retains its Austrian accent, the story emerges of a woman, often ahead of her time, who has built a rich and varied career of service to others.  Dr. Frostig did not set out to be a teacher. She began her career studying to be a psychiatric social worker with children at the College for Social Training, Vienna, in 1926 As a part of this program, she worked with juvenile delinquents and with children in the University of Vienna's Pediatric Clinic. Many of these children were brain damaged by encephalitis and were considered hopeless cases by Frostig's professors. Her attempts to teach them, however, convinced her that these children, too, could learn. I therefore decided to devote myself to finding ways to help children with brain damage, even if the exploration would take a lifetime.

It was to be some time before she could act on that commitment, that disabilities were the ones which caused most learning commitment. Her program of study was closed by a political revolution. Feeling that "the body is the most important possession of any human being, and that it affords the most direct expression of his feelings,” she applied to the Hellerau Laxenburg located near Vienna. This school which attracted students in the fields of dance, music and gymnastics, specialized in rhythmics, a form of physical education.

After her marriage to Peter Jacob Frostig, a neuro-psychiatrist, she went with him to a small psychiatric hospital at Otwock, near Warsaw, Poland. Understaffing before their arrival, Dr. Frostig realized that patients had received purely custodial care. Consequently, only 10% of them could do even the simplest tasks. The young wife used her experience as a social worker and her understanding of body movement to help out as Director of Rehabilitation. She analyzed tasks and geared them to the patients' abilities so that, within a year, 90% of the patients were able to work in the hospital, even those diagnosed as catatonic. In 1939 Dr.Frostig's husband was offered a position in the United States. He accepted, saving their lives. During the Nazi invasion of Poland, all at the hospital, patients and staff, were murdered.

Dr. Frostig's first years in the United States were devoted to raising her two children, adapting to a new country and earning the credentials that would allow her to introduce to the United States the kind of educational therapy she had learned in Vienna. In 1946, after nine exhilarating months of study, she was awarded a Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology, the first baccalaureate degree ever issued by the New School for Social Research. She and her husband came to Los Angeles where she began to teach in the public school system. With the boundless energy that seems to characterize her, she also acted as a consulting psychologist in juvenile Hall and studied for her master's degree at Claremont Graduate School. (She earned her master's degree in 1949 and her doctorate from USC in 1955.)

Her observations of dyslexic children at juvenile Hall and her reading the works of Gestaltist psychologists coalesced with her early experiences. “In these books there were discussions of the perceptual and conceptual functions and dysfunction's which I had observed in post-encephalitic children…and which I now observed in Juvenile Hall. I concluded that many of these children might be suffering from neurological dysfunction. This I thought might be a clue for helping children with learning difficulties. As there might be a connection between the perceptual disturbances and their learning deficits, I decided to find out what this connection might be.”

Careful observation convinced her that visual perceptual disabilities were the ones which caused most learning problems to the brain damaged children, the juvenile delinquents and her own private clients.  When her private practice in educational therapy grew into a school, Dr. Frostig gave up her work at Juvenile Hall and began to develop reliable tools to diagnose and correct visual perceptual problems in children. Existing tests failed to distinguish between children who misperceived a figure, perhaps a triangle, and those who saw the figure correctly but did not have the coordination to draw it. As she attempted to construct her test, moreover, Dr. Frostig realized that several different visual perceptive problems were being lumped together in the same categories.

The Marianne Frostig Development Test of Visual Perception scores a child on five different abilities. It determines whether a child can distinguish figure and ground, as in puzzles requiring him to find a hidden shape. It checks the consistency of visual perceptions, determining whether a child can recognize a letter, "A" for example, printed in different type styles, sizes or colors. Some children cannot differentiate letters that have the same form but differ in their position in space-"b" and "d" for instance. Others cannot recognize which letters belong together to form words, difficulties in seeing spatial relationships. The test examines these abilities and also checks for the visual-motor coordination that produces well-directed eye movements in reading.  Standardized by testing over 2,100 children between the ages of three and ten, the test was published in 1964. It was a breakthrough, rapidly gaining worldwide acceptance and generating extensive research in its own right. Meanwhile, work was continuing at the Frostig Center to develop methods of improving the visual perceptual abilities in children. Dr. Frostig, with her colleagues Dr. Phyllis Maslow, David Horne, Bea Mandell and Ann Marie Miller, her daughter, created materials that can be used to train a child in any of the five areas of perceptual weakness. They produced work sheets which can be used with children of any grade level whose visual perceptual development is impaired, with culturally deprived children who lack adequate practice in these abilities, with deaf children, with the mentally retarded and even, in three dimensions, with blind children who need training in spatial orientation. This work has been translated into French, German, Italian, Japanese, Spanish, Dutch, Swedish and Finnish. The test itself is available in all these languages and Czech as well.

This is a life's work of which anyone could be proud. For Dr. Frostig, characteristically, it was a steppingstone to other work in the service of her beloved children. She and her colleagues set about assembling a battery of tests, her own and others, which could give teachers and therapists a well-rounded picture of a child's strengths and weaknesses. In selecting these tests, Dr. Frostig discovered there was no adequate standardized test of motor abilities. Using her background in rhythmics, she developed the Frostig Test of Motor Skill, which evaluates coordination, agility, flexibility, strength, speed, balance and endurance. This test, together with her book Movement Education: Theory and Practice, is widely used abroad. Dr. Frostig has gone on to write numerous journals, articles and two other books: Learning Disabilities in the Classroom and Education for Dignity.

