Think about a time when you were truly excited and engaged in learning. Were you inspired? Curious? Surprised? Intrigued? Perhaps it was simply the palpable JOY from the teacher. When someone is passionate about teaching, learning and belief in the learners – that joy becomes contagious!
During the S2C Practitioner training course, we discuss pedagogy – the practice of teaching and what kind of educator the student practitioners hope to become, how will the practitioners engage nonspeakers in meaningful and interactive learning while they are learning the requisite motor skills to point to spell on the letterboards. One of my favorite resources for thinking about joyful teaching is Rita Pierson’s TED Talk, Every Kid Needs a Champion. Take 7 minutes and watch this video. I promise you will be glad you did!
Now that you’ve watched Rita let’s discuss some of the many takeaways as applied to nonspeaking spellers and typers.
Spellers don’t learn from people they don’t like. Despite the persistent old story that nonspeaking people don’t understand emotion and relationships (sigh), we have found nonspeakers demonstrate the polar opposite. Spellers tend to be human BS detectors and are not only highly sensitive to the emotional state of others, they can spot a phony a mile away. If you work with nonspeaking kids or adults as a teacher, educator, therapist, CRP (Communication Regulation Partner), caregiver, or practitioner – you need to genuinely and authentically like them, or they will see right through your facade. This is not a relationship you can fake your way through.
Seek first to understand. If you pay attention, you will quickly see that nonspeaking people have plenty to communicate – with and without a letterboard. Be quiet. Observe. Wait. Listen. Nonspeakers have taught me more than any book, any training, and years of education. If a nonspeaking person does not have a means of communication – watch her eyes, watch the body, what is she doing, what is she bringing or leading you to? If the nonspeaking person has some means of AAC (Augmentative and Alternative Communication – like a letterboard, keyboard, device, app, or picture cards) give the time and space for him to spell or use AAC. Our job is not to interpret the message – it is to receive the message. Those of us who are talkers are good at talking. We need to learn to listen.
Apologize. Own your mistakes, acknowledge them, and apologize. As educators, therapists, practitioners, parents, and friends, an apology goes a long way toward building a trusting relationship. An added benefit of apologizing is that it encourages spellers and typers to be ok with their own mistakes. Many of the nonspeakers I have worked with over the years have error-induced trauma and become anxious or dysregulated when they make a mistake. That makes sense if you have had years of therapy and experience with only getting the good stuff when you are correct. Give yourself and nonspeakers permission to be wrong with confidence!!
Regulate before you educate. Rita describes how her mother, who was also a teacher, kept washcloths, combs, and snacks in her desk for students. Before a speller is ready to start the lesson and exert cognitive and motor energy, we have to consider what needs need to be met first. We often refer to this as regulation needs. What are the physiological and emotional needs of the speller? Is the speller hot/cold, sick, hungry, or tired? (Are you? The CRP’s physiological state matters too!) How can you help co-regulate? Will engaging the body through purposeful motor help? We need to consider emotional regulation too. Anxious, giddy, angry, sad, stressed, and exhilarated are all emotions that can affect motor and learning. COVID-19 has taught us that you have to Maslow before you Bloom – meet the student’s needs so they can learn!
Photo credit: Greg Mullen
Celebrate with Sincerity. I am acutely aware of how hard spellers are working in their sessions. Find ways to celebrate the effort, energy and sheer determination it takes for nonspeakers to get their brains and bodies to work in synchrony to accomplish new tasks and achieve their goals. Pierson talks about giving a student who missed 18 out of 20 a +2 and a smiley face “because -18 sucks all the life out of you.” I think of Fezzik in The Princess Bride when he tells Wesley, “You wiggled your fingers. That’s wonderful! You’ve been mostly dead all day!” (WHAT??! You haven’t seen Princess Bride?? Stop reading and go watch it now!). Although it is important to celebrate the small victories, these should be actual valiant efforts and achievements. Let’s move away from clapping, high-fiving, and good jobbing ad nauseum for everyday activities that have long been mastered. Our spellers frequently tell us that they don’t need to be high-fived for completing usual routines. Praise should never be patronizing.
Strut your stuff. Pierson talked about giving her students a mantra, “I am somebody, I was somebody when I came here, I’ll be a better somebody when I leave.”This is the essence of presuming competence – students can and want to learn. Take presuming competence a step further – I accept you as you are. I will help you accomplish what you want to accomplish. Be proud of every little step – we are all a work in progress. Over time, I have come to see myself not so much as a clinician or practitioner but as a sherpa. I am along for the journey, helping carry the heavy stuff when needed and encouraging when the journey gets tough. My mantra is, We Do Hard Things! What’s yours?
Every nonspeaking person deserves a champion. In S2C, our policy is that we never turn any nonspeakers away. Communication is a fundamental human need and right. Nonspeakers have nothing to prove to “earn” our belief and commitment. We celebrate effort. We encourage taking risks. Mistakes mean you are embracing challenges. Your goals are our goals. No matter how challenging, no matter how many stumbles, no matter how long it takes, we believe in you and are not giving up on you! Together, we do hard things.
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