Modify the Task to Suit the Child, Not the Other Way Around.

Now that I’ve got this blog going, I will cherry pick different experiences from here and there throughout my career. Today I will be recounting an interesting experience I had with a most interesting little boy. This little boy is the most polite, well mannered five year old I have ever met. However his beautiful heart is paired with impulse control issues, a lack of social understanding, and sensory processing issues. I will refer to him as Lucas.

It was a fairly normal Wednesday morning. My student had a minor meltdown saying goodbye to mom, but was easily quelled by the idea of having the hose in the sandpit. The transition out of the sandpit into the classroom was a bit of challenge, but sand timers are basically magic when it comes to transitions. During group time we are up and down, as per usual. He chooses to sit with the class for a little while though which is a huge win. After group time, it is time to choose jobs for the morning. In the class there is a white board with an array of different pictures of activities. Alongside the pictures are laminated print-outs of everyone in the class’ name. Each student takes their name and places it under the job they wish to complete that morning. This is an excellent example of how universal design can benefit every child in the class. When the class is prompted to choose their jobs, Lucas runs out of the classroom.

I give Lucas a little space, then follow him outside. I find him running around the playground. I ask Lucas if he would like to do some construction. Interested by this new word he says “what’s a construction”? Now following me, we are inside looking at the jobs board. On the board is a picture of a real life building that is under construction. Our conversation goes on, “construction is a big building” etc. After my first request for Lucas to do the job, he tells me that it is too loud in the class and he can’t do the construction. I ask if he wants to build his outside, Lucas yells “yes”! We head to the shed to choose our blocks, Lucas only chooses the red ones. We talk about different buildings around town, and his house, and how many colours they have. If I were to simply start giving him different coloured blocks, there’s a good chance they would start getting thrown across the yard. By relating the concept of different coloured blocks to Lucas in a concrete way, he himself decides that they would be a good idea. So now we have all the blocks out but Lucas refuses to build; he says “Mr. Corrie, I don’t know how”.

Knowing Lucas like I do, I know he is trying to get me to build the project for him. On other occasions there has been a genuine lack of skill present; but not this one. The problem is, there was no planning stage. Often with kids like Lucas (and all kids for that matter) might refuse a task because they lack the understanding or they lack the language. For example in this case, Lucas told me he didn’t know how to build. Now he might have meant “I don’t know what to build”. This was probably due to the vagueness of the job.  So I initiate a conversation about a simple construction; in this case a tower. Lucas is an avid tower builder. We talk about how tall a tower we can make. Lucas heads off to build his tower. He discovers that while building the base of his tower, he has already built a wall. When he realised this, he became increasingly excited proclaiming “look Mr. Corrie, it’s a wall”! The rest of his efforts are sunk into building this massive wall. It gets so big it actually sections off half of the playground. All this time I am simply observing and taking notes, Lucas does not ask me for help once. This is a massive feat for him. By morning tea, Lucas has independently built a wall approximately 3 feet high by 20 feet long. We take photos of him with his construction and he tells me all about it using beautiful expressive language. Lucas is very proud of himself. I am also proud of him.

The next part was the coolest thing ever. Not only has Lucas undergone and completed this massive physical task, but now his peers have noticed. Commenting “cool wall Lucas” and such. His friends start asking to come into his wall area and play. Lucas says “yes”! Now Lucas and about five peers build a door to let people in and out of the sectioned off area of playground. This area they are now referring to as their clubhouse. This construction job has just evolved into a shared role play that lasts the majority of the morning. They play moms and dads, dogs, etc. More positive social interaction takes place in this morning than the entirety of the term. The wall changes and evolves with the play, and Lucas does not mind. He is listening to his peers ideas, only getting frustrated a handful of times. Up until this point Lucas has only been truly comfortable with parallel play, and role playing on his terms. This was such a positive step for his confidence and how he is perceived amongst his peers.

A scenario where it would have been so easy to get frustrated at Lucas for running off turned into a great opportunity for social growth, fine/gross motor practice, and fluid reasoning. Technically the building job on the board that morning was meant for the inside blocks. If I would have pushed this I would have been fighting Lucas’ sensory processing the whole time. Modifying the task to suit the child, not modifying the child to suit the task is what brought about this chain of positive events. Lucas and I were very lucky to be in such a flexible school with a truly understanding classroom teacher. Furthermore this was a great example of how within the Reggio Emilia design you are never truly committed to one learning outcome. With a growth mindset focused on organic play and self-directed learning, more experiences like this are bound to happen for every student.

