Patience – it is the single greatest thing needed when working with a-typical learners. And, it is probably the skill most likely to desert us when we need it the most.
First, and foremost, we need to have patience with our students. That should be a given, but, sadly, is often not the case. Somewhere in there, we forget a couple of key things: (1) they (most of the time) are not purposely trying to annoy us; (2) they’re still learning; and (3) they’re still kids.
It is easy to believe that students enjoy bugging us, that they purposely set out to make our lives more difficult. In some cases that might be true, but that brings us to another kind of teachable moment, where we and work with the student to understand where their need to elicit that kind of response comes from, and to channel that into a more productive means of behaviour. However, in the case of a-typical learners, at least in my experience, that isn’t usually the case. Most of the students I’ve worked with have had at least a few very, very annoying moments. Some even to the point where the best course of action was for me to walk away before I did or said something I would regret. Once I got a bit of distance between myself and the students in question, I realized that they weren’t actively trying to annoy me – they had a need to talk, to express themselves, and their need to do so was, to them, greater than my need for them to be quiet at the time. Thinking about it like that helped me to put it in perspective, and to go back and work with them to come up with a mutually beneficial solution – like a limit on a particular topic of conversation, or them being able to go outside for a few minutes to burn off the excess energy that led to excessive talking. If a student is engaging in a behaviour you find particularly annoying, there is generally a reason why. Recognizing that leads to teachable moments, which brings me to my next point.
Students are still learning. That’s why they’re in school. And, they’re not just there for academics – they’re there to learn social and emotional skills as well. Who better to help them with that than us? With atypical learners, what I have found over the years is that they don’t understand a lot of social interactions the way most of us do, and often need some guidance as to what behaviour is appropriate and what isn’t. Once they understand, they are able to put those skills into practice. This may be explaining to them that particular topics are not appropriate for conversation, or that things like talking over other students isn’t the best way to be included in a conversation. I had a student who, whenever he needed to talk, he would. He had to say whatever was on his mind, or it became very emotionally uncomfortable for him. This resulted in him butting into conversations, talking over his peers, and interrupting on a regular basis. Over time, with gentle reminders, and some strategies in place, he is able to join in conversations, interject thoughts in a way that invites others into discussion, and manages how long he speaks for, rather than monopolizing the conversation. All he needed was some guidance and a chance to practice the skill. It wasn’t an overnight success, but patience paid off, and he is feeling better among his peers, and feels like he is being heard.
Sometimes, we forget that our students are still kids. We expect them to behave like completely rational human beings, and act/think the way we do. Yeah, that’s not the case. Think of yourself as a teenager. Most likely you are not the same now that you were then. Teenage you probably made a few (or more) decisions that adult you looks back and says “what were you thinking?”. Our students are currently like teenage you, but haven’t had the luxury of reflecting on their choices yet. What we are looking at as them pushing our buttons , is them trying to figure things out. Patience – it took you a while to get where you are. Give your students that time as well, and, in the case of atypical learners, that might take a little bit longer..
Beyond being patient with your students, you need to be patient with yourself. I’ve said this before, and will continue to say it – we are human, we are going to make mistakes. Especially in the beginning. I have been working with atypical learners for the better part of a decade, and I still don’t get it right 100% of the time. Every student I’ve worked with is a little bit different. Some strategies work for multiple students, some only work for one, and it takes time to figure out the best way to best work with each student. You are going to make mistakes along the way. I do, and I usually feel pretty horrible about it at the time, but you know what? The kids are pretty forgiving. If you are able to say “Well, I messed up. How can we fix this so it doesn’t happen again?” they will help you come up with ideas. Kids are pretty quick to forgive if you can admit you made a mistake. If they aren’t going to be hard on you about it, why are you being hard on yourself?
Working with atypical learns requires patience, both for them and yourself. It may seem like it has deserted you at times, but if you take a step back, and consider that they are just kids, who want to learn and understand how to be better, and if you can see the same traits in yourself, it is much easier to have the patience needed to help these kids truly become great.
Coming Soon: Out of the Box Part 1