Thursday, December 13, 2012

When Magic Walked

I've had a lot of time lately for reflection. When one has taught for any length of time, the world view is through the classroom lens. There is little outside of it, and all is because of it. When that changes unexpectedly as it has for me, time becomes a loose, gelatinous circular motion ebbing and flowing. Thoughts of the children I am missing every day pass through my mind leading to thoughts of  children I have cared for in the past. Caregiving has essentially been the focus of my career for the past decade and more. Consistent caregiving routines, the thread binding the classroom together. And now... I write this from home. The kick to the head is healing on track, yet it is a very slow track. One that requires the patience and fortitude reserved previously for gloriously tantruming toddlers and stubborn four-year olds with carefully staged agendas of will and rigidity.

And so it goes. I wonder about them. My classroom. How it's running, how the children are faring in my absence. I wonder about my colleagues. How they are faring, how they are feeling, are they getting enough coffee and chocolate? I wonder about my brain. I am happy to hear that my progress is steady, and wonder how much fish oil is too much for reconnecting neurons. A slightly charming result of my brain injury, frequently mixing up words in sentences. "My air is dry and the hair is cold out." Yes, I said that yesterday without qualm. The kids would probably think it funny. And thinking about language makes me think about babies learning to walk, and talk, and make friends. One baby in particular actually. We can call her Magic for the purpose of this tale.

Magic was just over a year old in 2001, the year her parents adopted her from an orphanage in India and brought her home to New York City. She was one, but Magic looked like a very tall eight -month old. Her head was small, her eyes wide. Long limbs with poor muscle tone. Fragile, somewhat vacant and very clearly adored by her newly adopted parents who hoped the world for her. And so Magic was placed in my care, in my classroom. Some caregiving is intuitive, some is taught. I knew that I needed to wear her. I needed to hold this baby girl, and carry with me at all times. I only put her down to change her diaper. I even managed other children while holding on to her. She ate in my lap. She slept in my arms. And slowly but surely Magic? well she was Magic. Her affect started to change. She started to smile, to coo, to do things that typically developing babies do. She grew adorable cheeks and healthy rolls of fat on her legs. And one day, she walked. She stood up out of my lap and took her miraculous first steps. We applauded. And the only moment better than that was when her parents witnessed her walking for the first time a few weeks later at the school's Thanksgiving Potluck. I've rarely witnessed such joy as I saw on her mother's face as her daughter walked into her arms for the first time.

Magic learned to talk. She called me "Mimi", and liked to wear my ridiculously fancy shoes around the classroom. She made friends.  And when she was much older I saw her at a New Years Day party in Manhattan. She may have been seven or eight. I hadn't seen her since she was three. Magic stared at me for about forty minutes intently across the room. She crossed over to me,  and without a word sat in my lap pulling my arms around her waist. Magic didn't move for the next half hour. 

And that my friends is the reason why. I likely will never know if in that moment Magic's memory of me was cognitive or if it was an instinctual muscle memory guiding her into my lap. But it doesn't really matter does it... What matters most are these moments of care and connectedness. The thoughts we all have in which we hold each other and our loved ones dear. It's the stuff that healing is made of.

She Speaks

Grown to mammoth height
Against my chest
Words erupt
Send her
Joyful proud
Into the world beyond
My lap.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Sometimes You Get Kicked In The Head... And Sometimes You Don't.

"The development of the social individual proceeds through a series of phases, from the first weeks when there is little awareness even that some stimulation emanates from the outside environment, through a dawning awareness of self and others, to reciprocal relationships, to a responsive partnership in the preschool years, wherein the child has internalized social values and the beginnings of self-control"(Sroufe,1995. p.151).

Sometimes you get kicked in the head... and sometimes you don't. Unfortunately for me, I did get kicked ... by a very strong, playful five-year old boy. His brain you see is making social connections at a rapid rate, connections that are typically (in optimal situations) made in infancy within the context of his primary caregiving relationship. This didn't happen in the way it could have. At five he is learning joint attention, the pleasure of a shared activity, a gaze. He is at the very beginning of what clinicians describe as "mutual" or "co-regulation", that magic dance between adult caregiver and young infant, that quite literally maps the infants brain, teaches the child how to be, how to respond, and ultimately how to regulate his nervous system. He is learning how to modulate arousal in multiple settings outside of his primary relationship. The encouraging thing is that he is five, and this is really happening for him, it's not too late. His affect, his emotional expression has brightened, he is all giggles, and laughs, and constantly seeking positive playful interactions from myself, from my assistants, and in moments? From his peers, which in turn stimulates his cognition, his communication abilities, his sense of self.

