I will be having seven lunches this week.
Specifically, I will be hosting seven lunch groups, each a carefully designed and at least moderately structured social interaction featuring between 1 and three of my students and at least the same number of typically developing peers. The format is different from group to group, based on age, interest, and student need. The third graders do an art project; Finn’s self-selected peer group discusses computer programming and controversial elements of classical mythology. Yosef and Juan Carlos bask in the motherly goodness of the three peers who have been part of their social interventions since four years ago. My newest kid, a bookworm, will invite friends to the library. Second grade will hopefully pick up right from where we left off last year, with Friend Files to fill in and Questions to Pass On.
And then there’s Peter, my enigmatic first grader. Who is not on the autism spectrum, has no learning disabilities, and usually does great at school, but is nevertheless on my caseload because when he does have a problem, it’s the kind of severe, everyone-out-of-the-classroom problem that involves multiple acts of repeated aggression against pretty much anyone within 15 feet. Peter has some issues with emotions and authority, and it’s my job to help him get more comfortable with both.
Peter’s strong emotions can be frightening to others, and this is fundamentally because they are frightening to him : unable to sit calmly with his own frustration, boredom, or anxiety, he tends to play any negative emotion he experiences out in heightened, over-the-top ways which makes his whole environment as uneasy as he is. I tried, last year, to work one-on-one with him on recognizing and managing his feelings; it backfired spectacularly by highlighting Peter’s sense of himself as fundamentally different and dangerous, casting me as yet another grownup who “didn’t want him to be mad”,
This year, my approach will be different. Every Friday, I will teach a whole-class lesson in Peter’s class, developing their understanding of the Zones of Regulation–the idea that all feelings are okay, but different ones need to be managed differently in different situations. I want Peter to see that understanding and managing emotions is useful work for everyone around him–I don’t want him to continue thinking of his issues as fundamentally separate from those of his peers. I hope, also, that when he feels less personally addressed by a subject, he’ll be more comfortable taking it in. Final, bonus hope is that what I am teaching Peter will also be of benefit to the rest of the students, which has historically been the case when I’ve taught the Zones in gen ed classes.
So, that’s whole group instruction more or less sorted. Next component: small group. Aka lunch group, which I started today for him and three classmates, all wide-eyed and incredulous when I brought them to my office. Instead of the long cafeteria table with benches, a small table with four individual chairs; a view of the neighborhood from my picture window instead of the white cafeteria walls. The novelty value of lunch upstairs is usually enough to hook the kids in.
I always use the first couple minutes as ‘baseline assessment’–just tell the kids to relax and eat, and get a sense of how they act when directions aren’t given. I structure conversation just a little bit, if needed, but don’t push my agenda until the Talking Stick comes out.
The Talking Stick does not talk, which is a point that I am entirely sick of making in the humorous way that I must always make it. (At no point in my Lunch Group routine do I feel more like a bad stand up comedian than the point at which I crack this tired joke.) However, when you hold it, it is your turn to talk, which means when you don’t, it is your turn to listen. This is the first rule of lunch group, and Peter reacted accordingly–the part of him that is not very pleased about adults making rules immediately surfaced, by way of many inappropriate things done to the Talking Stick when he held it. His classmates watched, eyes darting from him to me and back to him, waiting to see how the teacher would React.
And Peter, of course, was waiting too, testing to see what would happen. Typically, as he adjusts to any new setting, any new authority figure, Peter engages in some fairly aggressive research, aiming to see whether the adult around him responds to his agenda or continues with their own. That’s typically what happens in peer settings as well–Peter is comfortable and confident when other kids behave as he wants them to behave, and can become explosively angry when their desires or intentions differ from his script. Anything, from adult or child, which Peter perceives as a challenge can escalate pretty significantly, pretty quick.
I was honestly not up for a full lunch of challenges, so today, I went the minimalist route–getting the stick back as unobtrusively as possible, without making a fuss over how it had been treated. I led the kids through my intro-to-group slideshow, showering attention and praise on Peter whenever he participated appropriately, pretty much ignoring him when he did not. Keeping the focus, as much as possible, on the pictures and words and ideas in front of us, with which his peers were delighted to engage.
It was fascinating, really, to give my little presentation about What is A Group while everyone played out, exactly, how they typically approach the social dynamics at the heart of all group work. Adeleke, nodding along seriously to everything I said, asking Peter to speak quietly because kids were learning down the hall. Gavin, torn between laughing at Peter’s inappropriate behavior and answering the question the rest of us were thinking about. Eva, fundamentally most concerned about pulling the wrapper off her cheese stick, but easily responsive to the smallest teacher prompt. And of course, Peter, fighting me the whole time for control of the group, making faces and tapping the table and, every now and again, surprising even himself with a perfectly on-topic response. I am always so curious about how kids approach the classroom–the blend of temperament and teaching that leads some children to synch themselves effortlessly with whatever is in front of them while others struggle mightily to find and accept their places. It is, of course, a two-way process: a good teacher naturally adjusts her own actions and approaches in response to the needs of the learners around her.
Next week, I’ll work with Peter a little in advance to set my expectations–we may identify a reward he’d like to earn, and check in after Lunch Group about whether he earned it. Over time, I hope to get to a point with Peter where I can help him identify the times in which he deliberately acts to disrupt a group activity, and the feelings that gird that for him. I want Peter to participate more seamlessly and equitably in group learning, and I think a big key to that is figuring out what needs he’s currently trying to meet. Right now, a lot of it seems based in control. As I and his other teachers work to help Peter accept the control that adults need to have of the learning environment, it’s crucial for us to find other ways for Peter to feel in control.
Lunch group: the stage has been set, now it’s time to unfold stuff. One week down. Many weeks still to go.