During one of my first teaching interviews I said something that ultimately landed me the position:
"There is a STAR in each child.
My job is to find out what the child's STRENGTH is,
and to help it SHINE."
That was about 20 years ago...two years before I met Malcolm.
I met Malcolm in my role as a the head teacher of a class in a preschool for medically fragile and developmentally delayed children. The plan was for me to work the summer as a classroom head teacher, and then move up to the school's supervising head teacher in September.
I had only been there a few days when word circulated that I would be getting a new child. Someone held his hand, walking Malcolm in from the bus. I listened and heard him making a combination of squeaking and guttural sounds.
Since I couldn't decipher the sounds, I assumed he was speaking a foreign language. He was a beautiful little boy, with smooth dark skin and deep black eyes. I knew English, some Spanish and some French. Via my untrained ears, I guessed it might be some exotic language which I had never heard.
I asked the director what his native language was and she told me, "English." I was confused. Could she be mistaken? I spoke to his grandmother. It was true. The only language he was exposed to at home was English.
Malcolm and I bonded quickly. He soon became my favorite, and I his. He spent a half hour every afternoon, during those first few weeks, crying until I returned to the classroom from my lunch break. I had become his "school mom." In my mind, a school mom is the person who fills those maternal-type functions for a very young child when he's at school; the person he runs to for a hug when he falls down, etc.
I taught Malcolm the "more" sign, but he wouldn't speak to me at all. One day when I was busy, and didn't respond to him signing "more" over and over again (as he stood next to me) he said, "more."
In the gym, I sat on a huge rubber ball, with Malcolm sitting on the patch of ball in front of me. I said, "Ready, set..." and waited. Then I modeled "GO," before bouncing us both. He learned to say, "Go!" and I would bounce him up and down on the ball. I must have said "Ready, set..." a million times during that school year.
One day, in the classroom, I was standing near the sink area speaking to my Director. Malcolm came over to me and said, "Soda." I grabbed the soda and started to pour him a tiny bit in a little cup. The Director said, "You're not going to give him soda, are you?"
I answered, "Of course, I am." He had never said "soda" before, and he had never initiated a verbal interaction before. I was shaking with excitement, and explained to her, "I have to show him his words have power."
A few weeks later, while listening to his funny squeaky sounds and grunts I realized that he was actually saying words, phrases and sentences. I began using what I now coined HOALS (Hyper-Observational
And Listening Skills).
The pitch of Malcolm's voice would go wildly from high to low as the rate changed from fast to slow. It sounded like what would happen if you took your finger and vacillated between speeding up and slowing down a vinyl record on a record player.
I soon was able to interpret what he was saying. I modeled what he was trying to communicate, which helped him to speak at a more consistent rate, and his intelligibility increased slowly but surely.
This was happening years before I ever took a speech language pathology class. I was a preschool special education teacher learning a lot from my students, as we tried different things and found things that worked.
To this day I wonder about Malcolm, and how his life turned out. I think about that little boy who introduced me to the world of Autism (PDD-NOS), even though I didn't realize it until years later.
I had been patient and observant. I had listened carefully, offered my love and had shown a genuine interest in this beautiful little boy.
He knew it and trusted me enough to want to communicate. I saw Malcolm's star (which was being a wonderful example to others of how to be a gentle, and kindhearted person) and helped it shine. He was like a frightened, lost baby who transformed into a joyful, peaceful, confident preschooler.
My heart swelled with pride, as his "school mom," at his preschool graduation. :-)
I'm Noelle Michaels, speech and learning specialist, and I truly love my job!
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Noelle Michaels, MA, CCC-SLP, LDT-C
Bilingual Speech Language Pathologist
Special Educator & Learning Specialist