Today I want to share my experiences with THAT child. You know, the spirited child in the classroom. My child. A few months ago I wrote School Strategies for the Spirited Child and talked about some of the challenges that one of our twin boys was having in school. It came to my attention that many children just like my son were being labelled as THAT child.
I recently read a blog post that was written by a teacher addressing parent concerns about THAT child and how the teacher strives to support all of the children in her classroom. It was a lovely call to attention for many parents and educators. However as a parent of THAT child I felt that the post focused on THAT child in a negative way. That there must be some dramatic, traumatic reason behind their behaviour. What the article did not address adequately was the fact that not all of these spirited children come from a background of trial and tribulation – mine certainly do not. What should be emphasized is that BEHAVIOUR IS COMMUNICATION. Many children who are labelled as THAT child are ones with special needs and inclusion of these children in a typical classroom is not only their right but also hugely beneficial to all. We need to build an awareness of and empathy for children with special needs and model the appropriate responses and reactions to their behaviour for our own children. Not label them as “THAT child”.
I will step off of my soap box now.
As a Program Coordinator who has worked with children for many, many years and one who is now taking an Education Assistant certificate course in order to work with children with special needs in our School District, this is something that I am very passionate about.
We began our school year at a new school and very quickly realized that one of our boys was struggling in the classroom. For lack of a better term, he was THAT child, the one that was being rude, talking out, disrupting class, not listening, running away, hitting others and so on. As detailed in my School Strategies post, I gave the school a variety of behavioural strategies to try with our son and planned to attend a school based team meeting. Here’s where our story picks up…
Shortly after that I had an opportunity to volunteer in his classroom. Perhaps my presence would better allow him to manage his behaviour we thought. I am so very grateful that I had the chance to observe what his day looked like. Our sons are in Grade One (in separate classes) and both had teachers in Kindergarten that were very black and white and had a lot of follow through in terms of classroom rules and expectations. The teachers had led structured classrooms with firm direction. Our sons new Grade One class was, for him, very grey. He did not understand the transition times, things moved very quickly, rules were unclear, he was confused and anxious. It was the opposite of his experience from the year before. This classroom felt much different than his first year of school where he had less difficulty in terms of behaviour. I was able to observe our son operating on a “fight or flight” basis, he ultimately did not feel safe in this environment. This was SO IMPORTANT for me to recognize! No behavioural strategies that we tried to put in place had worked or would work as long as our son was not, at a very basic level, feeling safe.
After careful consideration and consultation we decided to move both of our boys to a different school where we were hopeful that our son could have a fresh start, with new strategies and a teacher that was well equipped to nurture a spirited child.
Let me explain what the process looked like because it has been very successful so far this year. We met with his new teacher and school principal and came up with a plan that would recognize his struggles while allowing him to achieve success. His new teacher had a more structured, firm teaching style than the last. His day would be divided into four parts: drop off to snack, snack to lunch, lunch to recess and recess to dismissal. He would gradually enter his new classroom which meant that for the first week he went to school from drop off to snack, then the next week from drop off to lunch and so on. This part of the plan was brilliant because I felt that at the old school I was dropping him off in the morning and just praying that he could make it through the day. By giving him incremental bits of school time he built confidence in his ability to manage his day and his anxiety lessened. He also works well using a thumbs up signal to know how his day is going. So his new teacher went even further and created a sticker for his agenda that is broken into the four parts of his day. On the sticker was a symbol for thumbs up, thumbs sideways and thumbs down for each part of his day. The teacher could then circle the symbol for HOW each part of his day was. BRILLIANT! I was so thrilled when she did this because she recognized something that worked for us as a family and took it a step further so that we could communicate without embarrassing our son and also see if there were certain parts of his day that he struggled with more.
While all of this was going on we were also visiting with our Pediatrician to have our son assessed to see if there was something cognitively that might be affecting his behaviour. We had tried nearly every behavioural strategy that I could think of and many of the behaviours that were occurring at school just did not happen at home. What we discovered in our assessment was that our son has ADHD – attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Essentially something in his makeup has contributed to him struggling with attention, hyperactivity, impulsivity etc. Talk about a spirited child right?! Having a diagnosis is important because it has allowed us to come up with a treatment plan that will better support him in his schooling. However he IS NOT his diagnosis. He is still just our creative, active, fun loving, charismatic boy. It is SO IMPORTANT to understand that individuals with a special need are just that, individuals. We should avoid labelling, lumping them into groups or calling them THAT child.
I am very pleased to report that our son is now in school full days and is receiving FOUR thumbs up most days! That is a huge improvement from having our five year old being sent to the principals office or home.
Back to my story about THAT child. You see, at our old school I was the mother of THAT child. Other parents were thinking to themselves… What must be wrong with him/them? Why was he not behaving the same as the other children? I don’t want MY child to play with THAT child. Here is where I implore you, dear reader, to act with empathy. Smile at the mother struggling in the school yard. Encourage your child to interact with THAT child. It really is just as simple as that. If we come from a place of caring, understanding and inclusion then we are building better relationships, better classrooms and better communities.
Hugs from one momma, trying to do her best, to another.
p.s be sure to watch this, the most amazing TED Talk about inclusion