PRIDE in Preschool

PRIDE month might be over, but I wanted to write about how we absolutely can and should create LGBTQIA+ affirming, inclusive early childhood classrooms — including in early childhood special education classrooms.

When people ask, “Why?”, I want to respond, “Why not?” Because, to me, it’s obviously the right thing to do. I love my students and their families. Loving them means accepting them. It means cherishing their autistic selves. It means supporting their gender identity. It means welcoming their families, in all the forms they take. I want to live in a world where everyone knows that they belong, as themselves. Unfortunately, our world doesn’t do a very good job of this yet. I can, however, make sure that my classroom does.

All too often, people answer “because it’s inappropriate”. If this is you, if this is what you’ve thought, then I ask you to please sit with this post, breathe, and think through what I am saying. Those automatic responses have all too often been ingrained into you by a homophobic, transphobic world. And I am asking — for the sake of our students — to try to understand a different way. Remember that autistic individuals are up to 6x more likely to identify as trans, nonbinary, or genderqueer. My guess is that you probably know someone who identifies as such — and just hasn’t told you, because it’s not a safe world to do so. It might even be one of your students. And, yes, even in preschool, there are students who want to explore, to question, or even flat-out know.

Those kids deserve the words and language to do so. I didn’t have these types of words for how I felt when I was little. They didn’t exist, and they weren’t mainstream. It was agonizing. Agonizing. Because when we don’t have the words, when we don’t know that it’s okay, all we feel is alone. Deeply, deeply alone. Alone and wrong. I remember being brought to the store to buy “more girly clothes” multiple times per year. I remember trying, so hard, to do what everyone else wanted, to wear what I was “supposed” to wear, to fit in. I remember it being painful. I remember it being short-term, and impossible. I remember the exasperated sighs when I chose cotton t-shirts, lounge pants, and VANS. Repeatedly. I remember being afraid to cut my hair short. I remember being so confused. Twenty years later, I remember all of these things. And I’m forever, forever, forever grateful for the Internet and friends who gave me words like agender (not identifying with a particular gender) and autigender (a person whose experience of gender is influenced by their autism).

Personal experiences aside… when I hear, “it’s inappropriate”, what I hear is discrimination. We talk about boys and girls, moms and dads, in every single preschool classroom I’ve ever seen. We have whole units of study about family, dress-up corners for trying on different roles, and practice he/she pronouns when we teach language and read stories. Cis-hetero culture is mainstreamed and embedded in our classrooms as “the norm”, as “accepted”. So when we say that talking about LGBTQIA+ stories is “inappropriate”, then we are discriminating by making something taboo, turning different into “deviant”, and perhaps even sexualizing something — all of which are common foundations on which hate speech, conversion therapy, and other oppressive actions have been built on for eons and eons. My guess is that you’re not thinking about the connection, but it’s there. Think about it with something else — if you never, ever talked about red-hair color, if you only ever acknowledged blonde, brown, and black, or if you even told them that, “no, we don’t talk about that here”, then what would our students internalize about red hair? We can’t do that to our kids. We can’t do this to our fellow LGBTQIA+ humans. We can’t do this and still say we love them. We can’t do that and still say we are building inclusive spaces.

So, yes, we can make different choices with toddlers and preschoolers. We can choose to affirm a world where everyone belongs. We can choose to name things, to normalize them, to make them part of our circle. And it’s really not that difficult. Read some of the suggestions below and ask yourself, “Would this really be that hard? Would this really be too much? Wouldn’t it be worth it, if one kid felt seen? If one kid felt heard?” I know it is.

Ways To Be More Inclusive

Stop using “boys and girls” to call students to lunch, line-up, or any other activity. There are lots of other ways that you can refer to students (including… students). Using “boys and girls” to call kids to line up, create patterns, separate into groups, etc.., just reinforces that there is a gender binary, either/or. It’s an easy change.

Create an LGBTQIA+ inclusive library. Books are everything! Make sure you have books that include all kinds of families, gender expressions, etc, in your library, and do it all year long. Some of our favorites are Mom, Mommy, & Me, Jacob Wears A Dress, Daddy, Papa & Me, Julian Is A Mermaid, Love Makes A Family, and so, so many more. Fill your library with the diversity of our world.

Encourage pretend play and dress-up explorations by all students. That means boys can try on dress-up princess outfits, heels, and sparklers. Girls can decide to be the daddy in the family. Address bullying, “that’s for girls”, and “only boys do” immediately. This is the time for kids to explore the world; exploring roles is part of that. I frequently mix dress-up clothes into the blocks area, or trucks/cars/etc into the pretend kitchen area. It helps prevent gendered use of these centers and encourages imaginative thinking.

