This picture features two young people, both of them with Down Syndrome, who like the rest of us, are perfectly imperfect. When I first met Maureen, she was four years old and sitting on the floor of her preschool classroom. I walked in the room and laid eyes on this young girl who would have such an impact on my life as a teacher and as a person. She was sitting on the floor, engaged in battle with the zipper on her backpack while the rest of the class was either saying goodbye to a parent for the morning or playing at one of the colorful centers. I wondered why nobody helped her as I watched her struggle for a good 3 or 4 minutes. She managed the zipper (of course she did) and stood up to join her classmates. That's why nobody helped her, I realized, because she can do it. I was at her school to do a consultation at their request. It turns out they didn't need all that much help. They were walking the tightrope between high expectations and appropriate support about as well as any team of people I had ever encountered.
Maureen, plain and simple, is a testament to the human spirit and a lesson in meeting life's challenges with everything you've got. She is fortunate to have a family that believes she can learn just about anything and a school that afforded her the "dignity of risk." Regardless of where a student is served, parochial school, public school, general classroom or special education class, every student deserves the best we can offer. Because it Matters. Every child has something to contribute to the community and when we devalue anyone, we lose that gift that only he/she can offer.
Here are a couple of lessons I learned from working with the very special students that have come into my life:
- Communication is everything! Students need language and language isn't limited to verbalization. Behavior, gestures, written words, pictures, and words are all language. Watch and observe it all. Nothing should be free (except love and grace) and every action has communicative intent. When students don't have efficient ways to express frustration, anger, or angst, they will often act it out. Give them tools to express themselves in ways that don't cause damage to people or relationships.
- Have high expectations. Expect kids to behave and to follow your rules even if they have Down Syndrome, Autism, or other developmental delays. Make sure the rules are clear and stated before the activity begins. I think the best parents I know are those who love their kids unconditionally but always expect them to behave the best they can be expected to given their age. If they threaten consequences, they follow through without much ado.
- Choices matter. Sometimes the only choices kids have are to comply or not comply. Given those options most of us would choose to assert our independence by breaking the rules. Besides being a great language skill, it gives kids some power in acceptable ways. Give lots of choices all through the day: Crayon or pencil? Juice or milk? Now or later? With help or alone? As the child grows, so does the breadth and risk factor of the choices.
- Have a good sense of humor. I think kids with special needs have an uncanny ability to know when someone is for real or not. Learn to laugh with kids and enjoy the special surprises they bring to your day. Be sincere. You aren't fooling anyone, particularly the kids in our midst whose veil between the heart and mind is unclouded by social expectations.
Finally, I have to say that in our schools, churches, homes and communities, when we create places for all God's children we will all grow from the experience. Watching my students give and take in the warm embrace of a loving community is one of the most precious experiences I have been blessed to have.
And here are just a few resources:
www.Do2learn.com (great website for picture schedules, choice boards, etc)
www.therapystreetforkids.com( amazing resources for sensory needs, writing, strengthening, etc)
Choiceworks (really love this app. you can build your own schedule and choice boards)
Wet Dry Try ( Handwriting without Tears on the ipad)
Bob Books ( great for beginning readers)
There are so many more...
As my friend Maureen would say, "You're fabulous" ( and she is and I am a better person for knowing her)