Learning Objectives

After reading about the Steiner’s perspective on (dis)abilities, and engaging in the embedded activities and reflections, you should have:

  • a basic idea of Steiner’s approach to students with special needs
  •  identified parts of the theory that may be useful to your own perspective


This chapter about Rudolf Steiner’s (and the Waldorf school’s) anthroposophical perspective on (dis)abilities is not commonly taught as part of an Inclusive Education course. Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) was an Austrian philosopher who developed an educational theory that is the base of Waldorf schools today. This educational theory or philosophy is called anthroposophy, meaning the wisdom of humans. This theory is very complex, and partially founded in faith. It is a holistic approach based on the interplay between body, soul and spirit. Teachers in Waldorf schools study (parts) of Steiner’s work, to guide children’s development (Geerts, 2015).

In order to understand the anthroposophical stance, let’s start with a brief explanation of the time in which this philosophy was created, followed by an explanation of Steiner’s view of human nature.

NOTE: What you are about to read is the author’s summary of Steiner’s work in the field of curative education. For further reading I would recommend Theosophy by Steiner (1904) and Curative Education by Steiner (1977).

Background, a prewar, Western perspective
The first Waldorf school was founded in Germany, after the first world war. Society was changing from a monarchy to a republic. Steiner was asked to help instill values from the French revolution (liberté égalité fraternité) in society through education. He advocated for schools to make child development, rather than content memorization, the base of the curriculum and didactics. He founded schools catering to curative education according to those same philosophies and principles.

In 1924 the first curative education institution was to be named Home for Pathological and Epileptic Children. Steiner did not like this name as he did not want it to stigmatize the children. This was a radical choice, given the time, attitudes and prevalence of derogatory names. Steiner generally uses vocabulary of his time, but this example shows that he was aware of the impact of language, something that is still not optimal 100 years later (Edlund 2005).

A short explanation of Steiner’s view of human nature will help us to understand the rest of his philosophy. Steiner believed that human nature consists of an interplay of the physical-, the ether-, astral body, the ego or self and the spirit.

bean plantThe Ether is life force, what humans and plants have in common. A visual that may be helpful is to imagine a seed of a bean. Adding a bit of water can result in an almost explosive emergence of life. This is because of the ether potential in the seed waiting for activation. The equation would be: water + bean + ether, to help life start. Air and light are also required, but not necessary to activate the life in the seed.

The Astral Body is what humans have in common with animals; sentience and consciousness. It is where feelings are experienced. The ego or self is an anchor that gives direction and makes one self-aware. The spirit is where insights and higher reasoning derive.

Steiner believed that humans experience life in three dimensions or ‘worlds’: the physical world that is perceived by the senses, the world of oneself or of the soul, and the spirit world (Steiner, 1904).

The physical world consists of perception through the senses. Through the body, one is capable of connecting to the environment. The body is built of materials of the outside world and the forces of the world work on and in the body. The physical opens a world similarly accessible to all.

The soul connects things to the existence of the observer through judgement and emotions. Impressions and emotions are saved in the soul and others do not have access to this world.

The spirit consists of finding the core, or being of things, through objective observation. Through the spirit an individual steps outside itself and lets the world speak for itself by observing what it is.

Curative Education

Central to Steiner’s view of special education is looking at every child individually and seeing the whole child. Steiner looked for ways for a child to reach their full potential, rather than ways to fit a child into a mold that suits society.

He considered someone with a (dis)ability as someone whose spirit is whole, but the interplay between bodies (astral, ether, self, spirit) does not allow communication in typical or harmonious ways. All human beings experience some form of ‘irregularity’, which can be something as small as stutter or being nearsighted. He believed that children with special needs simply had more extreme irregularities and that the only way to help someone with a (dis)ability was to determine the cause of the ‘irregularity’ or the root of the problem. He viewed health, not as a permanent state but as a balance that needs to be looked at from the whole of an individual and can be adjusted through dialogue.

Steiner acknowledged that the only way to identify (dis)abilities or irregularities was to measure children against a ‘norm’ and that by eliminating the ‘irregularity’, we might inadvertently eliminate a bit of genius. He cautioned observers and educators to be aware of and alert to bias (1977).


Read the following poem by Jody Barnes and think about some of the feelings the poem evokes.

What  similarities and differences can you identify between the image of ‘disability’ in the poem and Steiner’s views on ‘irregularities’.

Ursa Minor

They want to trap you in the flatness of their paper charts
They lay snares of straight lines and sharp corners
Because you are different
they name you with short, sharp words
autistic, A.D.D., hyper

They say something’s wrong
He won’t speak when spoken to,
He won’t count to five or say his ABCs
or play with other kids his age

With pens poised above graphs they wait
‘What color is the umbrella, Alex?’
You look through them
past the picture of the yellow umbrella
past the calm beige walls
through time and space

Tattooed behind your cautious eyes is the path
through the Milky Way
In the dark of your room when I lean down to kiss you
I can still see how the stars laid themselves out
and guided you down to nestle under my ribs

When you were born I didn’t count fingers and toes
Instead, like momma bear, I nuzzled you
and breathed in your familiar scent
You smelled like new clothes and cedar
and the water from the river behind my grandfather’s house

I touched the oblong scar on your belly
knowing then you were a gift from the spirits
What had made that mark?
Musket ball?

The woman with the clip board calls you ‘cute’ and ‘precious’
She can sense the agenda stamped on your soul
But she doesn’t have the words to articulate
so she speaks in baby talk, thinking it’s you
who doesn’t understand

The nurse bends down to peer into your eyes
I want to ask her if she can see it too
But she turns away without comment
maybe the bright reason in the room has nullified the answers
that I find there
the same way the blinding lights of the city
wash away the path through the stars at night

(The IRIS Center Peabody College, n.d.)

