On Being Bored (and Being Boring)

Maybe you were never bored in school.

Maybe you were blessed with limitless intellectual curiosity, talented and skilled instructors who could make any topic fascinating, and an internal drive to find the positive aspects of all settings.

If so, let me know how you did it. I hated school as a kid. It was the one place in life where it felt like I was expected not to be myself. Everything about it was geared toward making me more like an adult, which definitely wasn't appealing (and isn't too appealing now, come to think of it). I'm sure even you positive academic geniuses have at least one fleeting memory of being disinterested in the task at hand. Perhaps you sighed theatrically. You tapped your pencil on the table and swung your legs under the chair. You looked out the window. Your mind wandered to whatever fantastic world you would rather be occupying. The hands on the clock stood still.

Why would we even want to remember that experience? Maybe it was a simple mismatch between my interests and the subject matter. Maybe if it had been presented in another way that related to me, things could have been different. I was looking through old photos of myself this evening and realized I didn't have a single picture of me as a child in an academic setting - or even working on school tasks at home. That tells me that even my parents knew on some level that those weren't the experiences worth remembering; that those moments weren't me.

Here I am in 1984. I'm pretty sure I wasn't bored.

Here I am in 1984. I'm pretty sure I wasn't bored.

Now here is really tragic part of this discussion: What if on one isolated occasion, on an extremely busy day, when you were simply trying to get through an activity, you became just like that teacher? I know I definitely worry about that a lot. Am I asking my students to come into my "space," so to speak, in order to learn? Why do they have to come to me? How can I come to them?

I wear a LEGO watch every day to remind myself to think like a kid.

I wear a LEGO watch every day to remind myself to think like a kid.

Educators, specialists, and service providers work extremely hard. We care about our students, our clients, their families, and their welfare. We evaluate, assess, plan, design, implement, track, modify, consult, support, train, teach, guide, and more. As speech language pathologists, we at the lab are communication "experts" (if such a word can ever really be used) who use current practices based on evidence from research to improve the lives of our clients and their families. I'll bet that teacher, the one that you thought was so boring, was working hard too. 

Teaching is complex stuff. If there were easy answers on how to educate children, we may well have found them, ignored them, and rediscovered them multiple times over by now. Sometimes it definitely feels that way. We know that school can have its rewards and challenges – and that for children with communication disorders, there are likely a lot more challenging times. Elementary school may be one of our first experiences with pre-determined and rigidly prescribed adult-centered content. Try to remember the feelings of sitting in a classroom with a large grown-up (because when you are a small child, all grown-ups are enormous). Was there ever a time that one of those big scary creatures was talking about something that was of absolutely no interest to you? Something that appeared to have no relevance to your life? And they just kept talking! And looking at you! And expecting you to say something!

We are people and we are fallible. We can forget. We can forget what is motivating and relevant for a child. In our desire to address a specific skill deficit area (reminder: our training comes from a disorder mindset, not necessarily a strength-based approach), we may forget about what matters most to our clients. It's not our fault. We didn't mean to forget. We understand how this happens. I forget things all the time. 

Let's try to be nine years old again for a moment. As a kid, what did you think about all day long? What were you thinking about in class and what were you talking about on the playground? What did you want to do when you got home? Which were your favorite toys? What were your dreams about at night? What kind of decorations did you want at your birthday party? What did you want for your birthday? ... and what did you get instead? 

We're not the kids anymore. Now we're the grown-ups and part of that is all of the power and influence we implicitly (and explicitly) have on students. We impose the schedule and the topics of discussion. What are we asking kids to think about in the therapy room? What topics are we talking about, and what words are we teaching kids to say? Are we helping them to become who they want to be, or are they helping them to become who we want them to be?

I was almost certainly thinking about dinosaurs.

I was almost certainly thinking about dinosaurs.

To be successful in school, you may have mastered the art of learning about things that you did not actually care about. You may have been rewarded for participating, regardless of the content and the circumstances. School is one topic area after another, all day long, with core classes subdivided into specific content strands. Even kindergarten has parsed out specific areas of its curriculum.

Kids are kids. They are not adults. Kids care about kid stuff. If you are an adult, you may be judged poorly if you still care a lot about kid stuff. Personally, I don't mind the judgement, but I'm definitely not socially reinforced for thinking like a kid. It's convenient that I happen to like playing with toys, but the truth is that I need to. A wise woman once told me that in order to provide good therapy I need to think like a nine year old. I wear a LEGO watch every day as a visual reminder to listen to the children that I serve. Do we remember how magical it can be to have cheesy breadsticks for lunch? Do we remember how the same joke can be funny for three days, even if it doesn't really make sense? Do we remember that perfect spot to jump off the swing set that makes you fly the furthest without getting hurt? Do we remember that dinosaurs are awesome?

We talk a lot about setting goals and giving access to curriculum and all these other things, and they're definitely all important, but the worst thing you can do in therapy is to bring your own agenda. As much as it might seem like it sometimes, it's not about us.

It's about them.

And trust me, if you ask them what they want to talk about, they'll tell you. Let's start there, and then design the instruction - not the other way around.

 
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Lucas Steuber, MA Applied Linguistics, MS CCC-SLP is the co-founder and CEO of SpeechScience as well serving as webmaster, coder, and writer and editor whenever possible. He also provides services in private practice as an AAC specialist and consultant in Portland, OR. He serves as the Director of Clinical Research and Development for Avaz Freespeech, which won Best of Show in CES ASIA in 2016. He regularly presents domestically and worldwide to speech pathologists and other related health professionals, in additional to writing extensively about language and social thinking in pervasive disorders such as Autism Spectrum Disorder as well as Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC). In addition, he serves as a board ambassador to the Autism Society of Oregon, sits on the Strategic Planning Committee of the Autism Society of America, and holds board positions with several local nonprofits. You are welcome to visit Lucas' website here or reach him at lucas@speechscience.org.

Visible and Invisible Disabilities: On Being A Reluctant Ambassador

Visible and Invisible Disabilities: On Being A Reluctant Ambassador

A few years ago, I was speaking with an adult with Autism Spectrum Disorder and he shared a very interesting view. He said that he "theory of mind is not something we notice in neurotypicals either. They all generally do not have empathy towards us, do not treat us as people who experience life as individuals, and they generally are not able or willing to accept that we find other things pleasant or unpleasant than they. In other words, neurotypicals are as Autistic as people with Autism when they interact with us.” ...

"Is society’s desire for a definition of normalcy a form of tyranny of the majority? Is it a residual primal and primitive instinct to trust sameness and be wary of differences, a form of xenophobia from prehistoric times requiring survival in an unfamiliar and hostile world? If the fight-or-flight response becomes unnecessary in an increasingly comfortable and accommodating world, will evolution begin to select populations that experience emotions less intensely? If you hear a rustling in the bushes in the middle of the night and it sounds like a tiger, our evolutionary instincts tell us the uh oh the dark is scary and we get out of there at warp speed. The reality, though, is that there was almost certainly no tiger. Which is more logical - the reaction, or the absence thereof? 

"My experience of my environment is my own. It is not the same as yours, and that’s okay. When we honor each person’s unique perspective, we see each person as an individual. To do anything else undervalues all of the vast complexity of their character that we cannot see.'

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