I recently came across this quote by Janet Lansbury: “Every time a child has an opportunity to own “I did it,” self-confidence grows. And a child’s capabilities build upon each other. The more he is trusted to accomplish for himself, the more emboldened he is to take on another challenge.”
Powerful words? You bet! Stating the obvious? Well….you might think that, but is this really the predominant philosophy of those who work with students who have special needs? Maybe not….but not for lack of good intentions. Sometimes it is the good intentions that get in the way of student achievement.
People who pursue a career as an educator, therapist, or paraprofessional are good, kind-hearted folks who want to help students succeed, right? But what does it mean to help? And what does it mean to succeed? This is where things get murky. Clarifying these definitions and sharing a common understanding of expectations, both of the students and the adults, will get your students to “I did it!”
In the trainings I’ve done with special education teams, I often reference a wonderful book by Diane Twachtman-Cullen entitled “How to Be a Para Pro.” Dr. Twachtman-Cullen has Asperger’s Syndrome. She has seen the best and the worst of paraprofessional from two valuable perspectives — as a special education student and as an educator. Although her book was written specifically for paraprofessionals who serve classrooms and individual students, her message is important for all of us to hear and take to heart. Very often student achievement is stymied by those charged with building achievement, by adults who take on the role of “the helper” (aka “the helicopter”) who hovers around and anticipates every want and need, the “automatic pilot” who is agenda-driven (and it’s not the student’s agenda!), “the director” who leads every interaction and activity, and “the fixer” who never allows the student to come close to failing. Mind you, all of these folks think they are doing the right thing. Yet, what they really are doing is robbing the students of the opportunity to learn from mistakes, to problem-solve, to think and act for themselves, to develop independence, and to know the joy of “I did it!”
How can you tell if you or someone on your team needs to back off for the sake of student growth and achievement? Look at classroom artwork this month. Do all of the projects look alike? Or do they look like children with disabilities made them? When you are cooking or doing art projects, are any students getting messy? Do any adults jump in and open juice boxes, clear paths, pull out chairs, or perform any other task for a student before being asked for that help? Does the team strictly adhere to a prompt hierarchy of least to most prompting, with a generous amount of pausing in-between to see what the student can do on his own? Have you or anyone else on the team had an “AHA” moment when a student did something that surprised you, in a good or not so good way?
Here are some vivid memories of scenes I witnessed that helped teams get their students to “I did it!”
A teacher assured me a low-functioning 16 year old girl with Down Syndrome could “come over to the table and sit down” when told to do so, because “she does it every day at snack.” Not only could the girl NOT follow the teacher’s verbal and signed directions to get up and come to the table, once she was finally guided to the table, she couldn’t pull out the chair for herself and couldn’t express that there was a problem; she just stood there, wringing her hands and wiggling her butt to find the chair that should have been there. AHA! The student wasn’t following the teacher’s directions to come to the table for snack; she was simply responding to environmental cues and a motivation to eat. AHA! Someone had pulled out the chair for her for years, so that she was unable to do this for herself and, AHA!, she was not able to ask for help.
A low-functioning 8 year old boy with multiple disabilities in a wheelchair had a “helicopter” aide who cleared every path, anticipated every need, and guided him through every step of every routine. One day, he was told to check his schedule on the blackboard, but just as he was about to start this routine, his aide was called to the phone. In the five minutes that she was on the phone, the student wheeled himself across the room, navigating a few obstacles along the way, picked off his activity card, figured out how to carry the card to the “all done” basket on the teacher’s desk by holding it in his mouth, wheeled himself to the desk, and dropped the card in the basket. I’m not sure which expression was more priceless: his grin or her look of utter shock! AHA!
A 15 year old boy in a Life Skills class struggled with his locker combination every day, taking so long that the classroom assistant would step in and open it for him. After all, the bell was going to ring and we can’t be late for class! Then, one day, the assistant was absent. The substitute didn’t know that this boy always needed help with his combination. In fact, the sub didn’t KNOW the combination, so how could she help? She just stood in the hall while the Life Skills students went to their lockers…..and was just about bowled over by one exuberant boy, shouting over and over again, “I DID IT! I DID IT! I DID IT!” as his locker swung open.
How do we get our students to “I did it” ? Simple: We….don’t….do….it….for….them. By changing our own behavior, our students try, learn, gain self-confidence, feel trust, develop skills, know accomplishment, and become emboldened to try again. AHA.