Monday, April 09, 2012

He Needed Time To Work It Through

Aidan arrived in my classroom with the label of "shy." Everyone said it about him, even his mom. I have strong feelings about the use of that term with children, it's a kind of name-calling, but it was the beginning of my first year as a teacher and I either didn't have the courage or confidence to stick my neck out on that one.

I noticed right off that he didn't shy away from me, however, although it was true he didn't speak with me, or anyone, ever. He was a young 3-year-old and his former teacher had warned me he didn't talk. His mother said he could talk and that, in fact, he talked a blue streak at home, but at school he communicated exclusively with head and hand gestures, and eye contact. Otherwise he was a friendly and engaged kid, fond of getting messy up to the elbows, able to assemble the puzzles I'd expect him to assemble, moving from station to station with relative ease. He just didn't speak.

He didn't have friends just yet, partially due to his silence I suppose, but it could also just as likely have been an aspect of normal social development; a lot of his peers were still mostly engaged in parallel play. He certainly didn't seem afraid of the other children or anything. His mother was a woman of few words, and those generally softly spoken, so it's not like it couldn't just be part of his hereditary burden, be it a learned or inborn behavior.

I took it personally at one level and made some efforts to coax him into speaking with me, joking around, trying to make him at least laugh. I could get a small smile sometimes, but it was clear to me that this approach wasn't helping, so I opted to simply honor his silence by not pushing him. After all, we had this entire school year and all of the next. Certainly, I figured, over the course of two full years he would find the motivation or the courage or the comfort level or whatever it was he needed to finally speak aloud.

This is one of the things I love most about being, essentially, a 3 year program. We really do have all the time in the world. We really can let the children take things at their own pace. There was no need to apply pressure, which, I guessed, would in all likelihood just lead to more firmly locked lips. 

Aidan's silence wasn't exactly complete for the entire school year. As the year went along, his mother began occasionally arriving at school with messages he wanted to pass along to me. I would reply directly to him, but without expecting a response and we would smile at one another, acknowledging that we had an understanding. Being a cooperative preschool, his mother worked in the classroom once a week as a parent-teacher. On those days I began to notice that he would sometimes pull his mother aside to whisper to her, especially when he had a particular desire to pass along. I took it all as progress, although I really did want to hear that voice.

It was the start of his second year in our 3-5's class, the year when he was destined to turn 5. He started out by shocking me with a few attempts to speak to me, although his words seemed to catch in his throat, as if they were turning somersaults on their way out into the world, rendering them indecipherable without my having to rely on a lot of contextual clues. Still, progress. 

In October, I chose to ride with him, another classmate, and his mother in his car for our annual pumpkin patch field trip. The moment we buckled our seat belts it started. The words spilled from him like water, babbling up to fill the entire aural space for the entirety of our 30 minute car ride. His mom said, "This is what he does at home." And still, I barely understood a word.

After that we got Aidan hooked up with a speech therapist.

That must have been part of it, I thought, his silence in the classroom must come at least in part from too many experiences with being misunderstood or not understood at all. That made sense to me. And slowly he did begin to attempt to speak more in class, although not usually to me or any of the other adults, but rather his friend Max who, I don't think coincidentally, also had some challenges with pronouncing words clearly, although he'd never been "shy" about saying them aloud. Overhearing their conversations was fascinating: one could hardly make out what they were on about, but the key was that they did. After awhile Max would spontaneously interpret for Aidan when the rest of us were too dense to understand. With Max's encouragement, Aidan even once raised his hand and spoke during circle time, a breakthrough that made mom cry a little in the back of the room.

This was Aidan's Pre-K year, a time when he and his age-peers get an extra afternoon together, a smaller group of very familiar faces, friends with whom he had been attending school for 2 years already, and in some cases longer. There are a lot of opportunities in this class for the kids to speak in front of the group and after some initial reservations, he began to regularly stand in front of us and make himself understood.

He was still working with his speech therapist and I'm sure it helped him, but I also know that this was not all that was going on for Aidan. It was something he needed the time, without pressure, to work through.

(Although Aidan's story isn't a textbook case of selective mutism, I'm now certain that this is at least a part of what was going on. I'm proud that our progressive early childhood model, that our community, was able to help him through it. Tomorrow I'll write more on the topic and provide links to more resources.)

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Pip said...

its lovely to read this. my son had hearing and speech problems when he started pre school and would not socialise with anyone other than his best friend and his best friends mum (who ran the pre school) He used signing a lot and would containn his play in boxes or under blankets, including his best friend and walk away when others tried to join in. He would not join in group activities either. He is now 6 and never shuts up!! Some words are still not pronounced correctly, but not any more so than another child his age. He gets on stage to do school performances and although he is a more gentle child than some others, he is sociable! It is lovely to read about another child working through their speech and progressing. Gaining confidence and social skills. Thanks for sharing!

hydrosnap said...

My son just turned 2 and is slow to warn up around new people. Around me, his dad, and our nanny, he's a gregarious, chatty, adventurous kid. Around anyone he doesn't see very regularly, even his grandparents, he is more quite and reserved. Even at playgroups, he'll warm up fairly quickly, but still prefers to play on his own. Just recently people have been labeling him shy and it makes my skin crawl. I agree that it's a form of name calling, an inaccurate and not helpful label. As a new parent, though, I'm not sure of the appropriate way to respond. Anyone have any tips? Great post, by the way, as usual!

Annicles said...

My youngest daughter was very quiet, almost completely silent out of the house when she was young. My father in law took it as a personal insult that she would not speak to him, even though I assured him it was anyone, outside of her secure circle, that she was silent with.

She is now seven and talks quite happily at school and to people, even strangers. However,I have noticed that she is a perfectionist, which I view as a burden for her which still prevents her from interacting as full as she could. She has recently been diagnosed as having a Non-Verbal Learning Deficit, which means she finds processing information very tricky, particularly when it comes in big lumps or many senses at once. I am sure that she is the way she is because she doesn't want to get things wrong but isn't sure what she is processing. Time is what she needs, from individual interactions, to taking in information in lessons.

Tom Bedard said...

My daughter was quiet and reserved as a young child. I never called her shy, though. I always said she was cautious. She was quiet and reserved---and cautious---all the way through grade school. She eventually became a Peace Corps volunteer and then lived and worked abroad for an additional three years after that. She is still cautious, which serves her well, but she is truly adventuresome, too.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate your acknowledgement that selective mutisim is not the extent of this child's issues. He sounds more like a child with Apraxia with sM secondary. Children with apraxia often stumble with words. Imagine if you will a crossed wire in the brain. You ask for the color purple, the child knows the color, knows the word they want their mouth to say, yet when it finally makes its way out, says green. they know the wrong word comes out and try to correct. Apraxic children are often more fluently verbal with spontanious speaking and troubled with expected words, like being asked a question. Parents or friends often translate for these children and early intervention is key. I am glad to see speech therapy is involved. But I caution teachers to not, self diagnose, any child that is not reaching developmental milestones on time. Apraxia is often a delayed diagnosis, after being lumped in with Autism, Shyness, and SM.

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