The Very Important Task of Making Children Real

She blew into my “school room” on a nonexistent breeze, a fairy child with whisper-soft hair and waif-like limbs that stayed in a kind of constant, flowy, motion. In an instant, Layla had found my paper stash and began folding and Scotch taping a lined sheet into intricate shapes. Tape and fold, on and on. I asked her to sit down, and in grand style she presented me with her creation, which she called a flower.

Six-and-a-half year-old Layla’s parents had enlisted my services as a multi-sensory structured language tutor, a very rewarding career I had for about ten years. I worked both from home and in schools, always with bright children whose ability to learn written language had been somehow compromised by various deficits, usually with auditory memory. They had a hard time remembering the letters and their corresponding sounds, or frequently misread, confusing little words like “if” and “it.”  And they made a regular occupation of guessing. Not just at words. They’d put their own spin on entire sentences.

Layla wasn’t even at the point of being able to guess.

More than a few of the kids I taught probably lacked verbal stimulation at home, other than television. No, they did lack verbal stimulation at home. At one school I gave away chapter books as rewards to my fourth and fifth grade reading groups. It broke my heart to hear a fifth grade girl, a girl who worried a lot about being cool, delight in the book I had bought for fifty cents or a quarter at either the Friends of the Library book store or Goodwill. “Now I own two books,” she said, her expression quietly triumphant.

One school didn’t have an ESL program (English as a second language), and I got the angelic-looking, long-lashed ones who were behind. These kids were amazing. They worked hard and learned fast, but their parents didn’t want them in any kind of special program. What was wrong with their kid, anyway? To them it was a punishment, something keeping their kid away from the mainstream. Nonetheless, they always made exceptional progress, possibly out of fear of what would happen if they didn’t.

Others read like Banshees but didn’t understand a single word. But most had typical problems with decoding and spelling, long after it was acceptable for them to be using invented spelling, like “flwrs.”

When they first came to me, my students would do all kinds of strange things in an effort to avoid making the neurological connections required to retain the new information. It was like their brains itched. They’d fall out of the chair. Tip the chair. Kick off their shoes. Pop their knuckles. Drop their pencils. That’s where multi-sensory instruction comes in.  It hooks kids with strategies that engage their sensory system, which ultimately causes the information to stick. Multi-sensory teaching uses the heavy artillery, simultaneously combining auditory, visual and kinesthetic/motor learning pathways for reading, writing and spelling. Based on the research-based Orton-Gillingham approach, it’s like carving a path through the jungle with a machete, instead of using a wimpy butter knife. The kid ends up being able to retrieve the elusive knowledge that some tired teacher tried to teach him, or didn’t know how to teach him. But this time, it sticks, and he can actually spit it back out at will, which he scarcely believes.

And then begins a cycle of positive learning. Children who were previously defeated start feeling successful and want to participate, participation means more practice, and more practice leads to competence. And so on. Pretty soon they realize not only can they learn, they’re a lot smarter than most of their peers.

Thin rays of late afternoon sunlight reached into the room. I turned to look in a small supply box that I kept on the table. I needed my phonogram cards or some other materials.  Layla instantly darted from her chair, which was opposite mine.  She knew she should have remained seated, the little urchin, but some force of nature made her do it. Like a pooka.

She smiled slyly at me over her shoulder as she stole more sheets of paper. And once again, she frantically folded and taped before making her sweet-mouthed presentation, “Here, Miss Patti. I made this for you.”

How could I help the child learn to read if every time I averted my eyes she levitated out of her chair?

Initial testing showed that Layla had little phonic knowledge. None, really. But I found her handwriting most interesting of all. Her tiny, cuneiform-like letters danced right through the spaces of the wide-lined paper. I used the paper for my youngest students. It had tiny flecks of wood pulp in it, like the old-fashioned manilla paper I used in grade school; and the pencils had wider leads for greater tactile stimulation. 

Progress with Layla was slow.  Her parents and teachers wanted her reading and writing. But the truth is, some six year-olds are not ready to read and write. Pretending, building with blocks, scribbling, coloring, cutting with scissors – all are prerequisites to more advanced learning. Could all this folding and taping have been something Layla needed? Was it part of some developmental tasks she’d missed?

I know that young children need to be able to enact their will on the world around them. When they feel like pretending that they’re on a boat that’s sinking into the ocean, they need to imagine just that, and project that fantasy onto their reality. They will talk to themselves while turning a bunk bed or a couch cushion into something sea worthy. Or not.

According to author Joseph Chilton Pearce (The Magical Child), such creative play is the most important childhood activity because it helps children master their environment. It’s the precurser of later abstract thought.  What happens when kids’ lives are so regulated,  and parents so busy, that there’s no time or inclination for pretending? For telling a three-year-old that his blocks look just like a choo-choo-train, and for helping him find more of the darned things. (You know where they are because you kicked them under the couch after stepping on them with your bare feet on the way to the bathroom last night.)

I wanted to sit Layla on my lap and read stories, sing songs and do finger-plays. But that wasn’t my job. My job was to ignore those gaps and move on to tasks involving abstract thought that she wasn’t ready for, like the closed syllable and breve (the symbol for the short vowel).

In addition to her tendency to evaporate from her chair, Layla couldn’t execute steady pencil strokes, or use the lines on the paper as reference points. Sitting with pencil in hand, she seemed to need “grounding,” someone to hold her hand and make the point connect, and stay connected, with the paper.  I thought her parents should have known this, should have noticed.  Maybe they had.

Children who miss the basics – being held and touched and played with as infants and small children – are at a disadvantage. Not just in academically, but relationally, as well.

I learned during my infant massage instructor training that babies can’t regulate their own responses to stress. They need touch and they need it often in order to become “regulated.” When parents cuddle and rock and massage their babies, they are doing far more than they may realize. They are putting their kids in touch with their bodies. They are making them real to themselves.

Layla was far from being in touch with her own body.

Touch relaxes the body through the release of the hormone oxytocin. At the same time, touch also helps integrate and stimulate the nervous system. When babies are held, rocked and talked to gently, their bodies learn what it feels like to calm down. They develop a more relaxed demeanor. The calmer a baby is, the more fun to be around, the more he learns, and so the cycle goes.

So it didn’t surprise me when I had a chance to meet Layla’s mother. A small, nervous woman, she had spent little time with Layla due to her career. She expressed concern over Layla’s progress, but was unable to hear what needed to be said. She was too busy.

I only had Layla for a few short months before we moved to another state. She needed far more than I could give her, but I gave her what I could. After we moved, her father called and left a message on my phone. He wanted my social security number so he could write off my instructional fees as childcare on his income tax. Of course that would have been illegal and I never gave it to him. But far worse crimes have been committed.  FFG

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