Model using different pronouns, including the singular they. This is one I find myself still working on. If I am reading a story with a character whose gender is unknown — even when it’s a lion or a sheep, I catch myself automatically referring to them as he. What? Why is he the default? That’s our conditioning, but I’m determined not to pass that pattern on. I practice using they for unknown gender, as well as using she much more often, too. I’ve started practicing before we read-aloud a book, even if it’s a book I’ve read a million times, because practice breaks that habit. I also have started modeling different pronouns when we’re playing with puppets and people.

Be thoughtful if considering pronouns as a speech-language objective. Pronouns are a common language target in early childhood special education, but I think we need to be really careful about how we address this. Too often, it consists of looking at pictures and practicing he/she. This heavily reinforces the idea that we can determine someone’s gender by looking at a picture, as well as using stereotyped images to do so (e.g., long hair is girl). When possible, I recommend using pictures of familiar people whose pronouns you do know for sure, as well as embedding practice throughout the day. I also recommend teaching “they”. You can use books to support this, such as the awesome What Are Your Words? which also has a teaching guide.

Make it normal. Don’t make it exceptional. It’s life. It’s families. It’s who you are. Read books all year long, not just in June. Talk about pronouns in the beginning of the year. Incorporate pictures of different families when you talk about the farm, or holidays, or Spring, not just during a specific family unit. Wear a pin with your pronouns. Add it to your signature line in your school email. Make all of this a normal, every day part of life. Your students will feel seen, heard, and respected all year long. They will also grow into compassionate, accepting human beings, which we always need more of.

Are there other activities that you’ve found to be successful or important in early childhood classrooms? I would love to hear them! Undoing the things we’ve been taught, “the way things have always been”, can take time and practice. I still catch new ways that I’ve been reinforcing the gender binary, even after much reflection. But it’s always, always worth it.

Image Credits: SharonMcCutcheon. (2018, November 13). Human-rights-equality-rainbow-lgbt-3805188 [Photograph]. Pixabay. https://pixabay.com/photos/human-rights-equality-rainbow-lgbt-3805188/

On Tantrums

I often see on the web these days about how tantrums and meltdowns are different. I understand the importance of connecting meltdowns to sensory and emotional overwhelm, of teaching others to be compassionate and kind in these moments. 

My concern is not with how we characterize meltdowns. It’s important for people to understand meltdowns and how to best support the people in their lives. There is so much good writing out there about meltdowns, and I strongly encourage anyone with children in their lives to go read or watch it. 

My concern is with how we are characterizing tantrums. More and more often, this discrimination is used by the layperson to imply that there is an element of control involved in a tantrum. A willfulness. A “he just doesnt want to”.

I don’t buy this. It’s not possible for me to work from the philosophy of “kids do well if they can” and for me to see a tantrum as manipulative, or to say “well, she’ll learn to stop when she realizes I’m not giving her what she wants.”

Tantrums, like all other “challenging behavior”, happen when a child’s skills bump up against an environment orexpectation that surpasses their ability to cope. Basically: no, they do not have the skills. They are not in total control. They still need empathy, understanding, and support. They need support to re-regulate in the moment. They also need support to learn the long-term skills needed — and to navigate the triggering environments while they develop. Our job is to meet the need (which does not necessarily mean providing the child’s momentary goal, but does mean connecting with them and centering our relationship.)

Let’s take the classic example of the two year old who wants a lollipop in the store, but has been told no. The child begins to scream and kick the cart, yelling “I want my lollipop.” Yes, this is a tantrum. But — this is still a child who is missing the skills needed to cope with the environment and demands they are facing. This is a child who does not yet have the skill to cope with disappointment, who cannot yet safely express disappointment, who cannot yet negotiate for a compromise, who cannot picture when they will next get an item, who has difficulty shifting from one plan to another. 
This is not a child who “is in control” and “just didn’t get what they wanted”. We all face times where we don’t get what we want; how we face those times depends on those skills. And to complicate matters: our ability to use those skills and cope are always in flux. Outsiders may see a child mid-tantrum, while the mom knows that this is also a child who is overtired, who missed their nap, who is late for lunch, who is bothered by the lights of the store, who is dealing with big changes at home, and so on.

With all of that happening, isn’t it better to err on the side of “this is a kid who is doing the best they can”? What harm would come from that?

What does that mean in the moment? Regulation takes priority. Connection comes first. And we don’t let fear of “reinforcing the tantrum” keep us from connecting with the little person in front of us. What that looks like depends on the child. For some students, that means empathy and providing language to match what they might be feeling inside. For others, it may be silence or a deep squeeze or simply waiting out the storm in compassionate companionship. 

