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MY SILENT STUDENT


Ellen M. Siscamanis
Kindergarten School Teacher
Elkin Elementary School

My First Encounter With José
The school day in my kindergarten classroom begins with circle-time. During circle-time the class recites the pledge of allegiance, goes over the calendar, and recites the alphabet and Spanish poems. During this time the children also have a chance to speak freely about themselves, where they have gone, or any topic of interest to them. One morning during circle time, approximately three weeks after the start of the 1996-1997 school year, a new student came to school with his mother. The new student was José, a tall, brown-eyed, six year old, Latino boy. Since I was busy with the rest of the class, the classroom assistant conducted a brief interview with José's mother to acquire necessary information. During the interview, José sat next to his mother. After giving José the opportunity to observe for a while, I asked him to come join the class. José did not respond to my request. In fact, he did not even look in my direction when I called his name. After the interview was over, he was still not responding to the invitation to join the other children. Instead, he sat at a table with his head buried in his arms. A parent helper attempted to comfort him by talking to him and coaxing him to join the other children, who were now at their tables doing their morning reading work.
José s behavior during his first hour in my classroom did not seem unusual to me. After all, he was in a new and unfamiliar environment. However, a couple of hours later when he was still not participating, I decided to be more direct in trying to involve him. I gently took him by the arm and led him to his new seat. Instead of sitting in his seat, he sat down on the edge of the rug. The children were all watching José, the new member of our community, as I asked him to stand up and come closer to the group. He refused to join the class. As he continued to refuse, I recognized this as a potential confrontation and so as not to compromise my authority, I decided to let it go. Instead, I told him that I would speak to him later.
Eventually, José assimilated into the classroom routine. At first, because the environment was new and unfamiliar, it did not strike me as unusual that he did not answer or verbalize when I helped him with his morning work or when I gave him directions. Several times over a few days José raised his hand in response to questions I posed to the class. Yet when called upon to answer, he would not respond. It was then that I realized that José rarely spoke at all. José did not respond verbally to questions or comments directed at him by myself or by other students in the class. Additionally, José did not repeat the pledge of allegiance, the alphabet, numbers, or short poems. He rarely made any verbal output in school. He did not talk to me or to anyone in the classroom. In fact, for the two months I knew José, he spoke directly to me only once. This occurred as I was watching him painting a cat. José turned to me and said "Yo tengo un gato" (I have a cat) in a barely perceptible voice.

My Inquiry About José

José s lack of verbal interaction was intriguing, yet troubling. I did not understand why José, a kindergarten child who appeared to have normal academic skills and who did not have any obvious speech impairments, did not participate in a verbal way in my classroom. My experiences with José motivated me to conduct a teacher research study in my classroom to see if I could affect his verbal output. I wanted to take some action to try and establish a verbal relationship with him. My goal was to have José establish a genuinely verbally interactive relationship with me, his first teacher. Therefore, my action plan revolved around the question, "What can I do to increase the verbal interaction of a child who does not repeat pledges or poems and does not respond to questions?
Since I wanted to learn as much as possible about José, I kept a teacher journal wherein I recorded on a near daily basis my observations, thoughts and feelings, and the verbal interactions of José. I interviewed José's mother, informally spoke to José s brother on several occasions, and I asked the School Speech Therapist to spend some time with José to assist me in understanding the reasons for José s limited verbalization.
I also assessed José s academic skills on an informal day-to-day basis. Mostly, I learned about his skills by keeping a portfolio of his work over a two month period. I kept track of his fine motor development as evidenced by coloring, writing his name, and writing the letters of the alphabet in his morning work. My kindergarten classroom consists of a variety of language abilities in Spanish and English. Therefore, I was also interested in determining José s proficiency in English and Spanish.

