By: Alison Cass
Ronald,* age five, is an empathetic and hard working child. His parents have taught him love, kindness and compassion. Each day he works harder than most children in my kindergarten class. Ronald comes to school with a smile on his face—and one of heaviest backpacks in our class. His bag is stuffed with many different options for mitts, socks and hats. We suspect he has sensory processing challenges. Everything is uncomfortable. Pants and shoes are never tight enough. Mitts, hats and snow pants don’t stand a chance. As a result, Ronald needs lots of support, love, understanding, and some days, our time.
Did you know the #1 unwritten rule in Kindergarten is you should wear winter gear outside everyday? No ifs, ands, or buts. Deviating from that rule would be unhealthy right? The #2 “rule” is that you should do your own zippers, straps, and velcro. However, I learned this year that if I am to be an educator who sees the whole child, and meet the needs of my children across all five domains, these “rules” must be broken for Ronald.
Ronald is the only child in my class who does not have to wear mittens or snow pants. This was an agreement his parents and my team made. Still, we try to get him to put on mittens and snow pant everyday. Ronald prefers his boot straps tight. And each day I tighten the straps for him as hard as I can possibly pull them. That’s how they feel good to Ronald. But, the truth is, each day things feel different on his body, and he often chooses to go outside without boots, and sometimes without mittens or snow pants.
Yesterday I was a bit sad as Ronald watched the other children giggle as they played on sleds in the snow. I could tell he wanted to sled as well. But Ronald refused to sled because he did not want to get his jogging pants wet. He also did not want to put on his snow pants. That task sends him to gray brain state in seconds. He knows it is a challenge for us. He says, “Please! I don’t want to try, they hurt.”
I question, how can Ronald learn if he can’t fully participate? Well, today, after Ronald and I agreed that he didn’t have to attempt the snow pants, he chose to stand at the bottom of the hill and be the sledding coach and cheerleader. He was happy. He was not worried about whether or not I was going to take him inside and encourage him to put on the snow pants. Ronald was having just as much fun as the sledders. And he was learning too, because he was in blue brain.
Bottom line is, I’m not going to “should” Ronald. Just because the other children get dressed super fast without a bat of an eye, that doesn’t mean Ronald “should” too. Just because the other children must wear boots for outdoor play, that doesn’t mean that Ronald ‘should’ too. Ronald stays in blue brain, comfortable in his crocs. Some days they aren’t only his indoor shoes. He is allowed to wear them outside too.
Each day I am a stress detective with Ronald. I check in to find out what is ‘hurting’ and what big thoughts and worries are lingering. His Dad and I speak for at least three minutes every morning.
Successful days at school with Ronald are all about energy recovery. The more time we, his educators, spend on filling Ronald’s “tank” the better the day goes. We recognize his accomplishments and give praise. We show Ronald we understand by listening, asking questions and giving a lot of very tight hugs. He knows we care and that we love him.
We have created a learning environment that supports Ronald’s needs, along with the needs of the other children. He can go to one of our quiet spaces for experiencing calm when his body needs a break. Sometimes he enjoys a moment at the snack table to refuel. We have silly spaces in the room where Ronald can be any person he chooses to be. Usually he likes to be a builder at the blocks centre. We try to give Ronald the ability to choose what he thinks his body needs to feel just right.
Each day presents its challenges, so there is no lack of effort on Ronald’s part, or ours. But I promise you that this boy wants so badly, and is trying, to just be like everyone else.
Alison Cass is a Kindergarten teacher with the Waterloo Region District School Board.
*Ronald’s parents graciously gave their permission for me to tell Ronald’s story. His name has been changed to respect Ronald’s privacy.