How Responsive Classroom Strategies Supported a Child with Special Needs
Morning Meeting is about to start. With eye contact and a head nod, Wyatt chooses a friend to ring the chime that signals our gathering. We come together in record time. There is a feeling of anticipation as we silently watch Wyatt get his wheelchair positioned so that he can take his turn leading Morning Meeting.
Wyatt is a bright, cheerful third grader. He has a powerful will and a tremendous appetite for sharing learning and laughter with his classmates. He also has cerebral palsy, which has left him with very limited control of his muscles of movement and speech. When I learned that Wyatt would be in my class, I wondered and worried about finding ways to include him. Would the other children help him join their work groups? Would he be able to work and play as one of us?
I soon found my worries dissipating. Wyatt’s friends in Room 34 were taught to communicate with him by asking yes/no questions. They waited patiently for him to dip his chin for “yes” or turn his head to one side for “no.” Our classroom climate and practices reinforced the expectation that Wyatt would be a respected member of the group, and the children willingly made the small adjustments that enabled him to participate fully in classroom life.
Many things made Wyatt’s third grade year a successful one. His teachers and therapists found technologies to help him communicate and coached him in his social skills. His parents involved themselves in classroom life. Many of the students in Room 34 had known Wyatt since kindergarten and loved him for the endearing person that he is.
And the Responsive Classroom approach, with its emphasis on empathy, respect, and community, was another key element.
When Wyatt joined our class, I had been using the approach for ten years. During that year, I saw how Responsive Classroom teaching strategies supported all the other critical efforts aimed at helping Wyatt be a full member of the class. Morning Meeting, Academic Choice, and Rules and Logical Consequences were particularly useful.
From our first day of school together, Morning Meeting helped establish a climate in which every student could feel a sense of belonging and significance. This daily half-hour routine helped us function as a unit—working, playing, and learning together. Each meeting begins with a Greeting, in which every child receives a friendly, respectful salute. Next comes Sharing, designed to help every child know and be known by classmates. Over the course of every two weeks or so, all students get a turn at sharing some news, and sharers practice calling on different classmates for questions and comments. In Group Activity, the emphasis is again on cooperation so that everyone can participate. Finally, in News and Announcements, an important purpose is building community through shared written information.
With a warm smile, eye contact, and a voice “borrowed” from his DynaVox (a machine that played recorded phrases aloud when Wyatt pressed a control with his headpiece), Wyatt participated in all parts of our Morning Meeting. For example, silently passing the Koosh ball around the circle was a favorite class greeting. Holding the ball in his hand, Wyatt locked a “greeting gaze” onto one of his classmates. The greeted child then took the ball from Wyatt, returned his gaze and smile, and passed the ball to another child.
For Sharing, our Monday-morning “Weekend Whip Share” was a favorite. We zipped twice around the circle, each child giving two or three intriguing words about her or his weekend. To help Wyatt participate, his mother recorded weekend news on his DynaVox or sent a note with a few details about something he did, such as going to a baseball game or museum. On days when we did individual interactive sharings and it was Wyatt’s turn, Sharon Magera, his adult assistant, would have a yes/no conversation with him while the class listened. Wyatt then made eye contact with a classmate whose question he was ready to answer. His wide smile showed the pure pleasure of sharing his weekend with his friends.
A favorite Group Activity was the Shoe Game, in which everyone takes off one shoe, places it in the middle of the floor, and hides the shoed foot. Each person takes a turn choosing a shoe from the pile, guessing the owner, and returning the shoe with a friendly comment, such as “I think I found your shoe, Kathy.” Sharon helped Wyatt join this activity by placing his shoe in the circle. When his turn came, Wyatt used his eye lock to show his guess as to the shoe’s owner.
As for News and Announcements, I would usually include a survey question on the chart. For example, I might write “Which story do you want to publish?” and give, as choices, stories the class had been working on. First thing in the morning, before the meeting, the children would show their choice with a tally mark. To help Wyatt participate, one student would ask him yes/no questions and make his mark for him. As we read the choices aloud during the meeting, the children would stomp softly to show their choice. With Sharon’s help, Wyatt would show his choice by pounding lightly on the tray of his wheelchair.
Morning Meeting gave the children a chance to connect with their classmates and ease into the day ahead. This was especially important for Wyatt because he would be in many other places during the day, including physical and speech therapy sessions. His engaged presence in the morning helped establish him as a member of our group, even if he was often physically absent.
When teachers use Academic Choice to structure a lesson, they give students options for what to learn or how to go about their learning to reach the goal of the lesson. Students can then choose options that are appropriately challenging and interesting to them. Having this kind of choice was helpful to Wyatt. For example, physically acting out a poem or a scene from a story in a reading group was impossible for him, but nonphysical options were always available. And because all of the children were given choices, Wyatt didn’t feel singled out.
For one of our research projects, all of the children chose an animal they wanted to learn about. Wyatt chose the king snake. With help from his speech therapist and his work partner, Jack, Wyatt designed the cards for the slide presentation on his chosen creature.
Rules and Logical Consequences
The Responsive Classroom approach to discipline stresses including all children in rule creation and applying logical consequences consistently for any student who does not live by the rules. All children are responsible for making the classroom a safe and friendly place. This was yet another element that helped establish Wyatt as a full member of the community.
As Wyatt began third grade, he was ready to make a big leap in taking responsibility for the way his behavior affected the learning community. Understandably, Wyatt experienced much frustration because of his limited means of expressing his thoughts and feelings. Sometimes when he became frustrated he would cry instead of communicating with his DynaVox. But the group of adults working with Wyatt believed that he was capable of learning greater self-control and that it was important to hold him to the same standard of behavior required of his classmates. Therefore, if Wyatt could not or would not quiet himself, Sharon helped him by using a modified version of our class “time out” procedure.
Once separated from the situation in which self-control had become difficult, Wyatt would take a few minutes to sit by himself and regain composure. Before returning to the group, he would take the extra step of using his DynaVox to show his intention for handling himself should such a situation arise again. Wyatt’s choices included “straight breathing,” one of the calming strategies he’d learned from Dr. Rap, our school psychologist. Another choice was to call up his “inner voice,” a set of calming words that Wyatt would think to himself. The words, which special education teacher Donna Nordone (a Responsive Classroom consulting teacher for our district) and speech therapist Gladys Millman helped him practice all year, were “As a class member, I have to do my part. When I’m in the classroom, I have to use a calm and quiet voice so others can learn and work. This helps me and my friends.”
Wyatt’s participation in time-out was an important way to show all the children that the rules applied to everyone in the class. Plus, the other children could see that just like them, Wyatt needed help with gaining self-control. And Wyatt learned empathy as he began to see how his behavior could be disruptive or helpful to his classmates’ learning. As with all other aspects of our classroom life, when it came to discipline, Wyatt was like everyone else.
Including everyone helps everyone learn
The Responsive Classroom approach helped Room 34 be a place where every child had an equal chance to learn and grow. The climate of acceptance and cooperation that we established together helped each child feel acknowledged, appreciated, and heard. That enabled the class members, including Wyatt, to help each other take risks with their social and academic learning. As a result, our year with Wyatt was a year of growth for all of us.
by Nancy Kovacic