Monday, January 23, 2012

One Of My New Little Friends

One of the first little friends I noticed, when I began student teaching in the at-risk preschool program at Sky Elementary, was Ani. Ani is a little boy who barely talks. When you say hello to him, he stares at the ground. When you ask him how his bus ride was, he stares at the ground. He can talk... at calendar time he will participate if the mood strikes him. Today he talked about the cookies we ate at the grocery store on our field trip last week. He'll make noises when he's playing in the toy area... which usually means he's shoving animals and people figurines down the trap door of the Fisher Price castle. But most of the time he will only nod, shake his head, or ignore you when you talk to him..The longest sentence I ever heard him say was "I don't want to," when I tried to get him to take off his backpack in order to put his seatbelt on on the bus. He usually refuses to do the tasks all the preschoolers do, like painting a polar bear white or sorting buttons by color. But when the teacher gives him an ultimatum... do the work, or no playing... Ani will go in the other direction, concentrating with all his might and refusing to stop when the teacher says its time to be done. "Its his way, or no way," the classroom aide explained. 
When I first started at Sky Elementary, Ani looked like he was glaring at me all the time. But by the end the first week, he'd started getting used to me. One day he came up to me and stomped his feet, to show me that he'd gotten new boots. Another day he showed me a large, silver thumb ring with skulls and crossbones engraved in it. "Mine," he said, before he hid it away in his backpack. 
Today when Ani got off the bus, I asked him to sit down with the rest of the kids, in the hallway where they wait for all of the bussers to arrive. Ani shook his head.
I don't know the kids well enough to be too firm... I'm still a guest in their classroom... so I tried to make him smile. "You won't sit down? What will you do instead?" I asked. "Will you stand on your head? Will you do jumping jacks? Will you swing from the ceiling like a monkey?" Ani almost smiled at that! But then he caught himself and  looked away, rolling his eyes. 
Ani is three. 
"Why is Ani so angry at life?" I asked Mrs. Wing, during a brief moment when the kids were out of earshot. 
"He has a very messed up home life," she replied. She didn't elaborate, and I didn't want to seem nosey by asking more, but I just can't help wondering.
The three year olds I've known throughout the years are emotional rollercoasters. They're laughing and being silly one minute, screaming and throwing a tantrum the next minute, and planting sloppy kisses on your cheek and declaring their undying love for you the next. Even the preschoolers I worked with who were in foster care and had Reactive Attachment Disorder were no exception. If anything, they were just bigger rollercoasters, with more violent lows and more joyous highs. But Ani is just... there. What happens to make a three year old withdraw like that?
A lot of the kids in the class have questionable home lives. The other day I asked you guys if you know what makes a child qualify as being at risk. Today I found the answer in an online manual for the state's at-risk preschool program. Basically, when screened, children are given numbers of points for different factors that put them at risk. For factors that involve their biological and physical needs, such as being on the federal free lunch program, living in subsidized housing, being homeless, having a chronic illness, having been exposed to lead , being malnourished, having a teenaged mother, having low birth weight, having been exposed to drugs or alcohol as a fetus, etc, they would get four points for each, because these factors are considered the most pressing. Safety needs... having parents with poor behavior management skills, an unstable family structure, having been abused or neglected, being in foster care or under DCFS supervision, having an incarcerated parent, etc... would score them three points each. Factors that are considered "belongingness and love needs," such as speech issues (I'm not sure why thats grouped in with belongingness and love, unless they rule out that the child has an actual speech delay and decide that his speech issues have to do with his home life,) lack of self control, lack of self esteem, having been through a trauma or serious loss, etc... score two points each. (Having a non-English primary home language is also listed in this category, inexplicably!) Finally, "esteem needs," such as a short attention span or poor gross motor skills (???!!!) score one point each. So whoever is screening the child eventually adds all of these points up. Then, the children with the most total points get spots in the preschool program. If there was a program with one hundred spaces, the one hundred worst-off children screened would get them. 
So basically, in order for a child to be in the program, a lot has to have gone wrong for them in their short three or four years of life! 
This is another reason why I feel like, if (hopefully when) I am a teacher, I want to make school as safe and happy a place as possible. I don't want to complain about the preschool program I'm at, because Mrs. Wing is great and the school is great and everything... but I just feel like something is missing. The joy is missing. 
I feel like a child like Ani should be able to come to school and have it be a shining spot in his day, a magical place where he feels safe and loved and has chances to try new things, to succeed at things, to be proud of himself. But here it just seems like its all about teaching them what they need to do... teaching them to sit quietly and raise their hands, to walk in a single file line, to clean up the toys and hold their pencils correctly and learn beginning academic skills... and not at all about their emotional needs. 
Its frustrating for me because I'm only there for five weeks, and I cannot make a difference there. I mean, even if I reach out to kids like Ani, in five weeks I'll be gone.
I love student teaching in the preschool! But sometimes it also makes me so sad. 


  1. It's sad that such young kids have such difficult lives. My son goes to an integrated preschool where he gets speech services through our school district, and his teachers are AMAZING. He loves it there. Teachers really can make a difference at the preschool level.

    I could see poor gross motor skills causing esteem problems - makes it hard to keep up with friends on the playground, for example.

  2. Angel, it's you that's on the right track here. Stay with what you believe. It's more important to connect with these children emotionally than to make them sit still, because without that need for connection being met they can't respond to requests- that's basic Erikson Hierarchy-of-needs educational philosophy. Student teaching is VERY frustrating when things like this happen- an emotionally aware person is forced to work within an over-structured environment and can SEE what's needed without the power to DO it. Hang in there and keep believing.

    I think you'd enjoy my blog... we think alike. Pop over and have a look.

  3. Angel, I find myself thinking similar to you in the way that I struggle with only being in the classroom for a short period of time. I too want to reach out and help certain students but if I do, will having me leave in such a short period of time make it worse after?
    I think you should go with your gut and do what you believe is best for your students.

  4. Angel, it sounds like you are doing all the right things with Ani and might be just what he needs. I don't mean to crush your high hopes here, but it seems like school everywhere are only out to get the children doing what they are supposed to do and very few of them address their emotional needs, unless it includes a quick checklist so the child can be medicated, sad as that is. BUT, there is a silver lining. The silver lining, is teachers like YOU. Five weeks may not seem like much, but I bet that 5 weeks makes a lasting impression on little Ani. That is what really matters.

  5. Well, the previous commenters said it all, huh? Great ideas all around. Just one more thing to remember, student teaching isn't just about watching a teacher and copying what she/he does. It's about experimenting with/observing what works and what doesn't work so that you can take the very best practices into your own classroom. You are definitely on the right track. I do think you'll make a difference with Ani. I have a 3 year old and he is old enough to "get it" when people connect with him even for short times. But, you are storing up skills for impacting A LOT of kids in your career. You won't always be able to reach every single child (not to sound like a downer) but when you think of the HUNDREDS of kids you will impact, it's totally worth it!


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