lavenderI had some questions as I entered my first year as a support teacher. The second graders who came to me would be leaving their regular classroom and coming to mine in order to work on their toughest subjects, whether math, reading or writing. How would they feel about that?

Would they feel they were missing something important in the classroom by spending time with me each day? Would they become peripheral to the culture of their regular classroom? Would they associate the need to work with me, their support teacher, as a symbol of failure?

It’s a tricky area to navigate. Elementary age children walk a tightrope between craving the individual attention I can give them, and the fear that others will think less of them for needing that attention. I have to normalize the experience and make them feel good about coming.

Ways I work to accomplish this

First, I try to make my room a nice place to be. I give them their own personal colorful pencils and erasers instead of the regular communal pencils available in the classrooms. There is a lavender plant whose leaves they can rub to get the lavender scent on their hands.

I also have sensory cushions on each of the chairs in the room. These are designed to allow kids to stay in motion when it otherwise is hard to sit still. All the kids love them, even if they don’t need help paying attention.

isokinetics-cushionsThe second step if a child expresses concern about leaving the classroom is to have an open discussion about why he or she must come with me. To the question, “Is this the lowest reading group?” I can say, “There are not really high or low reading groups. Each group is working on different skills. For some kids, understanding the idea of the story is the hardest thing. For you, the hardest thing is sounding out the words, so this group will focus on that.”

While all of this is somewhat accurate, it does gloss over the fact that whether or not they come with me is determined through reading levels. When one of my students sees a child from another group reading a book with far more words on the page it simply isn’t fair to claim that they are receiving the same attention from their teachers.

How to talk about best interests

So if a child is still concerned, I try to be as honest as I can about how receiving support from me is going to be in the child’s best interest. In many cases, I am teaching exactly what the classroom teacher is teaching, but in a quieter and more structured environment. In those circumstances I can ask:

“Have you noticed how when the teacher is talking you have trouble understanding what she is saying?”

“How do you feel when other children answer before you’ve had time to think about the idea?”

“Do you like it better when we do things in a quieter place with fewer kids?”

“Do you like having more chances to answer than you would in the classroom?”

Often I simply ask: “Is learning easier when you do it with me?

We all need help

Sometimes the discussion might sound a little different. I learned from Adina Lederer, the head of support at our school, to discuss two things.

Girl-on-gym-150First, focus on the child’s strengths. These may actually be more evident outside of school and are just as legitimate strengths. The second focus is on the idea of all people needing help in different areas.

“One person may need help with training their eyes to see better. Another may need help learning how to make friends. Someone may need help learning how to hold a pencil or swim fast or throw a ball. You’re great at throwing a ball. I can’t do that without help.”

I know for myself that any time I receive help, I feel cared for. I personally struggle with a weak trapezius muscle and an SI joint that sometimes twists out of whack. When either of these is flaring, I look forward to an appointment with my physical therapist. Once there, I enjoy the individual attention I get. I’d like the children I’m working with to feel the same about coming to me.

It’s personal

The best part of working with children is the very personal relationship you develop by working so closely with them over time. I have succeeded as a support teacher not only when a child learns, but when he or she asks how soon until we will meet again. Best of all is feedback after I’ve been with a child for some time. I loved this compliment I got recently from a father whose child comes to me for math.

“I asked my daughter what her favorite subject is, and she said it was math. After all of her struggles in that area, this is because of you and the care you give her.”

Whether in the classroom or in a support position, no compliment could get better than that.

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Arwen Kuttner

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