By Marcus Navarro, Communications Intern
This is the first of a series of posts about my impressions and experiences of Wildwood’s supports and services.
Not many people will find themselves inside a classroom at Wildwood, or other schools like it. Most probably don’t think about what goes on in special education classes. I was able to spend time with a few kids at the school who were kind enough to welcome me.
The first thing you notice is that it looks exactly like the classrooms you were in during elementary school. It has big, colorful letters of the alphabet above the whiteboard to teach students their ABC’s. There’s a calendar with fun, bubbly font to teach kids the months of the year and the days of the week. Little plastic toys are scattered around and kids, learning and reaching their daily goals, or possibly just wishing to get to recess.
Students arrive at school in the morning and begin the day with “circle time” and sometimes “smartboard.” These group sessions will go through things such as what day it is and if there are any specific goals for the week. Throughout the day, they will juggle their academic curriculum and, depending on the day, a mix of music, gym, and art. The curriculum is research-based, highly structured, and customizable to each student’s needs. It allows teachers to design individual, step-by-step programs for students to learn about colors, behaviors, names, words and ultimate learning goals such as emotional coping and health and wellness. They’ll have snack time, lunch and recess; and scattered through these classes, kids may also have sessions such as physical, occupational, and speech therapy and social work.
Just as you and I were in grade school, students achieve stars for correct answers. An accumulation of stars earns them an edible reward, such as marshmallows or chocolate. Edible rewards are a fun and immediate way of re-enforcing what the kids are trying to learn. Teachers are very supportive, providing lots of verbal encouragement.
Teachers like to use positive language; for example, when a child is misbehaving or throwing a tantrum, as eight-year-olds are at times prone to do, they don’t yell. They assertively say, “That’s not a choice” and guide them to clean up a spilled water bottle or pick up a few toys flung to the ground. It’s a great way to show young children that they have decisions to make, but this one wasn’t the right one. It takes patience with any child, but especially with those who need a little more support.
Teachers like to use the term “friends” as a positive, gender-neutral way of communicating. Saying, “Oh, look there’s your friend, say hi” helps create that positive environment that all kids should have and it can help dissuade negative behavior as well. When children are play fighting or stealing each other’s food, things my brother and I are still prone to do, once again instead of yelling, teachers like to use more positive language, such as “Hey, we don’t hit our friends.”
Blindsided a bit by my boss on my second day at Wildwood as a communications intern, I was nervous about meeting and sitting in with these kids. I have no experience with children on the autism spectrum or any young kids in a classroom. But after just a few minutes, I was intrigued by how incredibly normal things felt. It didn’t feel as though I should treat these kids too differently from eight-year-olds in a public school. Sure, these kids need a little more attention or have different needs than others, but it’s not astronomically different than requiring a tutor for math or when my brother needed a little help pronouncing his R’s as a child.
Above all else, they are kids. They are in the classroom to learn, but sometimes, they will get a little antsy for lunch and recess. They’re individuals with different needs, likes, and dislikes. Some have a weighted vest for their sensory needs or sound-deafening headphones to help keep them calm. They are curious and adventurous for walks outside the classroom. Kayla liked her pompoms, Jon liked to play with the colorful plastic toys, and Gabby liked my hair so much she just had to play with it.
Sure, providing the extra support that they need may be frustrating to parents and teachers at times, but what child, teenager, or adult doesn’t come with their own frustrations? It’s just how we are as humans. I certainly frustrated my parents growing up. I still do. I’ll leave you with one final thought: if you can, spend some time with them. It could make their day, but much more likely, they’ll make yours. And, you’ll notice that their differences are in shades, not separate colors altogether.