Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Five Stages of Having a Disability

When I read The doormat, the jerk and the lizard brain from Seth's Blog by Seth Godin, his words jumped out at me. He states,

The best reason to be a jerk at work is that of course no one will listen to you or support you or embrace your ideas--you're a jerk.

The best reason to be a doormat at work is that in your effort to get along, to be nice, and to go with the flow, of course you won't be expected to stand up and shout, "follow me" when your ideas might take you in a different direction.

Both extremes are the refuge of the lizard brain, the voice of the resistance. They reward the desire to fit in, not to stand out.”

Last week I went to see the movie “Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief” and really enjoyed it. I confess that I haven’t read the books yet but they are on my list of things to do. As a special education teacher, I was thrilled to see Percy’s learning disability was recognized. When I read Seth’s Blog, it made me think about how Percy stands out among his peers. I really liked the way Percy’s disability was portrayed as a gift instead of a disability. In the movie, Percy ends up being a hero. Without his gift, he would have been unable to notice the clues. What a thrill I felt for all of my students who have a disability and now they can be viewed in a different light. Suddenly they can feel that it is alright to stand out and not fit in.

So, how do I fight the “lizard brain?” During the year, I watch my students go through the stages of grief (as defined by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross) that they haven’t been allowed to go through. They are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I try to help my students go through these stages and be their support as they move along.

First, I acknowledge the “elephant in the room.” Many of my students have a disability that they really don’t understand. They know there is something wrong because there are all these meetings that surround them but no one has actually talked to them about the specifics in words that they can understand. This whispering in the background or talking above their heads can be a very scary thing and it leads to fear, confusion, and embarrassment. These students think they have a problem that they should be embarrassed about and that it is something they should feel guilty about. When I talk about their disability, many times they are in denial that they have one. They tell me that the reason they are in special education is because they were bad or the teacher was mad at them. I show them testing done and explain the results. Then I explain how it was determined that they needed special education services.

Next, my students are filled with anger. They don’t want this disability and they think the tests lie. Teachers lie. The system lies. Everyone lies according to the student. Yes, it is unfair that they have this disability and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but until they get over this anger, the students can’t move on. It is important to let them get this anger out so that it doesn’t fester like a sore and make matters worse.

Bargaining involves the student’s behavior. Sometimes the students think if they study harder, behave better, or follow directions better, their disability will go away and they will not need special education services any more. That is not the way it works.

Many of my students are followers. When there is trouble around, they are usually the ones to blame and when asked, they usually say they did it because their friends told them to. They wanted to fit in. They wanted to be liked. This was their way of fitting in. I think that is why so many of my students end up with drug and alcohol problems because they think that makes them more like their peers.

I had a student with Down’s syndrome who pulled the fire alarm at school because he hoped that it would get him the attention of the other students. He wanted to stand out and be seen. He wanted to be noticed. Sometimes my students with disabilities feel like they are invisible. No one talks about their disability (I’m sure to protect their feelings), or they are embarrassed about their friend’s disability. Yet, everyone knows there is a problem because it is fact that is hard to hide. So my students act out as a defense mechanism.

We talk about the different behaviors that students exhibit such as following and acting out. I have them identify with the behavior that they exhibit the most. Now that they understand it and why they act this way, we can move on to change.

For awhile I see my students get depressed about having a disability. They want to give up. They feel that if they have this disability, why bother. If they have failed up to this point, why keep setting yourself up for failure? Understanding this depression is important. I try to tell my students that it is understandable but it shouldn’t be what shapes their life. That is when I pull out my best motivational speeches and videos and anything else I can drum up. My favorite is always the idea that if a basket ball player never tries to shoot for the basket, he will never score a point. Sometimes we just have to keep trying and never give up. The ones who become rich and famous are the ones who are persistent. I look for literature about kids with disabilities and how they overcome them. Looking at real life personalities who have achieved success also is encouraging. I drag out every possible tool that I can find to help move away from this depression.

Finally, if I’m lucky, before long I will see my students reach the stage of acceptance. At this point, they can talk about their disability and explain it. I have even had some offer to talk to other classes about it in order to make more students aware. Many times bullying and teasing happen because of ignorance. This is one way to fight back. Once the students reach acceptance, they are more open minded to learning. Their minds and energies aren’t fighting against the concept of their disability. Rather than wasting time trying to point a finger of blame, they are able to look forward to the future and what they need to be successful.

As a teacher, it is important to recognize my student’s disability and identify what stage they may be going through. If a student is in the bargaining stage, it is useless to waste time acting as if he is in the acceptance stage. By following this process, I think it will help the student and the teacher have a successful classroom experience.

Original image: 'Young Man Mourning #1' by: Luc De Leeuw


Karin said...

Excellent post! As educators, we often forget the emotions that are normal, but that often get in the way of learning. Also, we need to recognize those same five stages in the parents of our children with disabilities. In my early years teaching special education, I taught primary aged children who often were first receiving their 'educational diagnosis'. The grief and denial that the parents felt was often huge. It is our job as educators to work with the whole child, which includes not only their emotions, but those of their families.

Brian Wojcik said...

I is so important to consider the social-emotional implications of having a disability. This a component that can have a great impact on issues of motivation and self-worth. Helping student move forward on the 'stages' is so essential.

loonyhiker said...

@Karin Yes, parents go through the same stages. When my daughters were diagnosed bi-polar, we went through all of these stages too. Thanks for the reminder.

Margaret said...

Excellent eye-opener...I had a class this past summer that dealt with the impact on the whole family when learning of diagnosis of disability, but nothing was said about the stages of grief, etc applying to the child him/herself. Now I see that it makes perfect sense for the child to go through the same process, except that it might be harder for the child due to maturity and the nature of the disability.
Grief makes everyone act weirdly for a period, regardless of age, personality or cognitive capacity.

loonyhiker said...

@Brian You are right about our need to help students move through the stages. Unfortunately many teachers react to the students behavior and tend to shut down which sometimes keeps the student at that stage even longer.

loonyhiker said...

@Margaret I find myself referring to these different stages of grief during many events in my own life. I can truly understand how a student can go through these stages too. It is so important for teachers to understand so that they don't take the student's behavior personally and can help them better. Thanks for your comment!