My recent personal experiences (and stumbles) with a family of an autistic child have reminded me of the difficulties in parenting special needs kids. Imagine the hardship of managing this as a single parent! To be sure, this is not scientific data, but I have seen these four scenarios played out many times over the years.
- Royalty: The special needs child is king or queen of the family. That child’s interests drive activities, purchases, and time investments. You can make a strong case for this preferential treatment, especially when the child is low to moderate functioning. Who needs another tantrum when all it takes is an X-Box or the purchase of every Lego Star Wars set? On the other hand, what happens to siblings (and finances) in this type of environment? I have found that sibling responses are typically at opposite ends of the continuum. Sibs may share the same obsessions or they may resent the kingly role and act as not-so-subtle saboteurs. Marriages often suffer when a child becomes royalty. There never seems to be enough time for the commoners.
- Insulated: These are usually single-child families who are most likely to deny their child is autistic. The family is socially isolated but manages to latch onto one other kid (usually younger or older) as a playmate for the child. These parents struggle mightily when schools tell them their child is atypical, but by middle school, there is no denying the social problems and narrow range of interests which characterize autism. If they have the resources, these families tend to head for private schools where they run into other refugees of school conflicts.
- Conflicted: This particular scenario can be fastened onto any of the above, which causes greater anguish for all concerned. Parents are in serious conflict about their child’s “specialness.” One says there is no problem and the other has spent hours poring over websites on autism. This scenario is most common when one parent has social issues not unlike the child’s. Parent conferences become a tightrope experience for educators, who may feel as though they are talking to an adult version of the student. Teachers are prone to comments like, “That acorn didn’t fall far from the tree.”
- Integrated: This is the most preferable outcome, in my mind. In this scenario, the autistic child is identified but does not shove the other hatchlings out of the nest. The family often accesses community resources and is linked to other families with special needs kids. Sometimes these families have more than one autistic child, so parents may end up on school committees and serve as advocates for special education services. Sibs get equal recognition and are supportive of the special needs kiddo.
None of this is meant as condemnation, or I would be first in line. These scenarios occur in families without special needs kids, too, or at various times in a child’s development. I think the value of analyzing these dynamics lies in determining the best educator responses to each one. More on that in my next post.
I do have a Pinterest page but you’ll never find a single craft that I’ve created. Unless it’s in the horror section. Here’s a sample of my skill level. After Halloween, a student and I decided to use a leftover pumpkin for a Thanksgiving craft project. Not knowing how long the dear pumpkin would last, we worked on it rather quickly. But that’s no excuse for how it looks.
First I went to Pinterest and tried to memorize some gorgeous turkey crafts. We started off reasonably OK…
but things went south pretty fast. This pumpkin had a paint-resistant finish! I had scrubbed it shiny clean but the paint would not adhere in one or two coats. When we added one color to another, all the dried paint peeled off. So we tried a Sharpie for emphasis, which did indeed emphasize this disaster in the making. The idea of adding colored feathers was all mine, I admit, so don’t go blaming Pinterest for them. I knew that glue was not a viable option, so the feathers were “fastened” with painter’s tape, then promptly fell off as the tape ripped through tenuous coats of paint. I started giggling at that point but my student stoically added feather after feather. I stopped giggling when I saw his fierce determination. Or maybe it was just fear. This turkey certainly scares me!
The latest edition of Teaching Children Mathematics (TCM) is solely focused on teaching fractions and decimals. And it’s a winner! We don’t need a journal to tell us that many kids are struggling in this area of math. Looking back over my own teaching history, it’s interesting to trace the evolution of teaching “between the wholes,” as TCM refers to it. It’s a miracle that any of my students understood decimals and fractions back in the day. I really didn’t. It was considered a big leap when teaching supply companies created an abundance of pie- and strip-shaped manipulatives and games. But these materials served to reinforce misunderstandings by focusing solely on area models of fractions. Students memorized shapes and attached a meaningless value to them. They rarely understood the relationship of fractional parts to real life.
One of the most powerful differences in this improved instruction is student exploration of part-whole relationships. My favorite article focuses on “French Fry Tasks,” where students are asked to “share” paper fries using estimation, with increasingly larger groups of people. Some constraints are in place: no rulers and no folding the paper. This strategy has a number of advantages, but a primary one is understanding that repeated sharing results in smaller sizes. Should we tell kids that the denominator increases as the size shrinks or let them discover this through careful experimentation? Duh. TCM also includes two articles which provide excellent tools for assessing student understanding of fractions and decimals, along with strategies for improving their performance.
