Rick Lavoie

Laryngitis Lessons

March 2003

The month of January was a little scary for me. I lost my voice! Considering that I make my living as a public speaker, this is not good news. I was speaking at a large seminar and the public address system was not working properly. The sponsors provided me with a portable Karaoke machine manufactured by Fisher Price (not really….but it seemed so!). Anyway, I strained my voice badly trying to project to those attendees who inevitably and inexplicably sit in the back row. More than laryngitis, I really damaged my vocal chords.

Why am I telling you this? Well, for several days, I was in a “Verbal F.A.T. City”. I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t communicate. I couldn’t discuss, gab, converse, debate, jaw, jabber, squawk, gossip, chatter or confab. I was unable to communicate my needs, wishes or opinions….and it was weird. I am fairly verbal. Others might say that I talk a lot. Still others may say that I talk too much. Those who are less kind might even say that I talk too %@*# much! Guilty as charged. I enjoy talking so much that I managed to work it out so that people pay me to talk. There are four Language Arts – Speaking, Writing, Reading and Listening. – and Speaking is my favorite….by a considerable margin.

In fact, my sister-in-law had a theory about my voicelessness: Perhaps God allows each human being to speak a given number of words in his or her lifetime. Once that number of words (e.g., 110,000,000) is reached, you are not allowed any more words. The number of words is so generously high that most people never reach their quota. But I did. At 53 years old. Her theory was invalid…thankfully. My voice is back.

But for several days, I experienced the failure and frustration that kids with verbal communication disorders experience daily. Brief routine interactions with friends, colleagues and strangers were suddenly fraught with anxiety. I began avoiding social situations. I saw a longtime friend at the grocery store, but avoided making eye contact and pretended that I hadn’t seen him. The ringing of our phone – generally a welcome sound – suddenly was greeted with dread and embarrassment. I would check caller ID and generally let the call “ring through” to the answering machine. I failed to make many calls that I should have made- calls of condolence, congratulations, concerns and collegiality – because I couldn’t speak well. One of the most effective tools in my “language arsenal” was gone. And I missed it. I felt ineffective, ineffectual and powerless. WOW!

For a few days, I experienced the frustration and fear and failure that many LD kids feel every day! For them, language is not a tool. Language is something to be avoided and feared. They cannot use oral language to convince, persuade, cajole, explain, illustrate, enlighten or comfort. Our curricular emphasis on reading, ‘riting and “rithmetic often treats Oral Language like the poor cousin. Unfortunately. Kids need – and benefit greatly – from training and instruction on oral language. Moms and Dads can play an important role in this instruction. Talk to them often and continuously. Listen to them when they speak. Encourage them to share tales and stories. Provide good role models for them by using language efficiently and effectively.

Here’s a hint: When you speak to an adult you will find that a specific question (e.g., “Who did you vote for in the last Presidential Election?”) will receive a specific answer (“Al Gore”). Conversely, a broad question (“What did you think of the last Presidential Election?”) will receive a broad answer (“Well, I believe that the role of the Supreme Court in the election process was woefully inappropriate Blah! Blah! Blah!….and Florida….BLAH! BLAH! BLAH!….and Jeb Bush….BLAH! BLAH! BLAH!….and the Electoral College… BLAH! BLAH! BLAH!……”)

Interestingly, this dynamic works in an opposite fashion with kids with Language Disabilities. I f you ask a broad question (“How was school today?”) you receive a brief specific answer (“Good”). If you ask a specific question (“How was your third period Biology Class?”), you often receive a detailed and extensive response (“It was great! We dissected a frog…Johnny threw up….my frog was the biggest….that funny smell, etc., etc., etc.” Try it!

January and February were busy months for me. As always, I met some great folks and observed some extraordinary programs and projects. While visiting the Educational Service Center in Kilgore, Texas, I learned about some new initiatives that the Lone Star State has enacted in order to deal with disruptive student behavior. Their statewide plan was extraordinarily well written and child oriented. It seems that the Texas Legislature asked the State Department of Education to re-think their discipline policies in the wake of some incidents wherein school aged children were injured during “time out” interventions. Although this governmental action is commendable, it is unfortunate that it takes the serious injury of a child to spur legislative action on such a crucial issue. The Legal Profession and the Medical Profession invest significant time and energy in PREVENTING difficulties. It is unfortunate that the Education Field does not adopt that mindset! It reminds me of the lament of the farmer who says, “I haven’t got time to build a fence – I’m too busy chasing the cows!”

Anyway, I was quite impressed by the basic premise and profound assumptions of the Texas Plan. The 700 page document begins (quite appropriately!) with a detailed summary of the Plan’s PHILOSOPHY. It is from this Philosophy that the Policies and Procedures are developed. Their philosophical tenets were as follows:

  1. All Behavior is Learned: Students may have learned that disruptive behavior is the easiest, most effective way to get their needs met (e.g., attention, avoidance, etc.)
  2. All Behavior Serves a Function or a Purpose: What he did may not be as important as why he did it.
  3. Environments Impact and Influence Behavior: In order to change the behavior, we sometimes must make changes in the environment in which the behavior occurs.
  4. Skill Deficits Impact and Influence Behavior: Academic incompetence AND social incompetence can cause disruptive behavior.
  5. Team Approaches are Critical: “It takes a village to raise a child”…and to change a kid’s behavior patterns.
  6. Teacher/Pupil Relationships Matter: Quite simply, a child will behave more appropriately for an adult whom he trusts, respects and likes.

What an intelligent, grounded and profound approach to Behavior Management! Join me in wishing our Texas colleagues the best of luck as they enact and operationalize this ambitious and intelligent philosophy!

February and March find me in California, New York City, Connecticut, Minnesota, Montana, Wisconsin and New Jersey. Hope to see many of you at the Learning Disabilities Association International Conference in Chicago in February 28.

Overheard in the Teacher’s Lounge:

Special Ed Intern: “I spent four hours preparing individualized lessons for my students last night! Does it ever get any easier?”

Special Ed Veteran: “Not if you’re doing it right, it doesn’t”

Rick Lavoie