In the essay Helicopter Parent in the collection Dads of Disability I recount the events surrounding my then third-grade son Alexander’s experience dressing up as Igor Sikorsky, the father of the modern helicopter, and giving a presentation to his class. Alexander has a number of developmental, sensory, physical, and behavioral challenges. At the end of the story, I ended up with a sore nose from Alexander’s knocking his noggin into my face.
We ended up videotaping his presentation at home and then having him successfully share it with his class on video rather than at the podium. And Alexander’s team learned (and had reinforced) a number important classroom and parenting lessons.
Helicopter Parent really seemed to resonate with Vicki Davis. (She let me know this a number of times.) Her interest in this essay even came up in her interview with me for Every Classroom Matters. I pondered why this particular piece seems so impactful to Vicki as a teacher. With that, here are my thoughts on this topic summarized into five recommendations.
1. Meet a student “where the student lives”
The lesson was handed to me (Dad) on a platter. Or actually, on an ice pack. I knew this lesson well, but it took a knock to my nose in front of a classroom of kids and parents to make me really embrace it.
As many of you believe, I too believe in pushing a child—any child—a certain percentage past their comfort zone. This is how people grow. But, when you push too far past that zone, it can have less than optimal results.
In my case, I ignored direct communication from Alexander in a number of ways that this podium presentation would be too much for him from a sensory perspective. I didn’t listen to him in my eagerness to have him included and have him show his peers and teachers (and the parents) that Alexander could do something they may not think he could do.
Listening, like teaching, is an art as much as a science. Listen to your gut and reach out to the child’s team, specialists, parents—and most importantly reach out to the child and meet them where they need to be. Be just as careful not to push too hard as you are in not pushing hard enough. Yes, it’s an art.
2. Presume Competence
The presumption of competence is an important phrase in the special needs community. Never assume a student can’t do something.
The scenarios around this assumption needn’t be as dramatic as the situation documented in “Carly’s Voice” (when folks assumed Carly’s intellectual level was much lower than it actually was) or in the Ted X talk by Dan Habib about a young man whose “first” words after receiving an adaptive communication device were harsh expletives toward the staff who has been providing infantile treatment to him, a high school aged young adult. (Editor’s Note: This powerful video shared below – while the speaker starts with his son’s story, he moves on to share a powerful story about inclusion. He makes a powerful case that when special needs are included that the performance of all students improves.)
The presumption of competence should be informed by these dramatic lessons but can also be observed and implemented in little ways every day. One time, Alexander raised his hand to answer a quite challenging question about jellyfish that no other child in the class knew. That one act changed forever the way his teacher, the aides, and just as importantly his peers viewed him.
3. Be creative in your use of ‘adaptive’ technology
“Adaptive” technologies are getting more powerful and easier to use (and cheaper) each year. But don’t limit your approach to adaptive technologies to assistive communication or mobility devices. They can be simpler than that.
In Helicopter Parent, using a video camera and simple editing software we were able to have Alexander participate in the exercise of dressing up as Igor Sikorsky and show the class his presentation.
Another idea to try with some students is to use real-time communication software (like Skype or Facetime or many others) within a building. This could allow a student who may be overwhelmed by an auditorium or classroom to present, sing, or act for the rest of the class or school from another location in the same building. This could be an inexpensive and creative way to use technology that you already own to include a student in an activity in which they may otherwise not be able to participate.
4. Listen to parents and help them listen to the child
A key part of presuming competence and ensuring you have the hard data and “soft” interpretation to meet the student where they need to be met is to listen.
Listen to the students verbal and nonverbal communication and cues (like you would with any student). Listen to the specialists. Listen to the parents. Listen to your gut.
Listen. Extra effort on this end of the process can help improve outcomes. How much harder (and less effective) would it be not to listen well and implement programs and curriculum that are ineffective, or even counter-productive?
5. Give “overlooked” children the same chance to shine as the superstars
I really believe that all students have something to offer. I’ve seen this with my own eyes and mind and heart with my son and many other children. And it isn’t just “feel good” stuff some may see as a way to make parents and teacher’s “feel better” about challenged students.
I believe that every student has something to offer, even academically, to others in the community. Even when it isn’t expected. Especially when it isn’t expected.
Gary Dietz is author of Dads of Disability: Stories for, by, and about fathers of children who experience disability (and the mothers who love them). Seewww.dadsofdisability.com for his blog and information on how to purchase his book. Visit Gary at www.facebook.com/dadsofdisability and listen for his upcoming show on Every Classroom Matters.