I first met Eliza when she was in second grade. I volunteered in her classroom. Sandy was a teacher assigned to help include her in the class. I had very little contact with Eliza; I tried to reach out to her, but she seemed to have problems that were beyond me. She seemed very intense – never smiled, and didn’t seem to like being talked to. My approach to children, as much as possible, is to let them define our relationships. I do set limits when necessary, but at first, I find it effective to let children tell me who they are and what their limits are.
Eliza’s limits seemed to be most of who she was. She didn’t seem to want to play with other people, talk with other people, or relate in any other way. She did talk with Sandy, but she stayed in from recess and avoided other social settings as much as she could. Sandy seemed to be her one link with people. I was curious about Eliza, but I sensed that the best thing to do was to just let her know I was available as a friend, and that’s all I did throughout her second grade year.
Eliza went to a different school for third grade, and then I met her again when I volunteered in the special needs summer school. She seemed like an entirely different person. She smiled when she saw me, and she ran up and hugged adults she knew better. When the teacher asked for volunteers to give answers, read, or tell about themselves, more often than not, Eliza’s hand shot up – sometimes the only hand up. I was amazed by the dramatic difference in Eliza.
She had a different teacher, Pam, assigned to her, and my first impulse was to give the Pam credit for the change in Eliza. Pam probably deserves some of the credit, but Sandy, who had worked with Eliza until the end of second grade, had probably helped to lay the foundation for what happened to Eliza. And I don’t know who else deserves credit. For example, I don’t know to what degree and in what ways Eliza had solved her own problems.
Many children come to school with problems. Many of these problems are diagnosed and labelled. For example, Eliza had been diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome. I admire and respect the people who have studied these problems and found strategies that help children with special needs. I have only had marginal exposure to the various special needs children have; I’ve worked mostly in regular classrooms, with children whose issues are fairly mainstream.
But it’s nice to know that there are specialists who know more about children’s special needs, and who know about strategies that have proven to be successful. I’m quite impressed that Eliza, a child who once seemed as if she was never going to connect with other people, now does.