"I met a real hero"

By Peter Kopriva

Veronica is a beautiful and delightful six-year-old girl. She is enrolled in a special education classroom for young students who live with a variety of health, physical and intellectual disabilities at Edith Storey Elementary School a few miles from the university.

She is also a fighter: Since birth Veronica has been unable to eat and must take nourishment via a feeding tube. She has a tracheostomy (a surgical opening into the trachea to permit insertion of a tube to facilitate mechanical ventilation) to assist her with breathing. Her lungs constantly congest with mucous that must be cleared numerous times throughout the day and night. Her condition sets off infections and fevers. Veronica has spent much of her six years in hospitals.

At first Veronica attended a special public school with other students who live with medical conditions and health problems. Though she received excellent education and care, both educators and Veronica's parents thought she could benefit from a less restrictive setting and the opportunity to be around children without disabilities. With the benefit of a full-time nurse, Veronica began school several years ago at Storey. That's where I met her.

In spring 2009, Veronica was among nine preschool and kindergarten students to participate in a Social Skills Improvement Program I planned and implemented for a sabbatical project. Each child was carefully selected on the basis of classroom and playground observation, a social skills rating scale and recommendations by teachers and parents.

Good social skills encourage positive interaction with others. Playing games with other children, participating in group activities and observing parents and family members are all ways children learn social skills. Children who lack these skills or the opportunity to have them modeled and reinforced by others are at a disadvantage. Evidence suggests even young children will experience liabilities in relationships and academic performance.

Unable to use spoken language, Veronica is skillful in communicating with gestures, facial expressions, eye contact and movement as well as pictures and symbols. She has a large degree of charm that children and adults are drawn to.

I wanted to address several topics with Veronica: listening to others, following steps, paying attention to your work, staying calm with others, recognizing and enjoying stories, classifying same/different, playing games and taking turns and making associations of things, places and people. Each area was thoroughly discussed with her classroom teacher, who supplied ideas as well as materials for some of the lessons. I purchased or made additional materials.

Veronica enjoyed lessons twice a week, usually for one-half hour either alone or with a classmate. We used a variety of instructional materials, including homemade picture and story books, photographs, professional materials, software programs and a MacBook laptop computer. We took photographs and made video recordings to document Veronica and me working, talking and interacting. This technology provided a wealth of information regarding the research and instruction in social skills development and improvement.

Veronica and her classmates are all wonderful children. Some, like her, lack the opportunity to be around children and adults who demonstrate developmentally appropriate social skills. Without this opportunity they lag behind their peers and without intervention, support and instruction they will fall increasingly behind socially and academically in later grades.

My original project was to conclude at the end of April but was extended into mid-June so I could continue working with the children until their school year ended. My teaching at FPU resumed in early May, but I was able to be with the students during the day and teach in the evening.

Unfortunately, there was disappointing news for Veronica this fall. As of September, illness has prevented her from returning to school and hopes of her enjoying the social and academic advantages of regular kindergarten may be for naught. Her teacher confided that with so much school already missed she may be placed with other special needs children. While that will be a good placement, everyone was hoping for regular kindergarten.

Such are the disappointments these children face. So often we call actors, athletes and celebrities our heroes; for me the bravery of Veronica and countless others like her make them the "real deal."

Peter Kopriva, Ed.D., is a faculty member in the special education division and early childhood development degree completion program in the School of Education. See and hear more about Peter and Veronica at web.me.com/aldenpoetker/Veronicas_Story/Welcome.html.

This article was originally published in Pacific, November 2009.