This is part 2 in a 3 part series on presuming competency.
Joey looked at me, then the floor, and finally back to his eye gaze AAC device. He said “Off. Over. White” on his eye gaze twice, then looked at the floor again. Finally, he said “down” on the eye gaze device. I looked down, and realized that the red maraca with a white top had rolled under my chair and I hadn’t seen it when I first followed his gaze toward the floor. Although off over white down seemed to be a random string of words, I started to suspect that what he was telling me was the maraca fell off the tray. The white is over the red on the maraca, and it was down on the floor. When I handed Joey the maraca, his grin told me that it was exactly what he wanted.
Am I giving him too much credit? Was he just choosing a string of random words until I produced an entertaining object? Or was he attempting to use any words he could on the eye gaze system to tell me what he wanted since maraca is not one of his words. Should we treat the chain of words as intentional, or random?
This is where we need to ask – What will do the least harm? Honoring his intent to communicate his needs with me, or ignoring attempts to communicate because they were not clear?
One aspect of presuming competency in those around us, is to honor the intent of actions. This often requires more work from us as professionals, as we must be attuned to all the cues the child is giving to see beyond the most simplistic behavior. We must look at how the child shifts his eye gaze to different objects in the room, pay attention to subtle movements, and look for any sense of hesitancy in a child’s demeanor that may keep them from doing what they intend to do.
For children like Joey, we can honor intent by observing his motor movements and his eye gaze in order to determine how his actions connect to what he wants. This can help us realize that he although he hit the red car with his arm, he was looking at the blue car, and that he was actually trying to reach the blue car. His arm motions may have looked random, but when we consider the look in his eyes and his focus on the blue car, we realize he was intending to get closer to the car. Once we realize Joey’s intent, we can label what he wants, and then help support him while he rolls closer to the blue car.
We can also honor Joey’s intent by listening to his oral communication with us. It is not always easy, but he often makes sounds that are clear he wants to tell us something, but cannot form the words. Yet, we can pause to listen, and respond back afterward.
For some children, honoring intent draws the child’s awareness to the combination of their wants and their actions. It helps them realize that they are capable of pairing their motor planning and communication skills to get what they want. It also acknowledges them as a person who has wants and needs, as well as the power to interact with those around them.
My favorite teaching strategy is one I learned early in my career from watching Reading Recovery teachers who worked one-on-one with six year olds who were struggling to read. These teachers would carefully watch the student, and analyze how the student attempted to figure out an unfamiliar word. The teachers would often jump in and label what the student was about to do, even if there was only the smallest evidence that the child was going to use that strategy. I saw teacher after teacher say, “Look at you! I saw you look at the word and then at the picture. You got your mouth ready and checked the picture, didn’t you?” The child would look slightly confused for a moment, and then would slowly nod, looking up at the teacher with big eyes. “Now, let me see you do it again!” the teacher would say, and the child would be off, using a strategy the teacher may or may not have noticed the child doing. The teacher presumed the child could do the strategy, and gave the child credit for the intention of the strategy. And so, after being told that he used the strategy, the child could do it.
I use this strategy constantly, especially in helping children become aware of how to self-regulate themselves. When working with a child who is having trouble not interrupting, I’ll catch the child before he interrupts. “Look! You sat so quietly! You wanted to tell me something, but you didn’t call out! You know you can tell me after you raise your hand.” The child often nods, and silently raises his hand proudly, as though I read his mind. And I did. He wanted to meet our expectations, but was having trouble doing so. In honoring his intent to follow the rules, I made it easier for him to follow them next time, and helped him see himself as someone who can do it. We follow the belief Ross Green writes about when he says, “Kids do well if they can.”
The strategy looks different when working with children like Joey, but it provides the same message. I see you. Your actions and words have meaning. I know you have something important to say and do. I may not fully understand what you want, but I believe it is important, and I’m here to figure it out.