When is the last time you thought about a blank canvas? Maybe if you’re an avid painter who enjoys dabbling in art projects on your off-time, the chances are quite high that you’ve recently thought about a blank canvas. But if you’re not in the world of art, you probably never think of a blank canvas. Now me though, well, I’m not really that huge into art, per se, but I actually do think about the words blank canvas quite often. And in my mind, those words relate to the world of speech-language pathology and the great work that we do, as clinicians.
Something clean and something fresh.
When I think about a blank canvas, what usually comes to my mind is emptiness or a lack of color. A blank canvas hasn’t been drawn or painted on yet. It’s clean and fresh. Unmarked. And when I think about my students, especially those that are brand-new to receiving services from me, I always try to keep the words blank canvas in the back of my mind.
You see, in my experience, sometimes when we have new students on our caseload, we can’t help but hear about that particular student’s backstory. We can’t help but sometimes hear the potential “gossip” that might be attached to the student. Maybe a teacher might say to you, “Oh, did you hear? So-and-so is coming to our school next year. You have to watch out for so-and-so because of his behaviors.” Or maybe maybe something like, “Oh, she’s a tough one to handle – good luck!”
In my opinion, that’s pretty unfair.
Whether we realize it or not, we’re taking in that type of “gossipy” information and in doing so, we’re creating a real bias in our minds. The way that I view situations like that is we take a blank canvas and we automatically start to paint a picture of who the child is WAY BEFORE we’ve actually ever interacted with the child. And what a shame that is, ya know? Who are we to start to paint the picture of a brand new child without actually meeting that child? Why would we use OUR OWN paint to create the child’s portrait when we could actually wait and use the paint that the child actually has and is always more than willing to SHARE with us? I want to use the child’s paint, not my own.
What’s the rush to paint the portrait of a new student?
Why don’t we truly get to know the child first before we start painting our portraits? In my heart of hearts, that makes the most sense, but I can’t help but notice that sometimes we don’t do that. For example, maybe a new child moves into your school district, and along with that child, he or she might have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). The IEP might have some progress notes in there or some sort of narrative that walks the reader through who that child is, as a communicator, who that child is, as a student, and everything in-between. With instances like that, I believe that it’s wise for us to remember that those different pieces of writings, they’re written through the eyes of a certain person – the writer. And here’s the honest truth, sometimes people write things that are actually inaccurate.
Wait. Before you freak about about the word inaccurate.
By no means am I saying that the assessment scores are incorrect, nor am I saying that anyone is intentionally lying when they are adding their piece to the IEP. What I’m saying is that, in my experience on more than one occasion, I’ve read IEP reports that, for example, might have an informal observation paragraph in there and the narrative reads a certain way. And of course, I read that informal observation and I start to imagine how this child might be, either behaviorally or in regards to communication abilities. But then, once I actually meet the child, it seems like what the initial educator saw during that informal observation is WAY different than what I see now that I’ve met and interacted with the child.
Sometimes educators might write things that don’t truly reflect who that child is. They aren’t doing this with malicious intent. No. No way. When things like this happen, I believe it’s because of subjectivity. When we view the behaviors of a child and we report on those behaviors, our reporting (or style of reporting) is based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, and/or opinions. And sometimes, those things can get in the way of what’s really there.
So, when I think of the words blank canvas, I’m always reminding myself to not think too long about who that child is, in regards to the given document that I might read or in regards to the “gossipy” information that I might hear. The words blank canvas reminds me to think about seeing the child for who he or she is once I get the opportunity to actually meet him or her. I feel like that’s something that we should consistently be reminding ourselves, as caring speech-language pathologists.
And trust me – I’m no saint.
My friends, we’ve all been there before – myself included. I’ve painted a portrait of a child prior to meeting that individual because I’ve read or heard things. But lately, I’ve been stopping that because I’m keeping in the back of my mind the words blank canvas. Every single child is fantastic, and every single child deserves the words blank canvas attached to them when they’re newly placed on our caseload or they’re new additions to our therapy world.
In closing . . .
Do me a favor and try this out. Think about the words blank canvas for a few days and connect that process to your particular work setting. Do you feel like consistently saying the words blank canvas to yourself might be a much more effective way to view the new students that you don’t yet know? I think so!