Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Praise Them Well

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Recently, I visited my son at school during snack time, to observe him with his feeding and occupational therapists. I said "Hi," to Evan to let him know I was there, then sat across the picnic table from him and watched as he slowly unzipped his lunchbox -- first one corner, then the next and the next -- and lifted the lid to remove his cup, then his bowl and spoon, and, finally, two containers of baby food. "Banana orange medley or Dutch apple dessert?" his occupational therapist asked, since Evan cannot read the label or make a choice by sight. "Dutch apple dessert," he elected by purposefully pressing the switch that expressed that desire. "So you want Dutch apple dessert?" the therapist said, asking him to confirm the choice. "Yes," Evan said, pressing the "yes" button on his wrist talker.

The feeding therapist and I looked at one another, shaking our heads in awe. "Wow," we said together. "Look at what he can do." This is the boy who came home from the hospital at six months with a feeding tube, who didn't put a spoon to his mouth until he was four years old. Who never in my experience has even been observed to touch a zipper. And yet here he was, showing off all kinds of self-help skills, taking out his lunch like a champ. As if to press home the reminder of how far my son has come, I saw the following note that same afternoon from my son's aide: "Evan has worked very hard throughout the day. So, praise him a lot...."

~

We expect a lot of our children, whether they are neuro-typical or otherwise. Especially with school-age children, it's easy to focus on all the improvements we hope to see in a day, a week or a year. Better penmanship, improved focus and concentration. The ability to do an hour's worth of homework without a half hour's worth of complaint. It's easy to forget what our children do -- and so well -- compared to what they may not have done even the day before: make the bed without a reminder, clear their place at the dinner table, give their sibling a hug.

Even more than most typical children, a child with special needs lives every day with the burden of expectations. Their school day is written up as a series of goals and objectives (that infamous Individualized Education Plan, or IEP). A simple example: circle time. At first, Evan's goal during circle time was to sit in a chair for fifteen minutes without slipping off and lying on the rug. Then came, "Stand up, walk to the board and place his name next to the other children." After that, "press a switch to say, 'I'm fine,' or 'I'm not fine.'" But even as he did those things, one by one, never in the goals did anyone add, "Enjoy himself! Smile! Laugh and sing!"

~

With or without the goals and expectations of an IEP or a school day full of therapists and interventions, we often view our kids with special needs for what they lack, rather than what they have. My son is non-verbal and blind. He used to be non-ambulatory. This "language of lack" -- sight, words, mobility -- promotes and reinforces the "language of problem," as if our kids were somehow broken, bundles of mistakes to fix. For the child with autism who has a difficult time making eye contact, we forget to praise the fleeting glimpse in our direction; instead, we ask, "Why won't he look at me?" For my son, I try to remember the days, not so long ago, before he could unzip his lunch box, take a bite of food, wipe his mouth with the edge of a spoon.

As parents, this language of lack propels us not towards that all-important admonition to "praise him well," but instead, towards the next goal and expectation. Even as I sat and watched my blind son remove every last item from his lunch box and then proceed to feed himself, I plotted with those same therapists about the next step. "It's time for him to learn how to bite and chew," I said. "What's the plan?" While I may have given a brief and tidy, "Way to go Evan!" in that same moment, in the back of my mind I had already added to his list.

~

In the early twentieth century, the Russian psychologist, Lev Vygotsky, theorized for children and their development a model he called "zones of proximal development." For Vygotsky, these zones were the best means of teaching a child, and especially a child with developmental disabilities; in the Vygotsky model, therapists and teachers tune into the arena in which the child displays mastery, then increase the "zone of proximal development" bit by bit in order to promote progress.

My father is a child psychiatrist specializing in children with developmental delays. It was he who first told me about Vygotsky, and explained how his theories could apply to a child like Evan. "You make sure the expectations are within reach," he said, "or inside their zone of proximal development, and you give them lots of modeling and, most important, support, so they can reach those goals." A few months ago, my father observed my son in his classroom, as Evan and his speech therapist took turns on the drum. "My turn," the therapist said, cuing Evan. "Now it's your turn." Evan pressed the switch that said "my turn," and pounded away at the drum, laughing to beat the band.

"There you go," my dad said to me. "Vygotsky in action."

~

A friend once told me that I was the master of accepting Evan for who he is, and trying not to expect more. I demurred then as I demur now, knowing as I do how much time I contemplate his next steps, at the expense of recalling just how far he's come. I do know that my son loves praise, that it makes him smile and sing like nothing else. And so as I remember Vygotsky and think of all Evan's goals and expectations, I will try to take his aide's admonition to heart. Tonight, when I kiss Evan and put him to bed, I will remember to praise my son, and praise him well.


