Friday, October 26, 2018

The Connections Between Suspension and Teacher Mental Health?

The Division of Early Childhood conference is wrapping up, and I am still mulling over one of the statistics I heard at the first session I attended: Teachers of children who are suspended are more likely to report feeling depressed. 

This sentence tells me so much, and has been rolling around in my brain as I attend all the other sessions on engaging students, inclusion, and positive behavior practices.

1) Suspension is about us, not the kids. We suspend kids when we don't know what else to do in a specific situation. We suspend when we feel helpless.

2) Teachers who are in the classrooms where kids get suspended are not in a good place, most likely due to school structures in place. I'm making a huge jump here, but I suspect their depression comes from being overworked, stressed, and feeling helpless with what's going on in their classrooms.

3) We can talk about good practices all we want, but until we have teachers in a place where they mentally feel they can implement best practices, we aren't going to make changes.

4) It's not just about our relationships with kids - it's about our relationships with teachers.

5) Why are teachers feeling depressed? There is so much on teachers right now. I don't know what change needs to be made, but I truly believe if we want to improve education for all kids we have to make a massive practice shift in the field. What we're doing isn't working for kids, but it isn't working for teachers either.

In another session about cultural responsiveness an audience member commented that perhaps teachers with young families should pause for teaching for a bit, because it is too hard to balance having a family and being an effective teacher. This hit me in the stomach, because in so many ways it is true. The demands we put on teachers make it hard to balance family life. Expecting a teacher to go into the home of students after working a full day is seen as normal for the younger teachers without families (as long as they don't have another job...) so when mothers or fathers start to push back on the extra work they are seen as "ineffective". Obviously we don't all believe this, but the statement reflected a truth.

We expect effective teachers to dedicate themselves and their identity to the job so that they reach all kids and families. Once we see our self-worth through the lens of our teaching job, we are shaken to the core when we have a challenging student. We turn inward and decide we aren't good teachers, or we turn outwards and assume there is a problem with the student. Neither assumption helps anyone.

The teaching profession AND how our culture approaches the profession encourages us to connect our identity to our job. We make salary and time sacrifices for our students and the public tells us we are heroes (while not matching that statement with true respect).

Something has to give. Telling teachers to practice "self-care" puts just another item on their checklist, and makes them continue to feel like a failure when they don't get to self-care in the midst of all they are being asked to do.

I don't know what the answer is. Individually we can put up boundaries and provide quality instruction, practices, and relationship building experiences inside those boundaries. I feel there needs to be more system shifts here, but I don't know what they would look like.

Presuming Competence with Our Colleagues

I’m two days into the three day Division of Early Childhood conference and I have to tell you, I am EXHAUSTED. These first two days have been packed, with limited time between sessions to process what I’m hearing. It’s exciting to hear about the current work in the field, what is about to be published, and what research questions are being pursued. Yet it also feels a bit like it’s impossible to keep up. So much is swirling through my head right now. 

It’s always fascinating to talk to practitioners across the country to hear how practices, trends, and terminology varies from place to place. Because we typically work within only the constructs of our school or district, we often assume that what we are being told is best practice is what is considered best practice everywhere. Or, to be even more specific - We often assume the terminology we use to describe best practices is the same terminology used everywhere.

Even though practices may look the same, what I find the more I talk to people across the country is that the terminology we use to describe those practices is not. It may change depending on what program or philosophy our county has invested in, what trainers we’ve seen, or the background of our university professors. 

The greatest problem I’ve seen in this is that we make assumptions that we are right. The terminology we are using is what describes one certain practice, and that when an educator doesn’t show that they recognize a certain term or researcher, that the educator is somehow not as good as us. “They don’t even know what X is…” is a phrase I’m not unfamiliar with. 

I am continuously shocked by how big the field is, and how many different studies exist around similar topics. And it should be this big. We need a spectrum of ideas, and research studies again and again proving techniques that work and don’t work. It keeps our profession inquisitive and making sure we are serving the needs of the kids around us. 

