The power of believing in children

Today’s guest author is Amy Welch.  Amy is a paraprofessional who has experience working with students on the Autism spectrum and those with behavior disorders. A lot of what she does with her students comes from her own personal experiences with her son. She was forced to become a well-educated advocate for him after facing some ill-informed teachers early in his school years. Seeing first hand what was happening in schools, Amy shifted from a career in design to education so she could advocate for students who were having similar challenges.

When I was first starting my career in education, I was substituting at an elementary school. Off the side of the gym was what I would call an airlock type room where there was an exit to the street, a space about 5-6’ square and another door that led into the gym. This was the “Cool-down room”. The walls were concrete, there was nothing safe about the space at all. 

In the course of a day, I watched one child be brought to this space, literally kicking and screaming, multiple times and his aide sat outside the interior door and waited for the screaming to stop. She remained silent the entire time, and when he was quiet, she would take him to the bathroom, the fountain, and then return to class. For all I could see, there was zero discussion with this child about what had happened, and how to stop it from continuing. 

Then the day came I got a call to work with him. Not knowing what was bringing on the behavior I had witnessed, I asked the teacher. She wasn’t sure of the causes but warned me to be cautious about working with him as he’d hurt a few adults during the course of the year. She wasn’t saying it in a way that was disrespectful or anything, but out of concern for me and him – given that I was new and he wasn’t very trusting. (No surprise having seen what I saw.) 

Before lunch that day, I had already noticed his “tells”. I would see his body language change, see his posture stiffen, and his voice become more mumbled and soft. I had not had to leave the room with him at all, but I thought this has to be it every time.

I would quietly lean into his shoulder and ask him in a whisper if he needed to go for a walk or take a break. He would instantly look at me, relax and say no.

He asked me for help, completed assignments and took part in class. At the end of the day, still incident free, students were asking me how come he didn’t get in trouble that day. It broke my heart. My reply was always the same, why would he get in trouble for trying to learn? The teacher asked me what my secret was because it was the first day all year he had remained in class the entire time. I looked at her and said, I did what I did with my own child. I asked him if he needed help or wanted a break when I saw he was getting upset. She was stunned that it was all it took. I told her that maybe it was a fluke, but it wouldn’t hurt to try it more often. I don’t know how often it did, but I know that when I came across that little boy from time to time as a sub, he responded positively. 

By the time he got to middle school, I was working full time in the school. He remembered me right away and quickly became one of my “projects”. He grew so much that year, and teachers wondered how I did it, given that his file was filled with discipline reports, warnings from teachers, and a BIP that involved restraint, seclusion, and suspensions. He never had a major issue that whole year. I became his BIP. If he wasn’t where I was but needed out, we came up with an agreement with his teachers that he gave them “the sign” and he would quietly get up, leave the room and find me. He’d vent for a couple of minutes as we walked the long way back to his class, we would high five, and I’d remind him that he was in control of how he responded to his stressors and assured him he could keep it together. 

He believed me more than he believed in himself, but as he prepared to graduate, he and I ran into each other and he was quick to thank me for always letting him do what he needed to do and listening to him. He said I was the reason he had made it to finish school. I told him he was the reason he made it. He was the one who did all the work. He was the one who proved everyone who doubted him wrong. He had learned by talking to me what he needed and how to get it the right way. He just needed someone to believe he could do it and make him believe it to.

That kid has 2 memories from school. One of being locked in a room alone a lot and one of being seen as a human-being. He uses them both now to keep things in perspective. We need to remember these are kids. We need to remember that what we say and do to them sticks with them – for life.

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