“What do you want to be when you grow up?” Remember that question? Grown-ups love to ask children that. And I always had the same answer as a kid. ”A mommy and a teacher.” And guess what I grew up to be? A mommy and a teacher.
I have been teaching for a lot of years now–more than twice as many years as I’ve been a mommy, in fact! Since my first classroom, I’ve always been drawn to the children that make most teachers run for cover. You know the ones–I call them the underdogs. The kids that make teachers cringe when learning that child is moving up to their classroom. The ones that cause their teachers to breathe a sigh of relief when they are out sick for a day. The flighty, distracted child who can’t look at you when you speak, let alone follow the directions you’re giving. The child who can’t sit still or stop talking for more than ten seconds. The child who wants super big hugs several times a day, and will hug you back until you can hardly breath. The child who can’t keep her hands off her friends; who can’t keep the playdoh out of his mouth; who runs everywhere she wants to go; who can’t keep his hands out of the fishtank. The children whose parents push them in the door with a crazed look in their eyes. The ones whose parents come back at the end of the day with barely enough energy to make it through the bedtime routine.
(Wait a minute. I think I just described myself!)
I knew that these weren’t bad children. They usually struck me as so eager to please, but not knowing how to make their bodies do what was requested of them. I wasn’t willing to write them off or just “survive the year” with them. I researched ways to try and meet their needs, and implemented new ideas in my classroom for these children. Most of the time, it was trial and error…this works with that child, but something else works with another one. I learned a lot in those days, as a new, young teacher. I also began to learn the labels that society quickly puts on these kids. Words like ADHD. Developmentally Delayed. Dysfunctional. And I became convinced that these kids were so much more than those labels. I was an idealistic young teacher, out to save the world, one “dysfunctional” child at a time!
I’d like to think I helped these kids. I doubt I “saved” anybody. But I loved each one of those children, and made them feel like they were more than the sum of all their quirks and difficulties. I made them feel good about themselves when the world was telling them to talk less. To be quiet. To sit still. To be calm. To listen up. I helped them succeed in my classroom, and hopefully gave them the tools to succeed in their next classroom.
As the years have gone by, I still find myself drawn to the underdogs in each class I teach. And, of course, I fight the hardest for my own children, knowing that many teachers over the years have not understood their needs. I’ve asked doctors to diagnose my children, knowing that those labels would open doors for them. And something interesting has happened along the way. As I learn more about my own children, I begin to see children with SPD, and ADHD, and Autism, and other Developmental Delays everywhere I look!
Do you experience that too? The child in the restaurant who is screaming and throwing a fit…maybe she has sensory issues! The friend’s baby who won’t stop crying, won’t sleep, and won’t eat anything…maybe it’s not colic, but Sensory Processing Disorder. The boy at the doctor’s office who is so absorbed in flicking two crayons together that he won’t respond when his mom calls him…maybe he has autism. And what about the children in my class? The boy who yells when he speaks, no matter how many times I tell him to use his inside voice. The girl who is sweet and kind and smart, but can’t remember the instructions I just gave her. The boy who fools me into thinking he can read, when really he’s just memorized thousands of words and can’t even make his letter sounds still. The girl who hits everyone and falls out of her chair and can’t line up without creating a domino effect as she crashes into the other children. The girl who can’t take a test because she just can’t understand the directions, no matter how many ways I explain them. I find myself diagnosing all of them.
Well, in my head, at least. And that’s the hardest part of it all. Because I only want to help these kids. I only want to point their parents in the direction of Help and Treatment. Because I know from experience that many of these parents probably have at least an inkling that something might be wrong, and just don’t know what to do. Because I know that many people had probably “diagnosed” MY children before I knew what was wrong with them. And because I know that I can’t say to a parent, “My son has autism, and I think yours does too.” (ESPECIALLY not to the parent in the waiting room at the doctor’s office, who I don’t even know!) It’s not my place. I’m not a doctor, or a therapist, and so it’s not my place to diagnose anyone.
But, there are things I CAN do. I can offer knowledge, and information, and clues, and advice, and encouragement. I can share my story. I can tell them to talk to their pediatricians. I can encourage them to visit the school district for a screening. I can ask permission to invite the behavioral therapist to my classroom to observe their child. I can pass along ideas and articles that I think may help their child. So I will continue to help the underdogs, and fight for my kids–the ones I gave birth to, AND the ones that I am privileged to teach every day. I will continue to learn new ways to help them, and new techniques to meet their needs and help them succeed.
I can’t diagnose the world. But maybe I can meet the needs of the child who one day might!