As a consultant, one of the things that you must get used to is the constant change of your client base. It is no different when working with special-needs children as some don’t work out and others graduate leading to a rapid change in both people and programs. Recently that has happened in spades to me as a confluence of changes removed four of the six children I had been working with. As this has occurred during the summer, it has been hard to replace all of the children as schedules are in flux and won’t be firmed up for a couple of weeks. So I am trying to use this time to better connect with my new charges in the garden.
The initial challenge in working with a new child is rapport and respect on both sides. When ever I work with a new child, I spend at least 15 minutes speaking with him or her to find out likes, dislikes and try to determine how to best guide the child. Tracy, who runs the HT program at Green Chimneys, suggests that I don’t speak to the child’s social worker or view their files for at least a month so I can come to my own conclusions about both their physical or mental state.
The physical issues are often easy to spot, for instance, if a child suffers from a malady such as palsy. The mental challenges are more difficult to discern, however, as they range from extreme emotional to subtle cognitive ones. Or sometimes a combination of both. And while you are figuring out these different needs of each of your clients, they must mesh with the different needs of the garden.
As part of this introduction I try to get the children to ask me questions about my dislikes and likes, particularly in the garden. I find that if a child can empathize with my views, that it is easier to create a connection. But you always need to keep in mind that each child is different.
My first new charge has large mood swings from sad to mad but he reacts best to simple focused chores. He is very talkative and wants to do a good job, but it takes a while to determine the types of jobs he will best react to. We need to seed for our fall harvest so I have him work with two different types of seeds: lettuce and spinach. I tell him that he needs to place a seed every 1/2 inch. He replies that he doesn’t know how far a space that represents. I then pick up a rock and tell him to place each seed a rock’s width apart. He nods and starts to plant.
But he finds it difficult to both hold the seeds with one hand and plant them with the other. I ask if he would like me to hold the seeds while he plants them. He agrees and together we are able to plant a neat row of lettuce. He is able to continue this for quite a few rows. I ask him why he likes to plant seeds and he responds, “It keeps me calm. I’m happy when I do this.”
So we seed an entire section with me holding the seeds and him dropping them into the slight furrows we have made with the end of a rake. I make attempts at conversation, but he is better focused in silence. We both stay quiet and get the job done. When finished I say, “Now we need to tuck them into their bed, like you would put a blanket on a baby. So take your hands, palms down and move the soil over the seeds like this,” demonstrating the technique. He shakes his head and quickly finished planting the seeds happy that our activities are finished.
Now the spinach. We work together in the same way but he has mastered the distance of 1/2 inch and discards the stone. We work quickly and quietly seeding our rows finishing with time to spare.
He says he is uninterested in harvesting any food from the garden. I have found that to rarely be the case so I have him walk with me through the garden identifying all the different plants and vegetables that are ready for harvesting. Often when we come upon a ripe tomato, pepper, chive, etc. the child changes his mind and wants to eat.
I smile and let the child grab a fresh vegetable of his choice to gobble down so that he can better connect with the efforts of a few moments ago of planting a seed.