Teaching does not come first. Talking and lectures and conseuqences? They all don’t happen here. Because it doesn’t matter how many lagging skills there are, we cannot teach them in those moments of dysregulation. We can only teach when the person we are supporting feels calm, safe, integrated, and connected to their “upstairs brain”. 

And, yes, sometimes that means modifying our expectations. If a toddler regularly has a tantrum in the grocery store about a lollipop, then it might be that they are not quite ready for the grocery store. Maybe it means having the toddler have a grocery “job” so they feel connected to parents during the busy moments of checking out. Or maybe it means that we get our own bag of dum-dums that we carry and provide one upon entering — here’s your lollipop for our trip today. None of this is “giving in”. This isn’t “weakness”. This is meeting our kids where they are. This is providing the scaffolding that is required for our students to be successful. This is helping them get to the next step, one day, when they’re ready.

The best part? Our strong relationship, our many moments of co-regulation? That’s going to set them up for more success than any consequence, ignoring, or lecturing ever would have done. And you are going to feel so much better through the process than you’ll ever feel from leaving a child to cry, placing them in time-out, or otherwise disconnecting.

If you’re looking for more resources on connection first, I cannot recommend the work of Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson more highly. The first step in their Whole Brain Child is “connect, then redirect”.

Neurodiversity is for all of us.

Everyone in my immediate family has a disability. All of us are impacted differently. Some of us speak. Some do not. Some of us have hyper focus. Some have distracted focus. Some have high energy. Some have low. Some are readers and in love with collecting knowledge. Some struggle with reading and showcasing knowledge. Some are emergent communicators who are working on letter sounds and exploration.

The neurodiversity movement includes all of us.

I’ve been seeing this problematic trend, popping up in tweets and The Guardian, that writes about neurodiversity as a movement for speaking or employed autistics only. It says that neurodiversity doesn’t include those with learning disabilities or intellectual disabilities. It says that people who are married and employed cannot be impacted by their disability or understand anything about the life of someone who is neither.

None of this makes sense to me. It is a gross misunderstanding of the concept, and feels somewhat like deliberate misleading.

First, yes, the self-advocacy movement includes those who are non-speaking or who have intellectual disabilities. It is hands down my FAVORITE movement. It is one that says — yes, yes, your daughter too has rights. Yes, her communication is valuable, whether it is in sounds or gestures or hand-flapping or on her AAC device. She doesn’t have to prove herself. She doesn’t have to become literate or a math genius or dress herself. It says that she is worthy of belonging to her community, her school, her world — as she is.

And the places advocating for her inclusion? For assistive technology? For accessible physical environments? For a living wage that will ensure she has access to high-quality personal care attendants? For access to healthcare and real literacy instruction and a life that SHE designs? It’s the neurodiversity movement. It’s not the “autism mama” movement, which pushes for private day school and segregated ABA-centered settings. It’s not the ABA movement, whose assessments label her as a “pre-learner” and excludes her from even being with peers in a special education classroom. It’s the neurodiversity movement. It’s her teachers and aides who, knowingly or not, have adopted the mindset that she is who she is and their job is to help her access HER best life.

Second, there is this misconception that neurodiversity does not acknowledge disability. To me, this image is more a reflection of our cultural understanding of disability (and our culture’s unwillingness to accommodate). Over and over again, you will meet self-advocates who speak both to their strengths and their challenges, who say “I have a disability AND I am proudly autistic.”

Yes, disability can be hard, even before adding the layers of cultural ignorance on top of it. Yes, experiencing psychosis and major depression and devastating anxiety can be awful and isolating and miserable. But nowhere is there anything in the neurodiversity movement that says “you’re not included” or “this never happens”. Instead, they beg for research to be spent here, on the things that make a real difference in quality of life. They ask for researchers to look at what accommodations and medications and treatments can give people access to the life they need — rather than spending more time and money on curing autism or ABA or vaccines, again. Autistic researchers are leading the way as they research how current “treatments” often create and perpetuate PTSD. Never is the neurodiversity movement against improving quality of life. It’s about improving quality of life without having to stop being who you are. It’s about the world changing to accommodate difference, instead of individuals being expected to hide, change, or smooth over their differences.

Lastly, we cannot judge someone’s experience of their disability by what we see on the outside. I’ve seen this hurt so many children and adults, who don’t get accommodations they need or have to work so, SO hard because the world thinks “you look fine”. I have also seen many children lose access to things they need or love (soccer teams, theater arts, a general ed academic class) when someone realized that, oh, wait, they aren’t as “high functioning” as we thought.

I work. I have a strong marriage. I have two beautiful children. I also have a lot of accommodations from my family that allow be to do those things happily. Before I had those things? I was nearly suicidal from the effort of it all.