A Reward System
I decided to implement a reward system wherein each response José made during circle time would be rewarded with a sticker in José's own personalized "star book." I decided I would implement my plan for ten school days and at the end if José had a total of eight stickers he would be rewarded with a small toy and also a candy treat. I chose this particular positive reinforcement strategy because it had been successful with other children in the past. In the following paragraphs I include journal entries about the reward system.October 22, 1996: I introduce my plan to José today by explaining to him that while the class is on the rug during circle-time, I will give him a sticker for his star book each time that I see him repeating a rhyme or pledge. When he has ten stickers I will give him a giraffe pen and a candy bar. At this time I also attempted to elicit some conversation with him. I mentioned that the giraffe came from Wendy's Restaurant, and asked him if he had ever been there. At first there was no response, then he ever so softly said "McDonald's." I asked him if he had ever been to Burger King and he nodded "yes." I ask him what he liked at McDonald's and he replies in a whisper "hamburgers." I told him he could put a sticker on the cover of his star book because he responded to me. I will remind him of the "game" tomorrow just prior to circle-time.October 23, 1996: We begin the game today. I reminded José of the reward for repeating poems/rhymes along with the other children. All did not go well.
While I was reminding him, away from the other children, he continued to look away from me. This Action Research Plan is much harder than I had anticipated. I expected him to have responded minimally by now because it has been over two weeks since I have been trying to engage him verbally, but he made no response at all. He also seemed distracted during morning exercises. October 29, 1996: I am discouraged and afraid I will be completely unsuccessful with the reward system I am using. José has not earned a single sticker up to this point and he also strongly resists repeating anything, although I often take him aside and ask him kindly to repeat. I am not sure which approach to take with this child but I confess that I have not been entirely consistent. I have tried both approaches: stern and scolding, kind and patient. Any success achieved will clearly require much more time and effort than I anticipated. I incidentally ask José if he was afraid of me and he nodded "yes." I ask him if he liked me and he shakes his head "no." (At this point I told him I will not hurt him and would like him to talk to me. I asked him for a hug, as I do with the other children to show them warmth and support. He hesitated but then complied with a stiff and rigid physical demeanor.) Nodding yes and no are the only responses I can evoke from him. However, my classroom assistant reported he spoke very softly the few times he has spoken to her, as has been the case the few times he has spoken to me.October 30, 1996: As usual this morning I showed José the star book and reminded him that he will earn a star if he repeats the pledge. I reminded him that if he does not participate during circle-time by singing and repeating the poems and songs, I will have to place him in the time-out chair during playtime, his favorite part of the day. Then I asked him if he would try to sing along, and he nodded affirmatively. In fact, he did move his lips somewhat during the pledge and recitation of the Spanish kindergarten poems. I considered this progress because this is the only time I had witnessed a response from him. I planned to remind him that I expected the same tomorrow. I decided that due to his effort, there had been some success and he picked out a sticker today to put it in his star book. I hope I will be able to build upon this. My minimum goal is to have him repeat the pledge of allegiance along with the other children. I believe I would be asking too much at this point to try to get him to speak to me personally. I'm trying to be consistent in my plan.

Learning About José

I felt that in order to understand José's verbal behavior, I needed to learn as much as possible about José's past experiences, his interaction with others and his daily life. I tried to get information from different sources, including different members of his family, my classroom assistant and the school speech therapist. Information from Family:October 16, 1996: The classroom assistant reported that José speaks at length to other children in the class at lunch time but apparently attempts to avoid her observing him speaking.
I talked to José s older brother and he reported that José is very verbal at home.October 23, 1996: I spoke to José's mother. I don't feel as if I gained her trust and confidence. In any case, I asked her to meet me tomorrow at 8:35 a.m. to discuss my inquiry. I am hoping she can offer some insight into José's complete lack of verbalization and interaction with me. My plan is to ask her about his school experience last year in Puerto Rico. I want to know how and whether he interacted with other professionals, e.g. doctors, nurses, etc.; whether he has always been non-responsive to "strangers." I also want to know to what she attributes his lack of interaction with me. Finally, I will show her the star book and explain the game. October 25, 1996: José's mother and I met and she explained to me that José was in kindergarten in Puerto Rico from September 1995 through April, 1996, from 12:00 p.m. until 3:00 p.m. The family moved to this country shortly thereafter. José's mother said that when they were in Puerto Rico he insisted on coming home for lunch daily and would not eat in the school dining room with the other children. She referred to him several times as being a "timid" child. When asked if something traumatized him in the past, something that would cause him to withdraw verbally, she said "no," and that he had always been non-verbal "like his brother." When asked why she thought José did not respond or repeat in class, she reiterated that he was timid. She told me that José said to her one day, "Ahora no voy a hablarle a la maestra porque ella me regano." (He was not going to speak to me because I scolded him.) She told me that his teacher in Puerto Rico insisted on his moving physically from one place in the classroom to another place, and when he would not move and she physically moved him, he bit her. I ask her to speak with José about the importance of responding/repeating in school, and also to practice his name and letters with him at home. She said she would. Information from Speech Therapist:
The speech therapist informed me that he also had a difficult time eliciting any verbal response from José, beyond a nod of the head. I told him I would be interested in recommending José for speech therapy. The therapist suggested that José would be better served by a recommendation to the school counselor instead.
Information from Class Observations:October 24, 1996: José reacted strongly and positively when I introduce a new game called "Early Birds." In fact, he was sitting next to me and, as I explained the game, he became increasingly captivated by it and could barely refrain from touching the box. He elbowed me, communicating non-verbally that he wanted to be the first to try it out. I subsequently chose him to be a player.October 25, 1996: In the afternoon, during playtime, I took José aside and attempted to interact with him by asking him what his favorite toy/game was. He gestured with his chin toward the play dough. I asked him a few more questions but he did not respond and he was clearly distracted by his desire to play.October 28, 1996: Today, the day after I spoke with José's mother, I noticed that during circle-time José maintained eye contact with me for a short time. I suspect that his mother had discussed the goals we talked about at our meeting, and she had clearly influenced him, but in which way I was not entirely certain.
I closely observed and later determined that José's only language was Spanish. Because the main language of instruction in my classroom is Spanish, I determined that the problem was not a lack of language comprehension. Also, the fact that the mother's first and only language is Spanish helped to rule out the language factor. Additionally, the family reported no speech/language problems in the initial kindergarten interview or on the forms where a question is specifically posed as to whether the child has any language disorders.
José's Departure:November 5, 1996: José had been absent from school for several days. Today, José's mother came to the classroom with her older son and asked for my name and room number so she could go to the school office to get dismissal papers for José because the family was moving back to Puerto Rico. She had come to Philadelphia in April and reported that she did not want to raise her children in the North Philadelphia environment. I gave her the information she requested, sent some Halloween party candy to José, wished her luck and began to think about where my should go from here. Obviously, José's departure from my class puts an end to my case study about him. However, the topic I was studying by observing José is still relevant for me as a teacher.

