I once knew a young girl named Stephanie. I was a Special Education teacher at a middle school and she was entering eighth grade. As I read through her Individualized Education Program (IEP) folder two weeks prior to the school year start, I learned much about Stephanie before we ever met in person.
Stephanie had been adopted at around 7 years of age from a foreign country. She was rescued from a life of misery in a state run facility for orphans. She entered kindergarten in the United States as a frustrated 8-year old who spoke little of our language. She was diagnosed with a learning disability in math and language. Her IEP included academic and behavioral goals in order to help manage Stephanie’s “classroom outbursts and disruptive episodes.”
Conversations with other professionals in our school revealed similar themes about Stephanie. A “troubled child” with few friends, “anxious” about school, “rebellious” with her adopted mother, the counselor related. “A real hand-full” suggested one of her former teachers. “Foul-mouthed” related another. “Cannot work productively alone, with others, or with me,” said a third. “Oh Stephanie,” said another, “good luck with that one.” While I am aware that a teacher cannot really know a student from what other’s say about them, my view of Stephanie had been prejudiced by these comments. I now anticipated the start of the school year with a certain amount of apprehension.
She walked into our first period class on the first day of school with her head bowed and her eyes on the floor. Making her way to the rear of the row of desks nearest to the door, she plopped into the last desk and sat staring at the desktop. I approached her quickly with a cheery “hello Stephanie, my name is…” Then she tilted her head up and looked at me with deep brown eyes that I thought looked very sad and whispered an “ummm” in response.
As the days wore on and the instruction quickened, Stephanie fell behind. Homework assignments were infrequently completed and never fully or with care. Tests scores were very low. Whatever sparse enthusiasm was present during the first few days of school had long since eroded. In its place was a palpable sense of desperation. When answering a question in class, which was only when one was directed at her by name, she would routinely respond with a “huh?” followed by snickers or moans from her peers, most of which had known her through years of schooling and were obviously well acquainted with her responses.
Our grade level team would routinely discuss children in need of extra attention or assistance of one kind or another. It was only two weeks into the year when Stephanie’s name surfaced at our weekly meeting. Several teachers were concerned with her progress, yet we were all perplexed by her attitude even more. We had been braced for a storm, when what we received was a quiet, almost shy girl that seemed beaten down by circumstances and desperate for some good fortune.
As her case manager, I made sure all of her IEP accommodations were being implemented and offered suggestions for additional adaptations. Then we agreed to monitor her closely, and record progress or changes until our next meeting. Although we had formulated a solution, our plan seemed hollow to me – as if something had been missed. The remainder of that week I watched Stephanie during class and observed her passivity and willingness to sit quietly while learning passed her by.
Because Stephanie would never open up to us on a personal level, I contacted her parent. During a brief tear-filled discussion, her Mother spoke of her frustrations with Stephanie at home and her complete helplessness. Then she said something that broke on my mind like lightning from a clear sky, “She doesn’t believe she can succeed, and she thinks she is worthless and stupid. I can’t give Stephanie the amount of love that she needs to make her feel like she is worth something.”
That was the real problem and because of my focus on pedagogical issues, I hadn’t recognized it. Stephanie had good instruction and adequate accommodations and she had the skills to succeed, but the final ingredient was missing. She didn’t have the belief in herself that she so desperately needed.
When our team reconvened, I said that what Stephanie needed, more than anything else, was to believe that she could succeed. She needed us to support her and praise her for every achievement she made. We needed to tell her how special she was and how much we cared about her. As a team we then began to compliment her, defend her against the negative comments of other students, and tell her that we believed she could be a success.
Over the course of the year, Stephanie began to change. She arrived in class earlier and was prepared to work. She turned in her homework, which began to be complete and accurate. Her test scores improved and, perhaps most importantly, she began to smile. By the end of the year she had made such dramatic progress that we voted her our most improved student for the eighth grade and at our annual awards assembly she received the award in front of her classmates.
The moral to this story is this: sometimes when we as professionals look to intervene in a child’s life we tend to think of pedagogical concerns and what changes we can make to testing, or instructional delivery, or assignments. Yet the simplest thing may in fact be the most meaningful. We as caring adults must show children like Stephanie, who struggle with a disability, through our words and deeds, that they are special, that they are loved and that they can succeed.
Bruce Saddler, Ph. D. Assistant Professor
Department of Educational and Counseling Psychology, Division of Special Education, University at Albany