In 1969 along with her continued work as director of the Frostig Center, teacher and author, Dr. Marianne Frostig became a Professor of Education at Mount St. Mary's College, to take part in the establishment of teacher credential, master's and post-master's programs for specialists in teaching the learning handicapped. She sees passing on her skills to other teachers as the culmination of her work. "No publication, no honor, no achievement has ever given me such satisfaction as the training of teachers. The establishment of the formally approved graduate programs was the fulfillment of my fondest dreams."

She retired as director of the Frostig Center in 1972, but has continued to publish, teach and lecture over the world. In the summer of 1984, at the age of 78, she was working on her fourth book, giving a seminar at the Mount, and lecturing in Italy, Switzerland, Germany and Sweden. In Germany, she received what she calls modestly "a medal." It is the Sunshine Medal, a prestigious award voted by an influential association of German doctors and social scientists. Usually given to physicians, was bestowed on Dr. Frostig for her distinguished, lifelong work to bring sunshine to the lives of handicapped children.

No list of her tremendous accomplishments, however, can truly convey the extraordinary quality of this woman, especially where children are concerned. When she speaks about "her" children, her face is radiant with joy and appreciation. Describing facilities for movement education with children, Dr. Frostig lights up at the memory of the climbing tree in the garden of the Frostig Center's original building. (The Center moved from its Venice Boulevard location to Pasadena in 1980.) "That tree was the best piece of apparatus because it was living and beautiful," she says. She remembers with gratitude and fondness the people and organizations whose generosity made her work possible. Every contribution was a stimulus to the teachers and an encouragement to the children. Some, such as the reading room donated by the Mrs. Lita Hazen Charitable Trust, and the swimming pool, gift of Otis Chandler's Times Mirror Foundation, had profound positive influences on the children's behavior.

The happiness of children is, indeed, what Marianne Frostig's life is all about. Not facile, transitory pleasure, that sometimes passes for happiness, but the sense of well-being and self-esteem that comes from being competent and cared about. Dr. Frostig certainly cares. Where children are concerned, she is enthusiast and advocate. And they seem to know it. Dr. Larry Ryan, chairman of the Mount's Psychology Department, says, "With children, she's absolutely magic." Perhaps the magic is that Dr. Frostig sees children without preconceptions. She has a great respect for them as whole, if inexperienced, human beings, and admires the way they cope, often valiantly, with the difficult situations into which life has thrust them.

Talking about the children she taught in a regular, fourth-grade, public school class, Dr. Frostig observes, "I loved to work with children who were what one calls 'normal,' though many lived in adverse circumstances. I made a list of circumstances which I regarded as being highly disruptive in a child's life such as absence of a parent, strife between parents, chronic lack of physical necessities such as food or sleep, chronic illness of a parent, parental drunkenness, ill health, severe poverty, very circumscribed living space.... and continuous migration.... Of the forty one children I taught that year [1946], only three experienced none of these adverse circumstances." Instead of seeing only one side of the children, their classroom behavior and academic performance, she sees their lives as a whole-and roots for them. Dr. Phyllis Maslow, describing Frostig's interaction with children, says, "I have the feeling she understands on a level most adults don't."

This empathy comes across movingly in Dr. Frostig's writings. Here she is describing the world as it appears to a child with visual perceptual problems. "He has difficulty in recognizing objects and their relationships to each other in space, and since his world is perceived in a distorted fashion, it appears to him unstable and unpredictable. He is likely to be clumsy in his performance of everyday tasks and inept at sports and games.... Aware of his puzzling inability to match the performance of his age-mates and of the disappointment of his parents and teachers, he almost inevitably becomes confused, angry and ashamed. And her empathy is not only for the child struggling in a nightmarishly unpredictable world. It is also for the parents. Describing the relationship between teachers and parents of children with learning problems, she says, "Parents must be treated with very great care. They suffer very much when their child is in difficulty." When asked what she finds hardest to teach other teachers, she says, "To overcome prejudice. There is never an always, and there is never a never." She wants teachers to abandon every theory and preconception that keeps them from seeing the child as he is. When describing an effective relationship between teacher and pupil, she says, "The teacher and child must truly be 'persons' to one another.

At bottom, it may not be the clarity of her intelligence or the warmth of her empathy that impresses people about her and attracts them to her. It may be her passionately moral vision of her profession and of life itself. Phyllis Maslow describes Dr. Frostig as "the only truly self-actualized person I know. She has uncompromising standards and an interest, awareness and deep concern for society in general." Dr. Frostig's concern for society and her deeply held belief in the ethical responsibility of educators pervades her writings, as in this excerpt from a speech given to the Advanced Institute for Leadership Personnel in Learning Disabilities: "The educator also has a moral obligation to effect not only a cognitive change in the child but also a change in his values and feelings. By changing the values and feelings of children, we may ultimately change the emotional climate of our society... We must make a conscious effort to transmit to our children experiences, which will make them more open and sensitive to the feelings of others. I believe we can bring about positive changes in our children and ultimately in society." This is not just eloquence. In Dr. Frostig's classroom, students quickly learn that helping each other is the norm and disturbing another child is the only unbreakable rule. This concern for others soon transcends the classroom. As one child put it, "I think we are nice to each other at lunchtime and when we play, because we are used to helping each other in the classroom and when we work."

Dr. Marianne Frostig has been working all her life to help discouraged, alienated children become successful, sensitive adults. She has never lost sight of the fact that fundamental social change---change of heart---occurs in a loving encounter between two people who are, in the deepest sense, a teacher and a student. When she shows a visitor the awards in her office, she points first and with most pride to those the children have given her. On one is a handwritten poem from a student:

Mrs. Frostig

You are like the phoenix

 Rising out of the ashes of despair

 You take our despair

And turn it into a bright ray of joy.

Richard Cherry  -- Room 222


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