Some Books for Help with Special Students

Question 1

I was aiding at a school where a student’s parents were in denial about their child’s disabilities. It was obvious there was a disability present and the student was in a special education classroom. Their reason for him being there, despite their denial of a disability, was to have him tested to see if he performed beyond the demands of the curriculum. How do you deal with parents on a touchy topic such as their child’s disabilities when they are in denial?

I am wondering if, as a teacher’s aide, you had as much access to information about the situation as did the teacher. Assuming that the teacher had all the information, was she free to share it with you? Were you involved in any conferences with the parents? Regardless, I read in your question the concern for handling a situation as a future teacher, where you feel parents are in denial of a situation.

I just reread a book where such a situation occurred. Mary Callahan relates her story in Fighting for Tony. Hers is a difficult journey even though, as a registered nurse, she had connections to the medical field. With her baby crying incessantly, she sought many medical opinions, only to come away with the idea that those in the medical profession thought of her as a nervous and overanxious mother. By two years of age, Tony was diagnosed with autism. Through her own research, she looked for treatments different from those suggested by the medical profession, while trying to be careful not to alienate herself from them. The arrival of a second child eighteen months after Tony made her realize how Tony responded differently from her baby girl Renee. She also soon realized that Renee was determined to communicate with him.

Tony was not readily accepted in educational settings and yearly testing revealed disheartening lags in development even when the parents felt like progress was being made. Callahan writes of one attempt to register him at school:

I saw no benefit in painting a pretty picture only to have him kicked out of another school. I told it the way it was. We both looked at Tony, sweet-faced as ever, blowing madly into the palm of his hand. “I’d love to take him,” she said . . . From the day Tony started school there, he was treated like royalty. Every teacher he had in the three years he would attend was like an old-fashioned grandmother. Not that the teachers were old and gray, but they had that irrational love which makes parents and grandparents hang on every accomplishment as if it were the discovery of penicillin. His teachers handled things the way I wanted them handled, and there was never a conflict. They felt privileged to be working with Tony, and I felt the same way about them (99–100).

Although Tony functioned well in that setting, testing prior to grade school indicated that “his brain is damaged. The messages he receives through his eyes and ears are jumbled. It’s not correctable. He’ll have to be in a special classroom” (162). Tony’s parents chose not to reveal the testing results to the school upon registration because those results were not requested. In time, Callahan discovered that Tony’s real problem was a “cerebral allergy to milk” and not autism. At the time of the writing of the book, Tony was a star pupil in his fourth-grade class.

This was an amazing, moving story of a determined mother. As I read it, I thought of the parents who come to school wishing and pleading that their child be given a chance in an atmosphere where the love of Christ is supposed to permeate all our actions. I know the job of teachers is not an easy one, but this book is an eye-opener into the other side of the story. I recall conferences with parents grieving the loss of their child’s “normal” future, struggling with decisions that had to be made, knowing full well that they had to be the advocate for their child. James 1:5 says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” That is what we have to do, both personally and communally, as we serve with a heart of compassion. The book was worth reading again.

Question 2

I am teacher aiding in a resource room for children grades 1–5. The few times I have been there, there is a child that always seems to get into trouble. He fights with other children and has been sent to the principal’s office repeatedly. He has outbursts, and can’t seem to sit in his seat for more than five minutes at a time. Do you have any advice for me or even for the classroom teacher, and do you have any ideas with what we can do/say to the child to make him behave?

Helga taught me first to begin where the child is. Never assume—always find out. In more academic language this means diagnose, teach, diagnose, and teach. Never go blindly on from lesson plan to lesson plan (138).

I read this advice in a series of books by Mary MacCracken many years ago. Her first book was A Circle of Children, followed by Lovey and City Kid. I read these books in the early part of my teaching career and they were one of the influences that affected the way I worked with the children who came into my class and those who came to my office when I became a principal/administrator. Her writing made me consider: Why is the child acting this way or what is preventing the child from learning? Her language is sometimes graphic and at times even profane, but it reflected the reality of the situations she faced.

MacCracken began her educational career as a teacher’s aide to Helga, a teacher who appeared to have a rough exterior, but portrayed a heart of gold inside. Mary writes:

There was about Helga such a strong sense of living, of vitality, that as she came into bodily contact with a child—rocking him, holding him from attacking himself or others, kissing him, pushing him—her vitality, her excitement, her desire of life were almost visibly transferred to the child. She could not have told me any of this herself; she was totally absorbed in her work, in her children—so much so that even at the end of the day, if someone had asked her to describe what methods or techniques she had used to solve a problem, she would not have been able to relate what she had done. She would never even have tolerated the words “methods” and “techniques”; she was a totally natural therapeutic teacher … Helga had achieved a freedom, a sense of joy (17–18).

As I read these books, I saw a teacher who taught children—not a classroom, and not a textbook. Individual students needed individual approaches, and not all children fared well with one approach. The books demonstrate many ways curriculum content can be taught, and the more creative a teacher became, the more students were reached. The relationship between a teacher and a student is something built on trust, and that trust doesn’t just happen. It grows out of respect for the student and understanding what is happening in the student’s life. It grows out of communication, which involves listening not only to the words that are spoken, but also to what is behind the words. It takes skill, patience, and love to communicate effectively.

So in answer to your question, consider the following: observe the student carefully and try to analyze what triggers the outbursts. Is it something that happened before school? Does it happen with one particular person or in one particular circumstance? Use a loving understanding and nonjudgmental manner to get him to talk. Ask about his home life. Connect with him when he does something positive, not only when his behavior may be negative. Consider the effect that going to the office may have on him. There may be a physical or neurologic reason that prevents him from sitting still for more than five minutes. Experiment with the student sitting on a big ball. The ball can help to stabilize the child, and I have seen positive effects on attention span when I have used them. The ball is also is quieter than the noisy scraping of a chair. Love him for who he is, and try not to judge him for what he does. He is a child of God just as is every other child, and therefore deserves love, respect, understanding, forgiveness, and the right to start over again.

Works Cited

  • Callahan, Mary. Fighting for Tony. New York: Simon and Schuster/Fireside Books, 1987.
  • MacCracken, Mary. A Circle of Children. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1973.