This week, we are thrilled to welcome Janet Cabezut, a 4th grade teacher in northern California and graduate student at the University of San Diego, as our guest blogger. We hope you are as inspired by Janet’s perseverance and Joe’s success as we are!
As an educator, my role is to provide a safe and engaging learning environment for all children. I have a duty to accommodate all of my students in a way that promotes a positive academic experience. Over the years, I have had a few students with autism. I would like to tell you about one of those students, whom I will call Joe.
Joe was a fourth grade boy who came into my class with a variety of instructions. I first met with his mother, our administrator, school psychologist, county autism specialist, and his counselor. I learned that he shared time between his parents because they were divorced. Both parents had remarried and continued expanding their families, with Joe falling in the middle.
I was informed that Joe was disorganized and needed help keeping his desk and backpack neat. I was also told that Joe became upset easily. He had aides that would randomly visit the classroom to observe him and provide support if needed. While I learned all of Joe’s needs, he sat in his chair and looked very quietly at the ground. I asked if I could talk to Joe alone, but I was told that that would not be such a good idea because I was a stranger. I went back to my room and walked around in a daze for about thirty minutes, wondering what I was in for. I kept saying “He’s just a kid.” That became my mantra.
The first day of school came, and Joe and his aide came into class. Most of the students knew Joe and had been in classes with him before. Over the next couple of weeks, I started noticing things. First, the aides would come at different times of the day, and they were always different people. Joe seemed agitated by them. They had put a happy face chart on his desk and would put happy faces for good behavior and sad faces for bad behavior. I never really understood this part, because I didn’t see his behavior as bad. They also stayed in with him at recess. I was told that this had been his routine since he started school.
The turning point came a few weeks into class. I was teaching a lesson, and the next thing I knew, the aide had walked over to him, said something, and he blew up! He started stomping, yelling, and throwing things. I asked his aide what happened. She said she had told him to pay attention, and then she went to the back of the room and started writing in a book that the aides carried around. I was left to deal with Joe. I asked Joe to come outside with me; he did. I asked the teacher next-door to call a yard duty to come watch my class.
During that walk, he said the most I’d ever heard come out of his mouth. He said no one ever listened to him; he was stuck in the middle and hated his family. He felt like he didn’t matter anymore; his mom had another family and didn’t need him. He cried and screamed while we walked around our field outside. After he calmed down, we went back to class and I kicked his aide out. I called a meeting again and told them that he didn’t need any more aides in the classroom; I was more than capable of handling him myself. The administration agreed, pending a monthly evaluation.
Joe and I started working on how best to make the classroom work for him. The first thing I did was give him two desks. He felt more comfortable when he could spread out. This helped him to keep track of his belongings. We also removed the happy face chart; he said it made him sad to look at it. So if I didn’t like something he was doing I would tap his desk once. That usually brought him back on task. If not, he would need to get up and walk around the building and then come back. This helped him relieve his stress. It wasn’t easy, and we had some bumps along the way. We were both learning a new way of doing things.
I also found out that he really didn’t like staying inside at recess but also didn’t like to play the physical games many kids played outside. I first suggested taking a book outside and reading it. Then, I brought some old checker boards from home and let him take them out at recess. He had soon organized a checkers group that played together.
I also started sending home monthly projects that required parental support. I did this with the whole class. They would have to come and give a presentation on the project. One project was for each child to bake cupcakes to work on fractions with his or her mom. Joe loved it and was very animated when showing us his project.
Joe never took notes, read along in the textbook, or did anything that was traditionally expected in class. He would sit and play with the items on his desk. He would snort in the middle of class. I realized that was his way of paying attention. He didn’t need to follow along; he needed to do things to keep his mind focused. He excelled in class and was very smart. He learned in his own way, and I needed to adjust to his way of doing things. Using force to push Joe only made him withdraw and become more upset. Letting him work in his own way made him successful. I learned a lot from Joe. I will never forget the first meeting we had after the aides left the class. We sat around in the conference room, and they all turned to me and asked how it was going. Before I could say anything, Joe said, “We’re fine!” He was right– we were.
–Written by Janet Cabezut. Edited by KIT staff.
Kids Included Together (KIT) is a non-profit located in San Diego, CA and Washington, DC. We help make the world a more inclusive place by providing live and online training to people who work with kids. We teach strategies, accommodations and best practices to include kids with and without disabilities in before & after school programs. Inclusive environments create stronger communities. Learn more about our work at www.KITonline.org.