Impact Feature Issue on Supporting the Social Well-Being of Children and Youth with Disabilities

Mya Grace is Going to Dance:
A Third Grader's Journey in Social Growth


Vera Stroup-Rentier and her family live in Topeka, Kansas

Something wonderful happened today. MyaGrace Rentier is going to dance. It seems pretty normal on the surface because many 10-year-old girls love to dance. MyaGrace is no exception. Prior to today, her opportunities to dance with others have been with others who have special needs or at home dancing with our Just Dance Wii games. Today, MyaGrace has been asked to join the Dance Exhibition team at our local dance studio. She is thrilled beyond words because she has wanted to dance with her brothers for several months. Finally, I asked the teacher what she thought about her being part of the class, and the teacher's answer was, "Of course." Our family is ecstatic because this teacher honored the wishes of a girl who has been described as "intellectually disabled," "autistic-like," "motor impaired," and "hyperactive." To us, her family, MyaGrace is a sweet girl who is going to dance with her brothers and several others students in an "inclusive" dance class at a local dance studio.

Including MyaGrace hasn't always been as easy as the example above, but it certainly has gotten easier in the last few years as we have really sought to emphasize her social-emotional skills, both at home and school, so she could be more successful in the activities she selected. Our initial emphasis came during her second year of kindergarten when difficulties she had at school were not the same ones we were experiencing with any consistency at home. She was enrolled in a school that did not typically include children with needs as significant as hers, and her school team thought maybe she would be more successful at another school in the district that had more experience with students with a variety of disabilities. We, however, wanted MyaGrace to go to school with her brothers as they are all very close in age. We stayed firm about our desire to have her educated in her neighborhood school and told the school we wanted to make her participation in their school successful together. At school, she was hitting, yelling, and running in the hall every opportunity she had. Although she sometimes exhibited these behaviors at home, at school the behaviors were happening 20-30 times more often, especially when she was left alone with a paraprofessional.

During kindergarten, MyaGrace acquired a Behavior Plan in her Individualized Education Program (IEP) that detailed each inappropriate behavior she exhibited, and 1) the ways to prevent it, 2) the ways to address it when it did occur, and 3) the ways to diminish so it would not occur again in the same time period. It was an exhaustive list that took lots of time to work in partnership to document. Once we collaborated in this way, MyaGrace realized everyone knew what the expectations for her were, so we were 75 percent of the way to working on her challenging behaviors.

Initially, our efforts at school began by using social stories to let MyaGrace know the expectations for her behaviors, whatever the setting. Secondly, we began to think about how to most successfully transition her from activity to activity and setting to setting. Transitions were quite difficult, and while she enjoyed being "social," this aspect of her personality usually led to more disruptive behavior because she didn't understand appropriate social cues and contexts. Thirdly, when MyaGrace was demonstrating appropriate behavior, we would reward it using natural supports that already existed at school and home. At school, she got another period of music (her favorite class) if she had a good week (determined by less than three negative behaviors each day), and at home she got a mini manicure from mom (another favorite activity).

An important part of making sure all of the above supports were implemented for MyaGrace each year at school was to ensure she always had a social-emotional focus on her IEP. In our experience, we have found some special education teachers are more comfortable with this construct than others. For MyaGrace it is vital, so it has been important for our family to know what resources are available to help support her growth in this area so we can share strategies between home and school. Each year, we talk about specific ways to address her social-emotional development. Also, we talk about short-term objectives representing 3 months rather than year-long goals, and her progress is reported on her report card (another motivator for her, which we acknowledge at home and school). Prior to this, most of the time her report card came home with most columns saying "N/A" since she could not meet the existing standards. Now, progress is measured in a way we can all view. Inherent in addressing MyaGrace's goals are the objectives specific to what we want to see in the activities she chooses such as dance, piano lessons, and cheerleading. Specifically, we have asked team members to come to her practices or we have videotaped practices so they could see specific examples of MyaGrace using strategies we discussed. We have been able to film other strategies so all team members benefit from our efforts to support MyaGrace's social-emotional skills. Communication with both her regular education and special education teachers has been important. And equally important, for us, has been letting MyaGrace know we are talking to them on a regular basis about simple things like her passing a "reading" test, to bigger things like how hard she is working on her presentation about Clara Barton.

Focus on supporting MyaGrace's social-emotional skills didn't happen by chance as there were "big stakes" to making sure she was socially successful at school, including staying in the same school as her brothers and getting to participate in the activities she really enjoys like dancing and music. Although we started in kindergarten, we still work every day on her social-emotional skills to help her be as successful as possible. Today, in third grade, she goes into her classroom each morning and empties her backpack, puts away her things, gets out her morning work, quietly goes to her seat, and begins her seat work. She may say "Hi" to a few of her friends along the way, but she is able to do this without getting completely off track. In kindergarten, she had a paraprofessional with her from the time she got off the bus until she got back on the bus to come home. Now, a paraprofessional helps her with the subjects that are most challenging like math, reading, and spelling, but rarely does anyone have to "help" because of her behavior. It took a team effort to get us where MyaGrace is today and we are truly glad "we are all in this together."