On Butterflies and Families
In the early days of my career, I was at an IEP meeting waiting to present goals for a kindergarten student with multiple needs. He was an enthusiastic young boy with mild coordination difficulties, who frequently bumped into furniture and other children. He had language and learning delays, and slightly imprecise articulation. His grandmother was his legal guardian and she was at the meeting to discuss goals for his kindergarten year.
The grandmother appeared wary and distrustful; as she grilled the teacher on how many years of experience she had teaching. She drummed her long nails on the table during breaks in the conversation. I was nervous. This was one of many meetings with the families of students who attended a specialized kindergarten program.
When it was my turn to present, I launched into an explanation of how speech and language goals aligned with classroom curriculum. I described sequencing goals by using the caterpillar to butterfly metamorphosis from the classroom. There were colored pictures of cocoons and butterflies on the walls of the classroom because this was the current classroom theme.
The grandmother looked at me and said, “My family doesn’t care about butterflies.” I was shocked and startled. A series of thoughts entered my head: “Who doesn’t care about butterflies?” “Why wouldn’t you care about butterflies?” “I like butterflies.” Suddenly, in a moment of clarity I realized that it had nothing to do with butterflies. In her own way, the grandmother was saying to me, that I hadn’t recognized what was important to her and her grandson. When I spoke again, I floundered. I thought about how the student loved to wear sports shirts and talked about sports. I amended my example and described sequencing goals for sports and outdoor activities. It wasn’t a lot better, but I had made an attempt.
This event changed my practice because I no longer present any information without asking the family about their own concerns and preferences first:
• How is your child’s speech and language at home? How does your child sound to you?
• What are some of your child’s favorite activities? What are some of your family’s favorite activities?
• What do you think would help your child to be able to express himself better?
• I’m thinking of goals around X, how does this sound to you?
• In the classroom we are doing X, how does this sound to you?
I neglected to tell you something. The grandmother and her grandson self-identified as African-American. What she actually said to me was dialectal: “What do a Black family care about butterflies?” She wasn’t just telling me that I hadn’t taken the time to personalize the treatment for her grandson. I also hadn’t taken the time to collaborate with the family, and to honor and respect them. Sometimes the clinical drive to share our own ideas of what we think will help a child causes us to overlook the fundamental need to connect with the family first.