Mia sees the good in him but he still doesn’t.

He is 10 years old and he believes he is inherently evil. How does that happen? When asked today, tell me one thing about yourself that you like, his response was an immediate, emphatic ‘absolutely nothing’. A convergence of circumstances beyond his control and an unreality has become his reality. Enter Mia an Emotional Support dog, abused, rescued and re-homed. She loves him unconditionally, connects with his trauma- his lack of trust of others and a deeply ingrained self hate – and loves him! But he is yet to see that.

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It’s been a long time since I’ve recorded the barrage of thoughts, questions and reflections which are so much a part of my daily life. This year I have a 40 minute drive to work on country roads to my outer, southern, average suburban school. It’s a great drive for clarifying thoughts, synthezing ideas and having that freedom of thought space to allow new creative ideas to emerge, sit comfortably and maybe even grow with excitement. The problem is as soon as I get to school they are submerged in the tidal wave of demands and I find myself yearning for space to follow through. Today I have had so many conversations – intense and time bound. Classroom teachers, parents, specialist teachers, SSOs, students, fellow leaders.

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An ordinary day sea air in the wind

How do I describe a day that left me asleep on my sofa at 4:30pm on a Friday afternoon. Sad to my core. Angry at the everyday injustices which pervade  the lives of children in a local school, in a beautiful semi-rural location, in a relatively affluent society, in a democratic country.

An ordinary day. In an ordinary school.

While staff, students past and present, parents and  community weep openly at the untimely death of a much loved and respected teacher at the local high school, my Facebook feed is dominated by tragedies from around the world. From the demise of orangutans, to slavery of young girls, inhumane treatment of refugees at my back door, incomprehensible heartless and soulless destruction of innocent lives in Paris and the list could go on forever. 

But still the deepest hurt for me is in the eyes of a 9 year old boy who is losing hope. I feel like a traitor as I look him in the eye.

And then there are the anxious eyes of a 7 year old boy who cries, withdraws and refuses to comply when asked, because what he needs but cannot express in words, is to have more time to be a child, to play, feel safe and to learn when he is ready. Deep seated trauma ( that unverifiable  dis – ability ) from sexual abuse overtakes any other ability. He is happy to have some one on one attention in a quiet room, making a model of a hot air balloon. It has string…he loves to make things with string.

I make a mental note to match ‘a thing for string’ to an Australian curriculum achievement standard, to decide on a grade and to add this data to the graphs on the staff room wall.

I’m aware of the absence of another, who also has significant trauma, whose parents are his grandparents, who struggles at every level to cope in a school environment, who needs a day for rest as life has overtaken. I’m ashamedly relieved he isn’t at school today.

And then there are the brothers (6 and 8) and today is change-over day from a week with dad to a week with mum. They know they are loved by both but there is still  anxiety and adjustment …different houses, different expectations, different routines, a roller coaster of emotions. Tough for any child, tougher for highly gifted children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder and a unique and narrow view of their world. They are ‘twice exceptional’ children. Children.

They are both in my alternative learning environment full time. One has never been in a mainstream class, the other is just not coping with change and imminent change (it’s Term 4) and teachers are also struggling. So much stress at so many different levels. Both boys adjusting to the recent ‘loss’ of an SSO who ‘got’ them, who respected them, stretched them and skilfully pushed them out of their comfort zone, little by little.

It’s a normal day. One refuses to comply with a task, the other argues belligerently, one pees in the garden as it takes too long to go to the toilet, the other trashes some craft his brother has made for him. We quickly intervene, distract. One tries to circumvent the ‘rules’ around computer use and I struggle to keep up with his rapid highly skilled potential hacking. The other runs and hides. I hear the kind, firm words of an SSO guiding one to complete a task to earn reward time, endlessly patient, endlessly consistent, while I reset the timer for the other,  and reiterate the system  once again. Learning…reward…learning… reward, tedious, tight, necessary. Possible in this environment but not in a class of 28. At least today they haven’t hit and punched each other…well not much anyway.

