Monday, July 30, 2012

This Commitment To "Normalcy"

In a comment on Facebook about yesterday's post, reader Donna shared that her son is on medication that could make even a run-of-the-mill childhood injury into a life-threatening one. 

I have a 4-year-old boy who has been on blood thinners since he was 2. Fortunately, we have a good cardiologist who told me to let him be a boy! How would he ever learn to be careful if I completely took away all risk of physical harm? He has learned to be careful, but still climbs trees, rides a scooter, still plays out in the backyard with sticks, rocks, and all sorts of things. You can't just keep them in a protective bubble, it is not good for them and they don't learn anything.

What a challenge that would be for a parent. What a temptation it would be to attempt to enclose your child in a "protective bubble." And what bravery it must take, every day, for parents like Donna to let their children freely engage the world.

Many years ago, I taught a boy with hemophilia, a condition that prevents blood from clotting properly. I can tell you that I spent my first several months in the classroom with him on the edge of panic lest he encounter even the mildest bump or bruise, so I can imagine what it must have been like to be his parents. Like Donna, however, they arrived on day one wanting me to be aware of the situation, but urging me to not coddle him, to allow him to run, jump, and otherwise play with his classmates. He was not a daredevil by nature, thank God, but he was a typically bright, inquisitive boy who could throw his body around with the best of them.

His father Joe told me that the greatest danger wasn't the blood we could see, but rather the blood we couldn't see: internal bleeding, which might result from even apparently insignificant impacts, something that is always a minute-to-minute possibility in a preschool classroom. Joe said, "If he seems woozy or dizzy, that's a sign, but he'll probably let you know if he's having a bleed. He knows what it feels like." This at an age when many kids aren't even self-aware enough to know when they're hungry, tired, or need to go potty.

Cooperatives are a natural choice, I think, for parents in these circumstances. I can imagine it would be awfully hard to simply turn over the care of a child in Conail's situation for the first time to a traditional school. In the beginning, his parents chose not to leave him alone at school, which is a choice many parents make during the first few months at Woodland Park, especially in our Pre-3's class. I put them to work as I would any other parent-teacher. This gave us all -- myself and the other parent-teachers -- the opportunity to observe how they interacted with him, how they reacted to his occasional mishaps, how much they hovered or didn't hover. This period of role-modeling was a valuable education for all of us, especially on the day when this 2-year-old boy told his dad Joe, "I'm having a bleed." No amount of abstract "training" could have better prepared me for being on the "front lines" than to be there as Joe calmly and lovingly took Conail into his care and got him off to the doctor, two "men" (and Conail was truly his father's peer in this) dealing with a problem without hysteria.

By Conail's Pre-K year, most of us didn't really think about his hemophilia on a day-to-day basis, although we were reminded each Tuesday afternoon, when Joe would arrive to administer his "factor," a clotting agent that needed to be administered on a schedule. At first it was something for which they left the room, but at some point, not wanting to miss a moment of school, Conail started just removing his shirt right there where we sat together on our circle time rug, showing us the shunt a doctor had installed in his chest, puffing out his chest while Joe injected the factor. By the end of the year, this process was a regular part of our circle time routine: sing a song, talk about our science experiment, give Conail his factor, read a book . . . That's just how we rolled with our super hero friend.

This is Alex, a girl who lost an eye to cancer, wearing her super hero cape in the hospital.

Over the years, I and our parent community have learned all kinds of "medical" skills, from administering Epi-pens and insulin injections to replacing a glass eye. In every case, we were dealing with children who are at one level wise beyond their years, with advanced self-awareness and self-care abilities, kids who had in their own ways learned to "be careful," but who were otherwise just "normal" kids with very brave parents, who must every day fight that urge to inflate a "protective bubble" around their babies. 

This commitment to "normalcy" is an inspiration. In a very real sense these brave children with hemophilia or severe allergies or diabetes or cancer, and their brave parents, are reality-checks to the rest of us and our media-inflamed fears of boogy men, eyes getting poked out, and heads being split open. It is through them that we can appreciate what a gift the bumps and bruises of a normal childhood truly are.

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Deborah said...

Yep, I love this post. I love how you invite parents into the classroom to learn from them rather than somehow feeling you should already know the answer or that you somehow secretly know better. Watching children interact with their parents is something that we just don't do enough - we are in a big hurry to dismiss parents all together. Granted, this was special circumstances and perhaps most teachers would do the same but I really believe teachers forget the valuable information parents have about their own child and how important the parent is in a child's life. I know you are talking about taking risks but I just recently had a wonderful conversation with a parent the other day and she blessed me so much as I listen to how much she loves her child and wants to do the right things for her child. The things the parents do in your article to care for their child just amazes me - parents amaze me.

Allison Officer, M.S.Ed said...

Over my 5 short years of teaching I have had kids with a variety of medical needs and medications... Epilepsy, diastat, trach, remodulin pump, etc. and initially I experienced a lot of the same anxieties that you expressed. Many of my colleagues urged me to complain to administration because the school nurse was expecting me to carry out a lot of the medical routines because they weren't in my "job description" (I don't honestly think I've ever looked at my job description). However, I felt strongly about maintaining "normalcy" in my classroom and found it was much easier to calmly and efficiently address these medical needs myself. My approach allowed me to lead by example and help not only my paras but my other students understand that my students with medical needs were to be treated no differently than the rest of the class.