Here’s just a small sample of how my life is impacted:

  1. I take medicine for my anxiety.
  2. I have clean clothes and clean dishes because of my husband.
  3. My husband has to remind me to take a shower. I would go weeks and weeks. Like, when people say “how do you count the pool as a shower?” I’m like “It doesn’t?” Because it just doesn’t click in my brain. (Good thing for husbands.)
  4. My husband packs my headphones and my fidgets and anything else I need to accommodate myself when traveling.
  5. My husband makes dinner. Because it it was up to me, we would either eat the exact same food for weeks or order take-out online all the time.
  6. He also explains things to me, like if a friend, colleague, or supervisor said something and I didn’t understand their meaning or intention — I save it to ask him about later.
  7. One hour of socializing in a group of 2-3? That means a 1-3 hour nap to recover.
  8. My children get screen time right after school so that I can have a solid hour to recoup my spoons from the day.
  9. I regularly use text message to communicate with my husband because talking would be just too much and feels / is impossible.
  10. I often walk out of stores without buying anything I am supposed to (or buying a whole bunch of stuff I just threw in the cart) because I just can’t deal with them.
  11. I refused to drive for a long time because of said anxiety and could only go places if someone else could take me. Basically, I went nowhere.
  12. I absolutely have grown-up meltdowns, including stomping my feet and hitting my legs and screeching and storming off to my room.
  13. I have annoyed my friends and family to no end watching the same show, singing the same song, bursting into song at random, making noises, rocking, and so on. (My current favorite is a Fresh Off the Boat line: “I asked for the Randy and he gave me the Brad.” I can say this repeatedly to myself and laugh for 10+ minutes.)
  14. I have gone home crying and torn apart from work on days where there was just too much talking. Too. Much. Too MUCH.

These may not seem that dehabilitating, I guess, but the point is more this — no one would know. No one at my work would know. That’s not including the one million accommodations I’ve slowly built up for myself over the years. The endless mental checklists, the dozen alarms on my phone, the to do lists I print to keep myself organized and on tasks.

And my husband would probably have his own confessions list of things that are hard for him, things I help make happen. We are a symbiotic relationship. We are a one in a million match, making each other better because of it.

As an aside: What’s even sadder to me is that I feel so intensely vulnerable sharing this list because there are people in this world who would hold these against me. I am a FANTASTIC teacher, deeply, and an AMAZING mom. People are blown away by the way my kids have grown and matured over the years. They are so loved and cherished and encouraged. Yet there are people who would read that I have some meltdowns and bad personal hygiene and think that I am not a good parent.

All of that to remember — what’s on the outside doesn’t always reflect what’s on the inside. And we shouldn’t have to disclose what’s on the inside to get accommodations and access and respect. I also can guarantee that, while my daughter’s experiences are different than mine (she is her own person, after all), I can empathize with her in a way that someone neurotypical cannot, someone who has never had a meltdown about sounds or number of foods or what time her show is supposed to be on. Does this mean that someone who is neurotypical cannot be a good ally? Of course not. It just means that, yes, wherever someone else arbitrarily places you “on the spectrum” — you have value and worth and important things to add to the conversation.

Because that’s what is so beautiful about the neurodiversity movement — it is, by its very nature, inclusive. It is for all of us. It is about all of us being able to be ourselves, fully. I don’t know how anyone can be against that.

The right to NOT talk.

image of an iPad screen with a grid of icons for voice output. the message bar reads: "I don't want to! Grumpy"We all have times where talking is not happening. We ignore questions. We don’t answer the phone. We flat out tell others that we don’t want to talk. Some of us have times where we simply cannot talk; I’ve had many conversations with my husband via text message. At other times, we may want to talk — just not about the subject at hand. Our partner may ask if we want hamburgers or grilled cheese for dinner, but we answer with complaints about something that happened earlier during work.

Yet, this is forgotten or completely thrown out the window when it comes to the students that we serve (and children, generally, in our compliance-driven society).

We ask students what they want (often within limits). If they begin talking about something else, then we take it as proof that they weren’t listening, that they don’t understand, or that they don’t have the ability to answer. They talk about Diego, because it’s their all-time favorite, and we say they “perseverate” or “only know one word”. They don’t use their talker on demand, and it’s written off as “inappropriate” or “not being used” or “they don’t know how to do it” or “too much”.

We need to ask ourselves: what is our goal? Is our goal for students to say what we want when they want? Or is our goal for student’s to have a voice? Because a voice means they get to say what they want when they want.

A voice means being able to talk about your passions, whether they are Diego or the alphabet or worms. A voice means being able to change the topic, interrupt, or ask for something that wasn’t on the menu.