We talk a lot about presuming competence in our students, but we don’t always do it with our colleagues. We assume that because a teacher doesn’t recognize a particular term or practice, or that a teacher approaches a behavior in a certain way, that the teacher isn’t as good, competent, or informed as we are. 

It is exhausting to attempt to keep up with the research, and to try to understand how certain practices overlap. So let’s be kind to each other. Let’s listen to one another’s educational backgrounds, and learn more about what practices we bring to the table. In order to collaborate effectively, can we openly talk about what each practice, theory, and “research based best practice” brings to the table, and whether or not it will be effective in this particular situation? Can we stop implying “I”m right because research says ….” And instead engage in genuine dialogue over practice and research?

These are scary conversations, because they often imply that the practices we’ve been taught - the ones we’ve been using for years - aren’t always “right”. But here’s the secret - nothing is ever “right” in education. When we get caught in “right and wrong” we stop responding to the kids and critically thinking about what’s happening in front of us. 

Friday, August 31, 2018

Why Inclusion? Musing thoughts, part 1

This school year I'm at a new school as an inclusion coach. It's part time so I am still running my consulting business, but I am extremely excited by this inclusion work. To respect the school and my new amazing colleagues I won't be writing about any of the specifics of the job, but as I think about inclusion as a whole I suspect I'll be finding my way to this space to write.

One of our back to school professional development speakers talked about the importance of telling people your why, and it got me thinking about the why behind inclusion.

So why Inclusion?

Can't special education give students with unique needs the exact services they need, without slowing them down, stressing them out, or forcing them to learn teaching strategies that only help "typical kids"? As a special education teacher I've often made that argument - that kids with special needs can be better served in their own rooms because they'll get what they need.

But why can't we give them what they need in the inclusive environment where they have the opportunity to experience grade level content, expectations, and peer models?

~ ~ ~

Years ago I was working on transitioning a child from a special education preschool program to kindergarten. It was my job to determine if the child's needs would be able to be met in the general education classroom, how many hours of support he'd need, and how we could best support him in the next year. I spent time in his preschool special education classroom to observe him, and met with his teacher to hear her concerns. There were many of them. She was extremely worried about this little one, who did not talk in her room. He was non-verbal, unresponsive. She suspected he had an intellectual disability and that he would be lost if he was placed in a general education classroom. He'd do better in an intellectual disability program where he could receive personalized instruction to learn at his pace and on his level. In her classroom I could see what she meant. His psychological testing reflected a low ability level but it was notable that he spoke another language and was shy.

Yet. He also spent half his day in a headstart classroom that served general education students. In this setting he was quiet and reserved, but was learning his letters, could write his name, and appeared to be typically developing. The headstart teacher was concerned why he was receiving special education services at all. In this setting, with peer models, high expectations, and structure that allowed him to feel safe and included he literally appeared to be a different child.

We placed him in the general education classroom for kindergarten, and by the end of the year he was exited from special education. Later on he was identified for the gifted program.

What if he hadn't been in headstart? What if we'd agreed with the special education teacher and placed him in self-contained classroom? What behaviors would have emerged? What would his confidence level have been? Would someone have realized his potential, or would he have continued to meet the expectations in front of him?

I think about this story often, and use it to remind myself that sometimes even my professional judgement does not recognize a child's true potential. I saw what the teacher saw. Although I suspect the little four year old boy did too. In that environment he became what the teacher expected.

Sometimes we don't know what kids can do, and if we never give them the chance we'll never fully allow them to reach their potential.

I have many thoughts on inclusion, the pros and the cons, the difficulties that may come, and the benefits that exist there for all students when inclusion is done well.

My own first grader was placed in an inclusion classroom this year and so far I'm thrilled. It seems she's going to benefit from great teaching strategies, extra support, and the ability to make friends who otherwise she might not meet. I'm looking forward to seeing this journey from a parents' perspective.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Two Types of Kids - Ruminating on Ross Greene's work

I was ridiculously lucky last week and attended the Inclusive Schools Conference in Syracuse, New York. I'm still exhausted from the three intense days of discussing the broader beliefs of inclusion and the details of how to make it work, from a structural standpoint as well as how to work with kids with challenging behaviors.