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A Chance to Learn

This being my first official article on this blog, I feel it appropriate to delve into the archives of my short career. Travelling back to the first student I worked with one to one. This student was one of the most intelligent 7 year olds I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing; for the purposes of this blog I will refer to him as Sam. Sam had an array of behavioural difficulties and a teacher who, while being perfectly good at her job, was not so understanding towards Sam’s needs.

Sam, like many other kids like him had a particularly difficult time in the afternoons. This is why I was employed on a half day basis. On this day the class was doing a science project, the classic sink or float in a pop bottle. The class began construction on the floating apparatuses that morning before I arrived. I walked in to the sight of Sam sitting in the hallway with his Sprite bottle mangled and thrown a few feet away from him. I simply said good afternoon to Sam and walked into the class as if things were normal. I asked the classroom teacher what had been happening. She went on to inform me that Sam got frustrated while constructing his apparatus. He wanted to build a pirate ship like another one of his classmates, I guess it wasn’t going as planned. In that frustration he started throwing scissors and other school supplies. When asked to stop Sam swore at the teacher and called her a name. I asked the teacher if she wanted Sam to complete the project. She scoffed saying “well yeah”.

I quickly gathered the materials Sam would need to finish the project and put them in the work room. The next step is what differed. I didn’t ask Sam to come with me and finish the project. I asked Sam if he wanted to play soccer. Sam, who loves soccer of course jumped up saying “yes”! At this point Sam is motivated, but he’s motivated to play soccer. How do I transfer the motive? Have I just rewarded his defiant behaviour? These were just a couple of the questions going through my inexperienced mind. Here’s what happened. I asked Sam to come with me to the work room where I had prepared his building materials. Among the materials I collected were a whiteboard and dry erase marker. On the whiteboard I drew a hard hat, a pirate ship, and a soccer ball. Meaning build, a pirate ship, and soccer. I explain once we complete these steps, we can play soccer. Sam is reluctant and he explains that his ship is ruined because “it’s stupid”. Luckily it is just after lunch and the recycling bins are full of empty bottles. I offer the idea of a hunt; who can find the best bottle for a pirate ship? Sam is very, very competitive. Off we race to find a suitable bottle, Sam quickly finds one and we begin construction.

During the construction process I notice that Sam is having a hard time using scissors. He’s using them with two hands, which you see quite often in kids like Sam due to a lack of fine motor development. Instead of correcting Sam which would embarrass him; I begin to use the scissors worse than he is, and I’m not quiet about struggling with them. Sam feels the need to correct me. With that door open I can use his intelligence against him. Gradually modelling the correct way to use the scissors until he sees the easier way to do it. Naturally he does. It’s a slow process but with some help, Sam gets his pirate ship cut out and painted. We head back to class where Sam puts his ship up against his classmates as they all see which vessel can hold the most pennies. What happened after the ship contest really surprised me; Sam walked up unprompted to his teacher and apologised for calling her the name. He also forgot all about the soccer game he was promised. It just goes to show what these kids are capable of when their needs are met.

What I like about this example is the first thing I tried didn’t work, and it usually won’t. My visual idea with the whiteboard may have gotten my foot in the door, but there was still a wall of resistance. I find that layering different strategies can often work, because 9 times out of 10 these kids are onto my tricks! After the fact, I realised that Sams lack of knowledge of how to use scissors is most likely what sparked the incident in the morning. Working with kids like Sam can be very challenging because they are often hyper-intelligent, and impulsive. So any attempt to correct or intervene before they are ready can lead to a blow up. Working with Sam taught me a really valuable skill: If you can trick them into thinking they are tricking you, it will usually work because they feel like they are in control. It’s like transferring control while still being in control of it. In this case I taught Sam into thinking he was teaching me. This may seem like a lot of work for one assignment for one child, but that’s my Job. That’s our job as educators and para-educators. Look at the social and academic benefits that were achieved in an afternoon, that could have been spent in the hallway or in the principal’s office. That’s why I love it.