The strategies outlined in TCM are not unknown in the current teaching landscape. So why aren’t they an integral part of math instruction? Not all teachers DO know how to teach fractions and decimals effectively. But I think the greatest deterrent is the clock. It takes time for students to develop these understandings. It takes a lot of student interaction and exploration. It takes classroom management skills to keep these tasks meaningful. It takes reasonably-sized groups of kids. And it means slowing down the mighty rush to “get through” the curriculum before tests are administered. Without administrative leadership, this lenghtier process of learning will not occur. And for that administrative support to exist, it takes a broader (political) climate that rejects our current dash through the curriculum. Let’s hear it for the french fries!
Today’s National Blog Posting Month prompt asks if I wanted to have the same job as my parents when I grew up. More important to me was whether I wanted to BE like my parents when I grew up. My parents were both gifted. They had a strong work ethic. Neither of them had any higher education but both regretted it. It was always understood that I would go to college. To top it off, they both considered teaching a marvelous career choice.
On the other hand (and you could tell there was another hand, right?), they were miserable parents and spouses, to put it mildly. To answer my unspoken question, my primary object in life was to be as different from them as possible. Despite this stated goal, I became an efficient and earnest liar to avoid the consequences of any mistake. We had no politically correct conversations in my family about learning from mistakes. I learned to look my father in the eyes and steadfastly deny any culpability for anything, ever. At times that must have been humorous. I’m standing next to a smashed figurine and saying that it just fell all by itself. I saw it happen. It was miraculous, actually.
My parents used to say that there was nothing worse than telling a lie. They were wrong. It was worse to create an environment where you had to be an accomplished liar to survive. Lying is a skill I’ve had to unlearn as an adult. Now I have to ask myself whether I allow kids to make social and behavioral mistakes or if I make everything a capital offense. Do I allow children the space to turn around or are they forced into a corner? Is it safe to tell the truth? It’s certainly OK by me when things get broken. I’ve seen the miraculous enough times to know.
Today I am on my soap box. In a country where we have freedom that millions of other folks only dream about, do we take suffrage for granted? I hate to think so. Many brave men and women fought hard so I could vote yesterday, but I was one of only 17% of the folks in my county who did vote. As a teacher, I voted because I wanted some say in who was elected to our local school board. Nationally, about 36% of our population voted at this time last year, lower than the vote during 1942 (which was also awful). Should we consider compulsory voting? Some argue that it violates our right NOT to speak. Others argue that mandatory voting is stupid voting because a majority of folks don’t even know or care about the elections. I think both arguments are valid.
An alternative to compulsory voting would be better education in social studies, political science, and history. What if we made those subjects come alive for students? What if we show students the effects of voting instead of simply telling them to memorize facts? What if we teach students how to understand ballots and the procedures at a polling site? And I saved the best for last: What if we treat all students like they are valuable members of society? I bet that many folks feel uncertain about walking through those doors and being greeted by white senior citizens like me. Hey, maybe that’s why it’s so easy for me to vote! Come on, man! VOTE!
Inspiretheworld2day shares her story as a mom of a bright son with attention problems. She describes their tremendous joint effort and the cost to both of them. Sadly, she also struggles with a school that won’t provide her son’s 504 accommodations. Being a twice exceptional student can be twice as hard. Read on for more!
Blog post: Squirrel, pizza, dogs, text!
I wanna be a teacher!
Today’s National Blog Posting Month (NaBloPoMo) asks bloggers to describe their idea of the coolest job ever. Although I’ve considered other careers (geologist and plastic surgeon were my top two alternatives), teaching has been in my blood forever. School was a place where I felt loved and safe. I imprinted on the smell of chalk and crayons. Even though I learned not to tell my teachers about what really happened at home, school provided security and success. So why special education? I was always drawn to the kids who struggled at school. I remember being reprimanded for calling out a word when a student couldn’t read it. I befriended kids who were socially awkward, even if it meant I was teased, too. I challenged bullies and stood up for struggling classmates. I cried when kids were paddled. How could my loving teacher slap a student across the wrist with a ruler? School wasn’t a perfect world, but I never felt happier anywhere else. And I’m still lovin’ it!