I got a new student last week, who came to our inclusive setting from a special day class (1 teacher, 1 paraprofessional, about half as many kids.) Saleem is a charming, enthusiastic boy who has, um, picked up a few bad habits. His Asperger’s sometimes makes it challenging for him to navigate social situations in a way that leaves everyone happy, and, naturally gregarious, he prefers negative attention to no attention at all. End result: Saleem teases, pokes, makes faces, and mocks. Pretty much everybody. Much of the time. The payoff in his SDC setting was both more and less than what’s available here. On the one hand, being surrounded by kids with social-pragmatic deficits gave him ample opportunities to, say, whisper “Earthquake!” to the kid who was terrified of earthquakes. And a class where most of the students have learning challenges is often pretty ripe for off-task behavior. On the other hand, half of his previous peers didn’t really notice.
Here, well, pretty much everybody notices. The other kids, socialized from kindergarten in classrooms and a school where a lot of work gets done on kindness, empathy, and on-task behavior, were appalled and dismayed at the antics of their alleged New Friend. He reduced a few to tears. His table group asked to switch seats. Partner reading was risky business. And Saleem, more often than not, found himself alone at recess, no matter how many toys he brought in from home.
His teacher and I had a conversation last night, trying to figure out what to do. On the one hand, we had to look at Saleem–to realize that he was only doing what he knew how to do, and that he’d need a lot of help to gain new skills in social interaction. We had to understand how big a transition it was for him, going from a small, protected special day class environment right into the mainstream of a room with 28 kids in it, and we had to move beyond a punitive stance to a teaching one. On the other hand, we had to look at all the other students, and ask ourselves how to keep them emotionally protected: it wasn’t right to continue letting Saleem grow socially at their unchecked expense. I looked at his behavior plan from his previous placement, noticed that pretty much all of the “reactive” strategies involved separating him from the peers he provoked.
This morning, Saleem missed school for a dental appointment. With him conveniently out of the room, I did a lesson for the whole class. I began by asking them to show me on their fingers what grade they were in, and then asking, “What do you think you will learn in second grade?”
PE. Addition and subtraction. One hopeful kid suggested, “Volcanoes!” Telling time. Writing better. Everyone agreed that there would be lots of reading.
I told them, “Wow, it sounds like you guys all have a lot of learning ahead of you.” Pointed out that, just last week, they’d had a new student join their class. “Saleem came here from a different class, in a different school. And he’s really excited to learn all the things you just mentioned. But there’s something else he’s also learning: Saleem is still learning how to be a friend.”
I put chart paper on the board, labeled, “To Make Friends, I Can…” Took their suggestions about ways to be friendly, had them unpack their ideas a bit more. “Be nice” turned into “kind words” and “smile”. “Take a friend to the hospital if she falls down” became, “help someone who needs me”. I gave them a couple minutes to talk to their partners about ways to be friendly, then added some ideas I’d overheard and others that I honestly hadn’t (but wanted to put up there) to the list.
Now, time to tackle the elephant. “So, you guys all have a lot of great ideas about how to make a friend. You’ve all learned a lot about it. You’re all social experts. Now, I want you to think, just a little bit, about what it’s like when you’re not an expert yet: maybe think about when you just started to read, or in kindergarten when you were beginning to do math. When something was still new to you, did you always do it perfectly?” Group consensus (I’m ignoring the child who Believes She Can Do No Wrong): nope. We made some mistakes. It didn’t all make sense yet.
“That’s one thing I want you to understand about our new student, Saleem. He’s still learning how to be a friend. He’s still learning to do friendly things. And sometimes, while he’s learning, he may do things that aren’t so friendly. He might say mean words, or make faces, or tease.” A look of dawning recognition on some of the faces. A few little nods. Oh, that’s what it is.
“Saleem isn’t a bad kid. He’s not being mean on purpose. Saleem really wants to be friends. But he’s still learning how to do that. We can help him learn. We can help him get it right.”
“In the meantime, though, when Saleem does or says something that feels mean to you, this is what I want. Don’t yell at him. Don’t say mean words back. I want you to look at him, and just say, “That’s not friendly.” And then, if you need to, I want you to walk away.”
The classroom teacher had them practice it. They agreed that they’d try. We reminded them about all the Make-A-Friend ideas, and suggested that they try those , too– “Saleem will learn from you how to be a good friend. Remember to show him what friendly acts look like.”
It’s not a magic bullet, but I think it’s a start. It’s always been my experience, when working with challenged and challenging kids in inclusive settings, that the biggest difference is made by the other kids in the room. We essentially, without telling them, just trained 27 kids to implement a Behavior Plan with planned ignoring, social skills modeling, and differential reinforcement of incompatible behavior: there’s a power to be harnessed in that. And now, Saleem’s got a poster to look at if he needs some ideas on what friendly behavior looks like.
Saleem’s dental appointment kept him out all day: tomorrow, I’ll be interested to see how things play out.