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  • Vivian Chang Freiheit

Meeting kids where they are

When my son was in elementary school, I enrolled him in an afterschool religion class. Like many kids, he didn't exactly want to be there but we felt it was time for him to be more connected with his community. I arrived at the end of the first class and asked his teacher: "How was it?" Her reply was simply: "Well, he stood on the table." "Okay," I responded and asked again, "but how was it? Did he get anything out of today's class?" Years earlier, I would have been horrified by such an interaction and nothing but very apologetic to the teacher. But now - despite the statement of his behavior, intended to sum up everything - I was much more concerned if my son had learned anything meaningful in those 2 hours. And furthermore, did she have any idea why he might have chosen to get on that table in the first place?

Many years ago, I was asked by a mom to teach her son. He was clearly exceptional, very bright and musically inclined, but also exhibited "atypical" behaviors and attention challenges that made a more traditional teaching-style unproductive. They had already tried lessons with at least one other teacher, who was unsuccessful in making a meaningful connection with her son. Could I please try to teach him?

For personal reasons, I was already well-versed in the philosophy behind Stanley Greenspan's "Floortime" therapy in trying to establish, maintain and grow interaction with kids, particularly on the autism spectrum. At the same time, I was also receiving instruction on play therapy and being coached on how to play with my own son in the most interactive ways possible. Not surprisingly, this was the approach I came to embrace in teaching piano to this boy and little did I know then, how this experience would come to forever change the way I interact with all of my students.

In his first lesson, Joel came into the house and immediately jumped up and down on the couch. Rather than tell him to get off or stop - as I could see he was very motivated and needing to jump for both internal and external reasons - I suggested we count as he jumped and it became our counting game. As the lessons progressed, we transferred the jumping to beating a drum, while moving onto more sophisticated skills of stopping and starting, beating fast and slow, loud and soft. I remember Joel also liked to write seemingly random letters on his pieces. Maybe he was telling a story in his own way, I could only surmise. It was clear this was something necessary to him and his ritual I respected. Eventually I suggested that he use only the letters you could find in the musical alphabet and showed him how we could both find and play those notes on the piano. I also encouraged him to draw directly on his music book, which he was doing already, and write words we both knew for pieces he was learning.

In that year of teaching Joel - before his family moved back to NYC - I had to let go of my previous ideas of how piano lessons were supposed to proceed. In order to engage meaningfully with Joel, I had to learn to join him in his unique expressions of interest in order to get him to see, hear and learn new things. I had to think on my feet and be creative in capturing his interest, while always keeping my eye on an overall goal to teach him something helpful or meaningful. Essentially, I had to meet Joel in his own internal space.

Today, Joel is blossoming at school, loves music and has continued piano lessons with a wonderful teacher. A few years ago, Joel's mom sent me a video that brought tears to my eyes. Not only could I see and hear Joel perform beautifully at a concert, I learned he was performing his very own sophisticated compositions! It blew me away and gave me so much hope for our kids, especially the ones we worry a little more about.

Of course, some students might not have "special needs" and may simply be described as misbehaved or undisciplined, but I have learned not to judge nor make those distinctions. I tend to see all of these situations as learning opportunities. After all, in the grand scheme of things, doesn't every human being have special needs? And shouldn't we as teachers, colleagues, and friends always strive to create and meet each other in a mutually emotionally-safe place?

Last March, my son celebrated his Bar Mitzvah and I could not have been more proud of him! While he worked so hard and was so dedicated to his studies, it really did take a village to get him there. I have been so lucky as both parent of a unique learner and teacher of a very diverse population. While the journey has been anything but straightforward, I have experienced intense joy from getting to know my students and their families more deeply than I ever would have, and from helping my students run with their strengths while seeking meaningful and productive ways to continue growing. It has been a sincere privilege.

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