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A GIFT FOR MAKING KIDS SHINE by Heidi Borst

SOMA teacher Michael Wojcio is a superhero to his special-needs students

A group of eight young children listens to their teacher in quiet anticipation as he reads aloud Froggy’s Worst Play Date. No one budges from their spot on the semicircle; the students remain silently captivated by the story, amused by the distinct voices the teacher invents for each character. The ability to sit still and focus on story time, a seemingly routine classroom occurrence, is an astonishing feat for this particular group of kids, a testimony to their teacher’s expertise.


Mr. Wojcio makes sure his class is lively to keep his students engaged.

In his 13 years teaching kids with special needs, Michael Wojcio has aquired a reputation as a miracle worker among SOMA parents and administrators alike. Wojcio teaches a multi-age class (kindergarten through second grade) at Marshall Elementary School in South Orange exclusively for children with behavioral disorders, or BD’s, which often manifests as hyperactivity, or trouble with focus and concentration.


His experience as a special education teacher fostered Wojcio’s insight that the ideal environment for kids with BD’s differs vastly from what works best for children with other learning difficulties. Wojcio convinced his school district to let him implement and instruct a strictly BD class; the 2018-2019 school year served as the program’s test run.


“As a first year goes,” Wojcio says, “this one was extremely fleshed-out, which made things go smoothly from the beginning. I had great coworkers and staff in the room. We were able to work specifically on behaviors such as anxious outbursts and heightened emotions, to the extent that many of these behaviors not only lessened but became extinct.”


The goal of Wojcio’s BD program is to make it possible for kids to transition into an inclusive classroom setting, one in which students with learning disabilities work alongside general education students. “We work on life skills and behaviors to get kids ready to transition, on a per child basis, so they don’t regress,” he says. “It’s a slow transition if that’s what’s needed, or sometimes we do it more quickly. I never had a transition that did not work, because I wait until each individual child is ready.”


For now, the program ends at second grade, but Wojcio is hopeful it will be extended.


Donna Lewis-Johnson, whose grandson, Tawan, was a student in Mr. Wojcio’s class last year, describes the teacher as top-notch. “When Tawan first went into the class, he really struggled with focus, staying still, and being able to engage with his teacher,” says Lewis-Johnson. “Tawan has come so far behaviorally. Mr. Wojcio gave him the tools he needed in the classroom to build him up socially and academically. He’s able to focus and sit still long enough now to learn, and everywhere we go people notice how well his social skills have developed.”


Wojcio works to equip his students with the tools they need outside of the classroom. “We emphasize dealing with failure, dealing with rejection, and dealing with feelings on the inside, so they don’t explode out of you. We spend a lot of time talking about how things feel, like what it means to feel angry versus sad, especially when dealing with anxiety. We work on being more self-aware by stopping, planning, thinking, and observing.”

Wojcio keeps his kids active, an essential component to the classroom’s success, and sticks to a routine. “I keep the pace of learning even and quick. If we aren’t learning, we are moving, with dance breaks inside the classroom, or running outside. We save calmer activities for the end of the day (writer’s workshop and reading) to reset ourselves for going home on the bus,” Wojcio says.

Bernadette Hackler’s son Evan, now in fifth grade, was in Wojcio’s class for kindergarten and first grade. “Michael made sure to get the kids moving instead of sitting still. They’d run around the track every day to get their blood pumping and be ready to learn. That part helped Evan more than anything – the focus he’d get from the movement they’d do, making all those neurons connect,” Hackler says.


Working to build his students’ confidence is a chief goal for Wojcio, who doesn’t let his kids say, I can’t. “I was told I couldn’t do things so many times as a kid; it’s so easy to fall into the hole of becoming who everybody thinks you are. If something is hard or a kid says they aren’t good at it, that’s what we work on until it’s their favorite thing to do,” Wojcio says.


Sandra LoPiccolo’s daughter, Maddie, struggled with writing when she entered Wojcio’s class as a first grader in 2015. “He was so committed to getting her to write a word, something we never thought she could do. He worked with her to recognize the letters of the alphabet and to start putting two- and three-letter words together. On the night of our parent-teacher conference that November, Michael texted me ahead of time with the good news that Maddie had written her first word! He even laminated the word she wrote, tam. “The whole school supported Maddie in celebrating this major accomplishment,” LoPicollo says.


Mr. Wojcio attends Maddie LoPiccolo's Special Olympics games every year

Wojcio himself wrestled with learning in a conventional classroom, giving him an insider’s perspective on the challenges his own students face. With the exception of a very few supportive teachers, he was consistently told he’d never amount to anything. “I hated school overall because things were just different for me,” he recalls. “I struggled with basic things like self-organization, having to study, and knowing my schedule. In ninth grade, my teacher called me stupid in front of the entire class. That’s when I decided I would teach in the way I wished I’d been taught as a kid.”


Wojcio used his teachers’ criticism as an impetus for growth. “Getting past that negativity and earning a degree in special and elementary education was really just my natural defiance to do what I was told I couldn’t do,” he says.


He modestly claims that his job is simple: “You just have to be nice. Be friendly and be there for the kids. I let the kids know, ‘I’m here. You can trust me.’ We’ll laugh and have fun, but at the same time, I expect them to work as hard as they can without complaining. More than anything, I’m sure to follow through on everything I say. It’s half being a clown, half being a teacher. You have to get excited about what you’re teaching for them to be into it, no matter how many times you’ve done it.”


Perhaps most notable of all is Wojcio’s true love of the children, including remaining invested in their futures. Says LoPiccolo, “Michael is always there for us, even three years out. Maddie still talks about him and wants to go back and see him, and he attends her Special Olympics every year.”


Wojcio’s patience, kindness, and advocacy of every child are sure signs of a role model and mentor who’s in it for the long haul. As Wojcio himself says, “You can’t get rid of me.”


Heidi Borst is a mother, writer, and lifestyle coach based in Maplewood.