If They Can

I come into Peter’s class halfway through first period–usually, this is when I need to negotiate with him about starting the phonics notebook, promising him a walking break if he just fills in at least five of the blanks.  His classroom teacher’s face usually tells me the story of how difficult or impossible it was to do the whiteboard work–when Peter is uninterested, all bets are off.  Today, though, I find a diligent first grader, on the second of two full pages, a whiteboard full of neatly written numbers sitting on his desk.  “Hey bud–awesome job there.  Would you like a break?”  He shakes his head, looks back down at his phonics book.  “I’ve decided I’ll be good today.  I’m gonna do this, the whole time, every minute.  I’m gonna be like Micah–I don’t want a single break.”  I cannot, today, convince Peter that taking a break is acceptable, even laudatory–today, he has noticed that the other kids don’t get breaks.  Today, he wants to be as good as everybody else.

Ja’Neesha has, once again, gone under the desks.  Her classroom teacher overviews the assignment that her peers are working on–an opinion piece requiring them to evaluate two ways of constructing a solar oven before expressing a preference in a five-paragraph essay.  Her peers shift their feet as she crawls around their legs–this group is perhaps the best Ignore It Please set of peers I’ve ever worked with, because they are all extremely motivated by the learning in front of them.  Ja’Neesha actively draws on the leg of a child who doesn’t notice, because she’s too busy asking the teacher how the essay will be scored.  Deprived of the opportunity for securing peer attention, Ja’Neesha grabs a book off the floor and pantomimes reading it, and suddenly it hits me: she wishes she really could.

In 4th grade lunch group, Jonah asks, suddenly, “If someone says you have anger issues, does that really mean you have them?”  I help him unpack that, and it all tumbles out, in my office/teacher lunch room with two schoolmates watching–how Jonah gets upset, quite a lot, in class, and how people have noticed that.  How his classmates make comments about his “anger issues” and tell him to calm down.  We try to define what “anger issues” are–that everyone gets angry, and anger is perfectly reasonable, but “anger issues” are a problem if you find yourself getting angry more often then you want to, and if you find that when you’re angry, it’s really hard to calm down.  Jonah nods, and decides to agree that he has them.  “One of the things that makes me most angry is how angry I get, all the time.”

In the afternoon, I bring Juan Carlos and Yosef into my office, for another crack at The Land.  Yosef sits passively, giggling to himself, while Juan Carlos diligently puts up the “Do Not Disturb” sign and closes the door. “Can I see the squeezy foam apple, Ms. Beth?  I want to control my hand flapping.”

One of the biggest shifts I’ve ever made in terms of understanding the students that I work with is just a change of two little words.  Behind it, all the assumptions that we make about our most challenged and challenging students–all the blames and excuses and why-won’t-he’s and everyone-else-does’s.  With every other teacher in America, I have lamented the amount of work required by the adults in the lives of my students–how much harder it is to work with a kid who tantrums or flaps or storms out of the room, or a kid who has the apparent cognitive skill set to do what the rest of the class is doing but simply won’t do it unless cajoled or reinforced at a level beyond what the other kids get.  I’ve dealt, extensively, with my own frustration at their more problematic behaviors.

But what keeps me committed to working with these students is the glimpses that I’ve gotten into their own frustrations–the sense that they get, sometimes, of their own exceptionality, and the desperate longing they have, at times, to fit in.  Richard Lavoie, a noted expert on learning disabilities, says it thus:

A reporter once asked me, “If you could teach America’s parents and teachers one single truth, what would it be?” “Simple,” I responded. “We need to understand that kids go to school for a living. That’s their job.” What if you hated your job? What if your days were filled with conflict and you were misunderstood by your colleagues and superiors? What if you failed at nearly every task you were assigned? How would you react? This is the daily experience of a child with a learning disability.

It isn’t a job that most of us would sign up for.  These aren’t the kind of problems that our kids like to have.  And so, every day, I consider it a privilege to work with these brave individuals on lessening the burdens they carry–I try to honor their struggles with my own increased efforts to be understanding and patient, even in situations where it’s patently obvious to me, as an outside observer, that a child’s actions in a difficult situation bring nothing but more difficulty.  Especially then.

The words that I shifted are the words Ross Greene taught me.

Kids do well if they want to if they can.

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