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Grade one and acceptance

Having described the various problems facing a Teacher who is attempting to integrate my son into her classroom -- and given his particular stim behaviour, I think it was actually harder than it could have been with slightly less disruptive ASD behaviours -- I want to now say that I think the flat-out most important thing that she did in the classroom was simply this:

She accepted my son, in his entirety, as who he was. She didn't condescend to him, and she didn't spend most of her time berating him; she didn't complain about him. She accepted that my son was simply…my son.

Her acceptance -- her completely, natural acceptance -- in the eyes of the other children was the definitive attitude in that classroom. They watched her for cues, in the same way small children will watch adult authority figures in any circumstance for cues, and they took their own cues for some of his more outlandish/non-normative behaviour from her reactions to it.

I understand the drive to teach normative behaviour. I also understand that in up front terms, there was very little of that drive in any obvious way. What his teacher did was to concentrate on projecting her own acceptance of my son's needs to the rest of the class. "He needs to run," she would tell the class, "and the rest of you need to be seated and working."

She didn't attempt to explain him away, or to justify his odd behaviour; she concentrated on two things: attempting to involve him in normal class activities, and treating his behaviour as if it were entirely expected (of him) or natural (for him). A majority of the latter was sub-verbal.

But because she was aware in part of what she thought he required in order to naturally join and participate in the classroom, she was so deliberate in her choices and actions. She was the one who explained, as I mentioned previously, that using a child's name in an admonishing way too frequently focuses the attention of all the other children, who become accustomed to the cues inherent in the name's use. I.e. if she shouted at him a lot, they'd naturally assume he should be shouted at.

The one thing I discovered about six year old children: They don't have an exceptionally strong sense of what "normal" means. It's flexible, and it's defined by the environment they happen to be in. They--yes--look to the adults in authority for their cues. When they're older, it's almost solely to their peers that they'll look, and I think this is what we remember most strongly when we're older, but in grade one, they're almost completely flexible. They're mostly accepting of differences, visible or otherwise, if their parents/teachers are accepting of those differences.

So, by dint of slow interaction with my son, they came to see him as 'normal'--for my son. Not threatening, not creepy, not frustrating (well, some of the kids found him enormously frustrating on occasion), but normal.


One of the things she did to encourage his participation had unexpected benefits, in ways she hadn't intended. She would ask basic addition and subtraction questions - 2+2, 5-3, things like that. If my son lifted his hand and she chose him, he would take two minutes to answer the question, during which time she would lose the rest of the class. If however she asked what 125 + 138 was, he would be the only child to raise his hand, and since no one else expected to be able to answer the question, no one cared if it took him two minutes; they were fascinated by it. He took two minutes in either case because he was attempting to ascertain, internally, that the answer he offered was the correct one.

All she wanted for him was that he be able to raise his hand and answer questions in a way that didn't cause impatience or frustration for her class. But what she also achieved was this: she made him look smarter. The kids would then go home to their parents, and the rather aggressive mom whom I did like came to me a few weeks into school to ask if he was a really smart child. The mother assumed that 'smart' also equated with 'eccentric', and I think that trickled down to her daughter. It was okay if he was slightly weird because she then expected that sort of thing.

One of the things that the Teacher didn't do that was important to my son was shout. She never raised her voice. My son at the time had a mortal terror of teachers who shouted at their kids. I always think of myself as a very loud person with a flash temper, but this is not how my son saw me. Maybe if I had shouted more, it would have been less intimidating--I don't know. But his teacher didn't shout, and that was a huge point in her favour, and one of the few he actually mentioned.

She did frequently touch his shoulder, and she had a gesture--hand flat, palm toward the ground, and then lowered slowly and repeatedly--which meant that she wanted him to lower his voice. She would even accompany this with gentle words--but usually not with his name. This same gesture was to be picked up and used by a handful of the girls whenever he was beginning to wind up, and I was standing beside her when I saw it happen for the first time. I pointed it out, and the Teacher said, "Yes, I' don't know why they're doing that." They were doing it, of course, because she did it, and they adored her and respected her. They picked it up because it was effective and it was clearly the way one dealt with this situation.

He didn't talk about his school day without a lot of prompting, and even then, it was hit or miss, because once he got home, he didn't want to think about school. He wanted to be at home, both physically and mentally.

This is why homework was the bane of our existence. On Mondays, homework was math, which he could do in a matter of minutes. On Wednesday, it was spelling, which he could also do in a matter of minutes. But on Fridays…it was Book Report Hell. Hell would extend for the entire weekend, with breaks for dinner and sanity (on the part of his parents).

What math and spelling have in common is that they are quantitative. They have correct answers. They are something that require no judgement and no choices; no decisions. They were therefore easy for my son, and he didn't actually mind them.

What Book Report hell had, instead, was everything he hated, because he was asked to summarize the book he'd read in a couple of sentences. Weeding he text involved judgements and choices that he was simple not capable of making without a huge amount of stressful effort. It was agonizing all 'round, and it did not improve at all for the grade one year.

But we were aware that it was important to become acclimatized to the work, while also aware that he particularly loathed the book reports for two reasons: the need to choose what was 'important' and what was not, and the fact that school work had invaded the safe space of his home, and wouldn't leave until it was done.

Had the work simply been reading and writing a (slightly) condensed or "in your own words" report, he would have been fine. But choosing which of the story elements were important was, and would remain for some years, difficult. I think this is in part because of the way he accumulated early language: he spoke in whole sentences. His basic building block in the early days were sentences, not individual words. He would use phrases from books to express things, ("he was still hungry", for instance, from the Hungry Caterpillar. I believe that some of the language processing difficulties like this arise from motor-sequencing development, and at six years of age, he couldn't actually walk heel-to-toe).

