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Groundlessness in Special Education

“If you are invested in security and certainty, you are on the wrong planet.”

Pema Chodron



Since March of this year, we have all been thrust into a world of uncertainty. The never-ending barrage of fearful messages has likely left, even the most optimistic among us, feeling weary and afraid. My own need for a security came full circle this week. From March to September, I provided therapy services online. Though this was not ideal, teachers, therapists, students and parents alike were in this amorphous boat together. There was a sense that showing up was enough and there should be grace for the imperfect nature of service delivery in this uncharted territory. Over time, however, therapists and teachers were expected to up their game, to get better at technology, and to know how to help students reach their goals online. I came to it kicking and screaming but did learn some new skills, started to feel slightly more adept in the online therapy world and understood that acceptance of reality was necessary.


After finally embracing my strange new online world, I was introduced back into the classroom. Though the classroom is not what it was, with masks and social distancing, the familiarity of being with students has been comforting. Back at school, I started to feel proficient and secure again. I was back to being me.


Through the work of Dr. Stephen Porges, and many other psychologists and neuroscientists, we know that in order to thrive and learn, feeling safe is imperative. When we are threatened, our brain causes us to react with a fight or flight response. These responses in children are often obvious. We may see a a child engaging in a tantrum or literally running away from a situation. With adults the signs may not be so apparent. Many of us flee by using distraction or constant complaining. We may use eating, shopping or social media to avoid uncomfortable feelings that accompany states of uncertainty.


Through our better understanding of trauma, we now know what lies even beyond the fight or flight response. Individuals simply freeze when threats exceed their resources to handle them. Frozen could be the only way to describe my state last Sunday when I was told that I would need to quarantine. From my home I was being asked to provide services to children in school and to children at home, at the same time. I knew how to work with the students online or at school, but at the same time? I could literally not wrap my mind around it and spent an entire day walking around in disbelief and confusion. After a sleepless night, Monday arrived with this strange new expectation of my services. A few hours into the day and the situation changed. I was told to come into the school building. These last-minute changes kept happening all week. I felt unglued and quite sorry for myself and my situation. I did not want to be where I was. I am an experienced therapist and don’t enjoy feeling inept and unsure.


Self-pity came to a halt when I met one of my students on Thursday. I saw and, more importantly felt, his fear. How difficult it has been for me, with all of my knowledge, my mindfulness practices, and my life experience. Here was my much younger student who was truly frozen, unable to do the simple activity I had in front of him. Meeting this fear with compassion seemed the only choice. Compassion for him while feeling that same compassion for myself. I changed my expectations, held space for him and allowed us to just be together in our collective fear.


No experience is ever wasted if we are curious. This week has certainly taught me a great deal about the importance of security and competence. My young students often cling to routines and predictability. Before I truly recognized the importance of safety, I would strongly discourage these inclinations, as I felt that the child was standing still when they asking for the same book each session, needing the same color or wanting the numbers to line up just so. Over the last two years I have also been listening to the voices of neurodivergent adults when they recall the importance of these anchoring routines or predictable environments. Though I thought I heard them, this week’s events helped me to truly understand. I had the opportunity to embody the importance of predictability. Through my own unraveling I can now imagine what everyday life must be like for many of my neurodivergent students. Imagine the groundlessness of the being in a world that might be too loud, too bright, and too fast to be understood. I would search for some consistency to make me feel grounded and safe. Routines matter. We should support our students in the ways that make sense to them so they can safely move through what can be a very frightening world.


My sense of incompetence was also deeply felt this week. Not knowing how to do what I was being asked to do was embarrassing. I should be able to pivot. How would I look to the parents if I cannot figure out how to work with their children? Why was I so behind my colleagues who seem to just embrace this technology and answer the call of change with apparent ease? Of course, beating myself up for not meeting my own unrealistic expectations never works, but it did get me to think about my students. How many times have I placed an unrealistic expectation on a child and assumed that they should be able to do it? How often have I looked at a behavior as a won’t rather than a can’t?


Covid 19 has so many lessons. For me, a new empathetic understanding is emerging of my neurodiverse students. I am softer than before this pandemic. Humility for all that I don’t know is replacing certainty. This week’s experience of ambiguity and fear has created a new potential to open me heart in new and unexpected ways. The year 2020 cannot end soon enough for most of us, but perhaps there have been lessons learned that have the potential to open us up to a new, kinder reality in our future.


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