No! No! Don’t!

by | Jun 8, 1998 | Love, Persistence

When the Principal approached me and told me I was to have Christopher in my class my heart dropped. Christopher had been at our school for three and a half years and was the most challenging pupil his teachers had tried to teach. I say “tried to teach” because although Christopher was rarely absent from school no teacher had ever been able to relate to him. No one had been able to coax him to take part in class lessons, group times, games or any other activity requiring him to relate to others. No adult or child had been able tom break through the barriers he had built around himself.

Doctors had labeled him “Intellectually Disabled”. Psychiatrists and Psychologists had labeled him “Autistic”. Teachers had labeled him “Challenging”. His family had labeled him “Just Chris.” Other children had labeled him “Weird”. Now I was to have this weird, intellectually disabled, challenging, autistic eight-year-old in my class.

Over the summer break I thought much about Chris. I read as many books about Autism that I could find. I reviewed my college notes on “intellectually disabled” students. I revisited my lecture notes from a professional development course I had undertaken on “Challenging Behaviors in the Regular Classroom”. My head was spinning with ideas, thoughts, strategies, and yet I could not focus. Finally, I decided to wait and see. Just wait and see how Chris would react in my class. A new class, new classmates and a new teacher may make some difference.

Unfortunately Chris was not the only child with problems I was to have that year. Katherine would also be there. Katherine had major emotional problems relating to an abusive father. I knew this year was going to be different in many ways and would certainly stretch my teaching skills.

Interestingly, although Chris took no part in class lessons, group times or even individual times with a teacher, he managed to learn. In fact, he had done very well in all the academic areas. No one knew quite how to handle Chris. Some days he would venture away from his desk and read the display boards. Some days he would sit on the edge of a group and watch them working together on some task. But always, if approached, he would scamper back to his desk and often under it. Perhaps the most difficult thing about Chris was that he did not speak. He had never spoken a word at home or school. The other children found this strange and it was understandable that they withdrew from trying to include Chris after a few weeks of seeming to be ignored.

As I considered the very special needs of Chris, and Katherine, I recalled reading about the benefits of a pet for children in crisis. One day I smuggled a cute little bundle of fluff named “Rusty” into our room. Rusty was a tiny Maltese cross puppy. I had my story ready if the Principal caught me –“Oh, I am bringing him in regularly to weigh and measure”. I was hoping if I labored the point from an educational view it would get me permission to keep Rusty in our classroom. After much talking, permission was granted for a “trial period”. To this day I’m not sure who was on trial!

The children drew up a roster showing who was responsible for Rusty each day. Someone would feed him, another would walk him, and another would train him to go outside. My only stipulation was that everyone in the class must have a turn at each task.

On the first day Chris was to take part the children watched him cautiously. Not they, nor I, were sure how he would cope with this task. However, we were all pleasantly surprised. Chris carefully carried out his duty. Over the following weeks Chris and Rusty became firm friends. Rusty would often snuggle up to Chris or sit at his feet.

A few weeks later a deputation of students approached me. “Miss G. we know you said everyone had to have a turn looking after Rusty but we think Chris should take him out every lunch time because he, (Chris), has no one else to play with.” So the roster was changed. I was anxious to see what would happen when children from other classes ran up to pat Rusty. I must admit to being a little concerned for both Chris and Rusty. I could just see Rusty taking off in one direction and Chris in the other so I `staked out’ around the corner and watched on.

The strain was obvious on Chris’ face as he held tightly onto the lead and tried not to look at the other children. He would let one or two children pat Rusty and then run off behind the bushes for a few minutes and then venture out again. Slowly, ever so slowly, Chris began to relax with Rusty and his hiding behind the bushes became less frequent.

One day it became obvious Rusty was not well. He didn’t want to eat and just lay on the floor without taking much notice of the children at all. I too was concerned, so that night I took Rusty to the Vet. Rusty had eaten something that had caused his problems. I must confess that I was more than a little concerned. How would the children react if Rusty could no longer come to school? How would they react if he were to die? Then I felt guilty. If anything happened to Rusty how could Katherine and Chris react. Had all this been a bad idea? Would it push them back into their private emotions? Would they be worse that before?

After a week of treatment, including two nights in hospital, Rusty was able to come back to school! However, with strict instructions that no one was to feed him anything other that his specially prescribed food.

On his first day back Rusty enjoyed running around the yard with Chris. They both made their way across the yard to the area set aside for reading and other quiet activities. As they were sitting at a picnic table one of the younger children offered Rusty a piece of his sandwich.

“NO! NO! DON’T”! Shouted Chris. He jumped up suddenly, leaving the little boy crying. Just at that moment I came around the corner. Tears streamed down my face as I watched Chris put his arm around the little boy and gently say “It’s OK you didn’t know, but Rusty can’t eat that. It might make him sick.”

I was not alone in my crying. The other teachers who were watching from the staff room window had tears too. Chris’ Mum and Dad cried, when told of the incident. I wish I had had a camera and had been able to take a picture of the faces of the other children too.

That was the turning point for Chris. His parents bought him his own “Rusty”. He would spend hours in the library reading about dogs. The first project Chris ever completed was about dogs. Sure, Chris still had problems relating to others. He still rarely involved himself in class activities and felt anxious around other people, but the barrier was beginning to be lowered and Chris began to emerge from his own little world.

What did this experience teach me?

Most importantly not to give up on any child no matter how challenging they may appear. Don’t become overwhelmed with labels and diagnoses made by other professionals. Just be yourself, be creative and let each child open themselves up to you in their own time and in their own way. Try to see behind the obvious, presenting behaviors to the roots of the child’s problem. Be patient and allow each child, those labeled “challenging” or those who always behave “normally”, to open up and share a little of themselves to you as their teacher and to each other as peers.

After all, teaching is far more than teaching the three R’s. Isn’t it?

Lynne Graham (Melbourne, Australia) grahamlc@ozemail.com.au

I have been a teacher in Melbourn, Australia for nearly 25 years now. I also taught in India and Bangladesh for some time.

I have qualifications in Special Education and am currently working as a teacher of the Deaf. I travel around visiting children with hearing impairment who are presently mainstreamed. I have always enjoyed the challenge of teaching children with special needs — perhaps more in the area of emotional behavioral problems.

Rusty is still with me and enjoys spending time with my nieces and nephews and the little boy next door. He was so lonely when I finished teaching full time and could no longer take him to school, that I invested in a cat. So now it’s Rusty, Oscar, and me in our little home.

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No! No! Don’t!

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