Updated: Oct 30, 2019
It was my first year teaching middle school special education and I was finding my way. School had only been in session a few days and a new student and his Mother came into my classroom. Before I could even say hello, the new boy immediately crawled under an adjacent table and I noticed he made himself at home like it was a regular part of his routine.
The boy’s mother seemed to respond to his behavior like it was something that happened quite regularly. Though startled for a moment, I decided to let the moment pass and address it later. The boy’s mother looked at me with a degree of suspicion and asked me: “what makes you qualified to teach my son?” I appreciated the question and felt immediately drawn to her manner because although I feel imminently qualified, she is exactly the kind of parent that I admire. One who doesn’t take what is given without getting the facts and information first. It is quite true that without a strong understanding of purpose and intention, we stand the chance to get ourselves, or worse our children, into trouble. The mother’s question is quite important when it comes deciding the people and environment we choose for our children (and ourselves!).
I shared with her my academic background, which includes a Master’s Degree in Education as well as a list of other qualifications and experiences that I have gained over the years. The interview lasted for well over an hour while her son continued to make himself at home under the table. Ultimately, the mother was pleased and left the classroom satisfied that her boy would be in good hands. I was happy for that, but also intrigued and somewhat alarmed by the hiding behavior of her son. It was at that moment that I received a new idea. The idea was to start a basketball team.
GET BUCKETS, MAKE FRIENDS.
Basketball, as a team sport, directly addresses many of the issues that special needs kids face: social skills such a speaking and listening, cooperating, hand/eye coordination, anticipating what other players are doing and all-around movement and athletic skills. For example, for most people it’s natural to dribble a basketball and run. For my students learning to do so has to be very deliberate and at first it doesn’t seem natural. First, they must learn to dribble standing still, then they must dribble walking and then finally they must learn to dribble, move and not run into someone or something. Most of the time that’s easier said the done.
Thankfully the boy’s mother agreed to let him join the team. A team that did not yet exist. Nonetheless we scheduled a practice for the following Saturday.
WHEN THERE IS INSPIRATION, THERE IS A WAY
We didn’t yet have uniforms, nor basketballs, some of my kids didn’t even have proper shoes and we had a rookie coach (me) with zero coaching experience. That Friday evening I went to a sporting goods store and bought three basketballs, 8 blank white jerseys, 3 pair of shoes, a set of number and letter stencils as well as some spray paint.
The next day we had our first team meeting. We had a beautiful tarantula named Annabel and the kids decided they wanted the team name to be the “TARANTULAS”. That night I spray painted TARANTULAS on our blank white jerseys along with numbers; we were now officially a basketball team.
After a few practices the moms organized themselves as “Team Moms” as group of Mothers that prepared our lunches, kept the uniforms clean, took attendance and did the medical paperwork. Several of my student’s Dads became coaches and we had our first car wash fundraiser. One of our Dads was a DJ on the weekends so he brought his equipment. We had signs made and our newly created team of athletes stood in front of the car wash ready to make raise some funds for the season. It was a great bonding experience between the parents and myself, but especially also among the students. We made a few hundred dollars and with the money we purchased new matching uniforms and matching shoes; the athletes (my students) choose the design of the uniforms and the color schemes. To officially organize a season’s worth of competition, I found two middle school Special Olympics teams not too far away so we now had teams to compete against.
Just like that, we officially joined Special Olympics and over the next three or four years our team of eight original class athletes grew to 3 teams with 34 players. We even went to the Summer Games at Long Beach State 10 years in a row and won Gold Medals 9 of those 10 years. The Summer Games were an elaborate affair with around 1500 athletes from around the state and sometimes foreign countries. We stayed overnight in student housing with parent chaperones. Some of my students had never had a sleep-over before so that was very exciting. Talk about bonding and social acclimation opportunities!
In my view, the Special Olympics is one of the finest organization in existence, it helped my students learn social skills in a non-threatening environment, many of my original athlete students were initially labeled non-verbal and by playing basketball they were able to greatly improve their language skills. Most importantly, it exposed the children to a collaborative team sport environment and allowed them to make new friends that they otherwise would never have met. If you have ever watched a Special Olympics competition, it’s hard not to appreciate how determined and dedicated these athletes are!
The Special Olympics created a basketball family, helped me and the coaching staff teach discipline, social skills, fine motor skills, camaraderie, sportsmanship, compassion, verbal skills and uncountable other intangible skills to everyone connected with this venture. I have formed lifelong friendships with my parents and students that I cherish to this day. Likewise my students experienced making friends with a wide variety of students of all ages and ability levels.
Perhaps the most powerful benefit was that it created a special bond between me and the parents. We solved problems together, we washed cars together, we traveled on busses together and we discussed our children and learning strategies together.
As for the boy who crawled under tables in social settings? Well let’s just say his stint in the special olympics NBA has forever changed him. Today I am proud to share this boy is substantially more social with his peers, more at ease in meeting new people and even more so enthusiastic about picking up new activities and situations. Such is the power of a little game of hoops.
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If you are a parent interested in becoming involved in the Special Olympics in Southern California please send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will gladly reply to you with all the relevant information!
As always, keep your brain growing and see you again in a next article!