And while this us happening there are older girls in the same room, discussing motor neurone disease which one of our teachers was recently diagnosed with, their awkward questions, grappling to make sense of it, while they make blueberry cupcakes to sell at the fundraiser on Monday. For what? Their teacher is dying. And I wonder just how much they understand, as their lives are already too complex and vexed for children.

And then the 9 year old runs through our room again having run out of his classroom. Hyper-vigilant, confused, intimidating, vulnerable. An awesome SSO drops everything and takes him to the sensory room. They both have a solid workout. He comes back and I can see the difference. I affirm the SSO for her wisdom, skill and flexibility. I know that recognition will stop with me.

In 9 years he has lived a life that I would not wish on any child. His confused dysfunction is also mine. I cannot reconcile the precious life of a child being adulterated by adults who are dictated to by a system which does not protect children. Or by the assigned care-givers who purport to care while deliberately destroying the essence of this child by acculturating him into their world.

You are a dumb arse. You won’t ever get a job, they say. 

He wants to be a policeman. Imagine how that is received by people who have by circumstance and choice, placed themselves outside of the law.

If I get in trouble at school they beat me with a wooden spoon and shut me in my room, he says.

Don’t tell them I’ve been with you, he says.

Dad says I have to be in my classroom all day, he says.

I need to get back to my classroom before dad gets here, he says with fear in his voice.

Write a note so they know I didn’t steal this, he says.

‘Oh no’ he says as it is apparent his ‘Aunty’ is picking him up from school. She is so f….. mean ‘, he says.

He wants to take home a book he has written a story in. She tells him to put it in the bin.

We rescue it and tell him we’ll keep it for him.

Our parting, ‘have a great weekend’ is hollow.

So many children hurting, some parents unreachable, some teachers only  seeing part of the picture and unwittingly adding to the stress, leadership  pulled in uncompromising directions towards the system and away from the children.

It is a day like very other day, in a ‘normal’ school, in a beautiful location, sea air in the wind…

And …. hurting  innocent children… and they are just children, who by their actions ask us to look beyond what we see, to what they see, in their confusing blurred world. They move between realities which for me are distressingly counter-productive, and I worry….not about achievement standards and data but whether I can give them enough to help them make their own choices, to believe in themselves, to know in the deepest part of them, what we can glimpse…the person they can be, the potential they have, and their right to that potential.

As an educator that is what I want for them. I feel that I fail them on a daily basis.

But I do know these kids feel safe when they come to our room.

They feel accepted.

They know we care.

They grow a little self-respect.

And they learn…more than they might have in a busy results-driven classroom.

Maybe that’s enough.

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Who has the answers?

After 3 and a bit years of working intensively with Jay, it was with great relief to find that after the summer break he seemed to not have lost ground. He began the 2016  school year seemingly quite calm, happy and positive. Still in an alternative learning area and with a personalised curriculum my goal was to try, yet again,  to bridge the gap between this 9 year old with high functioning Autism and his peers. To my surprise we successfully attended a number of classes in the first weeks of term. Mostly PE, Performing Arts and Digital  Technology but also several class-based lessons, albeit in his interest area of Digital Technology. This was remarkable given that in previous attempts in 2014, 10 minutes once a week very occasionally, was all that was managed.

Imagine my dismay when by about Week 5 of this term after his great start,  we now have had 3 weeks of violent, disregulated, non-compliant behaviour which has been extreme and has resulted in 2 suspensions. I know exclusion is imminent and I’m so frustrated by our inability to really understand what is triggering and driving this behaviour. We assume because it is controlling behaviour that there is potentially anxiety and fear underlying his responses to his environment. We suspect that the unpredictability of the emotional input he is receiving in the home environment(s) is part of the picture but we don’t really know enough about this and it is difficult to ascertain if this has taken a different direction since Week 5. I am ploughing through articles on social neuroscience but all I am really gaining is that we still don’t know enough. My big question is how is it that 2 brothers less than 2 yrs apart, both with high functioning autism ( gifted 99%) can be so different in their social interaction capacity. We need help. 

