Whenever we have a substitute for one of my paraprofessionals, one of the hardest things is trying to give him or her a sense of the balance between helping students practice a skill and simply doing something for them. It doesn’t help that my students, no matter how severe their disabilities, are absolutely masterful at snowing new people. From gluing to speaking to walking in a gait trainer, I’ve seen my kids stare at new people like they were purple aliens when requested to do a simple task that they are completely capable of doing.
There are many things that my students cannot do, many things they need help to do, and some things they will always need help to do. Most of them notice this in some way, at some point. Language is a serious struggle for all of my students, so asking for help is something we work on a lot—most of them won’t do it spontaneously. So when a caring, helpful adult sees that an adorable six-year-old with a disability is struggling to put his jacket on, she does it for him. Multiply that experience by 50 other daily events and you send the message to that kid: you can’t do it, I’ll do it for you.
Soon, even if the student knows the he CAN do it (because, for example, his teacher makes him zip up his own coat and does a big happy dance every time he does it by himself), he has learned that if he stands there long enough looking adorably clueless in view of the right adults, they will probably do it for him.
Some substitutes have commented to me that they thought it was “mean” to make a student do something that they were clearly struggling with. It’s not like I’m making them carry 10-lb. weights around my room—I’m making sure they have the opportunity to follow through and practice the skills we’re working on, whatever level that may be. It is impossible for someone new to my classroom to know everything a kid can and can’t do, so they’re in a very tough position and I can only give them my undying gratitude for even venturing into my classroom. There are many other people, however, over the lives of my students, who do not realize that the more they do for our kid, the less our kids learn to do for themselves.
My students all know that they have to “try it themselves” first, and if they try (what I determine to be) “their best,” then they can use their words or sign language or pictures to ask for help. I have waited one of my students out for 15 minutes for him to open his backpack himself and put his communication notebook in the bin. That same little guy takes about 10 minutes to open his milk at lunch every day. But he does it himself because he has learned how to do it himself. Every single thing my students learn to do for themselves is an essential step toward living the most independent futures possible.
So, yes, my friends, mean Ms. Ellen makes you say “help please” even though I can clearly tell you’d like me to open your string cheese. I make you walk in the hallway without touching the wall, every time. I make you go through the lunch line and get your own tray and milk and pick out your own food. I’ll help you with what you need help with, but I’ll push you to do what I think you can do. My expectations for you are high, but my belief in your ability to succeed is even higher…and you’re not succeeding if we’re just doing it for you.