Thursday, July 10, 2014

Building Community in the Classroom

They were going to be the class of my dreams! I read over my new class list once more and beamed. They were all sweet pumpkin pies with glorious test scores and supportive parents! And then...something happened that would change everything! The principal asked to see me. She said that she needed to add another inclusion classroom to 2nd grade and I had been selected for that assignment. This would require some significant changes to my class roster. Neither one of us knew at the time just how many changes this decision would bring. Word travels fast in a small, rural community. Soon, parents were calling and asking to have their child transferred out of my room. They had heard that my room would include kids with special needs and they wanted their sweet pumpkin pie away from that kind of environment. It's ugly, but it's true, friends. My revised list looked nothing like how I had envisioned this year's group, but they would become my favorite class of all time.

Even before I met any of my students, the meetings started. I had meetings with advocates, DFACS, IEP teams, psychologists, and medical teams. My special needs students were well represented. Their every need was covered, but there weren't any meetings about how to prepare the rest of my class. How was I supposed to really "include" everyone in my inclusion class? How was I supposed to train them to react to medical issues, violent outbursts, or frustrating behaviors when they occurred? Well, I would like to share some of my discoveries with you. Some of them, I stumbled upon in a crisis. Others the kids themselves taught me. You may not be an inclusion teacher, but I would be willing to bet that you will have at least one child with special needs of some kind in your upcoming class. 

1. Heads Down/Eyes on Books  I didn't have to use this one much, but it worked when I needed it. The class and I talked briefly about how you would not want to have someone staring at you if you were having a seizure or were crying. We used this strategy for those times when a quiet, respectful environment was needed, but they weren't in any danger. We practiced it a few times when our special friends were out of the room. Then, one day, a child in our room with leukemia felt faint and could not walk to the clinic. All I said was, "Heads down. Eyes on Books." The kids grabbed their independent reading books from their desks, put their heads down on their desks, and silently focused all of their attention onto the books. Administration and the medical team arrived and were able to remove the child from class in a manner that protected his dignity. The team returned later to brag on how well the class behaved during a crisis. The students absolutely beamed!

2. Emergency Exit There were a couple of times when the classroom was no longer a safe environment. Again, this is occasionally the reality of  life with special needs children. An exit plan should be put in place. We had rehearsed this scenario in advance, too. So, one day, out of the blue, when a typically docile autistic student suddenly threw a chair. I only said to the class, "Emergency exit, please". They immediately lined up at the door farthest from the upset child, filed into the hall, and sat against the wall outside of our room. A designated student alerted the teacher across the hall. She called for back up and monitored my class until help could arrive. Things returned to normal quickly and no one was in harm's way. 

3. The Buddy System  This was one was a huge help with children with medical issues! For their protection, they could not go anywhere (media center, clinic, even the restroom) unaccompanied. The nurse met with a few other students and enlisted their help. She taught them how to tell if these students needed help and to how to find an adult if they saw any reason for alarm. To protect the students' feelings, they were not aware of our buddy system. David thought it was just a coincidence that Jacob needed to use the restroom, see the nurse, or return a library book at the same time that he did. Jacob, however, felt like a superhero with a secret identity! 

4. Our Secret Signal This one may be the best idea I ever had! While I did not violate any student's confidentiality or rights, we did have some frank discussions about possible disruptive behaviors they may observe and how to handle them. If this wasn't addressed, the classroom environment could quickly deteriorate and tattling could reach epidemic proportions. So, we instituted a secret signal. Our signal had three parts. I held up my finger to form the number one, placed it over my heart, and then lifted it up to my lips. Our signal meant, "This is one of those things that he/she cannot control. Act with love from your heart. Keep quiet." Here is a quick example that happened in my room that year. 
Child 1: We need to start work on this center now.
Child 2 (with Tourette Syndrome and OCD): I can't start until I do 25 jumping jacks.
Child 1: What? I'm going to tell...
Me: secret signal
Child 1 (winks and nods at me): Never mind. I understand. I will get us set up while you finish your jumping jacks.

That is the extent of the training that I gave them. The rest of the lessons were ones that they taught me. You may have heard people say, "Children can be so cruel." That is true. They can. So can adults. Like adults, they can also be remarkably kind! Here are just three of the many stories from that revolutionary year that will forever warm my heart! 

