Sometimes what looks like a child with severe problems is actually just a child who needs a different environment. Here is the first in a series of posts about students and their successes. This article was written with parental permission and input.
R. came to us after unsuccessful experiences in both public and private schools. He knew me from a previous educational setting, but we still had him visit several times during the summer to become familiar with the space and the other staff. His anxiety about school was out the roof, and he could talk of little but his past school failures. He worried a lot about whether he could be successful, if he’d have friends, and that the work would be too hard. He was in a state of wazi-wazi (see earlier posts).
R. just got our Positive Leadership award for the third time since school started and has done very well. In early October, he went through a one week period of being annoying to other students and difficult with staff, but he has been able to turn it around. What has made the difference?
If a child is having difficulties, we don’t blame it on the child. We look first at what we are doing to contribute to the problem. Several things helped with R. First, all children do well with structure, but R. does particularly well. He likes knowing what is going to happen when, and he finds comfort in constant feedback about his behavior. Hearing every fifteen minutes what he is doing well and what he needs to improve (which we do with all our students) is helpful to him. Because we know he worried about his work being too hard, we started him at a lower level than he needed to be and allowed him to be highly successful. Then we pushed him as fast as he could comfortably go. Another factor is that we allow him to use the strategies he had been taught in the past. He often needs time to himself and regularly crawls in our time and space tent for a few minutes when he is feeling overwhelmed.
When he went through his short period of difficulty with behavior, we found three things really helped: unconditional love and acceptance, listening to his take on things, and trusting that his mother knew her child.
Every time R. had a problem, he was sure he’d ruined his chances of having friends and being successful for good. But every day is a chance to start all over again, and we assured him of our love and acceptance. He was really sad about his behavior and we tried to help him see that he didn’t need to get stuck there, but could move on. We stress that with all the kids, and they were equally ready to accept his apologies and be friends again. As a result, he has several buddies and regularly has play-dates with his classmates.
R. is a child with great self-awareness, and he knows how he learns. As he say, “My brain works differently.” While we were trying to make the lessons multi-sensory and interesting, he wanted worksheets. This was hard because it went against what we believed as teachers, plus it was difficult to find worksheets that taught the same things as a science experiment or an art project did. But if he didn’t have a worksheet, he felt like he wasn’t learning. So now he has worksheets, LOTS of them, which he does with proficiency and great joy.
He was also able to articulate that he found a large amount of print on a page overwhelming. When they read O. Henry’s “A Retrieved Reformation,” I broke it down into 20 quarter-pages, highlighted the names of characters, and put it on a ring so the pages would not get out of order. He was able to read the story with comprehension and no discomfort. When I assign him books to read, I look for graphic novel versions; he is reading Robinson Crusoe at the moment.
Last, but by no means least, we listened to his mother’s take on his difficulties. While I may not always agree with a parent when it comes to what a child needs, I never doubt that they are the ones who best know their children. She was able to offer suggestions and help R. translate what he felt—”I’m bored”—to what he meant—”When I have nothing to do with my hands, I don’t feel like I’m learning.” She also pointed out that his behavior problems happened when he was “bored.” She was dead on, and we were able to make the changes he needed.
R.’s changes have carried over to home. He loves the feeling of success so much that he is seeking it in other areas. I don’t doubt that he will hit other rough patches at school, and we will go through the same steps again. We follow a similar process for each of our students. It is not unusual for one of my colleagues to come in saying, “I’ve been thinking . . . ” We tweak and we try and we practice diagnostic teaching. When a child is having difficulties, every part of his ecology must change. As adults, it is our responsibility to change first. Only then can students such as R. make the changes they need to be successful.