A “Lead-Able” Moment…With Elephant

May 15, 2011 at 6:21 pm 1 comment

posted by Lorraine Yamin ’95, Learning Specialist at The Saul and Carole Zabar Nursery School & Staff Member at Bank Street’s Home and Community Program

Several years ago, when I provided special education consultation to a preschool on the outskirts of New York City, I sat in on a parent meeting rife with tensions.  The director and teachers where meeting with some parents to talk about the recommendation that their child receive additional support services for the upcoming school year.  The child was doing well in his individual therapies, but at school, in a group setting, he was missing many social opportunities because of language and motor delays.  He was not interacting with the other children and therefore, not experiencing a sense of competence in social interactions.  The teachers were having difficulty capturing all the possible moments to help him, and felt that a small amount of time with a special education, support teacher, would serve the child well.  The parents were angry because they felt this recommendation was not warranted.

Additionally, the teaching team, director and myself, knew the details of a defining and painful narrative for this family.  The child is question was a twin, and his sister had a rare and severe medical disability.  Parenthood for this family began in the Neonatal Infant Care Unit (NICU) of the hospital.  Preschool for their little girl was an intense, center-based, medical experience.  Their son was doing well in his individual services, and was in a mainstream preschool – he was “the healthy and good one.”

We met in the director’s office; sitting in chairs placed in a circle.  In an empathic, intuitive, moment that set an inviting and gentle tone, the director said, “You know, last night I was thinking about our meeting and I thought of that metaphor with the elephant.”  She recounted the famous parable of the blind men and the elephant; the one in which each man touches and perceives a part of an elephant and, incorrectly, concludes the overall truth based on only their individual experience.  The director continued by saying, “I think this metaphor could be of use to us…we each have an experience and a perception of [your son], but we need to put our perceptions together in order to try and understand the whole picture.”

This opening was more than an ice-breaker.  It created an emotional space in which each person who cared about the boy could share their experiences and observations.  It was at once welcoming, and containing.  The parents talked about the progress in his individual therapies and we all heard and shared that joy.  The teachers talked about the child’s strengths and then described the struggle with socialization, one they truly felt he could and would grow beyond.  However, mention of the boy’s current struggle, triggered memories of the parents’ experience in the NICU with his twin.  With effort and emotion, mom managed to say, “This is not suppose to happen, he is the good one.  He is the healthy one.  It is his sister that has been so hard…”

The team took a moment and allowed the pain to have its time.  Someone said, “We cannot imagine how hard the experience has been with your daughter and we are so sorry.”  After a moment, with tissues and deep breaths, we were able to shift back to their son, and were able to provide an opportunity for differentiation.  We spoke of our recommendation for additional classroom support; a recommendation that, in our opinion, would bolster the strengths emerging in their son’s individual therapies.  We assured the parents that we would not force this recommendation and were comfortable if they decided to decline it.  With some time, they decided they were comfortable with the plan, and it proved to be a wonderful source of support that following preschool year; a year in which he flourished.

We often speak of “teachable moments,” but this piece of parent work, in my mind, was able to occur because the director embraced the complexity of the scenario and captured a “lead-able moment,” with metaphor.

For the past 20 years Lorraine has been working with young children who have a range of special needs. She has worked in group homes, hospital- and center-based therapeutic nursery schools, mainstream preschools and Head Start. She is the Learning Specialist at The Saul and Carole Zabar Nursery School at The JCC in Manhattan and is on staff at The Bank Street Home and Community Program. Lorraine graduated from Bank Street College of Education in 1995 with a Masters degree in Early Childhood Special Education and recently completed her MSW at Hunter College School of Social Work.

Entry filed under: collaboration, dialogue, early childhood, families, leadership. Tags: .

Teaching, Learning and Assessment: Getting It Right Diversity: Who Is Here, Who We Are Together

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Sarah Baldwin  |  May 31, 2011 at 5:21 pm

    Interesting. Last year I attended an IEP for my son with a variety of teachers and specialists regarding some learning difficulties he was experiencing. The director of the school’s special ed department opened the meeting with the same elephant metaphor! It’s a lovely and appropriate one, but I can’t help but wonder now if it’s being overused!

    Sarah Baldwin, M.S.Ed.
    Owner, Bella Luna Toys
    Bella Luna Toys

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