Monday, February 27, 2017

Let Them Fail

With respect to confidentiality, and the laws of FERPA – Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, names of students and families have been changed to protect their identities and confidentiality.

February, 2017

Shannon stands at her locker, backpack on, winter hat nearly covering her eyes, tears beginning to fall out of her sweet eyes, and she's swaying back and forth. I shoo away adults and other students from offering their help as they pass her in the senior hall. I'm the "mean" teacher. They give me this look like, you're awful. How can you just let her stand there and cry? I call it "strategic sabotage." So there she stands, about five yards from me, crying at her locker with her back to me. She has seen me there, yet she refuses to ask me for help. She knows what to do, she is a senior after all. We have been working on her requesting help and problem-solving through a-typical situations (situations outside of her routine) for the last three years. Shannon has Down Syndrome, and with this genetic disability, come many challenges, especially at age 17. So many of the challenges she faces in this high school setting are created by my staff and I. We set up scenarios that will force her to problem-solve. Sometimes, the solution is as simple as asking for help. Other times, it is more complex. Today, all she must do is turn around, and ask for help. Even if she would simply utter the word, "Help" in my direction, this would all be over. Shannon is also quite stubborn. But, so am I.
Once, when I was small, I told my mother, "You're the meanest mom in the whole world!" I'm sure she was holding me accountable for something, and I didn't like the result. My mom often reminds me of this when my own children now refer to me as the meanest mom in the whole world. I'm sure I am. My husband and I just completed a six-week parenting class through Love and Logic. Magic. Absolute magic. I have been using techniques at home and in the classroom from Teaching with Love and Logic for my entire 15-year teaching career. I have most definitely used some of the strategies on my children (and my husband, for that matter!). I find natural consequences create fewer power-struggles and many more learning opportunities for my students and my children. When this parenting class was offered through my school district, I jumped on it for my husband and I because I wanted the two of us to be on the same page. Through this class, all of the amazing teaching strategies I had learned 15 years prior flooded my memory, and I was reminded how amazingly well they also work in the classroom.

Teaching severely profound, or significant support needs students is no easy feat. Certainly the content I present to them is simple: typically 2nd and 3rd grade level materials adapted from grade-level curriculum. Most of my students are unable to independently read and understand grade-level content. Their IQs range from about 40 to 65. While I believe that academic content is valuable, my professional philosophy is to teach them to be as independent as possible. This includes many opportunities to sabotage their routines. (That's the "Strategic Sabotage" I was referring to earlier.) But the BEST learning opportunities for them are when situations occur naturally. I love a natural consequence when I find one; and when they problem-solve though the scenario independently, it's like a little pot of gold at the end of a very long rainbow.

My staff and a I create learning environments for my students that are outside of the classroom as often as possible. We will learn about something in the classroom setting, and then we will spend the majority of our time working on the application of that skill. Most of the skills we work on are to increase independence. Often, students are tasked with communicating a need to the appropriate person so that ultimately their needs are met. Currently, my students range in age from 15-18. In the State of Colorado, students enter the "transition" years at the end of 8th grade or at age 15 (whichever comes first). The transition years are the years we spend preparing them to be adults. What does it mean to be an adult with Down Syndrome? There isn't one answer, but I believe challenging them to be as independent as possible is part of the answer.

Thanks to some awesome paraprofessionals, we have implemented several in-house businesses that my students run (with adult support). Most recently, we have started a Coffee Cart: The Mustang Coffee Corral. We offer coffee and tea to staff and students one day per week. My students take orders, exchange money (sometimes cash, sometimes credit cards), and prepare the drinks. This is somewhat of a new business for them, and so we have spent most of this quarter ironing out the details and trouble-shooting. I spent a lot of time doing task-analysis with each student. I have been assessing their baseline so that I can then determine an appropriate direction in which to teach independence though this business.

They amaze me. They take this business very seriously, and are incredibly independent. Not that we haven't seen our fair share of missed orders, slight burns, and spills, but the successes far outweigh the failures. It is in their failures, however, that they are learning the most. The time he spilled the coffee all down his front, he learned he can't pick up the cup from the top. The time she smashed her finger picking up the K-Cup, she learned she can't get the K-Cup and push down on the top of the machine at the same. The time she was asked to repeat herself when she was taking an order, she learned she must speak more slowly so she can be understood. The time she counted back all the money she was given, and her customer gave her back what he owed, she learned people are kind and generous at heart.

Without these failures, among many others, they would have missed out on these opportunities to learn. It's so hard to watch them flounder when I could very easily swoop in and give them the answers. But I would rather them fail and fail miserably here, than have them fail outside of my care and possibly be subject to harm that could otherwise have been avoided. In the words of Love and Logic, we are having them fail small now rather than big later. By doing for them what they are capable of doing for themselves, I may have robbed them of an opportunity to learn. If I'm consistent in my methods, then their brains work out the problem, and then find a solution. They practice and exercise this skill now, in a controlled environment, and when they get out into that big, bad world without me, they have built up those brain muscles enough to make the right choice on their own. Well, at least that's the hope.
Shannon is still swaying back and forth at her locker. She's stopped crying now, and she is talking quietly to herself. After I have given several verbal prompts, "Shannon, what are you doing?" "Shannon, I see you're standing at your locker, where should you be?" and no response, I finally enlist the help of one of my paraprofessionals, Cristina. Together we come closer to Shannon and I ask her a few more questions in the hopes that she will be prompted to use the skills she has learned to problem-solve through this situation successfully. At this point, the tardy bell has rung, and she is now late to class. "Shannon, is there anyone who can help you?" She ignores me because she is very frustrated. I point to Cristina and I say, "Mrs. Leonhardt can help you. Shannon is there anyone who can help you?" After about five minutes of various versions of this questioning, I finally use full physical prompts. I gently turn her body toward Cristina, and using signs to help her, I physically move her hands and arms in the position of each sign, and she says the words as we sign together: "I... want... help... please." Cristina says in a VERY excited voice, "I'd be happy to help you, Shannon! What can I do for you?" Shannon replies, "Locker," independently. So, Mrs. Leonhardt helps Shannon open her locker.

I could have just opened it for her in the first place, sure. What would she have learned from that? She would have learned that Mrs. McCracken will open her locker. Someone will do it for her. When I am gone, when she is no longer in our school next year, who will do it for her? Certainly not me. So I let her flounder and fail here in this safe place, so that hopefully, one day, she will ask someone for help as they pass her by.

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