I struggle mightily with the hidden curriculum.
It is both the blessing and the curse of my job that I teach both social and academic skills. My program is driven by the student IEPs, and each of them encompasses both classroom learning and social learning, making me just as responsible for how Johnny makes friends as I am for whether or not Johnny reads (for the record, I can’t guarantee either of those developments, but it’s not for want of trying). As Richard Lavoie points out, children ‘go to school for a living’: the way we identify ourselves with our jobs and our coworkers is the way children feel about school. And, much as both our job performance and our job satisfaction are intrinsically tied up in how we relate to our coworkers, the social lives of children deeply impact their classroom success and their identities as learners.
On a good day, I love that my school district recognizes the importance of social and emotional learning in providing its students with a free and appropriate public education, and I am excited about the role I can play in this. On a truly bad day, I kind of imagine the resource specialist being eaten by wolves, thus freeing up a job where I don’t have to trouble myself with recess and lunch. The past couple weeks have involved a goodly number of medium days, as I’ve worked with one of my newest students on one of life’s hardest lessons.
Saleem blows the stereotypes of autism to bits. He’s one of the most highly socially motivated kids I know–seeing every group setting as a chance to make connections. He sidles up to peers during silent reading, makes faces on the rug, tries to turn his journal into an interactive experience with multiple players. There is nothing Saleem wants more than to be with other kids. At the same time, though, Saleem has all the social challenges that are common to his tribe–driven by his innate gregariousness to reach out, he lacks the social skills and understandings that make friendship seem so effortless among his typical peers. So he’s constantly reaching out, and constantly rebuffed. I have often caught myself wishing that the boy was quietly rocking and flapping his hands.
First order of business: figure out, as much as possible, what’s going on. I’ve observed Saleem on the playground, reviewed his IEPs, spent some quality time picking the brains of those who know him best. Fundamentally, the problem seems to be that Saleem simply doesn’t know how to read any type of social cue–he doesn’t register when people are smiling warmly at him, and he doesn’t notice if they frown or turn away. He goes into a situation with his own idea of how it’s supposed to play out, and it’s the same idea, almost all of the time, regardless of the nuances of the people he approaches. Saleem has also, well, bought into what our society says about what the popular people look like. End result: left to his own devices, Saleem will walk obliviously past a rainbow of welcoming children (both genders) and spend twenty minutes fruitlessly trying to make 3 short blond girls play superheroes.
It came to a head last Thursday, when one of the girls confessed to her classroom teacher that she and her friends often hid in the bathroom because they didn’t know how else to be sure he wouldn’t follow them. “I’ve tried saying we like to play with him, but we can’t play with him all the time, and we’ve tried just ignoring him, and we’ve tried walking away, but it just isn’t working and we don’t want to get in trouble because we’re playing in the bathroom.” The classroom teacher facilitated a conversation with myself, the girls, and Saleem. I let the girl know it was okay to be very direct when telling Saleem how she felt and what needed to happen: even at her bluntest, she simply wasn’t capable of sending the strong, unequivocal message Saleem needed to receive in order to stop.
All of those pragmatic challenges, smashing against each other. The tiny blond girl, raised like most little girls are to be polite and say kind things, trying and failing to set boundaries for herself. And Saleem, who genuinely wasn’t trying to upset the girls, who genuinely didn’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want to play the game that he always wished he was playing, who saw following as the same thing as walking together. And then all the dynamics playing out around them–the boy kicking over another boy’s hula hoop structure, the boy staring longingly from just outside of the kickball game, the new girl, pacing up and down along the fence.
There are so many cues that we need to pick up on, so many little nuances to untangle and understand. My students often try, with heartbreaking results, to duplicate the behaviors that they see around them–their acts are stilted, odd, unwelcome, because they don’t take it in quite right before they mirror it. I noticed one day that one of my fourth graders asks a truckload of questions to which he knows the answer, then realized that his primary conversational partners were adults trying to deliver content to him that they already knew. I caught a first grader an instant away from pouring water from a thermos onto his playmate’s neck–the group of kids he’d joined were pretending to drink. Immediately after I’d separated Saleem from the line because I’d seen him pushing, I saw one smiling boy playfully pushing another smiling boy three kids down in number order. And it hit me then, as it often does, that exactly the same behaviors kids use consensually to play with each other are seen as bullying, aggression, or anti-social behavior when done by a child who doesn’t read the cues.
And so, we teach our kids to read the cues, as much as possible. We recognize, as autism educator Pat Crissy does in her article on teaching students to read facial expressions, that much of what people say to each other isn’t actually said in words at all (which makes things challenging when one of the hallmarks of the autism spectrum is an over-reliance on literal over subtext.) Most days, Saleem and I spend some quality time with a PowerPoint social story I’ve made for him which emphasizes the need to look at people’s faces immediately when he approaches them: if they’re smiling, come closer, and if not, walk away. My speech therapy colleague works intensively with students on “expected” and “unexpected” behaviors in group situations: one painful, but necessary part of this is reviewing actual video footage with the kids, showing them instances, at times, when they did something odd or off-putting, and pointing out the ways in which peers are reacting. We try, whenever possible, to draw attention to the flip side as well–helping Saleem notice that that girl is smiling at him, pointing out the pleased classmates when Yosef passes out the books. One Think Social activity that I’ve never tried myself involves handing out colored popsicle sticks–a green one each time a child does something likely to make others have good thoughts about them, a red one each time a child does something likely to make others have uncomfortable or negative thoughts about them. The idea is to make tangible the reality that our cumulative actions shape the thinking others have about us–that we can’t “erase” the memory of a bad choice we made once, but we can build, in other people, enough good memories to diminish the flash of red among the green sticks. I think at times about red and green thoughts and the people I spend time with–I think at times too much about what others think of me.
And ultimately, I think this is my challenge with the hidden curriculum–if we’re honest, I think this is why all of us have difficulty teaching social skills. When it comes to reading, to spelling, to math, there are clear, solid answers and I know how to get them. I am confident teaching the things I know myself.
But when it comes to pragmatics–to the delicate art of how we are with other people, how we communicate and connect and impact on each other–I think I teach this stuff because I don’t know it. Because I’m still figuring it all out myself. And there isn’t a clear guide: it’s all situational. I posted my Saleem dilemna on my Facebook wall last week–asking for advice about how best to reach him, pointing out that really waking him up to how his behavior was shaping the reactions others had to him felt, in some ways, like a mean thing for me to do. I got great, specific advice, from many people, but more than that–I got the unanimous shared view that this stuff is exactly this hard, and exactly that important. We all know adults who didn’t learn these lessons, and it seems as though ignorance isn’t bliss for too long.
I think often of the market that I used to shop at every week. Two years ago, another branch opened, further away from my home, and typically with items that are a little more expensive. I go to the new one, whenever I have the choice.
Because at the old one, almost always, there’s a woman in the aisles, with a sparkly purple hat and an obvious intellectual disability, talking in a loud, harsh voice with the employees. They always try to be nice enough to her. They give one word answers, they turn their gaze away. They’re modestly annoyed, and they’re not allowed to leave. I find it physically painful, to be in the room with that, because I want to find her real friends, and I want her to leave, and her voice grates on me and I feel like if I was a better person, it wouldn’t. And above all, I think about my students. I think about how much more I want for them than this. I think about how much more I want for everyone than this.
It’s that, I guess, that will keep me going as I continue to suss out the hidden curriculum with Saleem. And as I continue to work on it, myself.