On Cute Stories and Deep Anxiety

Robert takes his jacket and his schoolbag of  the hook and, against his neat nature, drops them  on the floor to emulate the behavior of his  older sister.  Robert replays actions of characters from Winnie the Pooh including attaching  Eeyore’s tail to himself.  Robert calls “Outback, Outback” when in distress. Robert designs an experiment to understand the forces that can break the glass.  Robert displays his band-aids on the carpet to commemorate his bravery under fire from allergy shots.  Each of these stories is like a small window through which Robert lets me and others glimpse at  himself.  I see a fraction too small to reconstruct the  whole mechanism or  structure of Robert’s model of the world but big enough to  believe that there is something more to be known and understood. Except, I do not know and do not understand.  The data are scarce and cloudy. And Robert, as I made it clear many times before, doesn’t explain himself.

All those stories happened between five and fifteen years ago.   I have an impression that as Robert learns more from me, from us, he becomes less assertive in doing things his own way. It is true, he has very few tantrums lately, and is not often upset, but it might be that he lost his own drive, that he allowed others to take much more control over his life than was necessary for him to thrive.  Maybe, everything was too confusing, too painful.  Maybe, it was impossible to let people know what he needed and wanted. Maybe he realized at some point , how different he was and lost confidence in his ways.   So  he waits for directions and prompts.

Is that the goal I should have aimed for?

Looking Inside a Bubble

Robert does not explain himself.  He does not ask for explanation either.  It is not that he doesn’t want to know. Because he does.  He does want to know.  I realized that during Holiday Season when Robert was seven years old.  At that time, our Christmas ornaments were  made  of brittle, beautiful glass and Robert broke them all.  He already knew that when such ornaments fell from the tree, or slip through the hands, they break.  He also knew that he couldn’t make them whole again.  What he did not know and wanted to learn  was what  exactly  happened  in the moment of change, the moment ornaments broke.  So sitting on the floor and tilting his whole body to the side so that his  cheek was almost on the floor he watched the glass as it was shuttering.  He also tried to figure out the breaking height.  First, he released the ornament from  just an inch or two  above the floor.  It didn’t break .  So he kept increasing  the distance  until the sphere split into a few pieces. The conclusion as to what precisely took place in the moment of this metamorphosis must have escaped Robert because as I rush to clean the glass, Robert ran for the next ornament to perform another experiment.

Whatever he learned, Robert did not share with me. I was left to my own guesses. At first, I thought that he wanted to establish the critical distance from the floor that leads to breaking of the glass.  Lately, I suspect that he wanted to slow the process hoping he would catch some sort of entity escaping from the glass bubble.  Or that he wanted to see the inside of the whole ornament.    And he hit an epistemological wall.  To see the inside of the ornament  he had to break it.  When he broke it he couldn’t see the entire inside of the sphere.  Did Robert realize the limits of knowledge and, in his wordless world, formulated his own uncertainty principle?



Pulling Out of Helplessness

I cannot help myself.  I want Robert to answer correctly whatever is there to answer.  So I give him signals. I don’t know what those signals are. But Robert deciphers them anyway. I catch my fingers  moving themselves toward a word that completes the sentence, or toward the  correct estimate of a number on a number line.  I put the hands under the table so they stop interfering.  But inside my mouth the air position itself in anticipation of the word that is an answer to the question I have just asked my son. My lips don’t say the word yet, but are shaped already for the first sound.  Robert knows what I want him to say because I am already saying it, even if I don’t hear myself.  I catch my tongue conspiring with  my lungs and my mouth to help Robert demonstrate to me that he knows the proper response. To prevent my mouth from meddling in Robert’s learning I leave Robert at the table and go to the kitchen.  Before I go I tell Robert  to read carefully each phrase printed on  one of 12 strips of paper, decide if it relates to the sun, the earth, or the moon, and place the strip with the sentence in a proper space.  From the kitchen I look  back and see that Robert doesn’t touch the strips of paper.   He waits for me to return.  “Use your own mind.  You know it.  You know that all”  I repeat from time to time as I watch Robert’s hands. I see pieces of paper slowly filling empty spaces below “sun, earth, and moon”.  Very slowly.

I ask, “Are you ready or not yet? ”

“Not yet”.

A few more minutes and a few more encouragements from the other room I ask again, “Are you ready or not yet?”


I return to the table and we are checking together if the phrases properly relate to the objects.  Seven correct answers, five wrong. Enough to assume that Robert hasn’t assigned those strips of papers completely randomly.  This is a success.  Because the goal for Robert is not to be correct yet, but to TRY to be correct without help.