A voice also means being able to NOT talk.

It means that I don’t have to answer your questions  — not when you want me to, and maybe not at all.

It means that I can go hours without talking, or days, or whatever, because it’s my voice and I can use it when and how I want it. I can be silent, and I won’t have people then try to take my voice away.

Autonomy isn’t autonomy if it’s only allowed at the convenience of adults and professionals in students’ lives. A voice isn’t a voice unless we grant the full range of freedom — freedom to use, but freedom to not use as well.

Silence is okay.

Silence doesn’t mean “doesn’t know”.

Silence doesn’t mean “doesn’t need”.

Silence certainly doesn’t mean “take my voice from me”.

Silence is just that — silence. And everyone has the right to it.

Dear teachers, we can do better.

I have had some heart-breaking meetings and phone calls with families. They almost always involve sharing experiences that they find normal, but completely wrench me open.

Example: Families surprised by compliments and celebrations of their child.

Oh, teachers and staff members, think about what you say before you say it. Think about what message you are giving to the children you serve when criticism is followed by criticism by another criticism. Please, please, please start sharing more of the good with families. Even more important: start sharing it with your students. No one should ever be surprised that there is good news. It can be small, it can be big, it can be anything, but it’s there. Tell them about the gifts and talents you see, about their hard work, about the gains they make each week. And I promise: every single child has them. Every single one.

Example: Families surprised by staff who speak directly to their child.

When you meet a child for the first time, say hello to them. When you ask “how are you?” and “what do you like?”, say it too them. Do they use an alternative communication system? You can still speak to them. Do they not have a communication system yet? You can still speak to them. How hard is it to say, “Good morning! I hope that you had a wonderful weekend!” directly to a child? It’s not. How hard is it to say, “You seem so sad. I’m sorry you’re having a hard time” directly to a child? It’s not. Do it.

Example: Families excited by discovering that all kids participate in class photographs, graduation, school plays, field days, music concerts, or electives. 

This is their school too. Special education students are not guests. They are community members. It shouldn’t be a fight to gain access to these things. They should be so automatic that no one would ever think of it being any other way. I get that there is a spectrum of options, that least restrictive environment means a lot of things. I have a son that has advocated for himself to have more or less time in a self-contained environment over the years. But his school has always, always ensured that he was in every PTA concert, that he was in every field day, that his picture was always with his general education classmates in the yearbook, that he was seen as a member of that community. When life was hard, that sense of belonging meant everything to him (and to us). It matters. Oh, how it matters.

Folx — these things should be foundational to our practice. These shouldn’t be things that families move across districts and states to find. These aren’t things that are hard to do, but they mean everything. They mean everything to the students we teach, who deserve respect and access to a robust education. They mean everything to their families, who need to see all that is possible. And they can mean everything for us, as we see our practice, our schools, and our communities transform to become places where all children are seen, welcomed, and celebrated.

We can do better.

What is play?

perfect lines of large alphabet letters in red, blue, and green, sitting on a blue rug
I have really strongly moved away from writing an IEP goal for “play”. What do I mean? I mean things like this:

  • Play functionally with X number of toys for X minutes
  • Engage in cooperative pretend play for X number of minutes
  • Appropriately play with XYZ toys

Basically, anything that includes “functional” and “appropriate” and dictates HOW a child should play. Because that’s not play.

Play is, by definition, self-directed and for the purpose of joy. It is not what someone else thinks we should be doing. It is not for some practical purpose. It is not limited to one (neurotypical) way of interacting with materials.

Lining up trains is play.

Stacking and knocking down blocks repeatedly is play.

Waving a ribbon is play.

Filling and dumping a cup of rice, creating L’s out of Legos to stack on the corners of tables, jumping on a trampoline, sitting by yourself to examine letters for extended periods, linking little cars and big cars by yarn, sticking glow sticks in any spot you can find… It’s all play.

What is the purpose of forcing a child’s play to become something other than it is? To become “normal” and “functional”? (Who defines functional, by the way?) What do we think we are teaching? And what is the child learning?

I don’t know that I can answer “what we think we’re teaching”. I’m really not sure. Because everything I think is important can be taught and experienced through the child’s own play: curiosity, exploration, creativity, shared enjoyment, communicating your likes and dislikes, learning about the world… Imitation, language, and academic skills can all be modeled and experienced without forcing the child to switch from play to work. Because play done in a specific way with specific materials is work. So I’m not sure what the answer to that is.

But I do know what the child is learning: that the things they find enjoyable are not okay. That there is one way of being in the world, and they do not know it. That being themselves is not okay.

Do I think that most professionals or families have the intent to teach this? No. Do I think most students and children are learning that anyways? Yes.

