I walked into the special day class classroom I have visited for years, and “L” was having a fit. Yelling, rolling on the floor and spreading general unhappiness. The teachers and I tried numerous interventions, but nothing worked until we decided to pull out one of the “magic scarves.” This simple, oversized scarf works miracles in my classes. Once the scarf was over “L,” she immediately calmed down and even participated in that day’s music lesson.
This is just one of many times this scarf has come in handy. It is hard to say what makes it so engaging. Students of varying abilities find it fascinating. They follow it with their gaze, dance with it and will generally follow any direction as long as they get to interact with it.
There are a few specific ways I use this scarf. First, I use it to encourage eye tracking or to bring focus to an area of the room. It also helps to remind students to change levels in a dance and encourages a specific quality of movement, I also have students hold one end of the scarf while I move the other end. Using this technique, almost every student will match my movements.
Though I am not sure of the reason for my students’ fascination with my scarves, I am grateful for its effectiveness, and I plan to continue to use it in years to come.
Last year I wrote a blog suggesting that students’ behaviors should whenever possible be seen as an attempt to communicate. I encouraged my fellow teaching artists to:
1. Find the hidden messages in “behaviors” or “breakdowns”
Those of us that work with special needs students are very familiar with behaviors or breakdowns. Initially the crying, repetitive gestures and outbursts from these students may seem random, but they rarely are. These students have no way of saying “I don’t like this song,” or “The volume is too high.” Ask yourself:
What activity preceded the outburst?
Has this happened before?
What did you or the classroom staff do that calmed the student?
When does this student seem most content?
Sometimes there are even messages in the sounds and words said while in the midst of a tantrum. One of my students “J” threw a tantrum in one of my classes, and after close listening, I realized that he was yelling, “e-i-e-i-o.” He wanted to sing Old MacDonald but didn’t have the vocabulary to express it. So we sang Old MacDonald and he was immediately calmed.
2. “Read” your audience.
A great many skills we develop as performers are transferable to teaching special needs students. One such skill is being able to “read” your audience. After a while we instinctively know when to slow down, speed up or drop a section completely. The same goes for working with students.
If you find your students engaged in a song, repeat it. This populations thrives on repetition, and those with language processing delays will have an opportunity to learn your material. On the other hand, if the class is losing focus or individuals are starting to show behaviors, find a quick stopping place and move on. It takes patience and flexibility to work with special needs kids, and sometimes no matter how wonderful your lesson plan is, you may have to make a quick change.
3. Your greatest resource: The classroom teacher
The special day class teachers are an amazing group of individuals who know their students extremely well. Ask them for advice and listen to them when they make suggestions.
This year I have been considering the difficult situation when I realize what a student is trying to communicate and I have to decide to honor the request or continue with the class. For instance, if a student breaks down in the middle of a song, is it best to stop the song or continue in the hopes that ignoring the behavior will not reinforce it. The simplest answer I have come up with is to look to the classroom teacher for advice, but I am realizing that being a teaching artist with the same children over several years and sometimes through several classrooms can help in this situation. We are in the unique situation of knowing students on a very deep level and can plan and react accordingly sometimes even surprising the classroom teachers. There was a specific instance where we were singing a song, and one fo the students was obviously not enjoying the experience. The classroom teacher and I looked at each other considering what to do. I shared that in the past if I get to the next verse, this child usually calmed down. We tried it, and it worked!
YIA Mentor Artist Hannah Dworkin