One Special Needs Mom Addresses Bullying Head-on.
Article by Michaela Searfoorce.
A child who looks, or behaves, differently from his peers is—inevitably, it seems—the target of teasing and other unkindnesses (small and large) on the part of those peers. It’s painful for the child and can make parents, witnessing this suffering, feel powerless
. But one mother we know, Michaela Searfoorce, decided to try the direct approach. After her son James, who has a host of physical and developmental issues, had an embarrassing accident during recess, she sat down with the kids in his class and leveled with them—about her worries that they’d make fun of him, about why it happened, about why he does some of the other odd things he does. The result? They asked great, honest questions, listened carefully to the answers, and showed welcome compassion. Here’s her story.
As I made my way to my son James’s school on Friday afternoon I tried to imagine what magic spell I could recite to his classmates to make them all forget about Wednesday’s incident (description to follow). Do you ever wonder what other kids think about your special needs child? This is not actually something I dwell on often, but standing in front of 22 very curious faces I wondered what questions were about to come my way, and hoped that I would be able to answer them both honestly and appropriately (I really didn’t want to say “poop” or “megacolon” in front of a bunch of fourth graders).
I started off by explaining why I was there—I told James’s class that he didn’t know I had come but that I was worried about sending James back to school after what happened on Wednesday and wanted to make sure it was safe for him to come back. I told the kids that I was concerned about what might be said to James and that I didn’t want him to be made fun of for something that was outside of his control. I gave a brief explanation of James’s disability and related medical issues that led to Wednesday’s disaster, and also talked with them about James’s past surgeries and his history with intestinal issues. Then, I opened up the floor for questions—regarding Wednesday or James in general. Here are just a few of the questions I was asked:
Q. What happened Wednesday? Why did James not know what to do?
A. James may not have been able to tell you, but as his mom I know what was going on inside of him. James had an extremely busy week with you guys—dance performances, field day, field trips, testing—and because of his crazy schedule his medication didn’t work properly and James was not able to go to the bathroom for nearly 2 weeks [there was a collective gasp at this pronouncement, especially from the boys]. On Wednesday his body did not cooperate with him and James couldn’t make it to a bathroom in time. He didn’t know what to do because he was outside and far away from a bathroom.
Q. Is James upset at home?
A. Not really. Thankfully, James forgot about what happened by the time we got home—he forgets about things very quickly sometimes. I am hoping you will help him forget about it.
Q. Why does James make weird faces and tip his head sometimes?
A. James’s brain works differently than yours or mine and sometimes he is thinking about something and acting it out in his mind. You know how you can keep your thoughts secret from people if you want to? James can’t do that sometimes.
Q. What kind of surgery did James have?
A. He has had a lot of surgeries—on his eyes, stomach, teeth, legs.
Q. Did it hurt when they did surgery?
A. No, because they gave him a shot that made him sleep through all of them, kind of like when you go to the dentist.
Q. Why does James spin in circles a lot?
A. Sometimes when it is really chaotic or loud James likes to spin in circles to deal with all of the noise. Other times he likes to spin because it feels good to him.
Q. I had that same kind of surgery and sometimes my eyes get tired and they go like “this.”
A. That’s what happens when James’s eyes get tired, too.
Q. Why does James get mad when I say “good job”? Why does James get mad when I try to help him?
A. James may have not been able to tell you, but as his mom I am pretty sure that he isn’t usually mad, even if he looks like he is. When James gets mad he is usually one of 3 things—scared, frustrated, or embarrassed. Sometimes when you say “good job” James is feeling frustrated or embarrassed that he can’t do whatever you guys are doing—dance, gym, math—as well as you, and he thinks you are teasing him or just feels upset that he can’t do those things. He is embarrassed to have you help him because he wants to do it himself.
Q. What can we do to make him not feel embarrassed?
A. Act like you don’t notice that he is not doing it the same as you—all he wants is to fit in with the group.
Q. Is it serious?
A. [After some clarification from the teacher:] As long as James takes his medicine and sees his doctors he should be just fine.
Q. Why does James make noises like “this”?
A. James sometimes doesn’t realize he is making noises, and other times he can’t help it. Sometimes when he is stressed out or excited he makes noises—the noises help calm him down. It is better if you just ignore them.
Q. Why does James cry at popping noises?
A. This is a very serious thing I want to address [I spoke to the whole class but everyone knew I was really talking to a handful of kids in the class]. I understand that there have been some popping incidents during lunch, where people are popping chip bags at James. This must stop. James’s ears are shaped differently on the inside and popping noises scare him because they really hurt his head on the inside. They hurt James like he is being hit [I made some good eye contact here]. If James were given a million dollars inside of bubble wrap he would throw it in the garbage [there was a huge gasp from the class at this revelation] because popping is so horrible to him. We can’t have balloons or anything else that might pop in our house because we don’t want to hurt or scare him. When something pops near James it feels like he was hit in the head, that’s how much it hurts. So if you are popping chip bags at James, it is the same as if you hit him. Popping is hitting.