A statement from one speaker keeps repeating itself in my head. Ross Greene said "There are two types of kids. Lucky and unlucky. The lucky ones communicate that they are upset by speaking, whining, or crying. The unlucky ones communicate that they are having trouble meeting an expectation by hitting, running, spitting, or displaying other injurious behaviors. These kids are unlucky because they don't illicit empathy, but the message they want to communicate is the same as those who are crying or whining. 'I'm stuck. There are expectations I am having difficulty meeting.'" 

I was telling my husband about this statement and my six year old overheard. "What am I?" she asked, and I almost laughingly pointed out she was lucky. She cries when she was upset.  She nodded, because she feels things deeply and she recognizes that she cries (a lot). "And little sister?" she asked.

I paused. On the scale of lucky vs unlucky kids, I think of my own kids as lucky. But in this context, little sister is a bit of a handful. She rarely cries real tears, and when she does you know she's truly hit a limit. Although we've worked very hard at finding more appropriate behaviors to display her displeasure, her first instinct is to bite, hit, throw, or destroy.

Last night little sister lost her mind. In a full Sunday night showdown, she laughed insanely as she refused to clean up the fort she'd made with her sister. She threw, hit, and laughed at us as we yelled at her. In the midst of what I now see as a manic tantrum of being overtired and overwhelmed, instead of a just diabolical behavior, I caught her trying to rip up her sister's art work. Comforting her older sister (who was sobbing), I thought back to the lucky vs unlucky kids. My youngest was communicating to us, and was certainly eliciting no empathy. The angrier we got the wilder she became. Finally I dumped her into the bathtub (it was bath time anyway) and let her calm down. I stayed nearby, but stopped my lecture and my yelling and let her decompress.

Thinking of her wild behavior as an unlucky way to express her frustrations made me much more empathetic. I calmed down faster, found a solution faster (putting her in the bath instead of yelling and making it worse.)

The behaviorist in me has a nagging voice saying "you rewarded her tantrum with a bath." Yet she calmed down, we reconnected, and once she was calm we could talk and repair. She still had to make amends with her sister and follow some logical consequences of her explosion of wild behavior. Seeing her through the unlucky communicator lens helped me stay calm and focused. Instead of just seeing her behavior as attention seeking, I could see what she was frustrated about, and I could give her the time she needed to calm herself and regroup.

It's strange to think of whining and crying behaviors as lucky, but they are when you think of the alternatives. Viewing my daughter's horrible  behavior as an unlucky way to communicate immediately helped me change the lens I was using to view her behavior.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Go out and play: The benefits of berry picking

Peach Picking

One of my family's favorite activities is to find a farm where we can pick our own peaches/strawberries/blackberries/etc. We always love getting away from Northern Virginia and being able to enjoy time in the country. The last two years as I've watched my girls troupe through the fields and stick their hands into bushes and trees for the desired fruit, I've started to consider all of the skills my daughters are using and practicing. So many of these are skills we strive to help children gain inside our classrooms and Occupational or Physical therapy centers.

Berry Picking
All of the picking requires a certain amount of visual/spatial motor planning. They need to scan the bushes or trees for the fruit, eyeing the small black berries hidden under the green leaves. Then they need to figure out how to put their arm inside the bush to carefully pull off the berries (with just the right amount of pull - too much will smoosh them, too little will leave the berry on the branch). When they've finally achieved their mission they get the best natural reward of all - being able to pop the berry into their mouth. 

Sometimes it amazes me that the child who is not able to find her own pair of shoes in the morning is so capable at finding blackberries. Looking for the perfect blackberry can be like playing the I Spy or Where's Waldo books, but in 3-D. And yet, my daughters are far more likely to look for berries than they are to play the visual-spatial strengthening games I set up that would practice the same skills. 