Vicki Forman is the author of This Lovely Life: A Memoir of Premature Motherhood and
teaches creative writing at the University of Southern California. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart and has appeared in Philosophical Mother, The Santa Monica Review, Writer to Writer and Faultline. She lives in Southern California with her husband and child.


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Vicki, this is a beautiful post. Praise him well, indeed.
Again you have done it~~ I have been hearing a lot lately..."....we show her like this because we want her to be successful". Yet when she "masters" that task there is already a "new" task to tackle. She has tackled and mastered many tasks and many more ahead as we all do ;) Thank you so much for sharing you heart again. I always look forward to reading of your Evan and how far he has come. Peace be with you Kim and Miss T
Ah damn, Vicki, you did it again. Made me cry. This is so much my life with Nik and it gives me so much hope and strength to read your words and how you handle it all. And, especially, to read of Evan's constant progress and joy. Joy, so overlooked in planning for our marvelous children.
Much praise to you both. This is wonderful. I'll be passing the link around.
I couldn't help but apply your wonderful piece not only to my child with special challenges, but my other children, too. I recently realized my 6-year-old not only removes her dinner plate to the kitchen sink, but remembers to shake the crumbs from the placemat without prompting, too! And sometimes it's the absence of a previously irritating habit that we forget to recognize to ourselves, even if it's not something we want to remind THEM of with praise. It's a wonderful reminder to appreciate - and praise - in so many aspects of life.
Moving people (me) yet again, Vicki. It seems to me that writing this column must be like therapy for you. Therapy: to see the strengths and weaknesses in yourself and those around you with new eyes. Refreshing and inpiring - you, Evan, your family and your writings. Thank you.
So I'm studying to be a school counselor and find myself drawn to all the strength-based and solution-focused theories that stray from the deficit model of traditional therapeutic approaches and yet with my own son, Elias, I so often zoom in on what he can't do. Instead of rejoicing in his ability to move independently with his walker I wonder if he will ever be able to stand on his own. Instead of applauding all that he sees I wonder what it is he cant see and if he will ever be able to maintain eye contact. Instead of remembering that he once weighed a pound and change I notice how small he appears next to his peers. I worry about his lung damage instead of relishing in his every breath. Thanks Vicki for the reminder. With great respect, Christy
Vicky, Another touching and thought-provoking essay! I love getting to know you and Even this way. Thank you.
Wow, I am so proud of what Evan has accomplished! It is exciting to see how he continues to grow and change. I can picture him in my mind as he unzipped his lunch box and fed himself, it made me smile. Thanks for sharing this with so many of us.
Thanks Vicki for that captivating reminder. Just this morning I was lamenting at how much progress Cayla needs to make when my mother reminded me that her simple presence here is nothing short of a miracle. It is so true that her life seems to be made up of goals and therapy after therapy after therapy, the poor girl with little time for anything else. We do need to praise our kids more just for being who they are, thanks for that!!
I just wrote to a teacher who asked how to gently state where a child is functioning academically, socially and emotionally in his report. I told him, "write in the report what he CAN do." Test results can scream volumes of negativity, so celebrations of accomplishments should never be neglected, but emphasized. Yes, Evan has come a VERY long way. I knew him when....
This is great, Vicki. Thanks for this piece and congratulations!
I just found your blog and have so many questions. How old is Evan? Does he have a full time aide/para/CNA at school? Does he use a dynavox? I'm grandma to Ethan, who has disabilities. He was just approved for a dynovox and it should come any day. Ethan is 5. My daughter is struggling with the school right now. His CNA would go to school with him and help him eat, etc. The school now says because of liability, she can no longer be there for him. But they also won't approve a full time aide. I have a feeling this could be a long battle. Thanks for your insightful post.
so beautiful and wise. yes. praise them well. and honor where they are. i am sooooooo proud of evan, and impressed! it must have been wonderful for you to watch him and marvel at his accomplishments! vygotsky reminds me of the RDI philosophy, zone of connection, mastery, scaffolding for success, keeping the child on the edge of their competency. we're hard-wired to move toward mastery but in so many cases with special needs kids, it can only work when we, and others, really listen, watch, adapt, love, and praise.
Can I praise you too, Vicki? Well done indeed.
More bees with honey. It's the simplest thing and yet so tough for us to remember in the moment. Evan is making terrific progress and he sounds like he's having loads of fun. How amazing it is that we exist in a world, in a realm, in a time when there are so many good people (you and more) who are collaborating to spread so much love. It makes me feel lucky just to know you're all out there...
Vicki, Thank you for reminding me, through your own reminder, to praise my daughter. Hala had a friend sleepover at our house last night. Before she drifted off to sleep she turned to me and whispered, "Am I doing great Mama?" Shame on me for forgetting to tell her. She needs to hear that often in the midst of all the corrections and "No"s she gets throughout the day! Love, Kimberly
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