This school year had gotten off to a pretty nice start. I was grateful to begin the year with ample testing and therapy materials. In addition, I was assigned a new room that could only be described as tiny, but at least I had a space that was my own. There were no huge surprises with my caseload number; the exact number of new students anticipated showed up. I have had the same caseload for several years, and it has been a fairly easy caseload of sweet, cooperative students. Therefore, I expected no less of the new of students who would be added to the caseload.
But, I hadn’t met Nathan*. (name has been changed)
Nathan is a kindergartner and one of the cutest little fellows you’ll ever see. He is usually well dressed and groomed. Just looking at him, you’d never suspect he could pack such a wallop. He has an attention span about the size of a gnat. He’s in constant motion and has difficulty sitting. In the regular classroom, he’s often out of his seat walking around. He talks loudly and interrupts. During music, he frequently has to sit outside the classroom because he gets overstimulated and disrupts instruction. Whatever thought enters his head comes out of his mouth; he has no filter. He is a “frequent flyer” to the principal’s office, because he has no problem telling teachers “no” when he’s told to do something he doesn’t want to do. His verbal language is delayed, but he shows excellent use of nonverbal language. For example, recently he flipped me off when he wasn’t allowed to do something the way he wanted to do it. Other students quickly recognize that Nathan is “different”, so they avoid interaction with him. Here in the latter phase of the second nine weeks grading period, Nathan still doesn’t recognize, spell, or write his name.
So needless to say, Nathan presents challenges behaviorally, socially, and academically.
During our first therapy session, I knew it was going to be a long year with Nathan. He required constant redirections, such as “listen”, “use your inside voice”, “don’t touch that”, and on and on. Those thirty minutes wore me out, and afterwards, I was ready to go home and take a nap. I told myself I was too old to deal with what I call “baddy-boos”. The extreme behaviors Nathan presented busted my comfort zone wide open.
As I was getting ready for work the morning after Nathan flipped me off, I was thinking about what I was going to do with him. My goal in this phase of life is to be stress-free; however, stress was brewing in me, and I was not happy about it at all. The whole situation was way too much. I decided that if the stress continued, I might have to consider resigning my position at the end of the school year, particularly if Nathan was any indication of other difficult cases that might surface in any future caseloads.
Then, this thought came to me: extend grace.
Extend grace? To Nathan? You’ve got to be kidding me! This absolutely was not the solution I was expecting, but the words were thought provoking. Grace involves extending kindness and support even though it is not earned. My thoughts then traveled to my now adult son, who was a baddy-boo. Growing up, he showed attention deficit and hyperactivity. His behavior was problematic through the elementary, upper grades, and early adult years. However, during his life thus far, he has been blessed to have teachers, principals, and other people along the way who showed him kindness and flexibility.
They extended grace.
Believe me when I say my son didn’t always deserve those gifts of grace, because he was a very difficult child. But all of those people extended the grace anyway. Upon remembering those gifts of grace given to my son despite his challenges, it became clear what I needed to do—I needed to pay the grace forward to Nathan.
So, my decision has been to focus more on what Nathan does right rather than what he does wrong. My thoughts and words have shifted from the negative to the positive. I have chosen to uplift his spirit rather than dampen it. Using positive feedback has proven helpful. For example, every time he appropriately follows a direction or completes a task, he may earn a dinosaur to play with during the last few minutes of the session. Or, I may speak a positive comment, such as “I like the way you’re listening to me.” His pride shows when we celebrate the things he does right. I’ve become his cheerleader! And do you know what’s ironic? While the extension of grace helps Nathan, I think it helps me just as much. The attitude adjustment I experience is amazing. Maintaining positivity in working with him has made a considerable difference in our interactions. Don’t get me wrong—Nathan still acts out at times, but even during those moments of misbehavior, my level of tolerance and flexibility has increased.
Who is your Nathan? If your Nathan is anything like mine, I can imagine there are some not-so-easy days, but I encourage you to try extending grace. Thanksgiving and Christmas are the seasons of giving. Although material gifts are good, there is no greater lasting gift than a gift of grace to a student who doesn’t earn it. Think about it this way: grace may not always be earned, but it is always needed. It may go a long way in changing someone’s life. And most importantly, that gift of grace you give to that difficult student doesn’t just benefit that student—it benefits, you, too!
Author: Colleen H. Williams, SLP