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Permission to Share or It’s scary to bare my soul!

One of the challenges with ‘Jay’ a certain 9 yo high functioning ASD student with very limited theory of mind whom I work with in an alternate learning environment, which has been an ongoing one for several years, is his reluctance to allow others to see his work or share in his work in any way. We have theorised about the reasons for this including the likelihood that in seeing himself as the centre of his world, even the dominant person in his world, and all others are in some way an audience, he feels embarrassed( his word), possibly vulnerable, exposed and if his work (especially something he has created on the computer) isn’t up to his perceived standard,  he will aggressively refuse it being seen. What we have been able to establish over the last 6 months is that if he is doing school work he must allow his teachers to see the work as that’s their job and if he gets verbally aggressive, trying to cover his work and not showing completed work,  then there is a consequence ( eg loss of preferred activity).  This has taken a while to be accepted as a ‘given’ by him but usually just needs a reminder now. Last year Jay willingly took a piece of writing to show the Principal then pinned it on his work station wall and this was quite a breakthrough. However when he is working on  something creative, eg cartoons done with pen or pencil or computer based animations or 3 D modelling it can be a different story, with behaviours ranging from being verbally aggressive, destroying the work that has been inadvertently seen or shared “without his permission”, to denying its existence, refusing it to be discussed even….a permanent ‘delete’. The meltdown continues  and it can take a while to get him back on an even keel. The challenge for us as a team is that as Jay, just this year,  begins to integrate gradually with his peers we cant always tell if he will react negatively as sometimes there is no issue. We were recently caught off guard one morning, as the day before,  Jay had drawn a fantastic cartoon sequence with one of the team (HM) and they were looking at it together first thing in the morning,   when HM happened to mention that he’d told his wife the night before about the great work Jay had done. Major meltdown, the said cartoon was torn into pieces as we watched in dismay and tried to intervene. Impossible to reason with him or really understand the issue as he perceived it. His work had been discussed without his permission and that was that.

The really positive outcome though, due to the skill and wisdom of HM, was that later that day,  the 2 of them negotiated the following rules for sharing Jay’s work. All the potential audiences and types of work were identified and grouped  by Jay and this formed the basis of a contract which he signed. The plan is that any ‘work’ will be assigned to a group so that everyone is clear before the finished product is shared,  just who and where it can be shared. The following is the basic outline. Jay nominated specific people in each group which I haven’t included.

Teaching Group- all work can be shared with this group so that they can track Jay’s learning. 

Helping Group- for Jay to help others learn new skills. ( eg in Digital Tech classes) includes tutorials he might produce, drawings, animations, writing. Jay has to be part of the delivery process.

Family and Friends Group -to show off Jays work to those who’d be proud of his effort.

Broader Group- as above plus family of those involved such as HM telling his wife about Jays great day or work.

Public Group- everyone and anyone. For use in public displays, art shows, competitions, promotions, school newsletter, web tutorials.

This should eliminate the ‘unexpected’ and help Jay to feel in control. Stay tuned. His creations are astonishing for his age and worthy of being shared.

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Another year…

Into the third week of school for 2016 and already we have the all too familiar experience of  anxious, hurting, disregulated children, letting us know they are struggling with life and school as it presents to them,  by absconding from classrooms, burying themselves in the sandpit, running around the school and out of the gates, the 5 yr old with a head and heart full of violent images he has been exposed to,  trying to gain power and control by spitting, hitting, swearing and screaming, unable/unwilling to comply with the simplest of directions, the 10 yr old trauma child screaming for 20 mins for his parents/grandparents as I wrap him in a blanket and reassure him. I’m not sure what hurts more…his throat, my ears or my emotional exhaustion after an hour and a half of working with him and his parents to keep him in school. And that was just the beginning of a long day and the beginning of the list of high end children who have shaped the year already.

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Professional trust

“…the keyword between teachers and authorities in Finland is trust. Indeed, professional autonomy requires trust, and trust makes teacher autonomy come alive.” 

