Friday, February 26, 2016

What is it like for students or adults with challenges?

I have been meaning to write this post for weeks now. It's going to be probably pretty lengthy so this is your warning.

I work in Special Education as a Teacher's Aide in a Cluster classroom. All that means is, I am a part-time Teacher Assistant/Aide that helps teachers and students with behavior and with academics, or learning. I do quite a bit of teaching as well. 

I have been thinking a lot about what it might be like for some of our students with various challenges. I do not have Autism or ADHD. But, I have been watching the students’ behaviors and trying to deduce what they may be thinking or feeling like. 

When I first started work in Special Education about 2 and half years ago in 2014, I did not initially understand some of the reasoning behind certain behaviors. Many students with A.D.D. or A.D.H.D. exhibit similar symptoms. I am not a Psychologist, Therapist or Doctor. This is just what I have seen in many of our students. Students with these conditions may need to do something with their hands in order to better listen to the instructions given. Like build Lego’s, or draw. You may think they are not listening, but their bodies or hands need to be moving in order to learn better. However, this is not always the case. Of course, there are many students who just have a hard time focusing on a given task for a set period of time. They become distracted easily, and lose their train of thought, or their focus. Both of these symptoms need to be taken into consideration when dealing with students with these particular challenges. 

Students on the Autism Spectrum differ greatly. My Mentor my best friend Ms. P says; "Once you've met a student with Autism, you've met a student with Autism." It is very true. There are some similarities between these students though. The number one similarity is that they like to talk at you or to you. It is very hard to carry on a 2-way conversation with someone whom you cannot get a word in edge wise. So, one of the basic skills we try to teach these students are, appropriate social skills. Like how to have a polite conversation with another student or teacher: without just talking non-stop, not allowing the other person to speak. This is one of our challenges daily. 

Many of our students on the Autism Spectrum have extreme differences in mental reasoning, or cognitive learning skills. We have some that are higher functioning, and some that are on level functioning, and a few that are low level functioning. All this means, is they function, or work at different mental levels than most of their peers. They still feel, they have strong emotions, they have friends, they want to go to school and have fun, and they want to be accepted. They may not always act, walk or talk like many mainstream students do, but most of the time they do. 

One think I have noticed with many of our students in our cluster, is that they function better with lower student to teacher ratios. In a traditional classroom you may see up to 30 students in a Middle School or Junior High for 1 Teacher. In cluster classes, you see one main Teacher and up to 6 Assistant Teacher's or Teacher Aide's like myself, and sometimes a Cluster Leader who is in charge of the whole group of cluster students in the school, and acts a lot like the Clusters' Principal.  You will see smaller class sizes and more teachers. This is because, that is how the students learn best. 

Most of what I help do is teach and reinforce appropriate social skills between fellow students, and between students and teachers. There is quite a bit of behavior intervention and de-escalating students in my position every day. When I first started out a few years ago, it was a little intense.  It got me a little worried. Now, that I have gotten a little more use to it- I hopefully handle escalations of students with a calm and collected demeanor. I think that I do. 

I happen to have Bi-Polar Disorder also known as Manic Depression and I also happen to have Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Many who work with me, do not know that I have O.D.D. As a child I struggled quite a bit with it, because positions of authority threatened my own individuality and what I wanted to do. So, I often disagreed with them, because I wanted to make my own choice- not because I actually disagreed with the positions of authority. O.D.D. Students are all very different. For me, it was like I wanted to be in charge of myself all the time and I'd fight some of the positions of authority verbally, when I was younger, to try to let them make my own choices. I hardly ever got sent to the Principal's office ever in my youth though. Maybe once in 4th Grade for drawing on a cement bench with a crayon. I had to clean it up. 

I think more than anything I disagreed with my Mom, who was the authority figure at my home and I fought her verbally most of the time, and not my Teachers. She tried homeschooling, but because she was my Mom and she seemed just bossy and mean to me and I fought her that was a pretty hard year. I think it was like 3rd Grade or something. She moved me all around during elementary school. I can't even count how many schools I went to. I had no idea why. 

Anyways, with our students some of them also have O.D.D. and want to be in charge of themselves. Being someone who struggled with that in my youth, I can sort of get a sense of what they are going through. They seem to hate being bossed around. They are very defiant and often have sharp and witty comebacks in their belligerence. They want to choose what they do, and not be told what to do. They don't want to be bossed around, or guided into doing anything. Although, as amazingly as I've found out these types of students make great: Tutors, Teachers, Mentors and Leaders. At least I hope I do, now that I have learned how to deal with my condition and taught myself how to act appropriately in social situations.  

When these students get older, if they can find their voice and channel their defiance into some sort of art form, or something they love doing, they can be amazing leaders. I love to; Sing, Write, Read, Act and Teach. I use these outlets as cathartic treatments for my challenges. I don't call them disabilities, because I am able to do things that everyone else can do, and sometimes more. Students, Teachers, and all People with challenges or diagnosed disorders are not their disorders or conditions! They may have a certain condition. But, it has nothing to do with who they are and what they can do. Attitude determines Altitude!

Thanks for Reading!

Chelsea Merkley