Saturday, April 16, 2011

Bucket-Fillers Need Not Apply

~Required qualifications: puzzler and pogo stick operator~

Preparation for school came in phases. After the early haze of health issues, diagnosis and treatment plans began to clear; the hunter/gatherer mentality took over.  I busied myself making connections with other parents, with those active in the school district, with educators.   Like we all do, I added countless resource and reference sites to my browser bookmark list: special education law sites, my LEA’s site, articles on writing strong IEPs, websites for upcoming conferences and more.  I attended every training on communication and special education that fit on my calendar.  I accepted leadership roles in the school district that would give me more exposure to both regular ed and special ed. I asked questions of parents a step or two ahead of us, as well as those 10 steps ahead of us, already preparing for transition. 

I did all of those things that most of us do and I believe they have at least partially contributed to the school experience Addie is having now. A successful junior kindergarten year led to an even better kindergarten year, which brought us to this current first grade experience.  She is engaged, happy and challenged.  She is a contributing member in her classroom, respected and heard by others in the school community: peers, teachers, aides, clinicians, administrators.  Her participation is required and valued - in addition to using her communication device, Addie uses a few approximations, many signs, gestures and expressions to get her point across.  In my overt and covert observations, any and all of these methods are accepted and responded to by adults and children.  Faith in her abilities evokes in her a mad desire to always employ them. 

Back in K4, this was new for her.  In some school situations prior to elementary, it had been an uphill battle to get her to swing with the school agenda.  Often she would stay in her own sensory world, rocking, shaking her head, exploring textures, keeping her eyes on the carpet or ceiling.  It didn’t take too much observation to determine when any given classroom situation was not the right one for her.  But why wasn’t it?

It took some retrospection, looking back at the plan in place at the time, making sure goals were appropriate, considering whether I had shared with the staff the right tools to encourage Addie, to meet her where she was.  I had been hearing all the right things when we met with the team to plan or re-plan.  I spent many hours hunting for the missing piece in these situations before it dawned on me that 2 chunks were missing.

The staff (and her peers, as a result) didn’t believe in Addie. 

I never asked them to.

Nothing was required of Addie during the short time she was in that early classroom; they had no standards or expectations of her. She was physically just present until it was time for her to go work individually with a clinician on an individual goal.  We didn’t listen close enough to the staff when carving out a plan for Addie.  I didn’t get a feel for whether everyone in the room thought Addie was truly capable of realizing each goal, much less whether there would be an expectation that she would contribute to the community as a whole.

Since that dawning, we have learned how to listen for more than just the right IEP buzz words.  I listen for puzzle vs. bucket attitudes regarding Addie’s education:

A puzzle professional’s perspective - all the pieces are there, we’re going to work together to sort them out. It’s just a matter of time and method. What I need to do first is get to really know Addie, see the big picture, you (parents) and I will collaborate along the way to get the corners and edges in place and Addie will fill most in on her own.

A bucket professional’s perspective – you kid is like an empty bucket and my job is to fill it.  Some buckets are yellow and some green, but I’ve worked with buckets before, don’t worry. I’ve seen it all. These are the things I have to fill the bucket with, whether the volume, method of pouring or viscosity is appropriate or not – the bucket will just have to deal.  If there are spills or overflows, it is because there is something wrong with the bucket, not with what I have to fill it with.  It’s best if you parents just let me work rather than getting involved, but you are free to read my quarterly progress reports.

What I learned to listen for is whether the professional sees my child as something whole, with everything she needs inherent in her or whether she is seen as something with gaping crevasses that require the specific spackle they happen to have.  Does the professional already know everything that needs to be known or will they take what they learn from my kid and use it to help her be her best?

Does the professional see their role in Addie’s progress like I see mine – as an escort to her potential, as someone who shows the way, sometimes leading, sometimes invisibly supporting from behind?

Addie has remarkable judgment when it comes to knowing whether someone has expectations of her or not.  If they don’t, she will not engage with them, will not follow their agenda, will not comply for compliance’s sake. We know now that we need to get to the bucket people before Addie does.  She does not easily retract a first impression – particularly a negative one.

Within the team we’ve worked with the last few years, there are mostly puzzle people. We are lucky now, but there have been a few bucket people that have passed through.  My work was then to ask them for a leap of faith. 

I had conversations with these few bucket professionals that consisted mostly of me sharing anecdotes of accomplishments Addie had reached of her own volition – victories that no one anticipated: how she taught herself to swim, how she got her point across through creative navigation of her device to borrow something from another context, different ways she surprises even us – little proofs that no assessment of current or ‘moment in time’ skills should be taken as declaration of limitation.

When possible, I set up situations for bucket professionals to witness these victories firsthand and hopefully draw the same conclusions over time.

We add our own “present level” to her IEP that is not just a list of strengths, challenges and motivators, but stories and examples of how she herself uses her strengths to circumnavigate her challenges, how balancing our expectations between a few steps beyond her ‘measured’ capabilities and the things she’s motivated by have led to specific and surprising gains.  We include how Addie feels about these gains and how we know she feels that way.

I have only one suspected bucket professional left in Addie’s circle, but from this person’s written comments and our few conversations, I think influence of the puzzle people is starting to take hold.  She is starting to see that if she expects that Addie will do well, she will.

For parents of any child, leaps of faith are a daily, hourly thing.  We hop all day long and long jump through the years.  Our parental pogo sticks are never in park.  I now understand that one of the most important things I can do for my powerful little citizen is to ensure she is surrounded by as many fellow leapers as possible.  If some aren’t jumping when I meet them, my job becomes one of convincing them to consider the dividends of a few great leaps of faith.


  1. It's amazing what high expectations can do! Thank you for the puzzle/bucket metaphor; as an educator, it really resonated with me. Best of luck to you both in finding as many puzzle professionals as possible!

  2. You've identified something I think is quite profound here - a mindset that determines so much of the rest of how a given person acts and reacts to others. The puzzle people - those are who you want to deal with, not just for educating children but for everything from accounting to.... zookeeping? And you've gone an even more amazing step further and have figured out a way to turn people into puzzlers instead of bucket fillers. I'm grateful for your insights.

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