Identify Possible Problems and Special Needs
Pro teachers are attuned to their students' needs, dislikes, preferences, and personal problems. You don't have to adopt every student and take her home with you, but you do have to pay reasonable attention to each student's particular needs.
Pay particular attention to any physical problems that may manifest themselves. True, you're not a doctor, nurse, or any other type of trained medical professional, but you do have abundant common sense and you're in a unique position to observe your children every day. For instance, you're always keeping an eye out for kids who seem to be squinting when they look at the whiteboard — a possible indication of vision problems. Send any such students to the nurse with hall passes and explanatory notes briefly touching on your concerns. Ask the nurse if these children can be tested for visual acuity. Also, try to seat such students as close to the instructional whiteboard as possible.
Listen carefully to kids who complain about ongoing physical problems that they say interfere with their learning. For example, if you've moved a kid to the back row because he's constantly talking with his front-row buddies and he later complains he can't see the whiteboard clearly, you may have to modify your seating chart again and move him closer.
You're also constantly keeping an ear open for students who seem to have trouble hearing you properly. Possible indicators of hearing problems include students who tend to turn their heads to one side to hear instructions better from a favored ear and students who sit or stand near you yet do not seem to hear or respond when you repeatedly speak their names or give instructions. Such problems might result from simple inattentiveness or daydreaming, but if the problems persist, send any such students to the nurse for observation and possible testing. Again, you're not a medical professional, but if you have legitimate concerns get a professional to either allay your concerns or confirm them. Thereafter, the professional may either recommend treatment or consult further with other professionals.
And no matter how hard you work, never let yourself become so exhausted and out of breath that you can't pay attention to kids who appear to have trouble breathing properly. Respiratory distress may indicate the presence of asthma, a chronic disease that causes a child's lungs to tighten, making breathing extremely difficult. According to an article by Dr. C. Lilly in the April 2005 issue of the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology,25 percent of city-dwelling children worldwide exhibit asthma symptoms. Triggers for asthma may include lung infections, air pollution, stress, cigarette smoke, etc. Treatment may include the introduction of medication into the lungs using an inhaler, a portable spray device. If you suspect that a child may be suffering from asthma, talk to the parents and school nurse to get help for the child.
Problems of a different nature may affect certain children who, in your professional judgment, seem to be exhibiting noticeable, ongoing changes for the worse in their outlook, behavior, and academic performance. Find time to discreetly and courteously discuss your concerns with each one of these students, but be mindful of the hypersensitivity of many of your young charges. Calmly voice your concerns saying things like, “I'm worried that your grades in most subjects have gone down in the last two weeks. Are you having any problems?” If you can encourage a child to mention a problem, even in general terms, you might then be able to discuss the problem with the child's parents; and if you believe it's necessary to involve your school's counselor, nurse, or principal, then you can make the call.
Suspicions of Sexual Abuse
A specific crisis that a child may be facing is child sexual molestation, also called child sexual abuse, where she experiences unwished-for, degrading, and emotionally harmful sex talk, embracing, touching, kissing, or intercourse, forced upon her by an adult or another child.
When it comes to child sexual abuse, bear in mind that despite any self-serving claims an abuser may make, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) declared in a statement issued during its 1999 APA Council of Representatives convention that no child ever has the capacity to give legitimate, informed consent to any sexual activity with adults — period.
Child sexual abuse has been found to cause lifelong psychological problems in the vast majority of young victims who were studied for a 2000 report titled “Early Sexual Abuse and Lifetime Psychopathology: A Co-Twin Control Study,” by Dr. Stephen H. Dinwiddie of the Chicago Medical School. The report went on to say that child sexual abuse can cause psychological problems as diverse as inability to concentrate, insomnia, depression, stress disorders, complex neuroses, and more. Physical problems can include infections, lacerations, sexually transmitted diseases, and much more. If you suspect child sexual abuse, you are ethically required — as well as legally required, in many states — to report your suspicions to your school nurse immediately.
Another problem affecting some kids is depression, a bleak state of mind characterized by listlessness, hopelessness, and deep sadness. Depression can arise in kids as a result of environmental factors such as pervasive community violence or even general dreary weather conditions. Also, problems at home such as intense marital difficulties between a child's parents can trigger the onset of the blues.
Even worse, the ongoing psychiatric disorder known as clinical depression debilitates and saddens some children to such a degree that they are no longer able to competently function in school, nor work productively with students or teachers.
Some students may be experiencing learning disabilities,which are physiological problems that can interfere with a student's speech, hearing, or information-processing skills, and therefore his overall ability to learn. Learning disabilities may stem from malfunctions in a child's central nervous system, including the brain.
The learning disability occurring most frequently among young students is a reading disability, where children have difficulty decoding and comprehending grade-level-appropriate words and passages, especially at the level of correlating letters and letter combinations to the basic sounds that are represented.
Writing disabilities, also called dysgraphia by some doctors, are also quite common. Children with writing disorders may have difficulty with composition, grammar, spelling, and penmanship.
Learning disabilities are classified by official codes called the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems, 10th Revision, issued by the United Nations' World Health Organization. For example, the reading disability developmental dyslexia is coded ICD-10 F81.0. Childhood autism is coded ICD-10 F84.0. Unspecified disorders are coded ICD-10 F89.
Students can also suffer from mathematics disabilities, also called dyscalculia,where students experience trouble understanding mathematical tasks such as memorization of math-facts tables, telling time, counting money, the use of place value, etc.
If you suspect that a student may be suffering from a learning disability, ask the school nurse what the procedure is for identifying and assisting such students. Either an on-site school psychologist or another trained professional will evaluate the student based on an assessment of classroom performance as well as special academic testing, intelligence testing, and assessments of skills and aptitude. Specific testing instruments include the Woodcock-Johnson Test and the Stanford Achievement Test.
If a learning disability is identified, recommended classroom modifications to help the student may include intensive instruction to master particular skills prior to accessing more difficult skills; scripted instruction; instant feedback to correct errors; specialized use of computers and word-processing programs; trained teacher's aides; and possible assignment to a special-education classroom for all or part of the instructional day.
The main thing is to help your students resolve some of their problems and special needs by referring students to other professionals who can help. In general, you actually see your students for more waking hours on a daily basis than their own parents. If parents come home at 7:00 p.m., 8:00 p.m., or 9:00 p.m. — as many do — you may be in a better position to spot incipient problems than parents are. Take an interest, ask questions where appropriate, and take action when needed. That's what pros do.