In the past when Robert knew something well, like  multiplying two digit numbers by one digit, he could work alone on the whole page of problems.  He automatically followed a simple algorithm.  When, however, Robert was not completely sure how to respond, he would wait and wait and wait for me to come.  He wouldn’t touch the problem without me being present and giving him those unnoticeable  to me  cues.  The fact that today Robert worked independently, not afraid to make mistakes was a step out of learned helplessness.  The fact that in, at least,  a few instances he used HIS knowledge was a small  step but the step into independence.

Understanding Errors

Among materials Robert and I frequently use are folders made from pages taken from workbooks belonging to the series   Take It to Your Seat. We prepare each folder according to the instruction by cutting, gluing, laminating.  We  use one or two or three of those folders every day for many reasons:

1.To introduce a new skill/information and asses the level of help Robert would need to learn the skill presented in the folder.

2. For additional support.  For instance, when Robert was introduced to hemispheres through  different workbooks, the proper folder from the series provided visual support and allowed for extra practice.

3. To teach the skill intensively. We have just started working on three folders addressing making and reading graphs.  We will repeat the same tasks every day for two weeks. (I would not mind if Robert memorize the answers.  Memorizing is Robert’s weakness.  He would learn everything much quicker if his memory supported his learning. So ability to remember is a goal in itself. )

4. To escape the routine and incorporate  elements of play  in learning.

There is a problem, however, with using materials designed by somebody else while introducing a new concept, as those materials  don’t match exactly a particular student’s learning style and his “way of knowing things”.

One of the folders we made addressed categories of nouns: people, places, things.   When I was preparing this folder I knew that Robert had never before been taught those categories.   I knew I was entering unchartered waters but had an impression that the folder People, Places,Things was an easy and appropriate tool to introduce and practice  the task.  All pictures of people displayed community workers on their jobs and  all places were buildings (school, post office, garage, but no beach or park). What could be easier?  And yet as Robert was classifying, he made error after error by mixing people with places and things. The conclusion I drew was clear,  “Robert was not ready to learn to classify nouns.”  So I put the folder away.  I took it out a few years later (YES!, years) and noticed that Robert was still making the same errors.  But this time I grasped the essence of his mistakes.

Yes he mixed “a thing” with “a place” , and with “a person” .  But that thing was a school bus , that person was a bus driver, and that place was a school.  Robert was grouping objects that belonged together.  Categories were abstract and their force to attract particular pictures could not brake stronger bonds between “the bus driver and his school bus”.

The only way, I could think of,  to proceed with teaching  was to acknowledge the existence of those bonds and then let Robert break them.  So I placed on a separate piece of paper pictures of a mail man, a mail box, and a post office and  demonstrated to Robert that from there the pictures can go to separate categories.  Now, it was Robert’s  turn.  First,  I helped him gather pictures of a bus, a school, and a  bus driver  then I asked him to move the pictures to the appropriate categories.  That was easy.

After analyzing the way I taught Robert I realized that I didn’t analyze the logic behind Robert’s errors. Not all errors are random, and behind some of them lurks another stronger concept that controls responses. Understanding the concept behind the error is very important.   Sometimes it is impossible to find a reason for errors, but it is always a very good thing to try.

Moreover, I didn’t choose wisely the exemplars to be categorized. I used what I had in the folder instead of  thinking about possible implications for Robert of such selection.   For instance, it was not good to have only buildings as examples of places or only community workers as people . It certainly was a mistake to have objects related to each to each other as representing separate categories.

In the end, however, it was beneficial to use this folder. Have I had a perfect set of pictures, Robert’s grasp on categories might come sooner but  he still might remain confused about how to choose a key by which he was supposed to sort. The mistakes  Robert made allowed me to better understand the thinking behind his errors and adjust the way I presented the task.

That is why I frequently use different curricula addressing the same topic.   Small differences in wording or in presentation can reveal  cracks in understanding of the concept.  Such cracks should be remedied as soon as they are discovered.

