Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Balancing "Fair"

We talk a lot in our equity circles about the idea of equity or fairness versus equality – not the same thing. Equal is not necessarily fair, and equality is about giving people what they need, not what is the same.  I used to tell something similar to the kids in my class  - you don’t always get the same as someone else, because each person should get what they need.

Question of the week is: when does what one person needs become more important than the needs of everyone else?

Actually, it’s the question of the year, but seems to have crystallized in the last few very rough weeks, as I struggle to find answers for myself about hierarchy of needs and how to make sure everyone is getting what they need and deserve.

One of my students is extreme – at best, charming and gentle, with some great basic communication skills. We very rarely have him at his best.  He is impulsive, aggressive, easily frustrated, stubborn and very smart. He hits us, lunges, scratches, grabs at clothing and jewellery, pulls hair, trashes materials and books, screams, flops, kicks, runs, grabs, throws. He pushes and hits other kids, pulls their hair, destroys their artwork and snacks and seeks out their reactions like pinching or screaming.

And we have tried everything – visuals, timers, rewards, structure, free play, movement, sensory input. We’ve tracked, recorded, looked at triggers and patterns (or lack thereof).

This isn’t a programming report, though, it’s a blog, so let me get to the point…

We are in crisis mode.  Almost a dozen accident reports, 2 WSIB claims, Kevlar protective clothing on all staff (aka riot gear). Adults are getting hurt trying to protect themselves and the other children. Every day new books and materials destroyed beyond repair. And programming? Don’t even talk to me about programming. All my big plans about great learning activities, independent tasks and individual attention are right out the window. The other kids are acting out because they’re not getting enough attention, and they’re modelling what they see, creating more chaos. The energy in the room is at 500% all the time.

I am acutely aware of the imbalance in the room, all day, every day. One child drawing the energy and attention of at least one, usually 2 and sometimes 3 staff 100% of the time. Although this may be what he needs, it is in NO WAY fair. It is unfair to the staff, who are putting their personal safety at risk working with him. And it is grossly unfair to the other students who are all in this program because they have high needs too, and tons of potential to learn that is not being met because of the drain in resources caused by this other child. It is unfair to them to have to feel unsafe and anxious at school all day because of the behaviour of this other child.

Let me be very clear – I love all my kids, including the “extreme” one.  I love him dearly, and my heart breaks for the frustration he must feel every single day, trapped within his own anxiety and impulsiveness and unable to show how very bright he is. But something’s gotta give!  I have 5 other children, also bright, also needing support and help to break through their barriers and learn, and they have the right to a safe and encouraging learning environment, which is about as far as we can get from what we’ve got right now. When do THEIR needs become part of the fairness equation?

Because my little buddy is basically not coping with anything in the school environment, we had been directed to use the Sensory Room as a time-out – a place to calm down before resuming regular activities.  The problem is, he has now learned that when he’s acting up, he gets escorted to the Sensory Room, and pitches a fit because he doesn’t want to be in there.  Yesterday, he forcibly tried to pull the bubble tube to the ground, and almost succeeded. Staff have to be in there with him, so that he doesn’t destroy the equipment, but are getting abused because he is so angry and out of control. So the solution, I’ve been told, is to take it all out, so that when he’s upset, he can be in there alone, with nothing to destroy, until he clams down.  Today I was told to dismantle the Sensory Room – “temporarily”.  Don’t place any demands. Abandon his programming. Basically “hold and secure” – keep everyone safe and don’t worry about any learning for him.

Don’t get me wrong – it get it.  I understand the need for safety for my staff and the other kids. I understand that there’s no other reasonable space where he can go that he won’t hurt himself or someone else.  But getting it doesn’t make me any less mad…

I’m mad because “hold and secure” should be for treatment facilities, not for schools. I asked for this assignment because I don’t believe that “hold and secure” has any place in a school, and that classrooms for special kids are still classrooms, where learning is always the goal, no matter what kind it is. If a kid needs all day “hold and secure”, then school is obviously not an appropriate setting for their needs, and there has to be something better available to them and their families.

