The Classroom to Scream Together

In the spring of 1995, my son’s teacher from diagnostic program in a district preschool, her administrative supervisor, and I visited a collaborative program as a possible placement.  Our presence did not surprise anybody, as it was planned ahead of time.  Robert, energetic 3 years old, was with us, because I did not have anybody to babysit him.

It is hard to describe what was happening in the classroom.   Certainly, it did not help that Robert was running along the wall. I tried to keep him on my lap, but Houdini he had been since his birth, he wiggled from any of my holds.  Three of us, visitors, were sitting maybe 5-6 yards from the swing hanging from the ceiling. Next to the swing two adults were standing. As I learned later, they were speech therapist and occupational therapist.  The third adult, main classroom teacher, was standing next to a short, vibrating line of children waiting for their turn on a swing.  They wanted to have fun, not fully aware that it was a tricky way to provide sensory integration and speech therapy at the same time. It was believed that  placing a child on the swing  would lead to increased speech production through sensory input. I still have vivid images from this classroom, but no idea  what area of speech production was addressed. I did not hear anything because one of the students screamed all the time we were there.  Let me be clear, I did not mind the screaming.  It might come and go, and you cannot predict when it would happen.  I did not mind the screaming. I did mind however the fact that my son’s teacher from our school district turned to me and said, ” This classroom is a good match for Robert.  He screams just like that girl.”

I sat passively till the end of our scheduled observation.  I was frozen by realization how difficult would be to find a right program/teacher for Robert.  How little had been known about teaching children with special needs.  I was speechless.  At that time, I was still a nice, shy person, who made every effort to acknowledge  other people perspectives and avoid confronting them. I did not say anything.

Today, I would force myself to immediately reply, “Are you saying that this classroom is appropriate for Robert because he can have a companion in screaming?  I think that he needs a program where he will learn NOT to SCREAM.”

Luckily, Robert got a home program from PRIVATE SCHOOL and in one day he became a different student. Yes, it was  a skilfully delivered Applied Behavior Analysis  that made a difference by providing Robert with clear directions and clear understanding of what was expected of him. In one day, Robert became cooperative, ready to learn. He stayed in his seat for the most of the session and, ask for a break when he needed it. In just one day!

Meantime, Robert school district demonstrates the same sort of thinking expressed by the teacher in the spring of 1995, as if the venerable  institution of public learning represented by its workers, did not learn anything over 18 years that passed. Sadly, I suspect, that my son’s school district is not alone in digging itself in a deep trenches of stone age approach to special education.

Yesterday, I observed Robert during a speech therapy.  As it was a year before and then another year before, and a year before year all the way  to  the school year 2006/2007 the speech therapy has been delivered to students based on their perceived level of communication. Those who have more language, get more stimulation from their peers who also have more language. Those who have least language get much less stimulation from their peers. The students slow each other, they don’t have any peer models, that would motivate them and offer them templates for sentence production. Moreover, it might be that each of the students has different areas of strength and different areas of needs, but in this model the strengths cannot be brought up and enforced, and the needs are lost.

Let me be clear, I have never advocated for more capable children to sacrifice their higher aspirations to help those peers who don’t speak as well .  But I believe that it is possible to assemble groups in which every member  would benefit despite  being on so-called different language levels. When the intervention is based on good understanding of strengths and needs, it should be driven by specific goals.  When the “intervention” is based solely on “levels”, there is no moving forward.

The rule, “Let’s keep all the screamers together” is damaging for all the screamers.  After all, they do scream for different reasons and they all need to learn not to scream.

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