They occupy a corner classroom in a regular elementary school, a rag-tag group of special needs kids. Their numbers are few, but the classroom feels full – full of life, full of toys, and full of noise. Each student has an assistant, and they switch around throughout the day, helping with learning goals, sensory experiences, meals, and restroom breaks. It’s a room of diverse needs, with everyone yearning for connection.
I have been returning here since the first day I hesitantly stepped in as a sub for a teacher friend. That day I was nervous. I had not spent much time around special needs people, and I knew that some in the class, when overcome with frustration, would resort to biting. I reluctantly went, but held back and watched the assistants work their magic with these kids. Since then, I’ve discovered it’s one of my favorite classrooms.
To the outside eye, the atmosphere can occasionally seem chaotic. Special needs kids don’t often vocalize their frustration the same way we do. They may scream. They may bang their heads. They may bite and hit. They may jump up and down, waving hands. They may run away. To the outside eye, it can be very frightening.
When you spend time with these kids, however, you begin to understand the frustrations. To some kids the mere mention of a fire drill sends them into a panic as they remember the loud noises and masses of student bodies exiting the building. Earmuffs are scattered throughout the room for those occasions where screaming alarms or screaming children threaten a young student with sensory overload.
Some brains can become stuck on repeat with the desire for one particular item drowning out all other stimuli. It’s like a record that’s skipping, and sometimes no amount of redirection can budge that needle. Pressure builds and builds in the child until he breaks down and the adults in the room converge to keep things safe and console him. It’s tough being a kid sometimes in the best of circumstances. It’s tougher when you can’t make your needs known or understand why they can’t be met.
To not be able to express what’s wrong must be very frustrating. It may seem that these kids are volatile and explosive, but when you get to know them,.you can see the signs of frustration building. Body language changes. Eyes may narrow. They may start to make growling noises. The pencil that was tracing letters starts tapping, then pounding. Assistants pull out the visual reminder of emotional levels 1, 2, and 3, with green calm and angry red. Before things blow up, they begin soothing reminders to have a calm body and calm voice, then pull out icons and ask them to use their “words.” Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t, but the communication is important. Everyone gets frustrated and angry, and expressing these emotions appropriately is difficult for all of us. Sometimes just having someone understand that you are angry and you know it is enough. We all desire calm, even the kids.
Because I sub all over the building, I know how some of the other students react to the outbursts. Many shy away from these kids. They make comments when the screaming and banging start. They don’t understand, though I’m always quick to point out that we all have things we’re dealing with in life.
A couple of student ambassadors have ventured into the classroom. Often these are troubled kids who need an outlet. They are often the kindest, most understanding helpers, and they are quick to build trust and rapport. The special needs kids light up when they make an appearance, and they play and make attempts at communication before the students have to return to class and things go on as before. But these are new friends who stop and say hi in the long and lonely hallways.
I have been in the classroom many times now. I know the kids. I know where they started and what incredible gains they’ve made. The child who wouldn’t speak to anyone, who yelled and screamed, now says hello to me in the hall and greets others in his classroom with a good morning. He still occasionally falls apart, but it’s the exception, not the rule. The child who once clung tightly to objects is now able to pass things out to his classmates. The girl who started out kicking and screaming can use an app on her thickly padded iPad to communicate her needs. She pushes the icons, the machine does the speaking, and she looks expectantly for a response. It’s magical. Trust exists here, and that’s a truly fertile ground for growth.
I sat with a student just the other day. He loves the iPad, knows how to work it, and would often get sidetracked from lesson apps to video clips. Removing him from the gadget used to be a battle. The other day he picked up another student’s iPad, one used for communication, with the intention of getting on YouTube. I explained that this belonged to someone else and started telling him how it was used to communicate. He was calm. He was listening. He pushed button after button, exploring her communication program. He didn’t once try to exit out and turn on YouTube videos, as he has been known to do. The owner of the iPad shifted position. She was happily playing on the floor, but now with an ear tuned to what we were doing. A subtle energy radiated; a tenuous connection had been established.
If you’re quiet and listen, you can hear what these kids are telling you, even if they don’t say a word. If you’re really lucky, they will include you in their world.
This corner classroom, this overlooked part of the school, has amazing things happening in it. What is the corner classroom in your life?
Disclaimer: I am not an expert in special needs. I don’t really have much more experience with these challenges than in the few classrooms I’ve been in. I don’t know what it’s like to parent a child with special needs. After working with these kids, I feel the need to share my own experiences in the hope that it will prompt people to be more understanding toward kids with special needs.
Written in response to the Daily Post’s one word prompt: Connection