It comes back to this: we need to re-think what skills we are teaching and why. There are often other ways to get at what’s important, ways that don’t involve shutting down a child’s unique way of being in the world. Dig deeper. Ask yourself: what am I really trying to get at? What’s actually important in this moment? How can our classroom environment be changed to better accommodate this need? How can we teach peers and ourselves to better accommodate this need or celebrate this difference?

Different doesn’t mean wrong. Different doesn’t mean it must be changed. Different just means different.

 

 

 

This is part two in a series on selecting what’s important in our special education classrooms. Check out the first post here. Future posts will selecting target goals and teaching social skills as a form of code-switching.

Selecting skills: But why does it matter?

blue Thomas train leading a line of toys that includes a broom... a shoe-less foot is peeking in to the edge of the frame.When people enter my classroom, they are sometimes confused. There is a lot that looks different from a typical classroom. A quarter of our room is filled with things that one would typically see outside: ride-along trains, cars, slides. Half of my class spends their days without socks or shoes. If we are in a large group setting, students may be seated at the table. They may also be doing something else in the back of the room, pacing near to the large group, or coming back and forth from the table. Independent work happens on the floor, standing at the table, in rocking chairs, next to squeeze machines. Students engaged in child-directed play may be stacking, lining up items, or scripting. Not only that, but you’ll find classroom staff delighting in these things, expressing joy right alongside the students.

People see this and think that I am permissive and lenient, that I don’t believe in my students, or that I am not teaching them.

Yet — I get good outcomes. Scratch that — I get great outcomes. My students master their IEP goals. My students develop a ‘functional communication system’. Their self-injury, aggression, and meltdowns disappear over time. They learn to tell someone no, to be more independent, and build relationships in ways that honor and support their needs & desires. My families are very happy with the learning that happens in our room, sometimes the first big progress that a student has made. My students and families trust me, which is even more important.

And this doesn’t happen in spite of the environment, but because of the environment.

My classroom environment respects neurodiversity. My classroom expectations respect neurodiversity.

Whenever we set an expectation in my classroom, I ask myself: but why is this the expectation? When we choose a skill to target for instruction: but why are we selecting this skill? I don’t just accept my first answer, but dive deep into it. Where did this expectation come from? Is it necessary for safety? Is it necessary for learning? Is there an alternate way?

Let’s take a look at wearing shoes in the classroom. Why do we insist on this? Is it because this is what we are familiar with? This is what the neurotypical students do? What reason would we have for pushing shoes all day? Is it necessary for safety? No. Students put their shoes on to leave the classroom. They put their shoes on for the playground. But in the classroom, it is not necessary to wear shoes in order to be safe. Is it necessary for learning? No, and I would argue that it is actually counterproductive to learning. If you’ve ever had an unmet sensory need, you would know what I mean. It can be one of the most distressing and distracting experiences, causing pain and discomfort for the entire time that it is unmet. I want my students to learn. This means meeting their sensory needs.

Similarly, with large groups — why do we believe that students can only learn or learn best when seated together in a group at the table or the carpet? Can the student hear my instruction when they are pacing behind our group? Almost certainly, and possibly better than they can when seated. Can they add to the conversation or take their turn with the materials even though they had to leave for several minutes and then return?

I don’t insist on greetings and closings when entering and leaving the classroom, much less eye contact. I make sure that I greet each of my arriving students with warmth and affection in a way that works for their personalities and needs. But they don’t have to return that greeting. They don’t have to look me in the eye. They don’t have to say hello or good morning or good-bye. Once again — is it necessary for me to insist they greet us? Does it have to look a certain way? What purpose does that serve? Why do we do it? If the answer is, in any shape or form, “because that’s what neurotypical children do”, then we need to step back and ask ourselves if that’s enough for something to be necessary. It usually isn’t. Instead, we can create a classroom environment that allows for and recognizes a much wider display of “what something looks like”. We can recognize as valid and beautiful the many different forms there are to acknowledge someone’s presence (e.g., what a greeting is). We can recognize that some days, students may need time and space upon entering the room. We can recognize that people move through the world differently. It’s not only okay, but beautiful and essential.

It’s not that I don’t hold high expectations for my students. We engage in real reading, real work with letters, and real writing. We learn about numbers, geometry, and measurement. We explore patterns. We do science experiments. We create art. We participate in teacher-directed activities. We work really hard every single moment of the day on speaking and listening. We are safe with our bodies and our friends.

It’s that I recognize that our world is better when our world recognizes that validity and importance of different ways of being in the world. And that is why we do as well as we do.

 

This is part one in a series on selecting what’s important in our special education classrooms. Future posts will feature conversation on play, selecting target goals, and teaching social skills as a form of code-switching.

