Saturday, September 24, 2011

An Open Door Means Walk... and other discoveries

One of the things I've discovered in the past three weeks is that while the challenging moments may be long and the joyful moments may be short, their length does not necessarily equal their value.

My youngest little buddy is only 6, and is what we call "a wanderer". He doesn't show any particular interest in anything - his only "affinity", as we call them, is throwing things. Not in anger, he just likes to throw things. Enjoys the sensation of the throw, I suspect from watching him, and because he had no real sense of cause and effect, he doesn't really care what he throws - he's just as happy throwing a beanbag up in the air over and over as he is tossing books, toys and anything else left lying about. His first week with us, he wouldn't set foot in the sensory room. He'd peek in from the door, but that was it. Last week, one of my team managed to coax him in by encouraging him to push the buttons an change the colours on the bubble tube. This week, he'd wander in and out of the room, never staying long. Tuesday, he actually came over to where I was sitting and touched the bubble tube, repeatedly, and then suddenly sat beside me and leaned his forehead against mine and smiled, for about 5 seconds. I was beyond thrilled. It happened twice more, as he wandered in and out of the room through the open door. Fleeting, precious moments of connection.

On Wednesday, my new Speech and Language Pathologist stopped by for a visit in the afternoon, and somehow ended up in the sensory room with me, as we tried to entice this little guy to come in and engage with us while I described him to her. He had wandered in and out several times, until one of the other students shut the door to the room. Instead of trying to let himself out, this little guy proceeded to sit on the floor and "play" with us for the next 4 minutes or so - clapping, smiling, making funny noises back and forth and interacting beautifully. When someone again opened the door, he immediately stood up and left. We shrugged and figured that was the end of our playtime, but we pleased with the interaction we'd had, and we left the little room and headed back into the larger classroom to continue our discussion and observe the other students. Only a minute later, one of my team said in alarm "What's wrong with ***?" We looked over to the carpet and found our happy, smiling little friend rocking himself with tears running down his face. Confused, we pointed out that he had been fine a moment ago, and encouraged one of my team to take him back into the sensory room. She did, shutting the door, and when we peeked in moments later, we saw him happily interacting with her, as well. Weird...

Several minutes later, another student wandered into the sensory room, leaving the door open, and out popped our little friend once more, only to go immediately back to the carpet, sit down and start crying again. We quickly shooed him back into the room with an adult and shut the door, and my SLP looked at me in amazement. "Motor Planning", she said. Pardon?

“To him, an open door means move.  He likely doesn’t have the motor planning to see the door and think “No, I don’t want to leave where I am”, and to physically stay where he is. To him, an open door means go.  Which is also why he wanders.  No boundaries, no motor planning to stay put.” Would I EVER have figured that out on my own??? Holy moly...

The next day, we deliberately sent him into the room to play with someone, and opened the door after a few minutes.  Sure enough, he popped right up to leave, but I gently turned him around at the door and sent him back in, leaving the door open a few moments more before closing it again.  Three times we did this, and finally on the fourth, he DIDN’T GET UP WHEN THE DOOR OPENED.  It was like the heavens opened up and light streamed into the room – I had managed to accomplish something meaningful with this child! He continued to sit and play until I closed the door again, but when I opened it the fifth time, he popped up again and headed toward the door. Sigh...

This time, however, he vocalized and resisted my turning him back, indicating that he really DID want to leave the room, and when I let him out, he went happily to wander about the room, without any sadness this time.

Now, suffice to say I’m pretty sure this won’t magically eliminate his need to wander about, but it does give us valuable information for working with him. Work in a confined space if you want him to stay on task. Give him a chair with arms and a weighted lap mat if you want him to sit.  Theories, really, at this point, but theories are better than nothing to start from, which is where we were last week.

Other little miracles included playing a turn-taking card game with one of my girls, who doesn’t like toys and is hard to entertain during free time. The cards had fruits on them. And Dora.  Let’s not forget Dora, which was the only reason she agreed to sit with me in the first place. J  But she played the whole game, and asked to play again.  She also loves the finger song “Three Little Monkeys” – the one with the crocodile.  Thanks for that little gem, Mom – she asks for it every day.  And when I do cartwheels out on the playground, she giggles her brains out and asks for more.  I get dizzy, but it’s so worth it.

We had a dance party with another of my girls this week – there was some upbeat world beat playing and we all danced around and laughed at each other. Ok, it was mostly my team and I dancing and her laughing at us, but whatever...

On Thursday, I got my big boy to play math games on the computer with me.  Under duress, initially, because it wasn’t his Jimmy Neutron DVD being played and he wasn’t thrilled with that, but after a few clicks he caught on to the game and finished it willingly. He rarely does any work willingly. Score.

