Keep the Dance of Reciprocity Alive

by Janice Fialka, MSW, ACSW

I have learned that teachers often do not know if they have had an impact on students, especially students with disabilities. Youth with special needs may receive information differently, may ingest smaller pieces, or may be limited in what they absorb. These differences should not imply that the impact of the teaching is irrelevant.

My son Micah, who just finished his senior year in high school, learns a great deal from effective teachers. He may not grasp all of the issues and the volume of the lesson, nor may he be able to offer it back on demand in the classroom. His learning takes on a different movement. He has his own dance, which might be initially hard for teachers to gauge. I have observed that well-meaning teachers are left wondering if they make a difference, wondering if they are effective, wondering if Micah should be in the same classroom with other students.

To deal with this kind of wondering and worrying, I continually try to provide feedback to teachers so they know that they do have an impact on Micah’s learning. For example, in October, while watching the debate between candidates for governor on television, Micah said, “Ms. Blain, my speech teacher, said that good speakers use their hands.” He then gestured in convincing ways how to use hands to emphasize a message. He did not have the words, instead he used his hands. He showed us! His insights continued, “You can see that Jennifer Granholm is a better speaker, Mom. See how she uses her hands,” and with regal hand movements, Micah moved his determined, pudgy hands through the air, ready to rule.

That night, I e-mailed his teacher, Ms. Blain, about his “lessons learned.” She responded immediately with gratitude, emphasized in exclamation points. This is an example of what I call the dance of reciprocity. Teachers may feel more energized, more committed to their dance of teaching when they know that a student’s mind has been stirred, when they know that the student moves in new ways because of lessons taught and learned in the classroom. When teachers see their students twirl or glide in new ways, then they are most likely to engage the student the next time in a fuller interaction.

Reciprocity spurs us on. When Ms. Blain knew that her mini-lecture on hand gestures had sunk in, perhaps she was lighter on her feet too! I suspect that she felt a renewed eagerness to continue her dance of teaching a student who might learn differently. Feedback fuels our spirit to go on and on. Parents and teachers can keep that dance alive by sharing those tiny, yet significant moments. We both need to know what works and when it works. It just might be the thing that brings us back to the dance floor.

Janice Fialka is a national speaker and trainer on parent-professional partnerships and parenting a child with special needs. She has published several articles and has written a booklet, It Matters: Lessons from My Son and co-authored Do You Hear What I Hear? Parents and Professionals Working Together for Children with Special Needs. She can be reached at