Thursday, April 18, 2013

Because It Matters: Perfectly Imperfect

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:  (great website for picture schedules, choice boards, etc) 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)

Monday, April 1, 2013

Bruised Reeds

When our students or our children don't seem to give their best efforts, we are likely to say, "He/She just doesn't care." I've heard it many times and said it a few (I confess).  I've met thousands of kids in my tenure as educator and parent and I have to say I've never met a child who truly didn't care. Learners, especially those who don't learn too much too easily, have a quiver full of coping strategies to mask the fact that they do, in fact, care very much.

A couple of years ago, I was at a west side Wichita establishment that was well known for it's country music and large dance floor. My husband and I arrived there in time for line dancing lessons which was an experience that opened my eyes. I joined the 12 or so people out on the dance floor and the instructor started slowly with no music. He just gave us the words to match the steps he was demonstrating. I repeated the words and the steps along with him. Then he added some music but still spoke  the words telling us what to do. I was still doing fine. Then he stopped saying the words. He played the music and my classmates fell right into place as if they had been line dancing all their lives. I, however, was flummoxed. I couldn't do it. I was so embarrassed and I desperately wanted to yell, "Slow down cowboy. We weren't all born in a barn."  I needed what we call in teacher talk, "extra guided practice."  I tried to do the steps but couldn't and everyone else obviously could so I awkwardly step-scooted off the dance floor, flopped down on a chair and handled it like a mature adult. "Line dancing is stupid," I said, "and I didn't want to do it anyway."  A few days later with some distance from my humiliation,  my mind went to the student in my math class who always just wrote down random answers or the kid who got back his English test with an F on it and acted like it was funny, and I understood them in a new way.

There are a lot of reasons why kids seem to not care.  If we watch and listen, we can usually figure out why. For some, it's because some bigger life issue is casting shadows in their lives and school seems irrelevant. For some, it is just being overwhelmed with lots of new information. Sometimes, like me in line dancing hell, they need more time to practice the new skill.

There are some great words in Isaiah 42 that I try to keep in mind with kids who are discouraged and defensive. These are the kids whose faces I see before I go to sleep at night.

"He will be gentle-he will not shout or raise his voice in public. The bruised reed he will not break..."

I have always felt my students for whom school is difficult are like bruised reeds and that I need to help them stand tall without breaking them.
Some ideas for these learners...
  • Start with what they know. A lot of kids with working memory issues check out of class mentally because they can't bring back what you taught them yesterday and apply it to today. Prime the brain and bring back previous content. Show them how it connects or builds on with visual cues.
  • Guided practice and lots of it. A teacher asked me once how long to give his math students guided practive before turning them loose on independent work. I told him, "Until they are rolling your eyes at you." 
  • Believe in them enough to make them take you seriously. You will not break the bruised reed by having high expectations and letting him/her know you will do what it takes because you believe they can learn what you are teaching.  Tell them you love them enough to sit them in the front row, to monitor their study habits, and to put some restrictions on their distractions.  
  • These kids have to know you like them and that you are a safe person. Show your humanity and your sense of humor. Ask them to tell you what helps them the most. Sometimes they will tell you more if they can write it down. One teacher I know had ongoing communication with each of her students with notecards. She'd have them write something down that they had thought about during her class and she'd write back to them. When they filled the note card, she gave them another. She knew more about her students and how to motivate them than anyone in the building.
There are lots more of course but this is a good start.
We are all bruised reeds, in some way or another.... Let's be thankful to those who hold us up and don't trample us down.