Monday, April 19, 2010

two steps forward, three steps back

My fabulous first grade co-teacher and I have a little boy who is not officially "one of mine" but most likely should be. We've started the special education process, and suspect that if he is not on the autism spectrum he must have significant learning disabilities that severely impact his ability to communicate appropriately with those around him.

When he first entered our classroom he assumed the entire world was against him. If one child laughed in the back of the class he knew it was about him. Once my co-teacher and I were laughing as we walked the class down the hallway and he exploded. "Teachers aren't suppose to laugh!" he exclaimed angrily. During lessons if we laughed because we made a mistake he'd get upset with us for laughing at ourselves. "It's not nice to laugh when someone makes a mistake" he'd recite, not understanding that the rule didn't apply to laughing at yourself.

Back in September and October he would come visit me every morning to tell me about the mean kids on the bus, in the hallway, or in his classroom. He couldn't get past what he perceived as the mean actions of others. He couldn't focus on anything else. The school day wasn't a safe haven for him- it was a place where he had to stay on guard, never knowing if he was being picked on or not.

My co-teacher and I put our heads together and decided to give him some direct instruction with social skills. We spent time analyzing the book Oliver Button is a Sissy (one of my favorites). We debated the actions of the bullies, and talked about how Oliver never gave up, even when the bullies made fun of him. We sorted the actions from the book into two categories- when you should tell a grown up and when you need to be strong and not let it bother you.

He LOVED this and truly took pride in it. He continued coming to visit me every morning, but to tell me all the different ways he'd stood up for himself throughout the day, all the different times he ignored people who were mean to him, and how he didn't give up, just like Oliver Button.

It worked! I celebrated. Success!

He'd continue to find me in the morning to tell me about the incidents on the bus, but now instead of anger and frustration he was filled with pride and self-confidence. He'd brightly tell me about how he didn't care what they said, or if someone was laughing. I really thought he was doing great.

And then... the assistant principal pulled him out of class for a chat. Turns out he'd been bullied pretty badly on the bus, but he hadn't said anything because he'd decided he would be like Oliver Button.

*sigh* Ok, so we gave him self-confidence, but in the end he was worse off than he was before!

I gave the direct social skills training a rest and tried to give him more guided instruction during the day, modeling with his peers what was ok and not ok. I was worried to encourage him to stand up for himself and ignore others since it had ended up getting him bullied. How do you teach him to draw the line, I wondered, when he sees life as black and white.

He slowly reverted back to his old frustrations. "The story teller made a mean face at me!" he growled one afternoon. "So I punched him." The story teller sat there scratching his head. "I wasn't even looking at him, I wonder why he punched me." he'd ask inquisitively (being the story teller he's not even upset about getting punched).

He's back to meeting me in the morning to tell me who was mean to him on the bus, or what kindergarten girl "hit" him when she went to pick up her bookbag.

Today, as I sat at my desk I could hear him and two of my other friends with learning disabilities talking with their teacher. I left my classroom and found them having a post-recess conference about the fight the 3 of them had during recess. We marched down to the principal's office as I tried to weed out what on earth happened.

Ultimately it seems it all came down to none of them correctly reading the social cues of the other. One thought they were playing a game, the other thought they were angry with him, one didn't know what was going on, and when he went to investigate he was "punched in the stomach". (I don't actually think this was a true "fight". The boys used the words "punched" but... it is first grade. I've seen a first grade fight, and it's not pretty- these boys did not look like they'd just had one of those. But regardless, they believed they had fought, and we needed to treat it as though they had).

Basically, their ability to assess a social situation dissolved into a physical tumble on the playground. The physical tumble on the playground resulted in a trip to the principal's office that meant they lost instruction time. Instruction time none of them can afford to miss.

So. Time for some more social skills training. They are all making progress academically- all moving along quite well in other areas of the school day. Somehow I let teaching social skills lag behind this year, and now here we are, taking a trip to the principal's office. I could kick myself because I know teaching social skills works. I particularly know it works with one of these children because I saw the success we had before. But I dropped the ball.

Now I just need to reassess their needs, find a way to help us differentiate between dangerous bullies and just pesky peers, and find time in the day to work together on these skills. Any suggestions?


luckeyfrog said...

Maybe it would help him to develop a checklist? Tell if... Don't Tell if... Maybe...

If he has a quick means of classifying the behaviors, it might help. It might also help to have some focus on who people's attention is on. If there are people in the back of the room not even looking toward you, they are probably not laughing at you.

Unlimited said...

Might not be the appropriate time to start one - but I'll throw it out there. If he took such heart to Oliver Button - what if your social skills group created a book - a social story (unbeknownst to them) - with characters/names that they create? You could include pages/chapters as you progress on different suggestions. You may have already tried this :)