David had leukemia. All of his hair had fallen out and he had to wear a toboggan when his head got cold. I hadn't noticed his embarrassment about being the only one in class wearing a hat, but the little girl seated across from him did. So, one day, when he slid his hat over his head, he looked up and smiled because Megan was wearing a toboggan, too. No words were exchanged-- just smiles. The next day, their whole table was wearing toboggans. Soon, everyone in class was sporting toboggans. It just took the kindness of one observant little girl to bring about a dramatic change to our classroom. 

Andy had a rare form of muscular dystrophy. Due to his large, electric wheelchair, need for a high table, and space for additional staff, he had to sit in the back of the classroom. One day, I was approached by Tim (w/ ADHD) who wanted a favor. He said, "Can I maybe move to the back of the room with Andy? I think I could concentrate better back there and I could keep him company." I agreed to give it a try. They created such a bond with each other. Andy helped to keep Tim on task. Tim picked up anything Andy dropped and turned in his work for him. It was almost a symbiotic relationship. Then, Andy had to have surgery. He would not return for at least six weeks. I offered to let Tim return to a table closer to the front. He thought about it for a moment and declined. He said, "I would feel better staying back here. I am just going to save his seat until he comes back." I wish you could have seen Andy's face when he rolled back into class and Tim said, "You're back, buddy! I've been waiting for you!"

Tristen was autistic. He would only talk about Transformers. He never made eye contact with others. He talked to himself at lunch. The other children tended to avoid him. Then, thanks to a boy named Henry something miraculous happened. Henry was an amazing athlete. He was one of my top students. He wore the latest styles. He even had cool hair. The girls stared at him. The boys wanted to be like him. One day at lunch, Tristen put his hands over his ears and started rocking back and forth. That's when Henry noticed that some kids from another class were laughing at Tristen. Henry picked up his lunchbox and moved right next to Tristen. They didn't speak to each other. They just sat together and ate their lunches in silence. The next day, Henry sat next to Tristen again. This time, Henry's best friend tagged along. Before the end of the week, the entire "cool" table had relocated to Tristen's table. Henry sought out every opportunity to act in kindness towards Tristen. At field day that year, our class was finishing up our turn at the jump rope event. All of the other students had had their turn except for one--Tristen. The parents and their children were starting to move on to the next event. Then, they heard one solitary voice cheering, "Come on, Tristen! You can do it, buddy! Keep going!" Of course, it was Henry. The kids all dropped their water bottles and came running back to help. Seventeen children cheered while Tristen smiled and awkwardly jumped rope. I looked up and saw tears streaming down Tristen's mom's face. Henry's mom cried and walked over to hug her.  That is the moment that solidified their standing as my favorite class of all time. Were they what I expected? NO! Were there hard days? More than a few! I may have learned more from them than they learned from me that year. The lessons of friendship and community last. Community can't be forced. It reminds me of tending a flower garden. You have to provide the right environment. Model patience and acceptance. Put safety procedures in place. Then, watch it flourish. You may find extraordinary blooms in unexpected places. 

At the close of this past school year, I attended my daughter's awards ceremony at the middle school. Tristen's name was called out for an award. He walked to the center of the gym floor and proceeded to bow multiple times. Some students and adults ignorantly snickered, but above their attempts to suppress  their giggles, I heard loud clapping and a voice I would know anywhere call out, "WAY TO GO, TRISTEN!"  My eyes welled with tears and I whispered, "You tell 'em, Henry!" 


  1. Beautiful. I too teach second grade inclusion, and have for the past ten years, minus one in between somewhere. I learn the most, I think!

    1. Thanks, Kathy! I only left inclusion when a full time RtI position opened up at my school. So, I still get to work with my favorite kiddos! Kids do have so much to teach us!

  2. Thanks for posting. I'll be using the Secret Signal this year.

    1. You are so welcome! I am glad that you found something useful. I hope it will be beneficial in your classroom this year!

  3. This story was amazing. Thanks for sharing. Your ideas for helping your students understand each other and how to be an inclusive community are wonderful.

    1. Thanks, Joanna! I am so glad that you enjoyed this post and found some useful ideas! I appreciate your sweet comment!

  4. This. It brought tears to my eyes. I’ve got to save this one and reference it as I enter this next school year teaching second for the first time. Thank you so much.
    Windows Into My Classroom

    1. I am so glad that you enjoyed it! I hope you have a blessed school year!