Obstacle Course
Our favorite place to go is Great Country Farm. After picking we put our harvest into a cooler in the car and head off to their never-ending play space. Again, this play space gives so many opportunities for kids to work on those gross motor skills that we'd otherwise be trying to create in physical therapy. There is an Ninja Obstacle Course, rope maze (apparently my spatial problem solving needs work because we never did solve it...), and fields of play equipment that beg kids to climb, jump, and run - all skills that work on their visual/spatial motor planning. There is even a barn filled with corn kernels for your sensory-seeking friends. My girls could spend all day pushing trucks through the corn. 

Corn Barn
The more coursework I take through the International Council of Developmental Learning, the more I realize how vital Visual/Spatial Motor planning is to our kids development. In order to feel safe enough to navigate our way through a school or classroom without bumping into someone else, in order to feel comfortably socially with peers and to know that they suddenly won't slam their bodies into you, we need to have a strong sense of visual/spatial motor planning. We have to coordinate not just what our eyes see in front of us and how much space we have between us and someone else, but we also have to be able to move our body within that space. This takes repeated practice of testing our own strength and seeing how quickly or slowly we move throughout time and space. 
King of the Tires!

Visual/Spatial Motor planning also is needed when we read and write. Our eyes need to be able to work together with our body to coordinate what they see, process it, and control a pencil appropriately. 

Fruit picking gives us a natural opportunity to practice these skills in an inclusive, typical setting, with delicious rewards at the end.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Dear Mom

Last night, as I was cleaning the kitchen and getting ready to go to bed, I found this letter. 

"Dear Mom, I need more breakfast. I am hungry."

Umph. As I wrote before, life has been fairly... busy... lately. 

OK. As a teacher, I totally would have had a child write this letter. The child complains that she's hungry during a lesson. And, to give her something productive to do about it, I'd tell her to write a letter. The writing distracts her from the hunger, gives her writing practice, and gives her a way to solve the problem. Don't just complain  - do something! As a teacher, I totally appreciate this letter.

From a parenting perspective...  OMG. First the guilt...  my poor daughter is hungry during the day! I'm not providing for her... then... wait a minute...  let's talk about this breakfast thing a bit, OK? There are two of us involved in this early morning scenario.

Dear Child,

I'd love to give you more breakfast in the morning. That sounds lovely. Here's our new plan.

1) I will wake you up twenty to thirty minutes earlier so you have time to eat the breakfast I make you.
2) You will immediately jump out of bed, put your clothes on, brush your teeth, brush your hair, and bound down the stairs without yelling at me, your father, your sister, or the cat.
3) You will quickly tell me exactly what you want for breakfast after I give you a choice between two options.
4) You won't change your mind after I've started making what you originally chose.
5) We won't fight about the fact that I'm not preparing a new breakfast for you because you changed your mind.
6) You will quickly eat your breakfast.
7) You will choose a piece of fruit from the beautiful fruit bowl that sits directly in front of you. You don't just pick the sticker off the orange and then hide it under the table, but you eat the orange as an additional part of your breakfast.
8) You will finish your food without announcing "you are full" after taking two bites so you can go play.

This sounds like an excellent plan. I don't want you to be hungry in school. Let's work together to solve this one, OK?

Today we started the new plan. It didn't go as expected. Or, as hoped. It kind of went as expected.

Dear Parents of my Previous Students,

I am so sorry for ever having a child write you a letter like this. I had no idea the amount of guilt/frustration it would cause. I had no idea how trying to get kids ready in the morning is like working a full day.  I did it out of love, as I'm sure my daughter's teacher did. But... yeah... I'm sorry.

Mrs. Lipstick

Missing Flowers & Life

I've neglected this blog quite a bit lately. Partly because I've been busy writing Joey's blog, partially because I'm still trying to figure out how to write about my new adventures as a special education consultant/DIR Floortime Practitioner, and partly because there has just been a LOT going on in my life lately. I like to think I've been balancing it all fairly well - despite the occasionally texts to my closest friends with "OMG why is life sooo hard??" and then "I swear I can do really hard things, but getting my children to brush their hair in the morning is a bridge too far."