Professor Sahlberg as quoted in AEU Journal, November 2015, ‘ School autonomy is not the same as teacher autonomy.’ p8

Ask any professional, committed, passionate teacher in South Australia and I believe they would not only concur with this but if they have been fortunate enough to work in a professional environment where this is integral to the ethos of the workplace, they would say this isn’t rocket science. So why is it so rarely evident in our education workplaces, where is the professional leaders training in developing trust, decreasing micro-management, understanding relationships and also what motivates teachers to give over and above. Where is the accountability for leaders who fail to  enable this? Answer: non-existent. Results and data are valued more highly than genuine top-down collaboration and genuine trust in the professionalism of deserving teachers and SSOs.

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It’s ok!

Today things got on top of me, don’t shed tears at school very often but today I did, while offloading to my Special Educator. One of the boys came out to me later,  tears in his eyes, with a card saying sorry and with some things he had made. I had to quickly reassure him that I wasn’t upset because of him or his behaviour. He needed a hug. I couldn’t explain that I thought it was the system letting down children like him which had distressed me so much and that I felt so constrained by a process which was reactive not proactive. Things have to fail before we can act. Where is the ‘think outside the square’ ethos and the  holistic child-centred view that learning and well-being are inter-dependent? The problem with ‘fail first so that there is evidence that there is a problem critical enough to act on’, is that the ones who hurt the most are the children along with their ability to function and ‘perform’. But that’s ok, it’s the system we want to ‘perform’.

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Can I play ‘workman’?

He loves to play  ‘the workman game’. I have said he can only have this as a reward activity at the end of the day. It’s all he wants to do and the fixation becomes counter-productive, hence the simple rule. Yes at the end of the day, I reiterate. In this game he dons a hard hat with ear muffs and a fluro vest, gets a tool box with plastic tools, an invoice book, and clear protective glasses. He pretends to drill, dig holes, make things and deliver loads of sand. His expressive language is delayed for his age, his play scenarios about that of a 3-4 year old. He can only really play it successfully with an adult who scaffolds the play and the language. His peers can’t really engage as the level of play is too low. But he loves this game just as he loves trucks. Any noise resembling a truck on the street outside, has him dashing out to see.

His psych report says he is functioning in the low average range in most areas. He is nearly 10, he is at the end of Year  3, his actual level for school learning is Reception but he is expected to function in a mainstream Yr 3 class. With skilful differentiation and some Wave 2 intervention, this might be possible. However add the layer of extreme trauma; physical, emotional and sexual abuse until the age of 6, possible impact of substance abuse while in utero and then adjustment to family carers, abduction and constant fear of abduction, fear of being returned to his birth mum by the courts, attachment disorder – extreme clinginess to his grandmother (‘mum’), epileptic seizures especially when stress is high, inability to emotionally regulate and we have, on a daily basis, a young boy who simply cannot cope in a mainstream class,  at this point in his school journey. He is dysregulated, violent, disruptive, non-compliant and an absconder.

Take-homes, suspension, exclusion is the standard reaction. 

Not child-centred response …..but results-driven reaction.

A reaction which is designed to look after teachers, protect other students, alleviate demands on leadership. Also to reduce disruption to learning, to achievement, to positive data, to ticks from the top down.

However in an alternative learning environment, in his mainstream school, he is taught to comply through a tightly regulated learning ..reward system with positive behaviour strategies. Today it is hard work as there are major family issues going on with his 17 year old Aunty. The tension at home is high. The police and Family  SA are involved. He voices his worry, he is tense, hyper vigilant, angry, non-compliant and has an incedibly tight body. We do a sensory work out several times, he does complete some work, he does lose some reward time but he also earns some.

 He stays all day. He has been hard work for myself and SSOs. He has experienced success. He has been safe.

The alternative learning environment and program does not exist to the department. It is a school initiative, has a tenuous  tenancy and relies on an awesome committed team of SSOs, myself and the School Counsellor.

But we don’t exist.

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