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Teaching Tolerance(To Students with Learning Disabilities)

Abe, a diminutive six-year-old, returned to school after a two-day absence and discovered his Lego rocket ship had been dismantled, its pieces recycled to form other children’s constructions. His eight classmates, all learning disabled children aged five, six, and seven, having responded to the musical theme which is the daily call to Morning Meeting, were gathering at the round table which serves as our classroom’s social, academic, and emotional center. As the music ended, Abe screamed at a decibel level capable of reaching an outer planet, “My rocket ship is destroyed!” and turned over the bin which contained enough Legos to build an adequate space station. The din was followed by a hush broken only by Abe’s rageful sobs and screams. Moments passed before Tony offered the words which began the process of diffusing the tantrum “Abe, you’re awful upset but you have to tolerate it.” A flood of language followed as each of the children offered apologies, solace, and strategies.

Sally, whose perceptual and motoric delays made building anything difficult, empathized, “I hate when people touch my stuff.” Ari, whose profound language, organizational, and attentional deficits impeded his own social abilities, turned his head and announced, “I’m ignoring this big tantrum.”

“It’s hard to tolerate this noise.” Aaron stated as he grabbed his thumb in his fist and exhaled deeply.

Mark and Bill, the eldest and most socially appropriate of the group flashed knowing glances at each other as they said, “We’re sorry, Abe. We’ll help you rebuild it after Meeting.”

This incident took place in February, after many months of direct instruction intended to teach children to understand their own emotions and feelings and those of others. This is long-term process but it is a necessity for the learning disabled child who is often overly sensitive to visual and auditory distractions, and can be overzealous in protecting personal space and property Abe’s classmates did not begin the year with these skills. In September, a classmate’s tantrum would have had a ripple effect, causing others to behave in equally inappropriate ways. Aaron, an exceedingly impulsive child and a literal interpreter of rules, would have likely responded by physically seeking to punish whomever had destroyed Abe’s property Ari, unable to express his own discomfort, would have begun his own tantrum. Tony, who began the year terrified by such displays, would have tried to run from the room or bang his head on the floor. Others would have either withdrawn or crowded around, drawn as rubber-neckers to a ten car pile-up.

How did this transformation occur? It was the result of supplying strategies and language, placing the immediate problem in a context which the child could recognize, organize, and ultimately use to develop an appropriate solution. The adult’s role was critical early in the process but diminished as the peer group learned to use these tools and modeled them in their own struggles.

The Process

Very early in the year the children should be introduced to the concept of ignoring. This should be done during a regular discussion period, like meeting time or circle time, not during a crisis. I begin by telling the children that they have a very powerful tool right in their own brain. This tool can protect them from many things and they can use it anywhere and anytime. When they are rabid with anticipation I ask one of the more verbal children to say something mean to me. After assurances that my powerful tool will protect me, someone will tell me that I am stupid or dumb. Affecting a blank stare I whip my head away from the offender and maintain the pose for a few seconds. Triumphantly, I tell them that my powerful tool is ignoring, and it worked. Ignoring can be defined as pretending you cannot hear or see what someone is saying or doing. I then ask if they think they can ignore and we rehearse the action and role play. This must be done with volunteers, as some children may be too sensitive to tolerate being called a name, even in role playing. For those who do not volunteer, try to have them ignore a sound or a visual distraction. We practice the skill many times before it, is used in a real situation. When the children seem comfortable with the concept, choose a distracting situation which occurs during a full-group time. The sound of a jack-hammer under our window or other children walking noisily through the halls are neutral events which provide a good example for using the skill. Eventually, we use ignoring to screen out other’s inappropriate behavior. For example, if Ari is singing to himself while we are reading a story, I will ask the group if they can ignore his behavior before I address Ari and offer him a strategy to help him stay focused.

Focusing tools are often relaxation techniques which also provide additional sensory input that may help the child to stop distracting, self-stimulating behaviors. Primary among these is a breathing technique akin to acupuncture and yoga. The child holds one thumb in the other fist while exhaling deeply. The technique is taught to a ditty sung to the tune of “If you’re happy and you know it,” replacing the lyrics with:

If you’re silly and you know it Grab your thumb

Most important in initiating these tools is a calm and patient attitude. The leader of the group must develop an understanding of what is the root cause of the inappropriate behavior. Generally, it is an inability to express discomfort caused either by language or attentional deficits. Once adults recognize that a tantrum or withdrawal is really an attempt to communicate, it is incumbent upon them to acknowledge what they are seeing. This should be a simple statement of the observable facts. In the case of Abe’s tantrum, it might be, “I see that your rocket ship is broken. You are very upset. Can you use words to tell us what happened?” The group should also be addressed in order to reassure them that the situation is under control and to gain their support. It is sometimes helpful to dim or turn off the lights while talking to the group. This not only focuses attention away from the child with the problem, but also has a calming effect. The statement to the group should engage them by drawing on their own experience. “Abe is upset that his rocket is broken Can you think of words that might help him?”

When all of these techniques are being used spontaneously by most of the group it is time to acknowledge that there are situations which cannot be altered and must be tolerated. Physical injuries are often the first issues which demand tolerance and they are emotionally accessible to all of us. Sally, whose visual perceptual and motoric deficits caused her to fall and bump into things, often cried inconsolably over minor injuries. She had been seriously hurt and hospitalized many times in her young life, was easily frightened by any fall, and was unsure of the severity of an injury. Efforts to comfort only increased her agitation as she perceived it as confirmation that she was badly hurt. She was able to hear, through her squeals, an honest assessment of her condition and an estimate of how long she would need to tolerate the pain. The intervention would involve acknowledgement, distraction and tolerance. “I see you have bumped your knee. It is not bleeding and nothing is broken so let’s sing a song while you tolerate it. We’ll see if it feels better when we finish the song.” After a few months I heard an exchange between Sally and a classmate after Sally hit her finger on a toy Beth said, “Oh, you hurt poor little finger. Lets jump up and down while you’re tolerating it.”

And so they did, as I beamed with pride and tolerated the noise.

Editor’s Note: Harriet Arnold teaches at the Churchill School in New York City.

Harriet Arnold Their World, 1996-97 National Center For Learning Disabilities
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