A grandma playing veterinarian with her five-year-old grandson picked up a stuffed animal and asked the “vet,” “What should I do about my tail? It doesn’t curl anymore!”

Her grandson offered the “dog” a surprising answer: "That is your uniqueness, that is your special part. Humans and dogs all are different from each other. They are even different colors. This is your uniqueness, and no change is needed."

What a helpful lesson for us all. One of our tasks, like this pretend veterinarian, is to help children in our lives discover and embrace their own uniqueness.

I was reminded of that recently when a mom consulted with me about her child’s strong emotions. Over our conversation, she realized that her daughter is probably what scientists call a highly sensitive person. Being highly tuned to others is one aspect of her uniqueness, and though she might need some social-emotional tools right now, like learning to take and break and breathe in a difficult situation, the goal wouldn’t be to change her nature but to give her more resources.

There are many ways to explore children’s individuality, and they usually lead us toward more empathy and acceptance. We can learn whether a child is a visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learner, or an introvert or extrovert.

When developmental issues present themselves, there are many roads to providing support to a child, depending on their needs: speech therapy, occupational therapy, tutoring for reading or math, psychological counseling. Each of these avenues also helps us to learn about a child’s unique patterns of development and the miraculous plasticity of the human brain.

Learning about our child’s individuality can help us extend more understanding to others. Today we are learning more about the perspectives and the most helpful supports for those with diagnosed with conditions like autism, attention deficit, or Down syndrome leading us to a greater acceptance of neuro-diversity, all forms of human uniqueness.

As adults we always need to keep a growth mindset. We can’t confuse the discovery of uniqueness with labeling children and focusing on their limitations. We regard children every moment as evolving and growing and capable of transforming the world around them. Our Meher Schools community was founded on this principle forty-seven years ago: embracing each child’s individuality in a unified, loving whole.

Clinical research psychologist Elaine Aron, PhD, author of The Highly Sensitive Person, developed the Highly Sensitive Child Test. Looking at these traits can be one helpful avenue for understanding a child’s temperament and response to sensory stimuli, but it isn’t meant to substitute for other developmental assessments and diagnostic tools.

When she was a student in our fourth grade, Amy Weinstein told her mother that her teacher, Christie Vinson, was one of her best friends. “I loved having her as a teacher,” she remembers. Fifteen years later, she and Christie are co-teachers in the same classroom she was in as a fourth grader – and now she’s also our new theater arts teacher.

When our previous drama teacher, Andie Patterson, left at the end of last year, Amy, who had been co-teaching fourth grade for two years, was offered the role as a full-time position. “But the thought of leaving Christie and my fourth graders made me sad, so I suggested that I do both. We decided that I would be in Room 17 in the morning and have all the drama classes after lunch and see how it went. It’s worked out great.”

Amy spends mornings teaching writing, social studies, and language mechanics to the fourth graders. In the afternoons, she teaches drama to our elementary students.

“Whatever It Needs to Be”

Amy works with one or two groups a day, usually half a class at a time, in Room 14, our theater. What she teaches depends on students’ grade and the skills they already have.

With younger children, the focus is mainly on storytelling and “using your body to be a different character than yourself.” They also practice social-emotional skills like respecting others’ differences, sharing, adapting to new situations, and good sportsmanship. “As the children grow older, the focus is on the same skills but with more nuanced emotion and more complicated stories.”

In third and fourth grades, they begin to work on improvisational skills and reacting to partners in scene work. “Fifth grade is the culmination of all the skills, and the students use them to practice and prepare for the fifth grade play,” a highlight of students’ career at The Meher Schools.

“In drama, students practice teamwork, taking risks, being playful, and expressing emotions through games and scene work. It can really be whatever it needs to be for each individual student, and the kids really love that. Some of them tell me it feels like vacation from school because they can be extra silly. Drama class usually involves very little actual performing, so it’s a low-stress situation. Even students who don’t like to perform can easily participate and gain something from it.”

Organized, Poised, and Positive

“I’ve been doing theater since I was old enough to enroll in Drama Camp [one of our summer offerings],” Amy says. “After graduating from Meher School, I participated in theater throughout middle and high school.”

Amy enrolled in Emerson College in Boston as a performance major but decided in her second year that she didn’t like “cutthroat culture” in the program, so she switched to theater education. “In the education program, everyone was so supportive of each other and determined to create a group of awesome teachers. That’s what really made the decision and made me feel like education was the right sphere for me.”

After graduating, Amy returned to California and enrolled in a teacher-credential program in English. “I love to act, but I’m also passionate about English and wanted to also be an English teacher.”

As she was finishing work on her credential, she was approached by our elementary co-principals, Vince d’Assis and Ivy Summers, about co-teaching our fourth grade with Christie. “I jumped at the opportunity to work at such a comforting place, and it was surreal to be offered a position with Christie. We work well together and complement each other with different skill sets. It’s been nothing but perfect!”

Christie concurs. “When Ivy and Vince talked about needing more teachers, Amy was the first person I thought of. I wanted to work with her. Now that I’ve co-taught with her for three years, I appreciate that she’s hard-wired for organization and is an extremely hard worker. She has an amazing ability to review the curriculum and then visualize how she should teach it, keeping the strengths and needs of the students in mind.

“I'm not sure who else could start their first year teaching with ‘smoke days,’ end it with a pandemic, then teach their second and third years through distance and hybrid learning, all while maintaining poise and positivity. She's awesome!”

Photo: “Awesome” Amy as a fourth grader with her future co-teacher

Isabella, a guinea pig whose home had been one of our kindergarten rooms for seven years, died on December 27. “Isabella was a wonderful pet,” wrote teacher Caryl Morton in an email to the families of the class. “She brought out qualities of gentleness and compassion in the children. We will all miss her greatly.”

School families took turns sharing their homes with Isabella on weekends and holidays. The day she died she was being cared for by the Anesoir family, including first grader Pearla and preschooler Marielle. The girls’ mother, Haylene Anesoir, is a pediatrician. She noticed that something was wrong with Isabella. “She didn’t appear to be in great discomfort,” Caryl said, “but she had stopped eating, and we knew her time was coming.” Isabella died in Haylene’s arms.

“I’m relieved that she was surrounded by love when she died and felt comfortable letting go while I was holding her,” said Haylene. (She says the book The Invisible String by Patrice Karst “really helped my girls with death and sadness in a positive loving way.”)

Isabella was almost eight and a half years old, which Caryl notes “is quite old for a guinea pig.” She was buried in our school pet cemetery, off the Tier 3 driveway. Room 8 teachers and students had a memorial for her yesterday. “As we stood around her grave, each child said words of appreciation and love to Isabella.” Caryl reports. “We also made a beautiful sign that each child contributed to.”