In the spring I was informed that my early childhood autism classroom would be closing and that I could begin looking for a different job within the district. I had taught students on the autism spectrum for the last four years. I mostly taught students who were heading to kindergarten the next year so I focused a lot of my lessons around skills they would need to be successful in kindergarten. We worked on cutting, gluing, turn taking, gaining attention, responding to their names, walking in a line, writing their names, listening to a story, answering questions about stories, playing with a friend and skills so numerous they can’t all be listed here. I have had non-verbal students and students whose language skills were in some ways at the same level as their typical peers. We worked a lot on regulation focusing on sensory supports and sensory breaks. I teamed with a speech pathologist and an occupational therapist who were both full of resources and ideas and always ready to help. I also was a part of a larger team, the early childhood team. Our team worked incredibly well together. We supported one another each day sometimes swapping students to see if a different grouping would help them or taking another teacher’s class and combining when our numbers were low so that one teacher would have time to complete due process paperwork or meet with her assistants. We also worked together to create a more inclusive environment for our students by starting a buddy program where we would invite typically developing children from the community into our classrooms to serve as models and develop relationships with our students.
Throughout my years in the early childhood autism classroom the program for Setting 3 students with emotional and behavioral disorders (EBD) was right upstairs. During my second year I watched on a weekly basis as students from that program ran through the halls and tore my students artwork off the walls. I watched as adults tried to control these students’ behaviors using threats, sometimes physical interventions or following them and trying to calm them. While in my classroom I often heard crashing sounds coming from the classroom above me. Most of the years it seemed the students and the staff were struggling to know what they were supposed to be doing.
About two years ago I met one of these students, “Dimitri”, while subbing in the after school program one afternoon. At the time I had no idea he was part of the EBD program and possibly he was not yet in the program. I was not in charge of the group in the gym. I was only there to be another adult and to provide support. I didn’t know any of the kids. I looked to the adult who was in charge of the group to know what the expectations were. I watched as “Dimitri” got in an argument with another student. He accidentally hit the other student. I truly don’t believe it was his intention to hurt the other student and that was clear from his pained and embarrassed look and then from his behavior as he puffed himself up in attempts to hide how he felt and began to get more aggressive. I watched as the other adult told him to stop and moved on without addressing what had happened. I watched as both students moved away from one another and both continued to look hurt and left with their problems unresolved. I stepped in. I spoke briefly with “Dimitri” and he told me why he was upset. I took him over to the other student and helped them to communicate why they were upset to one another. When the other student said “Dimitri” had hit him “Dimitri” apologized and said he hadn’t meant to. We had hardly finished talking through the incident when the teacher called all of the kids over to get their things. It was time to go home. I was disappointed that there was no time to continue working on repairing the relationship between the two boys and since I wouldn’t be back it wouldn’t happen next time either. I let it go. It was just a moment and that was it.
But it wasn’t. Not for “Dimitri”. A few days later he saw me in the hall and quickly came up to me to give me a hug and say hi. He did this a few other times before the end of that year. The next year I didn’t see him around for months. When I finally did I said hello thinking he probably would not remember me. I was wrong. He came and gave me a hug. Over this last year I’ve gotten a hug from “Dimitri” almost every day. He doesn’t seem to care if his friends are around. He comes in for the hug, I ask him how he’s doing and he typically answers pretty honestly and will tell me if he’s having a bad day. I encourage him to have a good day and then he’s off.
My relationship with “Dimitri” is what really drove me to choose the position working in the kindergarten with students with EBD. That paired with how people talk about those students focusing on their challenging behaviors instead of on how awesome they are, how deserving of love, patience and care they are. In some ways they’re like my kids with ASD, you have to look past a lot of behaviors before you can see the child and his potential but he’s there. He’s always there. And he deserves to have the time taken with him to learn how to show the world his true self. And that is the overwhelming goal I have for myself this year, to help these kids learn to express themselves fully and discover their own potentials. I believe in them and I haven’t even met them.