Finally, on Friday afternoon, we all worked. Together.  Every kid and every adult in the room were working on the same thing (a picture recipe for chocolate oatmeal cookies that we’re making Monday), at the same time, and everyone was enjoying themselves. Explaining the ingredients in the pictures, doing the sign language, talking about the cookies, glueing the pictures onto the shopping list.  It lasted for about 5 minutes.  It was amazing. It was joyful.  I looked up briefly and took a mental picture, to store away and pull out when the longer, harder moments are getting me down. THIS is what I had in mind when I took over this class.

We have amazing moments in Room 10 – every day.  The trick is to capture those moments, to hold onto them, to strive for them, and to forgive ourselves when they seem few and far between.  Just because they’re small doesn’t mean they’re not mighty as hell... J

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

"You should start a blog..."

Because I need something else to do with my time, right? Here's the deal...
I've been teaching for 10 years.  Along with a host of other things that I'm sure will spill in over time, teaching defines who I am as a person.  I love what I do.

Two weeks ago, I started a new position in a Special Ed class.  6 kids, 3 TA's, and me.  Sounds like a pretty good kid-adult ratio, right? Wrong.  My class is officially labelled "ASD/DD", which stands for Autism Spectrum Disorder and Developmentally Delayed. It means all of my kids have been identified with both of those hefty coathanger labels. Now, I'm no stranger to Special Ed... I spent two amazing years in a class for students with various learning disabilities, and another three years doing support for kids in regular classrooms, everything from behaviour to learning disabilities to gifted. I've had students with autism in my class before, and I've been teaching long enough to know that a class like mine isn't usually where you land by choice. I did. In fact, I gave up being the school librarian - a post most coveted and rare, and one that I loved dearly. I wanted this class. I had big plans.

I spent the last two weeks of August frantically gutting two classrooms - one for work, and one for larger, active play.  I cut, copied, laminated and postered.  I sorted picture symbols and colour-coded visual schedules, put together learning activities, and made transition books for the kids.  I enlisted my husband, sister, parents and anyone else I could find to help, and when the first day finally arrived, I felt ready. The first 4 days were a dream... the kids were happy and compliant, the programs seemed to be working, and I was giddy with my apparent success. The kids entered gradually, a few each day, until I finally had all 6 in the room on Thursday. Plus a visit from the board office resource staff. Which went well. Yay me.

First week Friday, all hell broke loose. Tantrums, behaviours, you name it.  At the end of the day, waiting for the bus outside, one of my kids reached up and pinched a baby in a mother's arms as they passed by. In a second.  Screaming infant, angry and confused mother, who didn't speak any English.  Swarms of people crowding around trying to "help", but only adding to the mother's fright and confusion.  Four of my kids still milling around, waiting for their busses, and not being helped at all by the confusion around them.  The pincher, who has already forgotten what happened, is still trying to touch the baby.  She LIKES babies, wanted to play with it. Try explaining that to the poor mother with the screaming infant. In the crowd. With the kids still in close proximity, and being yelled at for the bad behaviour, which has already been forgotten.

I cried in my principals office, explaining what had happened.  I cried when I finally got into my car, at 5:45 and almost late to get my own daughter from daycare.  I cried on the phone to my sister, leaving an angry message about changed plans for the following day that I just didn't have the strength to deal with.  And when I finally made it home, I sobbed on the couch for 15 minutes, leaving a big wet spot on the blue microfibre and proclaiming to my husband that I thought I had made a very serious mistake.

Week two arrived, dragging me kicking and screaming out of a blissfully busy weekend during which I had almost forgotten the horror of Friday. In no particular order, week 2 brought heaps more tantrums, several loads of laundry as we tried frantically to keep up with changing the kids, three pairs of broken glasses, 5 destroyed books, 2 punctured (chewed!) balls, one frantic chase through the soccer field, 3 parent pickups, 6 bus mixups, 4 frantic and increasingly frustrated calls to the trasportation department, a day where I completely forgot to send any communication books home, and one very unpleasant incident involving feces, laundry, mopping, rubber gloves, and another parent call to please come and pick your child up because he needs a shower and there's no way we can give him one here.. You can't make this stuff up.  My ever-patient husband, when I finally made it home on Friday, conforted me warmly and then joked "You should start a blog."

And here we are.  For better or worse, I am The Teacher in Room 10. More on that next time. Also more on:

a) Why my kids are amazing!
b) Stuff that went RIGHT - because despite the above tirade, there were some great moments!
c) My sensory/Sneozelen room project, for those that are following the project and want to know.

As a final thought: today was awesome. Nothing major went wrong, and everyone left the school happy.  Even me.  That chalks up as a good day. :)