This summer I have been working for the local school district one-on-one with a variety of special needs kids from 4-11 years old.
It’s not my “comfort zone.” I find working with groups of mainstreamed kids, managing recess or sports to be effortless. Sitting with a mostly nonverbal 4-year old who seldom acknowledges my presence, taps his hands, and hums for hours at a time is challenging. As I sat with him this morning, I reflected on my “comfort zone.”
I was told that my goal with Gage was first, to keep him from crying. He’s frightened of change, of people, of noise. His pattern for the past week has been: when his mother drops him off, he begins to cry. When kids around him shout or cry or make too much noise, he cries. When he’s pulled away from what he wants to do, he cries.
So today I sat with him on a rocking bench. We just sat and rocked.
After 20 minutes I got a book and read the words and made comments about what I saw in it. Then I put it back. Then he got up and returned with a toy that plays music with each winding. We listened to “row, row, row your boat” for another 20 minutes.
Then I got up and found a bag with ten plastic balls. I took them out one at a time and threw them into a box in front of us. I had fun aiming for the box. Most made it, some didn’t. I got up and collected them, counting each as I picked it up and put it in a bag. Then I repeated the throwing, gathering, and counting. Gage started counting ahead of me, finishing the numbers to ten. I had been told he only repeated words back.
I sat down and offered him a ball, and he threw it. Not into the box but across the floor. He’s a good thrower. I took turns giving him one colored ball and throwing one myself. I preferred to aim for the box. He preferred to toss it at the wall. We threw balls and counted them.
Later, we went outside for a fire drill. I talked about the trees and touched different things talking about how they felt. He touched some of them, too. We watched ants rushing across the sidewalk. We saw birds above us. We played on the playground for so long a teacher came out to be sure we were ok.
We were ok.
When I got home, I realized I was sweaty and had to change. I had been more tense than I realized. But it wasn’t Gage who made me tense.
This was my first day with Gage and he was used to another teacher. I wasn’t sure whether the day Gage and I spent together was “good” or “bad.” I mean, was I expected to “teach” him something, to get him to engage with other kids, to make sure he got to expected places on time? Because we sure didn’t come inside, join group time, or have a snack when we were scheduled to.
I still don’t know if I failed expectations. But I think Gage and I had a good day. We shared time together, played some, got fresh air and sunshine, and he even looked me in the eyes when he left.
In fact, it was a very good day for me because Gage taught me something that has me feeling liberated this afternoon. He taught me that the challenge I’ve been feeling — the sense that I’m not in my “comfort zone” when working with special needs students — is more about the staff, not the student.
When managing groups of mainstreamed kids, I can get them to follow expectations, so it feels easy. When working with special needs kids, I can’t get them to meet the same kind of expectations, so I feel like I’m failing in my job. That makes me self-conscious and even worried about performance. Once I recognized that, I laughed at myself.
Today, I decided I wanted to get to know Gage and have a good day. In approaching it that way, I did get to know this boy who loves music, has good rhythm, a bit of wit, and a lot of self determination. We even got a little counting and lots of physical activity in.
And he never cried.