The question has been asked, "Did he mean to kick you?" Yes, yes he did. But it is important to note, that while he was trying to kick me, his intention was not to hurt me. He wasn't anticipating that I would yell, and have to leave the room quickly to put ice on my face.  When I returned to the classroom that day, he was watching the door when I opened it, I beckoned to him, and he sat in my lap, with his hand on my face. Precious child, stronger than he knows, and well on his way to modulating his own arousal levels. He wanted a response, but his intention was not to make me leave the room, and as it has happened, to not be at school for several weeks recovering.

And for me, this has been a very different thing. That one swift kick in the head resulted in what my Doctor calls a "traumatic brain injury." Things are fuzzy. I lose focus quickly, am inundated with consistent headaches, foggy thoughts, clumsiness. I cannot be in noisy, bright places. Noise, and bright lights flood, overload my system. The patience that I exhibit daily at work in my classroom feels out of place when I need to focus that patience on myself. It will get better. My brain will heal, realign, regain footing so to speak. And in the meantime I am the other side of the caregiving relationship for perhaps the first time. Vulnerable. In need of help, and in many ways being too weak not to take it in, the care being offered me.

Learning, growth does occur in the context of our relationships. Even in painful moments, a kick to the head for me is resulting in a more open heart. A willingness to let go, to worry less, and trust in the goodness and presence of the people close to me, willing to do for me, what I do for that five year old boy. For this, I am grateful.

Waiting to heal requires a different kind of strength, patience with myself, a conscientious choice to focus on positive outcome and interactions, things that will ultimately I hope, make me a stronger practitioner and teacher when I am given the green light to return to my classroom. Until then, to those  caring for and educating my students in my absence, and my loved ones who are taking very good care of me I thank you from the bottom of my brain, and my heart.

* For those interested in reading further about emotional development in infancy check out the following book (quoted from above): L. Sroufe, A (1995). Emotional Development: The Organization Of Emotional Life In The Early Years. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Dear Alice, I'll be your mirror. Love, Ms. Amy

Dear Alice,

You are a wonder. At five years old you are in many respects the center of this classroom universe. Last January when you were moved to my room mid year from a neighboring classroom, you quite literally burst onto the scene, and changed everything. Alice you are an event, a force of nature, a brilliant anxious sweetness. And since the very first time I met you, when you screamed in the public bathroom because you were so worried about the automatic flush going off before you sat down on the toilet, (and I helped you change your wet clothes) I wanted to be able to help you, to ease your fears of the loud sounds, and all things out of your control.

Before there can be learning, there must be trust, a safe base established for you to venture out from. Last year, I carried you everywhere. I felt like it was important to stay close to you, to help you manage your new environment like I would a much younger child. I was consistent, I was thoughtful, and I stayed calm even when you screamed, hit and kicked at me when you were upset. With the implementation of a consistent behavior plan to help you with your tantrums and aggression (which our Behavior Analyst crafted to help you),  and with the the support of your family, you have been learning to calm down on your own. And yet, the use of the public restroom at school was still sending you into a tailspin of anger, tears, and screaming.

 After weeks of your distress permeating each part of your day, and your cries and screams ringing in all of our ears I realized that you are five! You know how to use the toilet. You know how to control your bowels, and you are also very capable of telling me that you need to go on your own. We had a little talk you and I. I told you the new plan and asked you if we had a deal. "DEAL!" When I ask if you need to use the bathroom you tell me, "No Pee, No Bathroom!" very clearly, and I tell you that I believe you.

 I am in awe of your ability to adapt, to change, to grow, and to trust that you will be okay, even if you don't know what is going to happen next.

 Each day, you are more confident, you try new things that you never tried before. Now? I see you walking into the room every morning with a happy joyful spring. You sit next to me at circle time instead of in my lap.  You made a craft project for the first time ever, on your own. Last week I saw you reach for a peers hand while walking. When you hold a baby doll close to your chest and come to me to re wrap the doll in a blanket, I think about last year, when you would stand in the dramatic play area for a few moments pretending to cook. Today you shared space with several peers block building. You said "No blocks please" when I offered you one, but you didn't walk away. I built a small tower, that looked like a chair. You tried to sit on it, and when it fell down? You didn't scream, you tried it again. A few moments later I watched you build a tower on your own for the first time ever. You giggled watching your peers. I am so proud of you.

