I recently attended a conference at my 3rd grader’s school and it totally made me cry. This time, however, it was a GOOD cry (although also a borderline “ugly cry” too). All because my youngest son has incredible teachers, and he has some amazing, supportive classmates. But let me rewind…
Parents of children with special needs are used to crying in conferences and IEP meetings. We walk into the room bracing ourselves because we feel raw, vulnerable and are afraid of what we might hear. (We brace ourselves every time the phone rings during the school day, too!) In some school settings our children do not always get the support and services that they need. Resources are limited, teachers are exhausted, and classmates can be cruel. I feel blessed to say that has NOT been our experience at my son’s school. From the beginning Team Ninja has been full of exceptional, patient, caring teachers who have found creative ways to help my son THRIVE.
The Ninja has an Autism diagnosis and has some social, sensory, attention and impulse control issues. He is also verbal and has been identified as gifted so a regular, collaborative classroom with supports is the best fit for him. As “Twice-Exceptional” it seems at times that he is caught in between the typical and special-needs world, but we have worked hard to help him find community. Part of our efforts included, with his permission and his teachers’ permission, telling his classmates about Autism during the previous two school years (click here if you want to read what I told them). Children are more likely to be kind if they understand, and I think that honest dialogue about special-needs is crucial to acceptance. If you tell them that “Different is cool” they will believe you. (It also helps if you say it like Matt Smith’s version of the Doctor when he said “Bow ties are COOL.” 😉 ) I pointed out strengths as well as challenges, and that the Ninja was just like them but also a little bit different. I also told them, “In this school it is always our job to be kind to ALL our classmates. We shouldn’t make fun of people who are different… Instead we need to always be paying attention and looking for ways that we can be a helper and be a good friend to each other. We can all help each other. We NEED to help each other. Each one of us is special and has things that make us different.” And Different is COOL, you guys.
So, fast forward to our most recent Parent-Teacher conference. BatDad and I were talking with the little Ninja’s classroom teacher and his Exceptional Education teacher. The ExEd teacher has been with us for two years now and has always been one of The Ninja’s biggest supporters. She celebrates his gifts and unique personality and is always striving to help him succeed. When he begins to struggle or act out she tries to figure out the cause and find new coping strategies to help him instead of simply treating it as willful disobedience. The classroom teacher has also been positive and supportive, and my son has blossomed under her care. She has been flexible with the Ninja and has allowed him freedom, within reason, to exhibit some behaviors that he needs in order to concentrate. During work time he is allowed to take breaks or move around the back of the classroom if he needs help feeling centered. This teacher has had students with IEPs before but this is her first year teaching a Collaborative class. She and the ExEd teacher have done a wonderful job of working together, and we are glad to have them on Team Ninja.
So back to the Parent-Teacher conference. We discussed that the Ninja had a more difficult time than usual before Christmas break. His classroom teacher was employing different strategies to try and help him focus and get his work done. That included allowing him to do things, like move around, that she normally didn’t allow the other students to do. She then described how the other students typically interact with my son, and I asked her, “Would it be beneficial if we talked to them about Autism? That is something I have done in years past.” Her response caught me completely by surprise, “Oh, I have!”
She continued talking, but I was too busy tearing up to hear a word of it. I was incredibly moved that she was caring enough to broach such a potentially complicated topic. Finally I stopped her, asked for a moment to regain my composure, and then asked for more details. I am going to tell you her response in her own words:
“I told the class about (the Ninja) having autism because I wanted to be sure that they all understood his different needs. I use my morning meeting time to talk about empathy, our differences, and tolerance. I basically told the children that he has autism. I asked them if they knew what that was. Some of the kids that had him in their class last year remembered your lesson about him thinking differently. I talked to them about how he is unique (just like all of them) and he uses his brain differently. I told them that he sometimes needs brain breaks to recharge and that he sometimes needs to get out of his seat, walk around, jump, or mumble to himself. I told them that these things all are okay, and that it is just his way of gathering information so that he can do his best. This class is so receptive and kind and they really seemed to understand. One of the kids said, ‘Yeah, and he is REALLY smart!’ We all adore him.”
Honestly, I don’t remember much else that was said the rest of the conference because I was a quivering bowl of jelly inside. Like really, really happy, dancing jelly. Although I do remember this next part, because it turns out they had even MORE tear-inducing goodness to share.
The Exceptional Education teacher began to describe a recent day spent with a substitute teacher leading the class. It wasn’t planned ahead of time (because teachers get sick), and the ExEd teacher was needed elsewhere so she was not able to get into that classroom as early as she wanted. As a result the Sub had not yet been informed of the Ninja’s IEP accommodations. Apparently she had been repeatedly redirecting him to stop moving around, because a typical expectation is that children stay seated during class. She seemed to think that the Ninja was simply being inattentive, and called out his name several times. Just as the ExEd teacher was about to go explain to the Substitute that the Ninja required certain accommodations, the STUDENTS spoke up instead. The ExEd teacher later told me, “It was as if the other children were feeling that they had to advocate for him… They were being very protective of (the Ninja).” The students told the Substitute that he was doing what he usually does and he works better when he can take breaks and get out of his chair. They told her, “Our teacher lets him move around the class.” Then several students pitched in and helped the Ninja get caught up and back on track with the lesson. The Substitute seemed to have a better understanding of the Ninja after that and the rest of the day went much more smoothly. A day that could have been potentially frustrating for the Ninja turned into a GREAT day, thanks to a caring group of students. And also thanks to a caring teacher who took the time to teach her children empathy and explained about differences. That doesn’t always happen in today’s classrooms, or even in today’s schools. They may talk about compassion and have an anti-bullying campaign, but they often are afraid to broach the subject of special-needs.
As I sat and listened to this incredible story I started crying again. It was an incredible example of community and support, and what happens when you are transparent with children and teach them about kindness. The Exceptional Education teacher later wrote to me, “All I could think of was what an amazing group of kids he has in his class! They understand and support him as well as admire his strengths.” I agree with her wholeheartedly. But I would add he has some amazing TEACHERS as well. Every day when I send my child to school I can relax, secure in the knowledge that he is in good hands. Team Ninja includes wonderful teachers AND compassionate classmates, and I feel immensely grateful. With a Team like that on his side I know he will have success.
One of the slogan’s at my son’s school is “Growing Leaders One Child at a Time.” I think they are on the right track.