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Taking the Time to Listen and Learn


Marianne Miles

Dear Reader,

Some of you read last month of my conversation with a nurse from a public pre-school for special needs children in California. I hope you enjoyed an additional insight, I know I did.

This month, Karen Wescott, another special needs educator, is sharing her view of one of the most important ways a parent or educator can gain access to a child’s world. Karen, from Burbank, California, identifies the skill needed as:

Taking the Time to Listen and Learn

By Karen Wescott

“Go sit down, Karen,” said the seven-year-old autistic student in a firm but lilting voice. I had tried to indicate to Melissa that she should be quiet on stage while she was waiting to take her bow during a drama class.

Stunned, I hesitated and then said, “That’s just what I’m going to do.” I left to sit in the audience. Her words were pearls of wisdom. After all, this was her moment of glory. A little shuffling about, a little bit of noise, would not shake the rafters of the auditorium nor bring doom upon the rest of the players. So I sat down, applauded, and watched a beautiful bow.

For several years I worked as an assistant teacher at the Frostig School for children with learning disabilities. I also tutored children with autism for Applied Behavior Consultants. In these positions, I learned in teaching that listening to a child is an important element of them hearing me. For in listening, I learn. We’re all so impatient and fast-paced in our lives today that it sometimes takes a Melissa to slow us down, to make us stop and listen – really listen.

Children with learning disabilities or autism need concrete, basic steps to write papers, learn facts, or to accomplish any task from getting dressed to writing a history report. There are many disciplines available to address learning disabilities and different interventions for children with autism. However, the most successful teachers are those who are spiritually and emotionally responsive to the student. A teacher achieves this by listening and learning from the student.

A teacher in tune with the students will do well regardless of circumstances. ‘Ideal’ conditions, those conditions that are specified in the teacher training for special needs children, are not always available and, in fact, rarely occur. So, as in all aspects of life, teachers often ‘wing it’, using their knowledge, training and skills, but most importantly their awareness of the child.

I experienced this spontaneous type of tutoring with Melissa, the drama queen. Her mother wanted her home to be a refuge and sanctuary from ‘lessons’ for Melissa. Although I thought Melissa could best benefit from the quiet of home instruction, I was forced to meet with her at her school, in the playground or a busy classroom in the after-school program. When we were in the playground, everyone was playing, and if that wasn’t a distraction – I don’t know what was! Nevertheless, it gave us an opportunity to work for the ‘chance to play’. This worked – sometimes. Other times I ran with Melissa around the playground, up and down slides, swinging on swings, or climbing through rings, reviewing her ABC’s. I used any and all situations to converse in our lessons – and, as it turned out, it worked just fine! Maybe better, who knows?

I do know that children learn through osmosis – they absorb who and what we are, as teachers, no matter what we try to teach them. The best we can do is to teach them by allowing them to teach us as well.

I know that being a parent of a special needs child is demanding beyond imagination. Yet it states in the Bible that God never gives us more than we can handle, frightening and unbelievable as that may be. However, if we can approach our roles as teachers and parents who are also students of the children, it might ease the burden a bit and allow us more enjoyment of the gift God has truly given us in the child before us.

©2009 Karen Wescott. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Aside from teaching and tutoring, Karen Wescott is a playwright and actress who has toured across the country in a one-woman show of “The Book of Ruth,” for churches, synagogues, women’s groups and literary societies. Karen has written “Ruthie and Me,” a musical comedy based on the biblical tale of “Ruth” as well. “Ruthie and Me” (about the first Jewish mother-in-law!) had a staged reading at the Pasadena Playhouse. At present, she is Project Coordinator for the 168 Film Project, a faith-based speed film making competition.