Medals for Bravery

Today, Robert went to see his allergy doctor at Children’s Hospital.  He was due for his RAST tests to check and recheck his susceptibility to old and new allergens.  I was afraid of how Robert would react to a needle entering his vein. Robert was afraid too.  I told him about necessity of the tests before the visit.  He didn’t show fear, but  was clearly anxious during the whole stay at the doctor’s office.   Although in the past, he learned to tolerate regular allergy shots, he might still not be prepared for for the blood test. Drawing blood  can cause apprehension for many reasons:   syringes lined up on the counter,  a rubber tied around an arm, a phlebotomist looking for the vein, and…

The phlebotomist’s assistant held Robert’s left arm.    I held the right one and embraced Robert’s head hoping he  would not  see the needle.   But Robert  wanted to watch everything: his arm, his vein,  the needle, and the syringes in action.   He was anxious but resolved to bravely confront the anticipated pain. And he did.  He waited patiently until all the syringes were filled.  Then he unwrapped  small, circular band-aid and placed it carefully over a small puncture on his skin.

In the beginning of 2006 Robert started a series of allergy shot to address some of his environmental allergies.  For the first two appointments my husband took him to Children’s Hospital. I was told that three experienced people had to hold Robert during the first visit.  He also strongly protested all throughout the second. However,during the following three appointments,Robert behaved like a typical teenager, if not better.   I decided to switch, just for the sake of  vaccines, to the allergy office closer to our home and spare ourselves cumbersome, frequent  trips  to Longwood Medical Area in Boston.  Because the specialist  in my town refused to treat Robert  I had to find  another one in a nearby town of Needham.  The visits went smoothly.  Waiting for a shot, getting it, and  hanging in the office for 20+ minutes afterwards to make sure that there was no allergic reaction to the vaccine, were never a problem.  At some point,  Robert was walking with the nurse alone while  I  stayed in the waiting room hoping that Robert learns to be more independent and that the nurse would  feel comfortable with  Robert on her own. After each of the two shots he received, Robert insisted on unwrapping two circular bandages himself and carefully placed them on his arms.

At home, I kept finding those band-aids on the rug in Robert’s bedroom. After I removed them a few times, I ignored them until the day, I realized that the adhesive bandages were attached to the rug in a consciously planned manner.  They formed a long line of little circles almost exactly  six inches apart from each other. It was clear that after each appointment,  Robert placed one or two band-aids on the rug as if he wanted in this symbolic way to record  his experiences.  As uneventful as those appointments became to me because of Robert’s  calm demeanor, for him they were not the ordinary events.  The  circles with tiny squares in their centers confirmed that.

To warm up the floor in Robert’s bedroom during the following winter,  I placed a washable rug on top of the first one.  It covered all the little circles, but Robert continued to add them anyway. He formed a second row.  Even when he stopped getting  vaccines, he still kept all his bandages in place.

Today,  Robert added to the rug another band-aid, his well deserved, unpretentious  medal for bravery.

Looking for Self in the Hundred Acres Woods

One day, when Robert was two years old, I found him sitting on our dining table. The table was new and  smelled of pine wood  it was made of.  Robert’s  little legs surrounded a sugar bowl while his hand, with all fingers glued together, traveled back and forth between the bowl and his mouth. Robert’s face radiated with a calm contentment.  I had an instant impression of Winnie the Pooh using his paw to eat a Little Smackeroo of Honey.  Although the association  was insanely strong and vivid (I wouldn’t remember it 18 years later if it weren’t) I didn’t dare to assume that Robert was enacting the scene from Disney’s Winnie the Pooh.

A few months later I was baffled by Robert’s habit of purposefully breaking balloons taken from his favorite restaurant, Applebee’s, by falling on them.  I usually threw away little  pieces of rubber left from the balloons, but one day as I was rushing to the dinning room after hearing yet another “POP” sound, I saw Robert placing the remnants of the balloon in a drawer under  a china cabinet.  This time, the connection between Piglet, Eeyore and Robert seemed obvious.  Robert was breaking balloons like Piglet and placing them in a a container (a drawer instead of an empty honey jar) just like Eeyore  did. Not much  later,  Robert found a piece of thin string with a bow tied at its end.   I don’t remember where it came from and what had happen to it later.  I do remember how contemplatively Robert was assessing this object and how he attempted to attach it to himself as,of course, a tail.  First, he tried this with his pants on.  Since it didn’t work, he started to take the pants off.  I didn’t let him.  First of all, we had a guest for dinner.  Secondly, he had already made his point.

He convinced me that  those episodes were not accidental. He was searching for his identity among the Hundred Acres Woods crowd,

In the end, Robert settled for  Tigger.  How could he not? Although not socially savvy Tigger, the bouncy ball of energy, is the most alive character among  the inhabitants of Milne’s masterpiece.  So Robert chose Tigger .  And from that time on, bouncing like a ball and flapping his bent arms Robert reminds me, over and over,  whom he decided to be.  “A Tigger’s a wonderful thing.”