I’m mad because I’ve spent a lot of time and energy trying to provide learning opportunities that meet my kids’ needs when traditional schooling doesn’t – a movement room with purpose, space and equipment, learning materials that encourage practical skills and independence, group activities that build interaction and social skills, and a sensory room to stimulate and calm in sensory-input ways that are not available any other way.

That room has cost almost $15 000 to outfit, raised through the generosity and involvement of hundreds of people and organizations, hours upon hours of organizing, planning, grant-writing and project-building. I just this week received the final piece I had ordered – a rotating colour-wheel to go with the giant disco ball that has yet to be hung – it was on backorder. I just this week finally got back in touch with a donor group who I’m hoping (fingers crossed) might help fund our very last piece for the room – a $2000 vibroacoustic beanbag mattress – after months of trying to reach them. I had just this week put together a flyer for the official grand opening – an invitation that was to go out to all the amazing people who have encouraged and supported this project, asking them to come see what we have created with their generosity during Education Week in April. I had just last week finally posted a video of it for everyone to see! And that’s only the adult aspect of it…

For one of my other students, it’s her favourite place in the school. She loves nothing better than to cover her face with the fibre-optics, or wrap around the bubble tube and listen to its hum. My littlest one has had his two biggest breakthroughs so far in that room – the “open door” episode (see the story here), and the controller on the bubble tube – it was the first item in the room that he would go to and activate independently, without any prompting, and he still likes to use it every day, changing the colours and listening for the familiar clicking sound.

Gone. Stripped. The fibre-optics tucked away in a filing cabinet. The bubble tube hauled out and moved to safety in the principal’s office, to be “visited” whenever we want. Until things get “under control”. Aside from the darkened projectors and stereo, tucked away high on the shelf, the room is once again bare except for the pillows. The other students don’t even know yet, and how do you explain that? “I’m sorry honey, but you know that space you loved, the one that met your sensory needs, calmed you and engaged you and was open to you whenever you needed a little downtime? It’s not there anymore.”

Maybe I should just tell them it’s fair.


  1. Oh no! I am actually crying because of how sad this makes me. I know how hard you've worked and I've seen the amazing sensory room. I hope this situation gets resovled quickly and that the room is back up and running because this is definately NOT FAIR!!

  2. Wow...The description of your "extreme students" matches 100% to my son. He is just like that. Since he enrolled elementary school(he's 5th grader this fall)up to now,he is still attending school only half day because of this "Extremeness".
    Our class room has this "small room" as well. Though we never used as Sensory Room like yours, but using as "Calm Down" room for all the student who needs a little bit "break time" and/or "Time out".
    Since last year, this "Calm Down" room became my son's own room. Teacher said that my son can focus on his task a bit better inside of this room without any destruction from environment, so she(his teacher) made this room as my son's work room.

  3. I recognised my class in your description (minus the sensory room - very envious). One of my boys is an ‘extreme’. When I first came in to the school 12mths ago he would spend most of his day on the ground screaming and biting himself (and often me) in fear and frustration. There was very little learning on his part in our first few months together. I learnt lots - working out patterns and triggers, when to push and when to step back. Often learning the hard way. At one time I calculated that my TA and I spent 70-80% of our time supporting him, working with him, talking about his and planning for him. The other 20-30% was split between our 5 other students. It frustrates me and makes me feel like a horrible teacher. How much had my other kids missed out on because of this? I have felt your frustration and anger. We care so much for each and every one of them. We want so much to do the best for all our students but how can we when the needs of the one or the few out way the needs of the many.

    In many ways it paid off. He copes so much better with life (both at school and at home). His achieves so much so quickly now. Sometimes I see him do something and he had this proud smile on his face that you can't help but mirror. I did a happy dance in the middle of the playground the other day when he walked to class independently. My collages laughed at me.

    We can balance our time between the students a lot better now.

    But you’re right; fair is not equal.