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10 Life Lessons I Taught My Kindergarten Students That Also Apply to Chronic Illness

At my doctor’s recommendation, I left my 12-year teaching career four years ago. But I think about it all the time and often find myself reminiscing about the first five years of my career when I taught kindergarten. I wasn’t just teaching 5-year-olds how to read; I was also teaching them how to be in school. And I have come to realize that many of our kindergarten rules and practices are also applicable and relevant to my life now as a woman living with an autoimmune disease.

1. Take a deep breath. 5-year-olds can get very dramatic, very quickly. And while I’m a calm person, I too can get worked up – crying at the news that one test result requires a further test, frustrated that my medication needs to be adjusted again, upset that my medical insurance didn’t cover the amount I thought it would. I can’t change the facts. But I can essentially press “pause” on the situation, take a deep breath and go from there.

2. Use your words. Young children are quick to react. If they feel they have been wronged in any way, a push, a shove or a kick may soon follow. But physically acting out only makes things worse. Young children often don’t have the vocabulary, so I gave them prompts. “I didn’t like it when …” “It hurt my feelings when…” “I felt mad when …” Likewise, keeping quiet doesn’t help my family know what’s going on with me. They won’t know I woke up with stiff knees if I don’t tell them. They won’t know my fingers are aching or my legs feel like lead if I don’t use my words and tell them.

3. Take a time-out. Our classroom had a time-out chair set apart from the group. A child in the time-out chair could still watch the lesson, but s/he was separated from the rest of the class. The purpose of a time-out was to give the child time to think about what s/he did wrong and what s/he could do better. At home, I have the luxury of going to my room to take a time-out, but I don’t often take advantage of it. I keep pushing myself and maybe, instead of chugging along, my body and my mind would benefit from a two-minute time-out.

4. Tomorrow is a new day. Some school days felt as if my students had gone out for espresso before the morning bell. Days when a child decided to give himself a haircut, didn’t get to the bathroom in time, threw-up during rug time, walked in with dog poop on the bottom of her shoe, pushed another child down on the playground, and used words I didn’t know until I was in high school. But that was that day. Tomorrow is always a new day, a fresh start, another chance, for the kids and for me. And even though I’m no longer in the classroom, nothing has changed. Today it may feel like everyday household tasks (emptying the dishwasher, turning on the garden hose, getting in and out of the car) cause extreme pain. But tomorrow is a chance for less pain because tomorrow is a new day.

5. Take a drink of water. Kindergarten students are not good at letting you know exactly what’s wrong; they’ll just tell you they don’t feel good or something hurts. So for these vague, over-reaching symptoms, a teacher’s greatest tool is patience and the invitation to “go get some water, Sweetie. That’ll help.” Sometimes it did. Many times it did. Our bodies need water, and kids often get so involved with playing that they forget to drink during recess and lunch. Sometimes getting a drink of water was enough of a distraction to shift the child’s focus and attention, and the mystery ailment suddenly felt “a lot better.” Water won’t make my pain and fatigue disappear. But it certainly won’t make it worse. When the pain is so intense that I don’t know how I’m going to pick up my son from school, I have to start small. Start with a drink of water.

6. Be kind. Once a child enters school, s/he learns that what s/he says or does matters. A lot. Actions and words can harm someone. Words are powerful. So kindergarten kids learn not to tell someone their new haircut looks bad, and we don’t criticize someone’s new backpack by calling it ugly. My students learned that their bodies and feelings have the right to be respected. And I need to remember that this same right applies to me too. There’s no point in negative self-talk: “I’m only 41, and I can’t even get up off the floor without help’,” “I used to be able to walk so far, all the time,” “I’ve got creaky old lady knees.” I need to practice treating myself kindly too.

7. Do your best. In my classroom, my students knew there was no such thing as perfection – from them or me. Perfection doesn’t exist, but effort does. 100 percent effort is what they could expect from me, and what I expected from them in return. For each student, “do your best” meant something different. And for me, now, “do your best” changes from one day to the other. My fatigue and pain levels fluctuate, but all I can do is keep trying. I can’t stay in a place where I’m angry, sad or feeling helpless. I have to continue to get up and do my best.

8. Praise the little things. Kids don’t learn to read in one day. They learn their letters first. How to write them, how to recognize them, what they sound like. They learn how letters change, how a “g” can sound like a “g” when you spell “got,” and how a “g” can also sound like a “j” when you spell “giraffe.” But that comes later. First, kids learn to identify a “g” and write a “g.” And those achievements should be recognized. Likewise, I may not walk as long or as far as I used to, but I’m still walking. It may be difficult for me to make my way through the supermarket, but I am still doing it. I need to acknowledge my efforts and praise all the little things I do each day.

9. Hands are not for hurting. In the beginning of the school year, we always did an activity about our hands. We brainstormed all the ways we use our hands – for clapping, waving, writing, holding, hugging, coloring. I painted my students’ handprints and it became quite an eye-catching bulletin board display. And one thing we all agreed on was that hands are not for hitting. I don’t hit. But when I’m in pain, I sometimes bite my finger, or clench my fists, or pound the table. It doesn’t help. My legs still hurt. I can’t change the fact that I live with a disease that has no cure. But I can control what I do with my hands, and hands are not for hurting.

10. Life isn’t fair. I didn’t like being the person who taught 5-year-olds this universal truth. But sometimes that’s the only way to explain why one child consistently doesn’t win when the class plays alphabet bingo. Why one child’s name wasn’t picked for the raffle to win the calendar featuring pictures of baby animals. Why, out of a class of 20, only one child’s popsicle broke and fell to the ground. Likewise, there’s no point in asking, “why me?” Why did I get an autoimmune disease? Who knows. I just did. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. Life isn’t fair.

Follow this journey on the author’s blog.

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Thinkstock photo via DGLimages.

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