Friday, February 12, 2010

Meet My Strong-One

It's funny the little ones who pop into your head when you're not focused on school at all...

One that keeps coming back to me during our snow-cation is a little girl I work with this year. She is the most stubborn child I have ever worked with, which, to be honest, is saying something. But stubborn in a really, really good way. She has cerebral palsy, but you'd never know it unless you watch her closely and notice there is something a bit different about how she walks. And even then, you'd only know if I pointed it out to you.

Her stubbornness is going to be her ticket to a wonderful, strong life, although at times it can drive me, and anyone working with her, crazy.

She doesn't want anyone to do anything for her, ever. I was giving her a federally mandated, official test to assess her English skills as an English Language Learner student. For this test I am suppose to ask the students questions and then I am in charge of filling in a bubble to record their response. No other child has really commented on the fact that I am filling in bubbles while we go along "playing our games". Until my Strong-One. After watching me do it once or twice she grabbed the pencil from my hand.
"I can do it!" she blurted out. "Let me, don't do it for me"
"Honey, this is for teachers to do, not for kids"
"No, you're lying, I can do it" she argued.
So, we took turns, every fifth bubble or so I let her fill in...
"See," she said, "I told you I could do it"

When I first met her last year while she was in her preschool class at another school, I saw a quiet, timid child. Her teacher warned me that she wouldn't participate ever, and that she was worried about how low she was academically. I prepared myself for a very limited kindergarten experience.
I was wrong. She does sometimes refuse to participate, but only in the way of making a statement that she is going to control the situation, and no one is going to change that. But most of the time, despite the fact that she is refusing to look at the teacher, she knows what is going on. She seems to have developed an ability to stand back and watch, assessing the situation and determining how safe it is for her to participate. She does not participate in active singing, dancing, or sports-like games the first or second time she sees them. She hesitates, refuses, says she doesn't like that. But if you leave her alone and let her observe, you see her confidence build as she analyzes how she'll adapt the task for herself. Once she's sure, she participates right along with the rest of the class, despite the fact one side of her body is weaker than the other.

I love that at such a young age she understands her limits, and takes a moment or two to assess how to make a situation safe for her, and then moves forward- not letting herself be limited, but acting when she feels confident. I love it, even when it drives me crazy.

She can cause me to grind my teeth when we work together one on one. If I, in a rush, demand that we have only one agenda for that day, one activity we must follow, she balks. She refuses to follow my directions, refuses to play the game. But if I take the time to give her a choice, even the smallest choice of "do you want to hold this marker, or this pencil while we play" she'll participate. She likes to be in control. She likes to make the decisions.

The part of me that thinks "This is ridiculous, I'm the teacher, she needs to follow directions" gets infuriated by this. There have been days I've said, "If you don't do this you can go sit back down with the group". And of course, what does she choose- she knows a power struggle when she sees one, and she is going to win, no matter what. So we've wasted a day because I was too stubborn to give her a reasonable choice.

The days that I'm calm, remember to give choices up front, right away, the days I roll with her determination, guide her when she says, "let me do it my way" are the days I see her learning the most. The days her brain is active and she takes what we're working on and puts it in her long term memory.

A book on the brain I read recently discussed how our brains are significantly more engaged when we are interested in the subject, and how that is the secret to children who struggle with their working memory. If they are truly engaged by their choice they are far more likely to remember the subject matter the following day, because more of their neurons are active in learning the material the first time.

And so I need to allow My Strong-One to take her stands, and, being the older, wiser adult, make sure that I've manipulated the situation so that her choices always still allow us to achieve my goal, while allowing her to achieve hers. Otherwise it is me, fighting with a 5 year old, and even if I "win" our time together isn't productive because she wont remember it the next day.

My Strong-One's determination, grit, and confidence is what is going to get her through life. It's what's going to keep her pushing on, even when the world may be more likely to allow her to develop learned helplessness. She wont let anyone do anything for her, at least, not more than once or twice, before she is confident she can do it herself. And if anyone tells her she can't do something, well, they might as well be giving her an open invitation to try it.

Some days I think I could learn a lot from My Strong One's outlook on life.


Sneaker Teacher said...

Another great post! This little friend sure is developing some great skills and although it can be frustrating at times, how great that you empower her to choose and do thing for herself rather than letting her believe that she can't by doing it for her.

In so many instances, students with special needs get things done for them, when they are perfectly capable of doing it themselves simply because of time....

Madeleine said...

Her parents also deserve credit. They could have coddled her or made her feel less than perfect.

You're right - with these skills this girl is slated for a strong, wonderful life.

Tracey said...

I agree - and I applaud your support when she "does it herself". I encourage you though, to find a time when you can say "This time I am pulling rank - trust me, I haven't steered you wrong yet - I am in charge." She gets to choose how and when it gets done - but not if it gets done. There's a fine line between supporting choices,letting students build confidence, setting up the scaffolding they all need AND letting them choose so much they are in charge. Sometimes the teacher gets to fill in the bubbles. That's okay. Just my opinion.