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learning disabilities

I believe the children are our future

The world has felt scary and unsafe lately. While that used to be a “Jen-thing” for a good chunk of my life (i.e., let’s work on this in therapy, why does the world feel so scary for no reason?) it’s currently….not. I’m not even slightly alone in this feeling, and honestly, rather than that being comforting, I only wish it was a Jen-thing rather than our reality.

And one thing I tried to figure out back in January was, what the heck am I going to do/talk about/say to/work on with my students? We’re in a situation where we as educators and therapists can’t share our fears or beliefs with our students (which could be a whole post in and of itself ), but where our students are aware of what’s happening in the world, regardless of their own beliefs about it (which at many of their ages, are just their parents’ beliefs being parroted).

So after a lot of thinking and toying with different ideas, I decided to do a project around “World Issues”. It started about a month ago, with us talking about Martin Luther King Jr., and how we had a day off to celebrate him, and why we celebrate him and what issues he cared about. Then we brainstormed other issues that exist in the world or in our community. You guys – kids KNOW. They hear things and they are aware, and they care. They very quickly rattled off issues and examples that they’ve heard of or witnessed in our world and community. Here’s an example of one group’s brainstorm (excuse the horrible picture quality):

The dialogue that happened was powerful. For each group it meant different things – sometimes simpler and sometimes more in depth, but the point was, they all had reactions and feelings about these topics. I could write for days about each group and the conversations we had, but I’ll just share this one: One student said “war? But that doesn’t happen anymore. There hasn’t really been a war wince World War 2.” And then another student said, “War happens all the time still, like in Syria,” and the first student responded, “That can’t be right. If a war was going on, the United States would do something about it and make it end and not just ignore it.” I know. Powerful.

Politics came up here and there – how could they not? But we kept things factual (“yes, that did happen, yes, that order was signed, yes, some people are upset about it, yes, some people are happy about it”) and moved on.

Then they each chose an issue that they cared a lot about. With two different graphic organizers, they brainstormed and organized information on their issue. The project culminated in them writing a paragraph about the issue of their choosing, and for my students, this is no small feat. All of the steps involved in writing a paragraph when you have significant learning/language disabilities and challenges, maybe with ADHD and anxiety also, can take up to 5 or 6 48-minute sessions. Which is why their end products are so wonderful and move me to tears. (For the record, I also got moved to tears when they wrote a paragraph comparing and contrasting two different types of penguins – they are just such smart kids, such hard workers, and it is not. at. all. easy for them)

So: enjoy. Here’s the final products (with a pretty bulletin board display to come, hopefully next week) of some of my wonderful 6th-8th graders. Read one or two or all of them – because this is the world from the next generation’s perspective. This is the future.

Bio Poems

I was out sick yesterday, and another therapist worked with many of my therapy groups. She did a fun, creative, describing activity, called “Bio Poems” – and reading them warmed my heart so much that I just had to share. These are all done by 6-8th graders, all with language and learning disabilities. They did a few pre-writing steps with writing templates and prompts for each line, but otherwise? These are their own ideas, their own words, with nothing changed (except names!). I laughed, teared up, and had my heart melted as I read these – it’s such a powerful experience to see how these incredible kids view themselves, and what their inner workings are like. I hope you enjoy.

Miranda
Who is creative, kind, and smart
Who enjoys Max Ride, math, YouTube,One Direction, tv, iPad, iPhone, pools beaches
Who is able to flexible thumbs, swim really fast, sing, act, dance
Who feels joyful playing on my iPad and happy reading my book
Who wonders what will happen next
Who fears when my mom is mad and the dark
Who cares about family, friends,cats school, books, stuff animals, necklace
Who dreams of being a famous vet/mom and meeting 1D

Ally
Who is Smart , Talkitive , Sweet
Who enjoys Playing sports , Playing with Sibilings , Drawing and
Coloring
Who is able to play soccer , Draw and Color
Who feels happy when I play with my brother
Who wonders what is out there in space
Who fears Thunderstorms
Who cares about Faimly and pets
Who dreams of About being a baker or a cook

Doug
Who is cool, kind, smart
Who enjoys video games
Who is able to beat video games easily
Who feels lazy when playing with friends
Who wonders how we got here
Who fears the end of the world
Who cares about the world of nature
Who dreams of being really cool

Nellie
Nice, fun, pretty
Who enjoys playing Minecraft
Who is able to do gymnastics
Who feels happy when I play Minecraft
Who fears big scary sharks
Who care about my family and friends
Who dreams of flying in the sky

Caitlin
Who is athletic, creative, nice
Who enjoys six flags, friends, drawing
Who is able to watch movies, go to school, play basketball
Who feels happy, loving, funny
Who wonders what I’m going to do when I grow up
Who fears spiders, reading in front of people, the dark
Who care about friends and family and animals
Who dreams to have a great rest of my life!