So on some level he understood that stories were composed of the basic building blocks of sentences. Mashing those structures into something that reduced them but were still supposed to contain meaning was daunting, for him.

I would like to say the book reports became less of a struggle as the year progressed, but I would be lying. Although many other elements of school life did became much smoother as time progressed, the book reporting was not to be one of them.


( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 6th, 2010 12:59 am (UTC)
I remember when I was little, composition assignments were something found difficult, though unlike your son, I got upset when I couldn't bring them home. Mostly because I hated rushing things and I hated being late, and it was hard for me to avoid both at school when trying to write. Home meant I didn't have to be in a hurry to finish my homework if I didn't want to be. (I literally would sit there and not do my writing in class so I could take it home, which drove my school teachers nuts.)
Nov. 6th, 2010 01:20 am (UTC)
(I literally would sit there and not do my writing in class so I could take it home, which drove my school teachers nuts.)

LOL! My son would sit there and zone out and not do work, but sadly, not with the purpose of then doing it at home.

Otoh, his teachers in later grades were willing to overlook his total zone-out in their classes as long as the work was done. He had a habit of staring off into space at the end of the day, so people assumed he wasn't taking anything in--but he'd periodically then answer a question in a way that showed that something was penetrating, which they found disconcerting.
Nov. 6th, 2010 08:28 pm (UTC)
Was "staring into space" his way of focusing on what the teacher was saying, instead of getting distracted by visual cues?
Nov. 6th, 2010 01:23 am (UTC)
This is simply wonderful beyond words. I have never had a teacher who was willing to accept me for the person I was and still am - except my piano teacher, who made me work hard for the first time in my life. I was always expected (in school or out) to conform to the situation or rise to the occasion because I could - it didn't seem to matter whether I should or not.

My background is education, psychology, and English. I have tried always to respect each individual (child or adult) for the person (s)he is and to act accordingly, no matter what the setting. I don't know that I have always succeeded, but it is something I strive to achieve.

Thank you for sharing this story.
Nov. 6th, 2010 01:31 am (UTC)
I have never had a teacher who was willing to accept me for the person I was and still am

The funny thing? I think it was a deliberate, pragmatic choice. It was the only way she could clearly see that would allow a sufficiently unusual child to integrate into the classroom. She understood the effect many of her actions and her attitudes would have, and she was so careful.

But at the same time? When the girls started to adopt some of her various coping gestures, she was really surprised. She hadn't ever specifically told them to either keep an eye out for him or to handle him in any specific way; they did it entirely because they were picking up her examples.
Nov. 6th, 2010 01:34 am (UTC)
Agreed. What a wise choice.

The girls adopting her coping gestures seems that it would happen as a matter of course - it surprises me that she was surprised.
Nov. 6th, 2010 08:46 am (UTC)
It doesn't surprise me, because I bet she had almost no idea she was doing it. It was probably such an instinctive and automatic action on her part she didn't realize there was anything to copy, so seeing it reflected by the children was looking into a mirror she didn't even know was there.
Nov. 6th, 2010 03:54 am (UTC)
I love that the girls picked up on her methods and were looking out for him. :)
Nov. 6th, 2010 01:19 pm (UTC)
I suspect her surprise was at least partly due to the transition from a special ed class to a regular one. In a special ed class as small as her previous ones, the students generally have substantial impairments. Picking up on such a subtle social cue as that little gesture, and then understanding the appropriate times to use it to another person, are probably beyond most of the students she'd previously had. Consider this: could your son have picked up that gesture and used it towards others? That's the context she was working in previously.
Nov. 6th, 2010 02:04 pm (UTC)
Excellent parent POV of something done very right in the classroom! I think this post should be read by all teachers! I'm so glad your son had this relatively good experience--she sounds like a wonderful teacher.
Nov. 9th, 2010 10:16 pm (UTC)
I'm sorry if this has been asked; I'm fairly new to your journal.

Have you made sure to let the higher ups in this school know how well this teacher did at integrating your son?

So often, they hear what a teacher does wrong, usually from an angry parent, and only consider that when forced to decide what teachers to keep or cut out. It would be a shame if they couldn't see what she does well.
Dec. 3rd, 2010 05:10 am (UTC)
A friend, while I was trying to do something with her while simultaneously trying to get my son to write a //single// sentence about what the cat likes to eat and to also write his letters appropriately, tossed me your livejournal link, stating that I might take some interest, and it might help.

//Thank you//. I shall be going back and reading, but so far, it's pretty much bang on to what it's like with our son (going 7, grade one, Aspergers)
Dec. 3rd, 2010 06:52 am (UTC)
A friend, while I was trying to do something with her while simultaneously trying to get my son to write a //single// sentence about what the cat likes to eat and to also write his letters appropriately, tossed me your livejournal link, stating that I might take some interest, and it might help.

Homework of this type was so very, very, very trying when my son was at that age. It was in particular frustrating because once he finally did get it, it would take five minutes--but it was five minutes after almost an entire weekend's worth of sitting beside him and trying to figure out why it was so hard.

I know that our children are probably very different, and I did this slog many years ago, but one of the things I would try is to drop the word 'like', and ask what the cat eats. For my son -- and I'm aware that our two children could be entirely different, so if this is not at all helpful, please forgive me and ignore it! -- it would have been difficult because he would have no way of ascertaining what the cat actually liked to eat. He could, however, experiment to see what the cat would eat. (We don't have cats because we are all, except my husband, allergic to them).

//Thank you//. I shall be going back and reading, but so far, it's pretty much bang on to what it's like with our son (going 7, grade one, Aspergers)

Thank you for letting me know :). It's a large part of why I started to write them -- I thought it might make people going through similar things feel less isolated.
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )