On the far end of Queens almost to the edge of Long Island, there is a small elementary school for students with special needs collocated with another public school. The school resides on the third floor, apart from the general education classrooms. It has its own bussing schedule, separate cafeteria hours, toileting times, and a constant stream of occupational, speech, movement and art teachers “pushing in” and “pulling out” to serve students with a rainbow of varying special needs ranging from Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) to Emotional Disturbance (ED). Zoom in on the cafeteria scene on any given day and one might find a child who screams incessantly the entire meal, several children with noise-cancelling earphones, students sitting on teachers’ laps, para-professionals helping students to eat, tears and tantrums, songs, and a continuous cacophony of commands from adults as they try to safely steer students through the meal process. Teachers at this school are dedicated, funny, creative, community-oriented, and also stretched to their limits with mounting bureaucratic pressures, evaluation measures, and understaffing issues. Students understand and many respond well to the routines and structures, but they also have reactions to what can feel like a chaotic environment. While there is regular interaction between adults and children, one thing that sets this scene apart from a cafeteria full of general education students is the lack of chatter and connection between the students themselves. It is this environment that I walked into once a week for the past ten weeks to coach a group of 3 teachers on how to implement Everyday Arts for Special Education (EASE) lessons and methodology in the classroom.
Now zoom in on one of those three classrooms, and onto a particular student whom I will call Eric. Eric has been through some exceptional challenges in his life and is classified as ED. He is one of the smartest and most charming students I know, but his emotions can turn on a dime and his mood can quickly switch from calm to angry. He is one of the class’s strongest leaders on a good day, and pulls the most focus on a bad day. He requires firm guidance but also a gentle approach with positive reinforcement of his strengths and successes. Throughout my ten weeks implementing the EASE program, I watched EASE principles and lessons support Eric to self-manage his emotions, find his footing as a leader in the class and make social connections with peers.
During our Greeting Ritual, I witnessed Eric relax into the routine of swaying, singing, and connecting with myself, other teachers and fellow students through hand and eye contact. He was often mesmerized by these few moments of individual acknowledgment and attention, was able to wait patiently for his turn, and stayed calm and attentive throughout. As we moved onto the Pass the Object activities, Eric flexed his imaginative capacities by humorously pretending that the object being passed (often a chalk board eraser) was a puppet, without modeling or prompting from adults. He was thrilled at the leadership role he had inadvertently stepped into as he watched other students follow his lead and play with the object in ways that mirrored his own. When we moved onto Pass a Clap, a more advanced version of the theatre game, Pass the Object, Eric insisted on leading the activity even though it wasn’t officially his turn. In the spirit of maintaining his engagement, and the EASE essential, “Know what’s important and let the rest go”, I passed the leadership to him. Eric led the activity by successfully approaching each individual student in the circle, politely asking for eye contact, and clapping in unison with his chosen friend. Not only that, but he was sensitive to the varying needs of each of his classmates – he was extra patient with those who required additional processing time, and gently guided the hands of those who needed physical prompting. He made a connection with each student and adult in the room. I truly couldn’t have done it better myself and was amazed at the socialization and connectivity between the students. Suddenly that noisy cafeteria of overwhelmed students and staff felt very far away, and a path to communication and socialization between students had been forged.
– Anneka Fagundes