The Cost of “Normal”, or Why Acceptance Matters

I have debated writing this entry for a couple of weeks — for any number of reasons. It’s raw, deeply vulnerable. And in putting this rawness out into the world, I risk so much. I risk people telling me that I’m wrong, that I don’t know myself, that my lived experience doesn’t matter. It’s too high, too verbal, too wordy, too much this, or too much that. I risk the cuts that come a thousand times over in life, the ones that will surely come from people who think they know me… But have only known the masks I have worn early and often. I risk the anger of those who uphold stereotypes, who push ableism both subtle and obvious, who create little boxes that only further systems of oppression. 

And yet — it is an essential risk, a jump that I must take, this long and wordy essay, because I think there is also value here, for those open to receiving it. There has certainly been value to myself.

I have been different since… always. I was a toddler who read books, real books, who loved grammar and phonics rules more than toys, who recited lines from The Little Mermaid many times over, who needed my schedule to be exactly right, my 4:30pm He-Man and exactly 3 items for dinner. No more, no less, or it wasn’t dinner. The end. 

I became a child who cried for an entire day when she lost the school spelling bee, even though I was just six, because spelling, words, letters — they all mattered that much to me. I got in trouble for interrupting teachers, for correcting them, for not following the social rules of the classroom — on every. single. report. card. Grade 1 through 12. I ate little of the foods my family prepared, choking down a bite here or there, sticking mostly to deli meat and chicken nuggets, over and over. Not one single vegetable, not one, and not that many fruits then either. I remember crying if someone didn’t use separate knives for the peanut butter and jelly. I had to sit a certain way, in a certain seat, still do. Clothing bugged me. Hair bugged me. Shoes bugged me. Socks? That was NEVER going to happen. 

My reciprocal friendships were limited, one or two who always left when they found other friendships to be more satisfying. I had exactly one birthday party with multiple peers of my age in elementary school. And it ended with me on the outside, always on the outside, as they played truth & dare, as they pranked me, as they mocked me, at my own party. I don’t think I had a friendship last more than a couple months, maybe a year, until late middle school. I rarely went to others’ houses, not even family. I wanted to be at home, where things were comfortable and familiar and routine. My home, my grandparents’ home, and that was it. I remember attempting to stay at my great grandparents and having to be picked up because I could not sobbing over my need to be. at. home. 

I remember these instructions, over, and over, and over: stop spinning, stop rocking, stop making those random noises… stop incessant interrupting… stop the endless talking about my interests… dress differently, more “together”, more “girl”. Remember to shower. Remember to brush your teeth. Be more social. Do more things. One of my closer friends at the time was certain that there was something wrong with me, in the way that I needed to line things up, the way I needed things to be the same, to the point where she even said something to my family. Teachers, too. Counselors. Many over the years. But it was clear that I was not ADHD, the most common childhood diagnosis at the time. And so, I continued on, no diagnosis, just “quirky” and “odd” and “weird” — depending on who was doing the labeling.

But I am not angry at my family, my friends, my teachers. They did the best they could in a time when people didn’t understand. Indeed, they did better than most, in allowing me my endless escape into novels, buying more items for my Titanic collections, and encouraging all of the alone time in the woods and trees that I needed. They recorded my favorite shows on VHS so that I could watch them over and over. They helped me find the exact soft pants that I needed and bought multiple pairs. But these things are not enough, not when an entire culture — your entire school — is telling you constantly that you are weird, you are odd, you are not good enough. 

And so, like many others, I learned to fake it. I faked it hard in high school. Instead of being the girl who always reads and stays at home, I was the girl that was involved in everything. I was the girl who talked and talked to everyone. I studied other people. I talked myself through all the rules that my family uttered, through all the things I saw other people do. I reminded myself to look at people, to say hello to people, to laugh when everyone else is laughing. I wore the clothes that my mom picked out for me for as many days as I could (before returning to literal pajama pants and flip-flops). I pushed myself to go to youth groups, to go to football games, to sign up join do do do! 

And all of that fitting in, all of that masking — it came at a cost. A deep and treacherous cost. There is a depth of lonely aching, of being certain that there is something innately wrong with you. That you must be selfish, self-centered, egotistical, to not be able to understand all of these rules. That there is something wrong with your need to rock, to stim, to make noises. That you must be unlovable. There is an exhaustion that cuts to the very bones of your being when your day is spent pretending to be someone that you are not. It is an exhaustion that takes everything, everything from you, and leaves nothing but gaping holes. It is a cost that left me laying on the bathroom floor, too many nights to count, with tears streaming down my face. Silent, racking sobs. Gasping for air, gasping for life. I remember sitting there on that cold tile floor and wishing that I could die. Considering how I could die. Wondering what would happen if I were to die. Thinking that, whatever it was, it would be okay, because at least I wouldn’t be alive. And it was an entirely preventable depression, one that I’ve only recently learned to connect to all that painful masking. 