On Tuesday I walked my kindergarten daughter to the bus stop and my heart sunk. Every student was holding a beautiful bouquet of flowers for their teacher. In all my "managing" I'd totally missed the memo from the PTA about teacher appreciation week. I mean, I knew what week it was, and I was planning to do something on Friday, but I didn't realize there were daily activities.

I eyed my neighbor's azalea bushes, but decided that wasn't the best example to set for my daughter (plus, there were way too many people around. People who had remembered to send flowers to their school.)

It's such a small thing - the flowers - but in that moment it seemed to represent everything that I wasn't doing this winter. As a teacher I loved the "bring your teacher flowers day" because you get to make a beautiful bouquet out of the variety of flowers children brought you. It's sweet to see all the flowers gathered together, in a way no florist would ever approve of, but also in a way that represents your class. Plus, I love my daughter's teachers and I want them to feel special.

Life in the Lipstick Household has been an adventure this past fall/winter. Last fall we learned that my husband had stage 4 Hodgkin's lymphoma. If you know about Hodgkin's you know it's the best of all the cancers and basically curable, but still requires a pretty arduous chemo regimen. It hasn't been an easy winter. Then, about a month and a half before it was all over - when my husband and my four year old already had the flu - I fell and broke my ankle. The break required surgery. Suddenly our family had two parents out of commission. Our family and friends have been amazing. My mother basically moved in with us for two weeks and every one in my family was commissioned to help out with our medical appointments.

Just in case you are wondering, moms should NEVER be on crutches. It feels nearly impossible to do mom with crutches. You can't actually get food out of the fridge, carry it across the kitchen, and put it on the plate, and then bring it to your children. And you should see our house. We may drown in clutter if I don't get off crutches soon. I didn't realize how much I straightened during the day until I can't move something from one surface and carry it across the room to put it where it belongs.

This mess is the cause of totally missing the "bring your teachers flowers day". I'm sure the PTA letter is under the massive pile of junk on my coffee table where things have been deposited over the last few weeks if I can't intercept first. And somehow, the flowers seemed to be my breaking point. We can make do and make do and make do, until we can't. All those overwhelming feelings hit me in a flood and everything else that hasn't been done - the mothers' day cards still sitting on the table unmailed, the cleaned but not yet returned food containers people brought us food in, calls to make, rooms to clean...  it's too much.

It always seems possible to do the hard things in life - it really is the little things that interfere sometimes.

My husband is back to work today after finishing his last chemo treatment, and I should be off crutches by next week. Things are looking up. In a few weeks, hopefully I'll be able to see flowers as just flowers, and not a symbol of everything I'm not doing.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Processing Their Process: Trying to understand the developmental stages of grief

If only parenting was as simple as writing a beautiful (yet boring) novel, where we could decide exactly what our child will experience. Or even like a choose your own adventure, where we could have at least some control of what our child comes across. Yet it’s not, and often the hardest part of parenting is being aware of our own emotions and how they influence our actions and our children. My daughter’s kindergarten class recently experienced the loss of a classmate. This has rocked most of us as parents, in so many ways, as we try to understand what happened, help our children understand what happened, and in turn, understand how children this young developmentally process death.
In the beginning of the school year, three small cards fell out of my kindergarten daughter’s backpack. They each contained neatly drawn pictures of her and a little boy, with “I love you” written on them. Not in my daughter’s handwriting. Her line number and his line number were included, as was her lunch number. My husband and I were a bit surprise by this development so early in her school career, but decided at least she had attracted the attention of a boy who had such neat handwriting, whose drawing skills were clearly advanced beyond that of a typical five-year-old, and one who seemed to have a head for numbers (And were a bit concerned that anyone would know her lunch number, but that’s another discussion). They were friends, our daughter said, and left it at that. So we did too, not wanting to make a bigger deal of her first love letters than needed. We saw him occasionally at school events and birthday parties, and found ourselves often asking about him. He was one of the kids we were given updates on when she returned home from school.

We heard about when he was first absent, and our daughter was concerned. He’d missed their field trip, and we assumed he’d gotten the flu because it seemed that everyone else was getting it. She continued to be worried about him, asking if he’d be back to school each morning and then reporting that he was not in the afternoon. We assured her he’d be back soon, but this flu season was rough and a lot of kids have to miss school for full weeks.

