My three-year-old loves books. At the moment, he is devouring all things scary. It started with a Curious George Halloween book wherein, George and his friends try to solve the mystery of No-Noggin’, a headless scarecrow that kicks off the hats of passersby. Believe me, this is terrifying if you’re 3. His other favorites are Scooby Doo: Museum Madness, 10 Little Monsters, and I Need My Monster.
Before scary stuff, he was obsessed with Paw Patrol. And before that, The Avengers. The point is, his tastes change over time, and he’s only 3.
Now, consider this. I work with a kiddo who just completed the second grade. He is on the autism spectrum, and has been receiving therapy services since before he was 1. His special education teachers were concerned last year because every time they sat down for circle time to read a book, he would start to exhibit, wait for it, ‘negative behaviors.’ He’d begin by protesting, and it would escalate to hitting, kicking, and throwing his communication device. Obviously, this was a problem.
What was the antecedent to these behaviors? Was it the transition to circle time? Was there a sensory trigger like the pillows or the carpet the kids were sitting on? Was he simply ‘being bad?
His parents and I started to investigate what was happening. At some point we turned to his classroom reading list. This particular little boy was in the 2nd grade. He had the same teacher and peers for 2 years. He had been in the same classroom for 2 years. And, as we found out, he had the same reading list, for 2 years.
That’s right, he and his classmates had the same reading list they had the previous year. The list was made of classics like Brown Bear Brown Bear, Goodnight Moon, and Go Dog Go. This list was also going to be the same list the school would use for this classroom the following year.
So this was my theory: This child was exhibiting so-called negative behaviors because he was loosing his mind from reading or being read the same books over and over and over again. He’d been in therapy since he was one. Imagine how many times he’d read about Brown Bear and what Brown Bear had seen. Probably countless. Imagine being read the same list of books for years and years. Would you feel like having nervous breakdown? Would you exhibit ‘negative behaviors’? I might.
It’s hard to come up with new ways activities and things to do with kids. We, as therapists and teachers, find something that works, and we stick with it. Because it works. Because there are materials created for these books or activities that we put numerous hours into creating. This makes sense. I’m guilty of it for sure.
When it comes to working with kids with delays or who use agumentative and alternative communication devices (also known as speech generating devices) this is especially true. Coming up with and developing NEW treatment materials is a drag, it’s time-consuming, and there is no real way to know if it’s going to work with a kid. There is nothing worse than planning for a lesson, creating new materials, and then having that lesson bomb. Further, many of these kids like and respond well to repetition, so maybe we should keep activities familiar.
However, repetition that is the manifestation of the fear of challenging our children or ourselves is a problem.
To be clear, I’m not blaming teachers, therapists, or teachers aides for the problems mentioned above. I come from a family of teachers, and few people work harder. Blame doesn’t get us anywhere, and almost everyone I’ve ever met who works with kids with special needs truly wants the best for them.
I think the problem is simple: There isn’t enough time.
A recent federal study tells us teachers, therapists, and administrators spend “20 to 30 percent of their time, on onerous and often-duplicative administrative tasks.” In a 40 hour work week, that amounts to 8 to 12 hours minimum, though most teachers work way more than 40 hours a week. If we consider just 40 hours, then that leaves 28 hours per week for teaching and 12 for administrative tasks. School days are approximately 8 hours long, depending on the age of the kid, so that leaves 5.6 hours a day to teach kids. Also, the teachers aren’t leaving these kids unattended for 2-3 hours a day, so in all likely hood this work is all being done after the kids leave or when the teachers are at home. No wonder teachers haven’t discovered Peanut Butter and Jelly Brains. It’s understandably not even on their radar. Teachers and therapists need more time to create new materials. Heck, they need more time to DISCOVER new materials.
Where does this leave us? As professionals, we need to, when appropriate, break from the comfort of repetition. How would I know that the kid I mentioned above loves Minion books if I had never shown them to him? Unfortunately, breaking out of these cycles can’t happen without us as parents and professionals affording therapists and teachers the time to find and create new ways to teach our children.