Lesson From A T-Rex

by Becca Harkema – Autism Support Network

Even though we are not supposed to have favorites, all teachers have a favorite student. This student is the one that we continue to wonder and think about years after we actually have this student in class. For me, this student is Justin. Oddly enough, when I first met Justin, in no way did I ever think that this child would become the one that found his way into that special place in my heart.

Justin was a third grade student with autism in my cross-categorical special education classroom. His family moved into the area about two weeks after school had begun, which meant that joining my classroom later in the year did not exactly fit his routine and schedule. The first day he started in our school, it took me twenty-five minutes to actually get him to step foot into the classroom (Luckily, I had a Smart Board that peaked his curiosity enough to enter the room). For the next few days that followed, Justin and I had some rocky moments as we both adjusted to each other.

One of those rocky moments came on a rainy Thursday afternoon in October. All of the students in the class were squirmy and irritable from being stuck inside all day, but this particularly affected Justin. He was having one of those days when nothing seemed to go his way and I knew he was seconds away from a melt-down at any given moment. It was just about time to get my class ready for library, and Justin asked to play on the computer. I answered him that it was not time to go on the computer because we had to leave for library. I am sure you can guess how that response went over with Justin. He became very upset, kicked me in the shins, and ran into the corner and screamed. Needless to say, Justin did not make it to library that day.

As the months passed by after that rainy October day, Justin began to make huge gains both academically and socially. His team and I had found a behavior management plan that worked for him, and Justin was going weeks at a time without any sign of a meltdown. And then, six months later on another Thursday afternoon, Justin and I found ourselves in the same predicament as that rainy day in October. It was time for our class to go to library, and Justin asked to play on the computer. I again told him that it was not time to play on the computer because we were going to library, and then I prepared to dodge his angry kicks. However, this time Justin did not respond with physical aggression. Instead, I watched him stomp to the art supply shelf, find a dry erase board and marker, and begin ferociously drawing a picture on the board. About three minutes later, he stomped his way back to me and held the dry erase board right up to my face. When I first saw the board, I had to keep myself from giggling. Justin had drawn a Tyrannosaurus Rex with me in its mouth. I simply responded, “Oh man, looks like I’m dinosaur lunch today!” With that, Justin went back to his seat, erased the board, and lined up at the door. That day, he DID go to library.

Later, my classroom assistant asked why I did not punish Justin for drawing that “inappropriate” picture. I simply responded that when I saw the picture of the T-Rex that he had drawn, I saw progress in Justin. Six months prior, Justin had used physical aggression to handle his anger in a similar situation. Now, in April, Justin had found a new avenue to express his feelings: drawing. Instead of punishing Justin, I was celebrating his new-found success and discovery (A discovery that he continued to use in the future as a coping mechanism). After this victory for Justin, I began to wonder how many “T-Rex” moments I had overlooked in my other students. How many times had my students made huge leaps of individual growth, but they went unnoticed because to the outside eye they did not seem important enough for recognition? I encourage all teachers of students (with or without disabilities) to look for those individual leaps of progress in your students, and take a lesson from the T-Rex like I did.


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