Gabi
Who is happy, kind, creative
Who enjoys tennis, yoga, baking
Who is able to biking, swimming, yoga
Who feels nervous, happy, shy
Who wonders what I am going to do as a future job
Who fears presenting in front of the class
Who cares about family, friends
Who dreams of to be famous some day

The contraction “let’s”

One of my 4th grade groups is learning about contractions. They all know what they are, but one very rigid, very anxious student refuses to use them in writing (and often in speaking), just because he likes saying both words better. And another misuses them, saying “I’m” instead of “I’ve”. So it was time for a re-teach and review.

We went through what each contraction stands for, we practiced taking each one apart and putting it together, and everyone was getting the hang of things (despite my anxious little guy, constantly checking, “But I do not have to use contractions, right???”). Then we got to the contraction let’s. We talked about how it stands for let us, but how most people say Let’s because Let us go play on the swings or Let us play a game sounds kind of strange, and it sounds more regular to say Let’s go play on the swings or Let’s play a game.

One of the students raised his hand. “This is kind of off topic, but…. [the number of times I hear that statement in a day…!] well, it’s kind of on topic. It’s about the contraction let’s.” I told him to go ahead and share.

“Well, you know how we just learned that it stands for let us?” he began. “So that means it’s what more than one person is doing, not just one person. But sometimes people use it wrong. And, I’m not trying to be rude or disrespectful. But teachers use it wrong all of the time.”

I was intrigued and asked him what he meant.

“Well, when a kid forgets to take out a pencil, teachers always say Let’s get out pencils now when it’s not the teacher that has to get one out, it’s just the kid. Or if a kid is having a hard time, the teacher says Let’s take some deep breaths even though the teacher doesn’t need to take deep breaths. You guys always say stuff like that. And I think I know why. It’s because it makes a kid feel better. If you tell them You need to get a pencil out or You need to take a deep breath it can sound kind of rude, you know? Like you’re singling the kid out. But when you use let’s, it makes everyone feel better, cause it makes them feel like they’re not the only one. It’s like everyone’s on a team and all working on things together. And so I think it’s a good thing you do that. Because it’s much nicer.”

I was speechless. “Wow,” I told him. “You are so right. Teachers absolutely do that, and I am so impressed that you were able to figure out why. I’m so glad it makes you feel better when teachers say that.”

“And,” he continued. “Well, you know how I love Minecraft and I have my own server? Well, sometimes players break the rules or something. They might swear or do something not good. So I tried using that. And I tell them Let’s not use swears. And it works! And I think they listen way better than they would if I told them You can’t swear.”

At that point I had to move on, because one student had started singing a Maroon 5 song, another one was humming the Mario theme song, and the third was increasingly unhappy that we were slightly off topic. You know, the usual.

But three days later, I can’t stop thinking about that incredible, amazing exchange.

Last week’s IEP meeting

Last week we had an annual review IEP meeting for one of our 8th grade students. Because he is now 14, he came to the meeting for a few minutes, to discuss his transition plan. This boy is one of the most empathetic students I have. He carries a tremendous amount of anxiety, which I am willing to bet has to do with his diagnoses and learning challenges, but also with trying to figure out how to be such a sensitive soul in this world.

He walked into the room, and took a seat. He looked around the table and said “hi” to his mom, and then quickly addressed every single person at the table and said “hi” to them, too. Our IEP team facilitator greeted him, told him that we would all love to hear a bit about what’s going well for him.

“So, maybe tell us, what’s your favorite class?” she asked him.

“Oh, uh…Science.” he replied. Then, scanning the room, realizing that several of his teachers were there, but not his science teacher, he quickly added, “But, uh, I love Math too. And Reading is okay. And Language Arts. And hey Jen, I like Speech, too.” There were a few smiles, but I felt myself getting teary. I totally got what he was doing. He was terrified of offending one of us. So much so, that, his math teacher responded, “It’s okay. I know you don’t love math. And I would never be upset with you for saying so.”

Our team facilitator moved on. “You and your counselor met to talk about what you’d like to do in the future. You mentioned that you would love to stay at [our school] for high school, and that after high school maybe you would work with computers or animals.”

His counselor jumped in. “Yup, and we talked about way down the road, where you might like to live. Remember, you told me that one day you would like to live on your own, and not with your parents?” he nodded, agreeing with her, and then caught his mom’s eye and froze. Oh no, I could imagine him thinking. What is Mom going to think to hear that I don’t want to live with her? 

“Uh, Mom…” he tried to explain. “I was just thinking that one day I’d like to have an apartment. But, uh, it’s not that I don’t love you. Because I do. You and Dad have been really good to me. But it’s just…” his voice trailed off as his eyes quickly darted from person to person.

His mom smiled, and gave a kind laugh. “It’s okay, buddy. I would hope you want to live on your own some day!”

After talking a bit about his career aspirations, and his love for computers and cartoons, his counselor sensed his mounting anxiety and backed up a little bit. “Now, all of this is going to be a long time from now. And we’re talking about things that might happen. But is it okay if your ideas change?”

“Uh…I guess so…” he said.

