Stories From the Heart: Why Can’t I Pass Fourth Grade?

Several years ago, a student whom I will call Frank, came to my classroom, introduced himself and said to me “I just cannot seem to pass fourth grade.”  I told him we would figure it out together. Off we went to fourth grade for a lesson and I sat at the back of the room and watched my new friend participate.

The teacher illustrated something on the board and then turning to the class said “If you get this, raise your hand.” Frank put up his hand with the others. So far so good. The teacher then turned her back to the class and went on to write something new on the board. Frank kept his hand up, long after the others had put theirs down.

Suddenly realizing that he stood out, he looked very worried, put his hand down and began fidgeting in his seat. He also began flapping his hands and rocking. As the teacher droned on, Frank had tuned out and was missing a great deal of the next lesson. All because there was an implied direction rather than a spoken directive such as “hands down”. He pulled himself together admirably, but this took time, and time was not on his side.

Frank and I next went out to recess. Frank looked for a group to participate in and as he found one, he stood there frozen just outside the perimeter of the game.  He was on the outside, staring in at what he wanted to be his part of his world.

We had much work to do. Frank could pass fourth grade with help, but what he could not pass for was a child who blended in. We devised strategies to help.  These included:

1) When in doubt, just do what everyone else is doing. This gives time to blend and attend.

2) Stim modification….when Frank needed to flap/wring his hands, he went to the sink and did so while washing his hands. Frank came up with his own strategies…..I watched him one day start to flap outside and turn it immediately into a pretend swing of a baseball bat.

3) Added visual supports. For whatever he said he did not understand, we made a visual of what was truly going on. We also used index cards as cue cards that he would carry.

4) Role play..we practiced how to enter a group, how to exit a group, what a proper speaking distance was. We would practice it; he would try it out, and then report back as to how it worked. If it didn’t, we modified it until it did.

Frank passed fourth grade that year and got invited to his first birthday party!

Frank has the potential to be anything that he wants to be. Yet he was lost in a system that failed to recognize his unique strengths and challenges. He came to me completely baffled; with no tools or strategies to succeed. No one had ever sought to empower him by teaching him self-advocacy. No one had ever made it OK for him to be the magnificent child that he was and continues to be.

Frank didn’t fail fourth grade. Fourth grade failed Frank.

By Marie Inglee

* Stories From the Heart is an ongoing series of user contributed heart warming stories, that shine light on the Autism and special needs experience.

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