It was a warm, bright morning. I remember using my hand to block the low sun as I waited for each bus to pull closer to the entrance of the school. The spirits of my new coworkers were high. Smiles filled the faces of all of each and every person helping the students get into the school. Their joy was not forced. It was a Monday morning, but the vibe was more like a payday Friday. I did not know the routine quite yet, so I was taking direction from every and anybody who needed a hand. I just wanted to help. The energy was so contagious. I had just punched in and I felt comfortable. I was a seasonal paraprofessional. A paraprofessional is someone who assists a qualified professional in their work. At Blue Cap, an organization serving “as a catalyst for children and adults with intellectual disabilities to be educated, have quality life experiences, be respected and be a valued member of their community” in Blue Island, IL, I was assisting classroom teachers execute the goals they have composed for their students. The students had disabilities ranging from autism (a spectrum disorder that, until this job, I had only heard about in passing) to physical disabilities such as Spinal Muscular Atrophy (a muscular disease), Epilepsy (seizure disorder), and severe and profound intellectual disabilities, among others. The students at Blue Cap often had comorbid diagnoses, meaning more than one disability. My job was to be their hands, legs and voice. As the summer progressed, so did my love for these children. Their smiles glowed. Their smiles filled me with joy that I had previously not experienced. My job did not feel like a job. At times I felt guilty about how the students made me feel. They needed help, I provided the help, they were grateful, my heart was full. Again, I found a calling through a part-time job. I recall the afternoon when I realized I could do this for the rest of my life.
A student I was working with that particular day arrived in a good, but sleepy mood. He could barely keep his eyes open upon arrival. He enjoyed the time he would spend in the cozy corner, a corner in the room filled with therapeutic furniture, sensory aides, and toys. He loved throwing together a bulky puzzle that was adapted for individuals with fine motor deficits. That just means that the puzzle pieces had knobs on them to make them easier to maneuver. Of course, Blue Cap was a school, so he had to earn the time spent in the cozy corner. He had to meet expectations that were setup for his individual strengths and needs. Each student had plans meeting their individual strengths and needs. There were many paraprofessionals in each classroom. The goals for the students were designed in a team meeting. The team typically involved the family or guardians of the student, the teacher, a district representative (the students may not be able to be served adequately in their original school district), other professionals like nurses, speech and language pathologists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, etc., as well as members of administration within the organization. The team would meet at least annually (often more) to discuss progress and adjust the plan to best promote success. I learned all of this at Blue Cap.
Back to my friend who came in sleepy. He wanted the cozy corner so badly. I knew it was important to hold him to the expectations setup for him by the team. He couldn’t just wander to the cozy corner when he wanted to, if that were permitted, he would go there right away, and want to stay there the entire day. That was not our job. I learned that he would become physically aggressive at times. I also knew that the sleepiness would add to the irritability, which would increase the risk of physical aggression. As expected, he put his lunch and supplies away (his routine) and eyed the corner that had to be looking even more cozy this particular day. I needed to physically redirect him toward the tasks he was expected to participate in (this was also a part of his routine). I reluctantly nudged his shoulder to redirect him towards the morning circle time. We discussed the month, day of the week, weather, how we felt, all sorts of different topics were reviewed. We were primarily looking for communication, from pointing out their feelings when given an array of options to individuals who could use an augmentative communication device to express themselves. Each student communicated in their own way. My buddy was unable to physically use his voice. He was tested out for high-tech devices, but he preferred to nod or shake his head. He would communicate using options we gave him as well. He mastered the non-verbal gesture.
This was on display for most of the morning as his gaze drifted toward the corner with regularity. I knew what he wanted, but he knew what he had to do to get what he wanted. This was the first time I thought to myself to hold the expectation. Consistency was important for this particular student and I did not want to set the precedent that he would simply get what he wanted. After all, we had the resources to help hold these expectations, often their families did not. If he became aggressive, I was trained to redirect. If I could not redirect him by myself, I would have help within earshot to assist me. Often this luxury was not afforded to the families. We literally had dozens of people there to help should a student need that amount of support. A family could not hold expectations like we could due to the lack of resources at home or in the community. It was in his best interest for me to not cave and give him what he wanted all of the time. Life did not always work that way for the student, so we would follow through with regularity. Now time would help me decipher the wants from the needs. There were absolutely times where he, and other students, needed a break from the rigorous activities we had planned. When a break was needed it was granted. I collaborated with other paraprofessionals and the teacher to identify when it is a want and when it is a need.
Today, the cozy corner was a want, even though he was tired. He attempted a couple of swipes at me, some connected, but his blows were not particularly intense, often planning to ignore would defer him from continuing to hit me with an open hand. That strategy worked today. The corner was his ultimate reward. He would work, we would give him a secondary reinforcer, if he worked enough, he would earn that much desired spot in the corner. He fought hard that day, not physically, but mentally. He wanted that corner so bad, but he knew the routine and he knew he needed to work for it. I was proud that I did not give in. Then suddenly my diligence turned into reward when it was time for him to cash in on the reward he worked so hard for. We finished reading a story and he was engaged in the comprehension activity that followed the story. He pointed out the answers we were looking for without much redirection. We let him know how proud we were, he wasn’t as impressed with his responses as we were. There was one thing on his mind. We finished our praise and he pacified us with a respectful smile. The smile faded quickly as he transitioned to a non-verbal gesture in the form of a head nod and simultaneous point in the direction of the corner. After the gesture, he looked back at me inquiring whether it was actually time to go and relax. I smiled because I knew what he wanted, and I knew he was about to get it. I gave him a slight nod and added, “Go ahead.” With that, his smile shined brighter than the sun I blocked with my hand on my first day.
He usually walked with a wide and clumsy gait, but his aim was spot on when I gave him the permission he longed for. He turned for the corner and almost skipped into his favorite spot in the room. I heard him laugh on his way over. We set a timer for him as a visual for how long he had in the corner. This helped him transition to the next part of the day. He played with the sensory toys with vitality, but that didn’t last. His fatigue kicked in within a couple of minutes. His eyes were heavier than a rain-soaked hoodie in the fall. I saw him dozing off and hopped into the corner with him. I read to him. I saw him relax a bit more. The smile wore off, though the contentment remained. After about sixty seconds of reading he faded into a heavy sleep. I looked over to the teacher to see what she wanted from me. She gave me a slight head nod that I knew gave me the permission to let him sleep. I cautiously reached for the timer in hopes to not disturb his slumber. I turned it off and let him be. I looked at the clock. It was 1:20pm. That day, in that moment, I knew what I was supposed to do when I grew up. I thought to myself that I could be helping other people at 1:20 in the afternoon. This could be my career. This could be how I make money and support myself and others in the future. I couldn’t believe that reality. It almost seemed selfish. Not a day went by that I was not rewarded with a smile or a breakthrough that filled my heart with an indescribable warmth. I knew why these people were acting like it was a payday Friday on Monday mornings. Each day for me would be like payday Friday. I switched my major faster than Walter got to the cozy corner on the day that changed my life. I was going to be a teacher.