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Child Observation

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For this project I chose to visit and observe a preschool program oriented towards the mentally-impaired child. This small school is near my military installation, although it is not directly associated with it. Most of the families who enroll their children in the school are military personnel, and the director is a military veteran. There are eight 4-and 5-year old children in the group, and each of them has some special difficulty in the emotional or mental realm. The physical environment is a building that has been partially converted into a school. The atmosphere is homey and friendly, and the director is as relaxed as if she were inviting the families, the children, and me over for a friendly chat over coffee. This program is a half-day arrangement, and day care is not provided. The educational and mental health curriculum is intended for enrichment and specific assistance to children and families that have identified some difficulty in their child’s behavior or development. Most of the children come through referral from the local mental health center. The instructor carefully screens each family and makes certain requirements for parental involvement in the program.

Each parent assists for a few hours each month, partly to keep the tuition costs reasonable, and more importantly to allow the parent to observe the child within the group and to be directly involved in the instruction of the children. The director explains to me that she is working especially diligently with a particular child, Sarah, a 5-year old who has been in this program for two years. She has been evaluated by many specialists, and it has been determined in a rather general way that she is learning disabled, although the exact components of her difficulties have not yet been determined. The child’s behavior is unusual in that she treats other children as objects and tends to repeat behaviors in a rigid manner. Her speech is described as echolaic, which is she repeats the last few words of sentences several times out of context. Sarah is gifted musically and can do unusual improvisations on the piano and repeat rather lengthy passages in an imitative way when the teacher works with her one-on-one. The time period chosen is the morning gathering together time right after the children arrive at the school. The usual routine is that the parents drop off the children who come in and pick a quiet toy to play with in the living room until everyone is there.

Then the director brings the children together in a group for conversation and a story. The director has mentioned to me that she is focusing on Sarah at this time in an effort to get her to behave less destructively with the other children and toys upon first arriving. Her pattern in the past has been to go straight to the record player, which is her favorite object in the school, and forcefully move aside whoever might be using it before she has a turn. The director tells me that on this particular day it is her goal to assist Sarah in asking a child for the next turn with the record player and to listen during the story, without interrupting with repeated verbal phrases. On the morning of my observation, a mother is working at the school, and the director has told me ahead of time that she has given this parent supervisory responsibilities for the first few minutes of that day so that she can focus on Sarah. I have met this parent who is well-situated and ready to greet the students as they arrive. For purposes of convenience in writing up the observation, only the director, the parent, and Sarah are identified individually, and the other children who speak are simply designated as “child.”

In this observation I noticed the teacher’s style in working with the difficult behavior exhibited by Sarah. The teacher set up the class on that particular day so that her attention could be somewhat free to focus on this one child, and the parent-assistant was aware of the situation. The teacher sets a warm emotional tone for everyone present, including the mother, so that all feel at ease. Each child is greeted individually, and the very simplest needs and desires are treated in order in a relaxed, deliberate manner. The teacher, in an interesting way, used Sarah repetitive speech pattern so that Sarah could hear herself repeat what should be done next. The teacher modeled the appropriate behavior when asking the child for the next turn at the record player, and then Sarah was repeating those words, in a way, teaching herself how to ask for a turn. In the meantime, the teacher physically restrained her so that the wrong behavior would not occur. This director-teacher uses modeling quite effectively, not only with Sarah, but with the other children in setting a friendly, courteous classroom psychosocial environment where the children can thrive, even with their particular difficulties.

This is not a place where anyone screams at anyone. The director is quite aware of the power of a quiet voice and a firm, loving hand, and she uses her bodily presence and touch in a gentle way that guides the child into the correct behavior. The teacher anticipated that Sarah would want the record player and would try to bodily force the other child away from it, and she made herself free enough to work with the child on an individual basis to begin to change this behavior pattern. The reward for the child in cooperating, even a little bit, is the approval of the teacher and more attention from the teacher (sitting next to her for the story). Sarah was also acknowledged for her intelligence and uncanny intuitive sense about which story was going to be read. The director conversed with her in a normal way, even though the child had unusual ways of conveying her questions. The teacher’s manner of treating the child with dignity seems to calm the child and guide her into the correct path of behaving. The director is flexible in moving the children from one activity to the next and in her creative use of the parent-assistant.