“Will anyone be upset with you if you change your mind about what you want to do or where you want to live?”

“Uh…I guess not…”

“Right. Because we’re just thinking. None of these are decisions that we have to follow. We’re just imagining. But just because we’re imagining does it mean you have to do these things?”

“Uh…no?”

“No, it doesn’t. And we don’t even have to worry about those things. Those are your long-term plans, but right now, our main focus is that you’re going to finish 8th grade and then go to 9th grade.”

“Um. Okay. Yes.”

He headed out of the meeting then, after saying goodbye to every single one of us, and giving his mom a hug.

I think we were all overcome with emotion. And I totally got it – I understand that desperate need to please everyone, the fear of what people will think of you if you don’t give equal attention or love or praise. For the rest of the meeting, we talked through his IEP goals, but we kept coming back to his sensitivities and anxieties. Because among his autism, among his language and learning disabilities, sensitivity and anxiety are at his core. They affect every part of what he does every day. And the same is true for so many of our kids. I truly believe – there are times when noncompliance or overreactions, or other behaviors, are just a mask for that panic inside. And I am not autistic. I don’t have a language disorder. And it’s taken a long time for me to be able to identify my anxiety and sensitivity and put it into words. So I can only imagine what it’s like for our kids. And I feel really blessed to get to help them do just that.

Learning rambles

This is going to be incoherent but I have to write before I lose the thoughts and the concepts deep into the folds of my brain, never to be even partially articulated. 

I’m reading a book. It’s called Your Brain on Childhood, by Gabrielle Principe. I’ve only read about 60 pages so far, but I’m captivated. It’s very research-heavy, citing lots of studies regarding child development, animal development, and ultimately the clear theme is that our kids aren’t being kids. Between phones, ipads, computers (all screens), lack of true “play” time (which is actually a necessity for kids! It’s how they learn – truly learn! Not just memorize what they’ve been taught), and a push to be fastersmarterwisermoredeveloped, we’re causing more problems than we’re solving. In trying to help our kids be smart and brilliant and successful, we’re actually doing the opposite sometimes.

Now, I speak as someone who is NOT a researcher, not an expert in human development, not (yet) a mother. So I can’t speak with fact or certainty. But I can speak intuitively, and I can speak from experience, with about a zillion kiddos, all across the spectrum.

And I can observe. And notice what is hardly a surprise: that the rise in learning disabilities is increasing. That more and more kids are on IEPs. That more and more kids are falling behind in school, and more and more kids are hating school. That anxiety and depression are consuming kids younger and younger. I can’t convince myself that this is random, that there’s no reason behind this. Why is it, well, I can’t state with certainty. But from my observations, of my own students and my friends’ children? I’m observing the amount of homework is increasing. That kids have less and less time to play. That more of an emphasis is placed on MCAS and other state testing. That the “fun” units can’t be taught in school because there’s no time. That kids are taught rules and things to memorize but there’s no time to learn what they want. There’s no more time to learn naturally. 

I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that my most successful speech/language therapy sessions are the ones in which we veer off course and have a completely child-directed, randomly-flowing, session. It can’t be a coincidence that my students seem to learn more when we’re talking about something that they brought up or noticed. It can’t be coincidental that what they seem to retain most comes from natural learning opportunities, and often ones they have brought upon themselves.

I don’t know what else to say. There are clearly a lot of thoughts in my head and I realize this is anything but coherent, and probably full of vast accusations and gross generalizations. But I gave you the disclaimer that this is based on absolutely no fact, nothing but my own brain, my life, my experiences. I’m sure they’ll be more to come, more to say, and maybe some cohesiveness eventually. But in the meantime?

Does anyone else, whether you’re a student, a professional, a parent, get this? Feel the same way? Totally disagree? Tell me your thoughts. It’s okay if they’re not based on anything other than the neurons firing in your head. 

Slaberty

I can’t stop thinking about an encounter I had with one of my students last week. In the spirit of extreme anonymity and privacy, all I will tell you is that he’s an adorable little elementary schooler, with a sensitive soul and wisdom beyond his years.

He walked into my office and announced, “You know what I was thinking about?”

“What?” I asked.

“My old school was like slaberty.”

“Slavery?” I questioned.

“Yeah.” 

“What do you mean?”

“Well. You know how the blacks and the whites were all people but they were still treated differently cuz people didn’t realize that they should be treated equally? Well my school was like that. Like, I was a student! Just like everyone else! But since I was in the [name of special ed program] program, other kids didn’t realize that! They treated me differently. Like at recess? They wouldn’t play with me! They ran away from me because I was in the [special ed] program. Just like the whites felt about the blacks! It wasn’t fair! It made me feel stupid and dumb. I was a student just like them!” He was animated, pacing around my tiny office as he talked.

“Wow. I like that comparison. I don’t like how you were treated, but I like how you are thinking about it.” I told him.

He smiled. “Yeah. You know what? Teachers care about me here. I never, EVER thought that teachers could care about kids!”

And then I fought back tears.

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