 When you are upset or worried you scream "It's okay! While clapping your hands and looking to me for confirmation. I want you to know that I have complete faith in your ability to move through your difficult emotions. Alice you can be worried, and upset, and angry when things don't go your way, but now you are learning you can be safe,  successful and you can try new things. I am privileged to be your teacher as you turn six, as you find your feet, your voice in this classroom world.

There will still be times when you may ask me to pick you up, when you need a quiet moment of calm togetherness. You are worth every second I have spent structuring the day and my thoughts around your learning. We recently lined up with your peers to run with all the other kids in the school. You were scared, you were nervous, you clung to me and cried. I told you you could do it? And you did. You ran, happily. I see you Alice. You are brave, you are strong, you Alice, are okay. 

Ms. Amy

Saturday, October 6, 2012

At The Round Table... Proximity is Precious

The only piece of furniture I really wanted for my classroom was a round table. The "kidney shaped" tables, the classic rectangle can communicate messages of separateness,  an imbalance of power with an adult on one side and the children on the other. A round table however inspires a very different kind of conversation.  Partial to them perhaps because I grew up in a family where we ate dinner every night  all together at a round table.  In a time when families often no longer eat together, the value of how my parents chose to raise us around that table is not lost on me. It didn't matter that my mother's feelings about cooking were ambivalent at best, or that my brother had to have cheerios and quesadillas every night instead of what the rest of the family ate... What mattered was that every single night, we all sat together. Looked at each other. Talked, argued, laughed. Yes, my youngest sister was given permission to stand on her chair to get a word in edgewise... a feat she miraculously only tried once. But that round table is where we learned to communicate, to take turns, to listen, to share, to be together in a small space where there was enough room for everyone in our family, and room for everyone we invited to share a meal with us.

The round table is the ultimate way to tell my students "We really are all in this together." Everyone is equal, everyone has a place, and one cannot avoid another when seated directly next to and across from each other. This is how we create community. The clinical aspects of this furniture choice are as follows... Myself and my assistants model conversation with the children, with each other. If a child  looks up, there will be another person in front of them to meet his gaze. If a child has difficulty sharing space, it's an opportunity to stretch ones comfort level with other peers so close at hand. Labeling food items, noticing if a child likes or doesn't like a food item, commenting, questioning and encouraging vocalizations are all ways we are supporting speech and language development. And my personal favorite... the opportunity to develop essential self -help skills such as opening and closing containers, asking for "help", for "more", and being responded to quickly and consistently is communicating a sense of personal agency, autonomy and ultimately? Pleasure, joy, a precious shared proximity to each other.

One may wonder, what does this sound like, look like? A group of Autistic Pre-K and Kinder students eating together? To be a fly on our wall you will hear  humming, squeals of laughter, silence if everyone is particularly hungry, a shout, an adult prompting "more" and "please" (yes it's never too early or too late to learn manners), and applauding when the child approximates or signs the word. Sometimes someone sings practicing circle time songs, or plays peek-a-boo after eating has finished. One may hear a small boy saying "Ms. Amy, Call me me Princess Kate!" "Princess Kate, you need to finish your lunch your mom made for you." "No, Ms Amy, Princess Kate's mommy did not make the lunch, Prince William made it for her."

Proximity is precious. Circles of Communication. There is a place for everyone at our table. If one day someone needs to stand on a chair to be heard? I'll think of my little sister, and instead of saying "Get down that's not safe!" I will say, " What would you like to tell us _______?"

Thursday, September 27, 2012

A Boy Like Lightning

I think I will call him Lightning. You see, this child, this magic little person is fast and sudden in his ability to be here then gone around the corner, smiling a big toothy and toothless grin to make sure a preferred adult is in hot pursuit of him. Lightning is five now. The youngest of three boys, all of whom have an Autism Spectrum Diagnosis. Lightning runs to gain attention, to feel the specialness of being chased, and the safety of being caught.

 Slow to talk, (but he IS talking now!), Lightning relies on this elopement to communicate what he needs. Slowly, slowly he is gaining new skills to have the kind of interactions and support that he is craving. When he was four, I learned that he realistically, was actually a toddler. A consistent, nurturing, highly responsive method of teaching was required to meet his particular needs. It's important for me as his teacher for the second year, to remember that even though he is five, he requires a different kind of support than his same age peers. My expectations need to shift in order to create the best educational environment for Lightning.