On Monday, my husband called me as I drove home, and asked me if I’d checked my email.
Her friend,""he almost whispered, "passed away."

I can’t begin to tell you where my head went in this situation. Utter disbelief, sadness, protectiveness, along with a million questions swirled through my head. How does this happen? By five and six we think they are invincible, or almost invincible. We’re past the point of worrying about SIDS or choking by eating a stray lego. They are sturdy, brave, and independent, and we forget just how sacred every moment of life is. Just imagining the mother’s pain leaves me unable to speak. There are no words to begin to describe such a pain, even one that I can only imagine.

And then there was the immediate situation of having to explain this to our daughter. The email from the school said that they were not going to address this in school, but instead were leaving it up to the parents to talk about with their children.

After dinner, we sat our daughter down, and when we brought up her friend, she looked hopeful for answers. “Is he coming back tomorrow?” she asked. I couldn’t finish the sentence, and so my husband stepped in and explained it to her. We braced ourselves for the worst, as this is the child who cried real tears when her doll’s legs popped off, or when we throw away old art projects, or when her playmate across the street moved away. She attaches to people, objects, and concepts, and has always had a hard time with change or transition.

“Oh,” she said. “So he’s not coming back?”

“Do you understand what it means to be dead?” I asked. She’d lived through the loss of three of my grandparents, so it was something we talk about on a certain level.

“Not really,” she said. “Can I go to bed now? Why are we down here?”

Her answer seemed to smack our grief in the face. How could we be so saddened and distraught about a boy we barely knew, when it was her playmate who was gone.

Years ago, when I was a classroom teacher, a girl in my class lost her mother. A counselor gave me a copy of a book on the developmental stages of grief to help me understand how the girl may cope with death in school. So early in my career I was surprised by what the chapter said – children of this age are so literal that they may even ask questions if the worms were going to eat the dead person’s body. Or want to know what it would be like to be buried, or what would happen to the person’s stuff. They do not yet have the full understanding of what death is, and so approach it as they may approach learning about any new concept- with any questions that come to their mind, with no concept of what may or may not be appropriate to ask.

This information helped me greatly when I talked to my daughter about my grandparents passing away, and even more when she came home from school one day and asked if we could dig up my grandparents to see what their bones looked like. That was a hard one to swallow, but I returned to that chapter to remind myself that this is a part of development.

I’m re-reading it again now, and continue to be reassured at the “textbook” nature of how my daughter is processing her friend’s death. Little comments come out randomly, from out of nowhere, and then she runs off to play, only to return later with another question. “Mommy, kids aren’t supposed to die, right?”

“Mommy, he was supposed to be a grandpa, right?”

“Most kids get to become grandparents, right?”

“Mommy, the teachers aren’t talking about him, but the kids are. Everyone says he’s dead.” “What else do they say?” I ask, wondering what’s going on behind the teachers’ backs at school.
“Just that he’s dead. Everyone says it.” Perhaps for them, there is nothing more to say right now.

“Can babies die?”

“Will you live to be 100, Mommy?”

I answer honestly, but when I try to open to a larger conversation she runs off.

I’m trying hard to walk the line between showing her my concern and my own grief, but also not pushing her to be sad about something she does not yet developmentally understand. In a few years, she may look back at this time and feel a true sadness for the situation, finally processing what happened this winter. But for now, she’s still grappling with what death means, its gravity, and permanent-ness.

More than anything, I’m aware of my own helplessness. Somehow, if she was sad I could comfort her, and then feel as though I was doing something about the situation. But it’s not about me, and I can’t push her to feel something in order to comfort myself. And it does not mean she is unfeeling or lacking empathy with her mater-of-factness, although it can appear that was from our adult lens of the world.

So I wait, listen, answer, and pray. Pray for the family, for the teacher who has a class full of 24 literal children dealing with such a confusing concept, for the community, and for the mindfulness to be aware of my own emotions and separate them from my daughter’s.