It creeps in like this thing that lives in my garage (gross, right?) and nests among the pencils and data sheets. It lingers in interactions with students and staff members, often without someone consciously noticing. It has the power to hurt feelings, change a mood, or even create a self-fulfilling cycle of poor behavior and lack of motivation.
I’ve noticed it more and more in my interactions with staff members. It usually involves criticizing something or someone that is outside of our control and I am just as much at fault as anyone else. It started mid-November, but I assumed that Thanksgiving and Winter break would give us all the distance we needed to improve our mood.
It didn’t work, and since break I have noticed it more in the classroom. As educators, we have to make this unacceptable. Even seemingly innocuous comments like, “He seems a little ‘off’ today” or “She doesn’t want to work” can change the attitudes of other staff members to that child as well as the child himself.
Imagine walking into a team meeting and you hear your supervisor whisper to a colleague, “So-and-so doesn’t seem to have any good ideas today.” Anyone would immediately deflate, or at the very least be taken aback. These types of comments, even if made innocently, are hurtful!
Other comments are even less innocent. Criticizing a student for whining when the student is speaking in his regular unfortunately-whiney-sounding voice or accusing a student of being lazy because he can’t control his scripting behavior is cruel. Not only are you exploiting weaknesses in students who need all the confidence that they can get, but the comments also reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of the students disabilities.
I believe that most of our students with significant disabilities hear and understand much more than we give them credit for. I have to believe this. There is no other choice. When you hear stories of students with classic autism who find their voice and suddenly are able to communicate, you have to believe. When you read a story in the news about how a man ‘woke up’ after 12 years in a vegetative state yet remembers everything, you have to believe.
There is no doubt that these stories can be (and probably are) sensationalized, but the point remains. It is impossible to tell whether a person is receiving messages if he/she does not have a consistent way to respond. So err on the side of caution. Be kind, be discreet, and be positive.