For instance, today he built with blocks. He started his work time at the easel  where he painted by tapping so hard and fast with a paint brush in each hand, specks of blue paint dotted his face. When he finished painting Lightning walked past a very tall, block tower that his peers had just finished creating. He stopped, stared at it, walked around it, and faster than fast kicked it over with both feet until all the blocks lay scattered on the ground. I spoke to him about cleaning up, he complied and sat down with me to pick up blocks together. After putting several blocks away Lightning began to build with the remaining blocks on the floor. Completing a small tower, he grinned at me and began to scoot back giving me the "I want you to catch me look." I responded, "I am going to catch you and bring you back." Laughing he allowed me to bring him back, then grinning at me again quickly kicked his tower over laughing hysterically.

 I pressed pause in my mind... My expectation for Lightning's peers is that they will not intentionally knock blocks down when building, which is an age appropriate expectation for four and five year olds, but not for a toddler. I smiled, and started to play his game with him. Lightning built and kicked, built and kicked gleefully with my assistance for several minutes. He was completely engaged, productive and learning what all toddlers need to learn, cause and effect. I am powerful when I cause this noise to happen. And what a sight, blocks of all shapes and sizes scattered around ones feet moments after carefully erecting a tower.

 It is not possible to build a tower without first laying a foundation, and the same is true in education. No matter the age, or the preferred outcomes we must start as educators where a person is. We cannot skip developmental steps in order to meet academic goals that may be age appropriate, but not developmentally. Provide the safe base first, build second, and relax when something carefully constructed comes crashing down. The beauty of block building and teaching, is that we can always build, we can always try again tomorrow. And tomorrow, the tower may be taller, the crash louder, and one day? Lighting will build with blocks for the pleasure and cognitive challenge of construction, confident in his abilities to affect the world with his mind, and his hands.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

An Unexpected Art Class: The Gift of Reverse Mainstreaming

When school began several weeks ago three third grade girls ran into my classroom during their recess in search of the teacher whose classroom this used to be. "Can we help? Do you need help?" They chorused loudly, enthusiastically. I told them I didn't need help with chores, but I did need help teaching my preschool children how to play, could they help with this? They can, they do. A gaggle of five girls has become anywhere between ten and thirty third graders knocking on the door "Can we play? "Can we use the clay?", "Can we paint?" And my favorite request, "is the art class open?"

 My attempts at providing developmentally appropriate, open ended sensory, art and literacy experiences for my preschool children with Autism, has expanded to serve a need I wasn't anticipating, a creative experience for grade school children. They rush into the room, lining up at the easels to paint, to create structures out of duct tape and card board. "It's a kite", "I made a filter for my fish tank", "I made head phones because it's so loud." Art has become the focus, the foundation on which this classroom community is being built. "Can this be our art class everyday?" "Can I take this painting home to my mom?" "Can you get us more ribbon and cardboard boxes?" "See, I told you it was fun in this room", one girl remarked to her friend.

 The social aspects of this reverse mainstreaming surprise and encourage me. If Alice, my oldest and perhaps most rigid student can practice her cutting skills with scissors and construction paper while sharing space and materials with an unpredictable, loud group of older children? Fantastic. Frequent "gift giving" and letter writing, small connections are being made. "It's okay if she doesn't smile when you give her the letter, the important thing is that you wrote it", I tell the children who are thinking hard about ways to interact with my students.

 Vernon, age four asked an older boy to read aloud to him, and gave him a high five when the book was complete. Sally ran to the door and grabbed the hand of the girl who played playdough with her the day before. Frances who does not speak, ran into the center of the older kids who were jumping on the trampoline laughed, flapped his arms, and joined them. When Frances observed the older boys pretending to be Doctors? He sat down next to them, put on a stethoscope and imitated their play. 

Occasionally in stressful moments the need to contain, or limit the "art class" recess time for the third grade comes to mind, but the thought is fleeting as I consider the value of free, creative, expressive play for eight- year olds. Having their own self made art class, and the opportunity to learn about other kinds of people is filling a hole in their academic curriculum, well balanced day. What these third graders are bringing to my students is of irreplaceable value: their ability to connect, interact and yes teach, my Autistic students how to play. It really is fun in this room. Pass the duct tape.