Because there are only two other times in my life that I felt that incredibly low. The second was in my early 20’s, when I joined a staff at a school that was filled with similar aged young women. Except I don’t have many shared interests with a neurotypical same-age woman, as if that wasn’t clear already. I didn’t want to go out for drinks, or dinner, or any of those things. I just wanted to talk about teaching. I wanted to belong, but I wanted to belong as me. And I didn’t. I couldn’t. My passion for the last 13 years has been my students, and everything classroom. I collect information about teaching the way others collect subway maps or Lego models; I wanted to talk about that information always. It was my everything. And I was mocked. I was told, again, that I only ever want to talk about one thing. So I tried to be different… To hide who I am. To go get a coffee. To small talk and chit-chat and have lunch with my colleagues. And instead of feeling as if I belonged, I felt misery. That aching, haunting feeling swept back into my life. 

Again, that third time — I took a job as a coordinator, thinking that this was a job where I was supposed to talk about my passion with others. Guess what? It’s not. Coordinating is all about social skills, small talk, and “leadership skills” that get staff buy-in. I fell apart. Every day, all of my spoons were used up by noon, between phone calls and favors and meetings and persuasion and trying so hard to be “normal” and social and follow all the rules that make good leaders.  I don’t think my husband had ever fully seen me that way, so lonely and lost. I hope that I never enter that place again. 

You may be wondering — how in the world does this relate to being a teaching unicorn?

Because you must understand the cost. You must understand that the cost of masking, of faking it, of being someone other than you are — the cost is nothing less than laying on that floor and wanting to die. It is nothing less than feeling as if you will never belong, as if you will never be loved, as if you are worth less than dirt. I’ve lived through trauma, through physical abuse, and none of that abuse brought me as low as those months of masking did. Every time. It is trauma. It is a trauma that cuts to the very essence of someone’s being. 

You must understand what you are asking your students when you ask them to be neurotypical, whether their neurodiversity stems from autism, intellectual disability, or mental illness.

You are asking them to give up everything.
To leave behind who they are. 

To leave behind everything that makes them who they are. 

To become empty in pursuit of “normal”.

It is never worth the cost. It doesn’t matter how great they get at masking, whether they pull off a 4.0 GPA and a smile while doing it. They will be dying on the inside. 

This is why the world must change, not our students, not ourselves. Because we are all worth of love and belonging. But we are worthy of that belonging right now, as we are. Every day, we make a choice. Will our teaching uphold systems of oppression, or will it teach our students that they belong? Will the subtle things we say — the things we think we say with love — support them or cut them? The goals that we select? The curriculum we use? The ways we teach? We are teaching so much more than a skill. We promote acceptance or we promote trauma. It is that simple. 

I know I’ve made mistakes. I’ve made the wrong choices. I am sure that I have accidentally bought that pain to my students over the last decade, and I mourn for any and every time I may have. I use that mourning to do better. Because I never, ever want to be the reason that a child cries alone on the bathroom floor. 

P.S. I do feel like I should add a little note of gratitude to one particular high school friend, who knows who she is, one of my only lasting friends, who always accepted me and my Harry Potter obsession exactly as I am, who always will.

Celebrate.

rainbow alphabet written with sidewalk chalk on a playground
rainbow alphabet written with sidewalk chalk on a playground

It has been difficult to know where to start. The millions of things that could be said, the things I want to debate, the conversations that I want to have…

Years of experience, problems solved as part of several brilliant teams, the things I’ve learned once I crossed from professional to parent, how do I distill it into any particular starting point?

And yet — easy. Because it all comes back to this: I am the luckiest person in the world. I fall in love with my job all over again every single day. I work with people who see the magic in every small moment. We celebrate every first word. We see the beauty and creativity that exists in lines of matchbox cars. We swing, we draw, we paint, we build sheep and cows and Elmo from play-doh.

Teaching can be difficult. There are plenty of posts about how difficult it can be. Paperwork, lack of planning, salaries that are far too low, so many needs and not enough time, state-directed standards and assessments…

But there is so much delight to be had in a classroom every day. There are children’s smiles and giggles and the wonder of experiencing something for the very first time. There is the light in a child’s eyes when they are seen, truly seen. Or, for many of my students, when they are heard — through their very own voice. Amidst everything else, amidst the search to be better, to do better, amidst it all: celebration.

That feeling? That is what drives me.