In the time when Steiner was writing, biological determinism was a common way of thinking. Many experts believed that most human characteristics, including those relating to cognition,  affect, and physical abilities,  were determined at or before birth. Steiner warned of the ethical and social dangers of this mindset, especially regarding their impact on children with special needs. In Germany in 1934 the Nazis passed a sterilization law . Many at the time believed that this law would stop the spread of genetically inherited conditions and make society as a whole, healthier.

Steiner (1977) stated: Helping a child develop, is to develop yourself. According to him it is a law of pedagogy, one models behavior that stimulates the body that is only just developing in the child. When children are developing their physical body till the age of six, behavior from the ether body is modeled. In the following phase children are able to apply the ether to school and are only just starting to develop the astral body. As mentioned above the astral body is what makes an individual sentient. One of the ways to model it as an adult is to demonstrate care, whether it applies to children themselves or just the presentation of the chalkboard.

For students with special needs a good understanding of child development is required. Modeling behavior that is one step or level above what students exhibit is fundamentally important in curative education, similar to Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development.

Case study

One of the students at a Curative Education school was 16 years old. The teachers thought that the child was incapable of learning math and Steiner wanted to meet with him to assess his learning needs.

  1. He gave the student a subtraction problem where he had to figure out what to take from one number to equal another number. For example, what do we have to take away from 12 to leave 5? The boy took a long time to complete the task but he did complete it, quite happily.
  2. The student was excitedly taking pictures of Steiner and others with his camera (remember, it’s the 1930s) and Steiner asked him to get another roll of film to try a new trick with the camera. The student refused, no matter what Steiner said. He was so passionate about what he was doing that he didn’t want to stop.
  3. He recommended that the teachers encourage the student to use his legs, feet and toes more in class. For example, the boy could try to write some of the letters of the alphabet with this toes.
  • What do you think Steiner learned from the first two tasks?
  • Why might he have recommended the third task? What role might tasks like this play in helping students with learning needs and/or potentially all students?



  1. Think about the way the problem was constructed and the amount of time the student had to complete the task. How might these factors play into our current ways of thinking about differentiation and how students learn?
  2. Think about people you know who are so interested and motivated in what they are doing that they don’t want to stop, even though if they stop for a minute, they might learn something else that they would really value? How might we use this insight with our students?
  3. Connecting kinaesthetic activities to learning might help students, not just as brain breaks but also to explore, to process and to express their learning(Steiner, 1977).. Why do you think students who struggle with writing might like the challenge of writing with their feet?  How might you use this knowledge in your classroom to support students?


Steiner (1977) believed that eduation should be interdisciplinary and holistic and not just focused on memorization. He cautioned educators that sometimes parents want to push their children too fast, and that it’s their duty to protect a child’s boundaries and pace.


One of the skills required of Waldorf teachers is objective observation and to that end, students of the Vrijeschool Pabo (Waldorf teacher education school) practice this skill during their teaching practice. They observe one or two students over the course of a few weeks. The objective is to avoid any and all possible inferences and bias in language. If a student gives the impression they are nervous, it is allowed to note that the child fidgets, but not to note that they are nervous, as that is an interpretation and not a statement of fact. Saying that a student is young for their age is also an interpretation. This is undesirable, as mentioned above. Part of the Waldorf philosophy involves being as specific as possible in order to help each student individually. Pre-judgements and interpretations prevent us from doing that effectively (Hogeschool Leiden, 2017).

How to build an objective impression of a child, with example observations:

  • Physical description
  • Chapped upper lip
  • Blue sneakers
  • Description of movement
  • The child cannot jump rope yet, but is able to jump over the rope when it wriggles on the ground (a game the children call jumping over the snake
  • The child sucks on his collar and zipper, keep a tally for different situations
  • Description of social interaction
  • Initiates demonstrations of his running abilities more than other children in his class
  • Execution of assignments given by adults
  • Switches activities immediately to the one requested by the teacher when asked


  1. What do you think might be challenging about simply observing students before making interpretations?
  2. Do you agree with Steiner and the Waldorf philosophy that it’s an important part of helping our students succeed?
  3. What do you think about believing in some educational ideas from a philosopher or pedagogue but being skeptical about or disagreeing with others? Is it possible to take what you like and discard what you don’t or is it all or nothing?
Further reading on the anthroposophical perspective on (dis)ability:

Bernard, L. (2014) Ontwikkelingsfasen van het kind. Zeist: Christofoor.

Edlund, B., 2005. Anthroposophical Curative Education in the Third Reich: The Advantages of an Outsider. Scandinavian Journal of Disability Research, 7(3-4), pp.176–193. DOI: http://doi.org/10.1080/15017410500196761

Geerts, J. (2015). Module Inleiding: Inleiding In De Vrijeschool Pedagogie. Hogeschool Leiden.

Hogeschool Leiden. (2017). Handleiding 2017-2018 Vrijeschool Pabo. Hogeschool Leiden

Steiner, R. (1977) Heilpedagogische Cursus, gezichtspunten voor de behandeling van in hun ontwikkeling gestoorde kinderen. Zeist. Vrij Geestesleven.

Steiner, R. (1987) Opvoedkunst, methodisch-didactische aanwijzingen. Zeist. Vrij Geestesleven.

Steiner, R. (1904) Theosofie, werken en voordrachten. Zeist. Vrij Geestesleven.

Storytelling in the Waldorf Classroom. (2015, September 28). Retrieved November 10, 2020, from https://camphillschool.org/storytelling-in-the-waldorf-classroom/

The IRIS Center Peabody College (n.d.) Module Perceptions of Disability. Retrieved from: https://iris.peabody.vanderbilt.edu/module/da/#content





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