“Bobby” is the first story in a book I am working on that will feature children who taught me essential truths about the classroom, about teaching, and about children with unique needs and unique gifts. Each story is intended to represent thousands of children like them. All the stories are true though names and places were changed to maintain confidentiality.
Bobby hesitated at the door, clinging to his foster mother’s hand. She led him gently forward and guided him to hang up his coat and put his backpack in his preschool cubby. His face showed no emotion and our warm greetings were met with a couple of nods under his straight black hair. I squatted to get eye contact but he kept his eyes to the floor.
That first morning, after his foster mother’s goodbye hug, he glanced up but shifted his gaze quickly down again. He moved silently, unlike his peers who rushed to the low shelves and began exploring. He didn’t speak to anyone.
He was obviously in the right place as this early childhood special education class was focused on helping three-and-four year-olds communicate. Despite coaxing from our teaching team, Bobby’s silence continued.. Not all children speak though most children in Bobby’s class were not silent. Some pointed and could use single words with gestures. Some paired pictures and words to let us know what they needed. Like any preschool class, they made sounds: giggles, grunts, whines, grumbles, squeaks, and shrieks – all part of the preschool symphony.
Bobby was different. Bobby never tried to speak. He never smiled, laughed, complained, growled or pouted. The only time he communicated was during snack break. There he would point to food pictures on a communication board. He was deliberate in his choices, bananas with only the tiniest green and no brown spots were favorites. His soft, serious face stayed still except for a gentle motion as he chewed. If he was still hungry, he would point to the item he wanted, slowly remove the item from the bowl, and then continue eating at the same deliberate pace.
Aside from snack, Bobby played alone. From his block play in the corner we could hear the sounds of wood on wood but none of the sounds that children make when they pretend. He sat so silent in his world that he started to become invisible to the other children. Their invitations, sometimes spontaneous, sometimes with coaching from us, were all ignored.
Naturally, I phoned home and asked his foster mother about his silence.
She was surprised. “He chatters away at home,” she said. “He talks to us and plays with the other children here.” His previous foster parents confirmed this.
Our teaching team speculated about his quiet. The first few days at school often require big adjustments from young children. We waited as the days turned into weeks. Bobby never spoke.
Our classroom had two teaching assistants, a speech pathologist, an occupational therapist, and myself as the teacher. We were all highly experienced with ways to coax a child to speak. We sang songs with amusing finger plays, encouraging imitation. We used books with velcro pictures that students named as they were pulled off. We included children in plays with many prompts. We read favorite books and paused expectantly at the places where the story-line repeated. We would keep a favorite toy out of reach, then act confused by the child’s pointing, waiting patiently for words we knew they could voice.
None of this worked with Bobby. He watched our activities from a respectful but reserved distance. He seemed to follow the books with his eyes, but never made any of the sounds or repeated any of the words. He was willing to accept whatever toys he could reach. Bobby was giving us nothing to work with. Knowing he played with other children at home, we actively enlisted his peers at school.
“Andy, ask Bobby if he wants to help move furniture.” Andy asked, Karima asked, Deshawn asked, Jimmy asked. Bobby ignored them.
“Bobby doesn’t talk,” they reported.
Meanwhile, over the next few weeks and months, we noted their speech was improving and their cooperation was becoming more spontaneous as they moved from solitary to parallel to cooperative play. They were all progressing from gestures to sounds, to garbled words, to clearer speech, and to full sentences. A miniature revolution in communication was happening all around Bobby who remained in his silent world.
The children liked rearranging the room every other day. They liked the pull-and-tug feel of their own power. Tables, chairs and toys were cooperatively rearranged as they chattered about each setting. Houses with blanket walls appeared under tables and low, rolling shelves transformed into forts. Giggles and murmurs of newly learned words lingered in the atmosphere of this engaged classroom.
But Bobby was content with whatever arrangements were made. He quietly avoided the moving traffic. We encouraged him to hold signs and stop trikes in the playground or operate the toy filling station. He shook his head. He stared at the small figures of knights in armor so we placed them in the sandbox and gave them names and important work to do. He would play with the mute soldiers in the sand box, standing his silent figures on the castle wall, alone and well-defended.
We admitted we were stuck. How could we have failed so completely as a teaching team? What child had we not figured out? Only last year we had discovered that Petra, a sweet, barely-audible little girl who struggled in her speech, actually spoke Russian quite well. A visiting teacher-in-training from Moscow picked up on Petra’s slight accent and took the child aside for some pleasant conversation. Her parents had omitted certain facts on Petra’s application form and gained a free preschool education. With only another month of school to go, we allowed Petra to stay and together we learned some Russian finger plays.
Bobby was different, he refused to speak and we didn’t know why. Once again I interviewed his previous caregivers for clues. No one could suggest a reason.
One morning, on the last week of school, while students were coming off the bus and hanging up their coats, we heard the first words from Bobby. His voice was real and cheerful. He spoke many full sentences! By the end of the day I couldn’t wait to phone home. “Bobby is speaking has anything changed at home?”
His foster mother paused and her voice steadied over the phone. “Today Bobby saw the adoption papers,” she said, in her clear, soft voice. “He knows he can stay with us. He has a home now that he will never have to leave. “
I learned that no matter how polished our teaching skills, no matter how warm and welcoming our social programs, and no matter how kind we are as professionals toward a young child, there is no substitute for a home where one feels security and a sense of belonging. When we feel we belong, we are more than halfway towards feeling whole.
Foster care today
According to the United States Department of Health and Human Service, on any given day there are over 400,000 children in out-of-home care in the United States. The primary reason for removing a child from a home is neglect, followed closely by parental substance abuse. It is estimated that 90% of children in foster care have been exposed to trauma and 80% require mental health services. Foster care itself can have the unintended consequence of producing trauma. Virtually all fostered children live with some degree of uncertainty. About half of these children will eventually return home. Most of the remaining children will be adopted. Children waiting to be adopted wait an average of two years, during which time no one can say with certainty if they will find a home.
In my four decades of teaching experience I spent the majority of my time working with children who experienced trauma both in and out of their homes. Families, especially families in poverty, face unimaginable stress. Much more could be done to alleviate this strain. In my experience, separating the child from the family is always done as the last resort. How to support families to keep children safe or when to remove children to keep them safe is not the focus of this story, though it should be high on the agenda in every community.
Bobby’s story is true. Bobby’s dramatic reversal from a child who didn’t speak to one who did was not typical but did have a deep impact on my understanding of the importance of belonging.
I have often reflected on exactly why Bobby didn’t speak that year. I can only speculate. Before his adoption, he may have felt our school was a place where you stayed for a while, never certain if you would return. After the adoption he felt safe and trusted that he would be coming home. When Bobby understood that his home would always be his home, he understood what belonging was. School was no longer something he feared. Fear can’t live long in the presence of belonging.