There are times when presuming competence is easy. Joey has a light in his eyes, and he’s clearly trying to tell me something. He giggles and laughs, and persists in finding the right answer. We’re connected, and I know he’s trying to find the right word.
Other times, it’s not that easy. He knows his numbers and letters. I know he knows them. I have data that reflects this. So what’s up today – why is he selecting every number but the one I’m asking him?
Has he regressed? Is he having trouble lining up his eyes with his device? Is he bored? Is he rebelling? Did he hear my question? Did I just imagine that he knew his numbers and letters last spring? There are times it is easy for that last question to slip into our thoughts when we are working with students like Joey. For some reason, the worst thing that we can imagine as special education teachers is that we give a student credit for doing something they cannot do. And so, in the world of self-protection to our own egos, we are more likely to assume a student can’t do something than can do something.
I have a decision to make. Do I assume Joey academically knows the information, but has trouble selecting the button? Do I assume Joey has forgotten what he knew, and I need to re-teach? The decision feels heavy because the wrong decision could mean frustrating Joey – either for moving too fast or too slow. Frustration decreases engagement, and once we lose engagement we lose our opportunity to interact.
In these moments I find myself watching Joey intently, looking for cues one way or the other. Does his brow furrow because he’s frustrated that he’s not selecting the right icon, but he’s determined to so he continues to try? Or is he wildly guessing, not looking committed to the task? Is his mouth making the initial sound for the word? Is he leaning forward, trying to find the answer? Or leaning back, avoiding my eye contact?
I won’t find the answers inside my own self-doubt or worries, but within him. And again, I come back to the common question, which assumption leads to the least amount of damage to Joey?
I decided to presume competence with the high frequency words I’ve been showing Joey, and assume he’s having trouble finding them on his device but not reading the words themselves. I pulled out a simple Developmental Reading Assessment Level 1 book that I use with typically developing kindergarteners in the beginning of the year. It has repeated sentences on each page, and for most kids relies on memorization, an understanding of how words are made up on the page, and that we can check the picture and first letter to decode a word. Typically, this should be a fairly easy book. Presuming that Joey was on a beginning of kindergarten reading level, I moved ahead.
Holding my breath I brought out the book. He grinned. He knew what it was. I’d brought similar looking books to his brother when his brother was in kindergarten. He leaned in, looking ready. He quickly found the word “see” when I pointed to it and asked him to read the word – even though I didn’t know that was a word he already knew. He learned where to find the button “I can” and was able to make the sentence “I can see” repeatedly, though painstakingly. As I turned each page he was excited to tell me what the last word on the page was, and if he didn’t have that word on his device, he looked around his room to show me where I could find a matching item. If I asked him what a word on the page started with, he was quick to tell me.
This task exhausted him, and before long we were done. He couldn’t sustain the energy needed to carefully read each and every word on the page. But I learned that he is able to read a book with a repeated sentence, and is able to use the picture to make meaning in the book – just as we would expect all beginning kindergarteners to do.
By the end we were both exhausted. I found myself wondering about his ability, and then reminded myself that fatigue doesn’t mean he can’t do it. It just means it’s harder to accomplish because we’ll have to take slower steps, present materially differently, change how he responds. But he can.