This article was originally published at https://kristiepf.com/the-elephant-we-fail-to-see-guest-blog/. It was published with a focus on early childhood education, but the concepts apply to all level of education.
It was mid-April. The speech pathologist, occupational therapist, school psychologist, family and I, the early childhood special educator, were gathered around a large round table two feet off the ground, all sitting in child-sized chairs for Jose’s kindergarten transition meeting. It was our fifth of seven kindergarten transition meetings that spring.
Twenty-minutes after the meeting had begun, it was over. Jose’s mother had walked out of the room crying. His father followed behind her. The transition team was silent for a few moments. Then, Edgar, the school psychologist, looked at the team and said, “It’s hard to complete a transition meeting if the family doesn’t see the reality of their child’s disability?”
I was speechless, flooded with emotions. I felt sadness for Jose’s family, an embarrassment for the transition team, anger towards myself, fear of the fallout, and disgusted towards Edgar for placing the blame on Jose’s family.
I have since realized that Jose’s transition meeting was the extreme end of a consistent thread that blinded members of early childhood intervention teams throughout my career. Years after that meeting, the experience has remained imprinted on my conscious as a professional in the field of early care and education. Going with the flow of our expectations for “normal”, made us blind to the marginalization of families.
Teams of Blind Mice
In the tale of seven blind mice, the first six mice used their front legs to explore the Something in front of them. Each mouse felt and interpreted a different object. One said it was a pillar, another a rope, another a fan, another a spear, and so on. The seventh mouse, after listening to the input from the previous six, decided to explore more than what was in front of her. “She ran up one side, and she ran down the other…across the top and end to end.” Once completed, she concluded that the Something was not six separate objects, rather they were all parts of one giant elephant.
The professionals in the meeting were collectively like one of the first six blind mice. Based on our experiences working with Jose and his family, we assumed what was in front of us was nothing but a normal transition meeting (pillar/elephant leg) from pre-k to kindergarten.
Fifteen-minutes into the meeting, Edgar had told Jose’s family, “Jose’s scores on the test qualify him as a child with a disability.”
“What does that mean?” asked Jose’s father.
Edgar responded, “Jose has an intellectual impairment…that is the term used for what we used to call mental retardation.”
For Jose’s family, the meeting was not about paperwork, policies and procedures (pillar/elephant leg). Yes, they knew that what was in front of them was a transition meeting, but they saw it as much more. They expected validation for their hopes and dreams (rope/elephant tail), confirmation that Jose was going to grow up to become a productive contributor to society (fan/elephant ear), and affirmation for the successes they saw with early intervention (spear/elephant tusk). The meeting was much more than transitioning from pre-k to kindergarten. The meeting was about Jose’s past, present and future success.
Jose’s family did not hear Edgar say, intellectual disability. They heard mental retardation, which was a shock for them. For them, Jose was delayed.They recognized that his developmental delays made it more difficult for him to participate in certain social and physical activities in the ways other children did, but they perceived that as a result of the environmental conditions, not Jose’s delays.
“Mental Re…I mean, whatever disability means…” his mother stated angrily with tears streaming down her cheeks “…he’s never going to learn anything?!”
In a conversation with Jose’s mother the next day, I began to understand that the message the school psychologist sent, and the transition team passively accepted, caused her to question everything. She was marginalized, feeling betrayed, overpowered and silenced. The family was no longer sure that their son was going to grow into a productive contributor to his classroom, community and beyond.
It was then that I began to understand that the flow of normal does not work for children and families.
Interrupt the Flow
“The key to withdrawing support [for injustice] is to interrupt the flow of business as usual” (Johnson, 1997, p. 702).
If you recognize that you and your team members are a blind mouse, seeing on the pillar of policies and procedures in front of you, I call on you to interrupt the flow of “normal”. Interrupt the flow by calling into question the policies and procedures (pillar/elephant leg) you follow by asking “why? But why? But why?” Then deconstruct and reconstruct your perceptions of those policies, procedures and everyone involved in business as usual.
The work of Luke Wood and his colleagues suggests that the process of interrupting the flow of “normal” must include continuous formal and informal educational experiences related to equity and inclusion, and building of authentic personal relationships with individuals who do not share group, cultural and self identities. For a list of resource to support informal education experiences, download this free resource.
The next time you sit down at a table two feet off the ground for a team meeting, ask yourself:
• Who might be marginalized?
• Why are they being affected? Why? Why?
• What is the pillar and how is it serving as a barrier?
• What can I do to better educate myself to better interrupt the flow of my/our “normal”?
• How can I reconstruct my understanding of normal?
• Can I help the family see the elephant rather than the individual parts?
Interrupt the flow of “normal” by building stronger relationships with families and colleagues who have a different group, cultural and self identities than you. Eat lunch together, talk in passing, attend school and community events, and participate in home visits. Maintaining the flow of “normal” maintains business as usual and the blindness that Jose’s, and every other family, should never experience.
To assist in this process of withdrawing support for injustice and interrupting the flow of business as usual, download my Deconstructing and Reconstructing Normal activity sheet.
The activity sheet walks participants through an analytic process of “awakening” to the injustices caused by the flow of normal, which many early childhood professionals are blind to. It can be done individually or as a team. The three-step process begins with a deconstruction of an issue that frustrates the participant(s). Once the issue is clearly identified, the deconstruction can begin. The first portion of the deconstruction could be completed in as short of time as twenty-minutes to as long as a few hours, days, week, months or even years. The more time participants have to think about their deconstruction, the better. Keep in mind, it’s a lifelong marathon, not a one-day sprint.
The second portion of the activity sheet asks participants to get down to the root cause of the issue. They must identify “why” the issue is an issue for THEM. Like the first step, the second portion can be limited to a brief period of time, but the more time participants are allowed to think, the better.
The final step is reconstruction. Now that participants better understand the issue with their “normal” and recognize the root causes, they can begin to interrupt the flow. This activity is not an end-all be-all solution. It is just the beginning of a process. The moment participants cease to educate themselves is the moment they return to the business as usual, which can leader to the marginalization of families and children.