Patience And Understanding: Working With Special Needs Kids
Reframing Words, Revisiting Expectations
I sometimes forget that not everyone has had experience working with kids with special needs.
It's not as though my experiences have been vast, but as an educator, I've dealt with kids with a wide spectrum of cognitive, developmental and physical needs, and to say I've learned something from each student would be an understatement. There were days where I had to remind myself that the student was quite unlike anyone else I would have had in my classroom - and that's as it should be, as each student is quite unique in their needs throughout any given school year.
I am, however, a teacher in a "regular" classroom; generally speaking, I might have a handful of kids who have a range of learning, social or even mental health challenges. I view my colleagues who work with special needs kids - kids with autism, or more profound physical or cognitive challenges, for instance - as heroes, as the patience and understanding for their young charges and for themselves seems endless.
The other day, my oldest was doing some work with a youth who had special needs. I'm uncertain what this youth's exact needs were, and really, it doesn't matter. The point is, my oldest was working with this youth, and when all was said and done and when my oldest was heading home, it was clear they felt a bit frustrated by the experience. I didn't quite get the reasons behind the frustration, at first; I had dipped out for a coffee and hadn't seen the class, though I had seen the student in question and recognized that it was possible the student had special needs, as I had seen the student before and recognized there was possibly some cognitive or physical issues at play. However, in speaking with my oldest on the way home, I realized that the frustration was because she felt as though she hadn't been successful in working with her young charge.
This was an unusual experience for my oldest, as generally speaking, kids are very responsive to her and seem to genuinely enjoy working with her. She was unaccustomed to working with a youth who did not seem to "get" what she was trying to do and felt as though she hadn't been doing something right.
It was a conversation that left me a bit confused as to exactly what to say to my oldest, who was clearly disheartened by her experience. After a few minutes, though, I realized that while my oldest had previously worked with kids with special needs on occasion, at 13 years old, she was still learning herself how to help kids with unique needs. At 13 years old, my oldest is still working on being patient with herself when she feels something hasn't quite gone as she has wanted it to go.
She knew, deep down, that this youth was having issues understanding, but she hadn't yet learned, largely due to her own lack of experience working with special needs kids, how to reframe what was being expected so this youth would understand. I tried to explain that sometimes, it was a matter of simplifying how an expectation was worded, as happens on occasion with her when she doesn't understand something. Sometimes, it's a matter of physically demonstrating what's expected and then asking the student to directly copy what she's doing.
My oldest and I had a pretty good conversation, in the long run, about adapting expectations for individuals who have special needs, as sometimes how expectations are framed need revisiting. We talked about the importance of keeping requests simple and we discussed things like remembering to breathe when she feels as though she's not understanding how to work with someone with special needs.
Working with someone with special needs can be frustrating at times, as there might be a conflict with what you expect and what they are capable of doing. There might be issues with understanding, or with language, or simply with physical ability, and in reality, the only thing any one of us can do is manage our patience and our understanding of what each person is capable of doing.
It's not a matter of right or wrong. It's a matter of patience, understanding yourself and the other person, and compassion. No one ever said it's easy, but working with people with special needs can result in some of the biggest rewards life has to offer.
It just takes time - and we can all afford a little of that.