Children's Voice Jan/Feb 2006

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Navigating Learning Disabilities and Special Education

The Rules of Believing

By Ellen Notbohm

It's a distinct privilege to be asked to join you in the pages of Children's Voice as a regular columnist. We know something about each other through my previous articles, "What Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew" (November/December 2004) and "Ten Things Your Student with Autism Wishes You Knew" (May/June 2005). I appreciate the many heartfelt responses I received, and I never fail to be moved and inspired by the courage and stamina of people like you who love, teach, and work with our most vulnerable children.

Those who have read any of my work know the thing I most believe in is believing--nearly all children, whatever their disability or different ability, have the potential to achieve far beyond whatever stereotype society may be willing to settle for. Our job as parents, caregivers, educators, and advocates is to keep pushing for the outer limits of that potential.

I live in a state of ongoing astonishment--you'd think I'd learn--at what my sons (one with autism, one with ADHD) have been able to achieve when the level of expectation is carefully calibrated at a point that is challenging but not beyond reach. When we fail to set the bar high enough, we squash motivation as surely as when we set it too high. Too high: "I'm never good enough. Why try?" Not high enough: "You don't think I can do it. Why try?" It's a fine line--and it keeps moving, darn it! That's why we draw it in chalk, in pencil, in the sand.

Letting go of preconceived ideas of what a child can achieve may, like any worthwhile skill, takes practice. Here is the starting line: Make no assumptions about what this child can accomplish. Without factual backup, an assumption is no better than a guess. Wherever possible, believe that a child's so-called disability is open-ended. At the same time, look for the invisible enemies that can hamper achievement--sensory or environmental issues, unrecognized medical problems, language difficulties, lack of adequate information or equipment, or cultural or socioeconomic factors.

Let's look at physical education (PE) as a microcosm for our belief system. PE and sports is one of those arenas where the expectations for special kids often seem to drop off a cliff. Our kids' cognitive, emotional, or motor issues are an impediment to successfully participating in "regular" PE or sports. Or are they?

Think about it--a lot of "regular" kids hate PE, and with increasing vehemence as they get older. Why is that? I believe it has to do with the fact that, almost invariably, the PE "haves" are lumped together with the "have nots." All kids take part in the same PE curriculum, with no attempt to separate students according to ability or interest level. In no other core discipline is this true. Reading and spelling groups start to shake out in elementary school. Math students are grouped by ability in middle school. By high school, English, science, history, and math classes separate into general, honors, and advance placement   (AP).

Schools do this so each student can best achieve at the level of his or her ability. If general math students were placed in the same classes as AP students, they would quickly fall behind. You could also expect to see low self-esteem and, very possibly, behavior problems follow as surely as night the   day.

My son Bryce, identified with autism at age 4, was assigned to an adapted PE class taught by an adapted PE teacher when he entered kindergarten. I had never heard of "adapted PE." The teacher, Sarah, explained her job was to modify curriculum and equipment so Bryce could participate with his peers in general PE.

It didn't take long before I recognized that the principles she applied to facilitating his gross motor and social development applied to the whole constellation of learning situations as well--cognitive, social, sensory, motor, and emotional. Over the years, I saw Bryce achieve things that at one time had seemed so far out of reach. With Sarah's help and encouragement, he became an enthusiastic bike rider, a competitive swimmer, a Little Leaguer, and a track and field athlete. Every one of these achievements was accompanied by marked increases in cognitive achievement, most strikingly in reading and math.

It was some years before I got around to actually sticking a tape recorder in front of Sarah and asking her exactly how she did it. Her response surprised me. She talked for an hour, and although she is a PE teacher, very little of what she said was about physical ability or motor skills. "Every kid I've ever worked with," she told me, "has an innate sense of whether the adults in their life believe they 'can do it.'"

With that belief, amazing things are possible. Without it, we're back at "Why   try?"

With any kind of learning, Sarah's simple formula works. It is this: Repetition breeds familiarity. Familiarity breeds confidence. Confidence brings belief. Belief brings action.

Ability, disability, or different ability--it is truly only part of the picture. The seeds of a child's success rest in you. Here are the seven most important things you can do for your child, student, client, or patient:
  1. Believe she "can do it." Really believe.

  2. Actively seek out and place him in situations where he will experience success. Also, look for opportunities where he can lead (organizing the art show or reading a favorite book to the kindergarten). To believe is one thing--to act on the belief makes it happen.

  3. If you are a parent, involve yourself. "Don't just pass your kid off to somebody 45 minutes three times a week," Sarah says. Play with her, take her places, read with and to her. Watch how she does things, try to see how she learns and where she needs help. Work out how you can break down challenging tasks into smaller pieces for her.

  4. Involve family, friends, people at school--all of his world as it surrounds him. The more reinforcement a child has, the more he'll progress and the more he will let others in. Bryce was surprised, then delighted, when his teachers attended his swim meets and his community theatre performances. Two of his friends joined his baseball team after hearing about it from us.

  5. Siblings play a very important role in this. Siblings have much to learn from each other. Allow and encourage them to play together and participate together in whatever manner seems appropriate to their current age and stage of childhood. My sons will always have fond memories of their years together on swim team. Bryce was proud of Connor's being the team captain, and Connor was even more proud of Bryce earning the team's Most Improved Award. Having a shared history of good times together helps buffer the inevitable sibling squalls that seem to rage with greater intensity when there's a special needs child in the family.

  6. Allow your child to be who she is--which may not be what you expected. It bears repeating: Where the expectation is too high, it can turn the child off completely to the very things you desire for her. Where the expectation is too low, gifts and talents go undiscovered.

  7. Throw out any growth or expectation lists or charts you get from pediatricians, books, or websites. They are irrelevant to your individual child. Every child, regardless of ability or disability, is going to grow and develop at his own pace. "It's not about doing it in any specific order or in any specific way." Sarah says. "Children will flourish if they are nurtured and if their way of doing things is celebrated."
Ellen Notbohm is author of Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew and coauthor of the award-winning 1001 Great Ideas for Teaching and Raising Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Comments and requests for reprint permission are welcome at ellen@thirdvariation.com.


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