This is a group that needs to be instructed one-on-one much of the time, even if the conversations are very short, and the director seems to understand that. She apparently does not plan any formal academic lessons that are very long because it simply would be inappropriate for the developmental level of these children. She is creative and relaxed about giving leeway when it simply does not matter how the particulars work out. For example, although she might prefer that the children take off their hats inside, the child who had on the special new hat was allowed to keep it on for that day because it was important to him. In this case, the feelings of the child are more important that the courtesy of taking off a hat inside. Sarah is rewarded with teacher approval when she is even approximating the desired behavior. Even when the teacher was holding her close to her side with a bit of a struggle, she rewarded the child with verbal praise because, in fact, she was taking her turn a bit more graciously than on previous days. This teacher can see improvements in the smallest increments and helps the child shape behavior in the desired direction, even if an outside observer might not see those small improvements.

It is not known whether Sarah was quiet during the reading until the part where she could say what she wanted to, but the teacher set the tone for the appropriate behavior, and she again, reinforced the child’s importance by sitting her very close by her side. It seems that the teacher has learned that this child responds more to physical guidance than anything verbal. Her verbal nature seems to have been mixed up in some way, and the teacher works with her in terms of her imitative speech in order to get her to say the right thing at the right time. The director speaks to these children one at a time, especially as they arrived. And on this particular day when she wanted to devote more attention to Sarah, she designated the morning greeting responsibility to the teaching assistant. That one-on-one manner seems to set a tone such that each person feels acknowledged and important, perhaps a rarity for a child who at such a young age already has serious difficulties. The children respond well to these basic courtesies, and during the observation time, there was no serious acting-out behavioral infractions.

The director seemed to already have a working arrangement with this particular mother so that they understood each other’s relating style. The director mentioned to me during our conversations prior to the observation that part of the goal of her program was the support of the parents in their own growth. This was apparent in her friendly comments to Cheryl before the class session began. She spoke to her in an open, receptive way and was interested in the life of the family. In this way, this school provides a family education program which makes a real difference in the quality of life for everyone involved. I would ascertain that this director was effective on this day, at least in getting Sarah to wait for a turn at the record player. It seemed like the story time was also likely to go in the direction desired–that Sarah would be likely to wait for the appropriate time to say, “Trip, trap, trip, trap, over the bridge.” My reaction to this observation experience was positive. I did not know what it would be like to be in a Sarah setting, particularly one that was in a home. I thought it might be a lot like babysitting, but that did not turn out to be the case. This teacher has used the home environment to set a loving tone for the education and support that she provides for these children and families.

The only thing I might do differently is to write down specific plans and objectives. This teacher seems to work strictly from an intuitive, creative style, and I might complement that with more written behavioral goals. As I observed the director work with this unusual child and her unusual speech pattern, I gained a bit of insight and compassion for what is required to be a sensitive special education teacher. The teacher did not in any way try to correct the child’s inappropriate speech. She instead used it to shape her in the direction that was desired. She seemed to allow herself to emotionally and mentally get into the framework of the child in order to find a way to communicate. And I tremendously respect what I saw in the dignity she gave the child for her obvious intelligence and uncanny sensitivity. How did J know the story was going to be The Billy Goats Gruff?

This intuitive empathy between teacher and student again showed me that learning disabled does not mean retarded. In conclusion, it is important to me to learn how to follow this type of example, to work with students where they are, with their strengths, whatever those strengths might be. I also was impressed with the simplicity of the goals and activities. Nothing grand was planned for this particular day. It was a normal day, and the teacher wanted was for Sarah to show some progress in not forcing another child bodily off of the record player. It is these small successes strung together that create a larger feeling of accomplishment for the handicapped child.

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