Going back to school means a bittersweet return to a land of structured learning. Going back to school also means daily evaluations of individual abilities. Grades and numeric scores are assigned to demonstrate students’ comprehension. Children are grouped in classes according intellectual abilities. Physical abilities are evaluated in settings such as gym class or organized sports. Overall, when children are participating in academic events, they are more often than not being evaluated on their individual abilities.
But what defines an individual ability? Does a skill need to be measurable to be considered an individual ability? What kinds of abilities do academics actually recognize? The more I study educational pedagogy the more I find myself questioning traditional academic principles. For instance I believe understanding simple math is as (if not slightly less) important as learning to resolve conflict with peers. My view may be unpopular or controversial, but from my real world experience, my ability to work well with challenging colleagues or supervisors has been exponentially more beneficial and influential than my skills in mathematics.
The definition of ability becomes more complex when you look at children and adults with developmental disabilities. My first reaction is to be politically correct and use the term differently abled, but honestly I don’t think it explains the situation fully. Yes, people with developmental disabilities are capable humans with just as much to offer as the next person. It’s also true that their physical, mental and emotional world is inherently more challenging. I truly hope not offend anyone with my statements, but I think you need to understand my opinion to understand my story. My goal is to generate thinking, not to persuade you to agree with me.
I broadened my perception and understanding of individual abilities when I started the school year working at a specialized school for children with social, emotional and behavioral challenges. Some of the children experience developmental delays and others come from traumatic backgrounds. My title is Behavioral Health Professional (BHP) and my job is to help students with traumatic backgrounds work towards goals on their treatment plans.
Tanya is the most memorable student I’ve encountered. She is easily the most defiant and angry child I’ve ever met. However there continues to be one exception to Tanya’s unpredictable and aggressive mood swings. Whenever she is in the presence of children with severe developmental delays, Tanya shows up as the best version of herself. She speaks with confidence and respect. Her body remains neutral and calm. She shows genuine interest and concern for the condition of her fellow students.
I first recognized this phenomenon during one of Tanya’s frequent violent outbursts. She and I were in a vacant room near the main office. I was trying every technique I learned in training to help Tanya deescalate so we could return to her normal schedule. However no matter what I tried, Tanya’s eyes glared at me from across the table where we sat. Her fists clenched on the table, her feet shuffled restlessly and she occasionally muttered curses at me under her breath. I prompted Tanya to use coping strategies to calm her mind and body. No response and no change in behavior. Eyes remained in slits, feet shuffled under her chair, fists remained clenched on the table, and she sporadically whispered curses or threats.
Unexpectedly another student named Gillian and her physical therapist Laurie walked into the room. Gillian took cautious unsteady steps while Laurie held her upright. She couldn’t walk without support. Gillian wore a bandage over her throat to cover a tube that enabled her to eat. Gillian could not swallow food. Gillian was nonverbal and Laurie helped her move her hands to communicate using sign language. Gillian could not speak for herself. Gillian couldn’t do many daily tasks the average person takes for granted. But Gillian could do something I have yet to see anyone come close to achieving.
As Tanya became aware of Gillian’s presence her mood began to shift. Tanya sat up straight; her hands relaxed and curse words were replaced with a slight smile. Curiosity and wonder appeared to replace fear and rage.
The social exchange itself was rather simple. Laurie introduced us and showed Tanya how to sign “hello” to Gillian. Laurie explained they were on a walk to visit people around the front office and I thanked them for stopping by to see us. I prompted Tanya to say thank you. She politely thanked them and wished them a good day. After Gillian and Laurie left the room, Tanya remained in a relaxed state. The anger that was palpable moments before somehow dissipated. Tanya silently fidgeted in her chair for a moment and then asked me if we could go back to her assigned activity. We worked on a few coping strategies then safely met up her peers.
I continue to observe these exchanges between Tanya and children with visible developmental delays; no matter how severe or how different they appear. Every time Tanya and I cross paths with these students, she is polite and moves to the side to let them pass rather than curse or intentionally bump them as she does with other students. What is happening between Tanya and the students with developmental delays? How can their mere presence evoke such drastic and consistently positive reactions from Tanya?
I don’t have an answer. But I witness so many positive changes in Tanya’s behavior that I can’t help but conclude there is something yet to be discovered from these interactions. Students like Gillian ease Tanya’s anxiety and fear, not forever but long enough to give her a chance to regroup and make a healthy choice for herself. That in and of itself is such a gift and I daresay an ability.
However, Gillian didn’t get an A for her efforts. And while some might argue she didn’t actually do anything, I counter with the fact that she woke up that morning and showed up. With significant support, Gillian attends her individualized daily schedule like every other student. She leads by example. And perhaps that is the reason her presence can have such an impact. Recognizing that another person who faces the same human daily needs and challenges, who is far less capable of managing them independently, but continues to put one foot in front of the other almost forces you to pause and reflect.
These moments invite you to step back. Step back from your own perspective and become fully present to the truth of someone else’s reality. Appreciating someone else’s experience inherently helps you appreciate your own. While I am still uncertain as to exactly what makes these moments and interactions so powerful, I’ve experienced their effect on countless occasions.
Just to clarify, Gillian didn’t magically cure Tanya of violent outburst and unsafe behavior. I am not arguing that all interactions with people with developmental disabilities automatically result in significant social exchanges. But I will say being in the presence of someone who is less able to meet his or her individual needs always provides you with an opportunity to pause, reflect and appreciate. Once again, the ability to evoke personal reflection is something I call a gift.
It brings you back to reality when your mind is racing, puts your own challenges into perspective as well as enhance empathy and appreciation for yourself and others. Personal changes won’t necessarily be immediate or last forever, but I hypothesize that over time, if you continue to embrace opportunities to pause and appreciate, your own challenges will be less potent and more manageable. At least that’s my current prediction. It’s also my hope that I have given you an opportunity to pause, reflect and appreciate your individual abilities. I encourage you to use these gifts wherever you are, school, home and every space in between.