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 _______?"