Reflections About My Learnings
My reflections about my experiences with José lead me to believe that his lack of verbal interaction was not due to a cognitive delay or academic difficulty. Instead, I believe that José's lack of verbal interaction might stem from social/emotional factors. José appeared wary of trusting non-familial adults. José's behavior indicated to me that he did not seem comfortable with me and did not trust me. Additionally, José did not establish any clear relationships with the other children, the classroom assistants, specialist teachers, or the parent/helper.
My belief that José's lack of verbal behavior might be influenced by social/emotional factors was also strengthened by the fact that not once during my two months of working with him did I ever witness his expressing any emotions, negative or positive. Anyone who has daily contact with five-year-old children for an extended period of time will rapidly conclude that this is very unusual. Emotional expressions of anger, sadness/tears, joy, affection for the teacher, demands, and detailing of the child's wants and needs are minute-to-minute occurrences.
I feel certain that had I been allowed to continue to work with José on a daily basis, earning his trust and allowing him to get to know me as an experienced and sensitive teacher, I would have made more progress in reaching him.
Due to the fact that I was unable to engage José in repeating the pledges, poems and the alphabet during the course of my inquiry, I wish I had had more time with him. I recognized a problem, but for lack of time, I was unable to resolve it. In addition to the more time, the solution to the problem would have required additional teamwork with his mother and the intervention of a school counselor. I recognize that José's move back to his homeland made this approach impossible. However, I feel certain that given a whole academic year, José would have grown accustomed to me, he would have adjusted to the classroom community and routine, and I would have been able to increase his level of verbal interaction.
The development of a positive, trusting relationship with a child's first teacher and first learning environment is very important. A kindergarten teacher must be thoughtful in her reactions and responses. I am very aware that the first learning environment sets the tone for the lifelong school experience. First impressions are indelible and first learning experiences follow a child throughout his or her life. My inquiry has made me more sensitive and aware of several things. For example I will now consider a variety of factors when I encounter a non-verbal child with no apparent speech problem. I will consider the child's family background and prior experiences with teachers and other professionals. I will also consider the child's social/inter-personal competence.
In the future, given another child with similar issues, I will not significantly change my strategy but rather continue to elicit verbal interaction with the child, perhaps supplementing it by pairing the child with another classmate in a word game of some kind. I will clearly need to start with a small goal, like repeating passively, and work my way up to a give-and-take verbal exchange. Finally, this study has impacted me as an early childhood education teacher by stressing the importance and necessity of supportive social services in the school, such as the school counselor. In the future, I am sure I will encounter other students similar to José. I will not have all the answers for how to best serve them, but I will be guided by the insights and questions that this study has raised as I seek to learn with them and about them.