There are many books on learning disabilities (LDs), many of which provide important theoretical, practical, and socio-emotional guidance to the educators and parents of LD children, so as to facilitate the developmental processes of these children. One such work of paramount importance has been written by a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and Japanese television personality, Tetsuko Kuroyanagi, in the form of an autobiography entitled, Totto-chan: The Little Girl at the Window (available in 33 languages, including English). Although it is written approximately at the 4th-grade reading level, readers of any age are likely to find this book thought-provoking, enlightening, inspiring and entertaining, especially if their lives have been touched by LD in some ways.
The book is a collection of the daily experiences of Totto-chan (a nickname for “Tetsuko,” and it has connotations of bird-like, chirpy qualities) during World War II Japan; however, the lessons from these anecdotes transcend both time and culture and remind us how an LD child may flourish if she is given proper support in and outside of school. Totto-chan was first brought to Tomoe Gakuen, an alternative elementary school, upon having been expelled from the first grade at a local school, citing her disruptive behavior. Totto-chan’s homeroom teacher expressed her concern that Totto-chan would open and shut her desk hundreds of times throughout a day. When reprimanded, instead of correcting her behavior, Totto-chan would ever-so-convincingly explain her action to the teacher, saying that it was necessary for her to be constantly opening and closing the desk because she was taking things out and stowing things away. The teacher continued describing Totto-chan’s behavior, such as standing up all through class, not keeping her desk tidy, insisting on drawing a fringe around the national flag, and standing by the window during class and talking to those outside. Her academic performance, perhaps as a result, suffered. These behaviors would also be considered disruptive in today’s classroom and perhaps warrant a special education referral, but they were virtually unheard of in the 1940’s Japan, which suggests the severity of Totto-chan’s school related difficulties.
At her new school, Tomoe Gakuen—a small, private alternative education elementary school enrolling a mere 50 children, Totto-chan suddenly faced an entirely different environment. Each classroom was housed in a used railroad train. The headmaster interacted closely with the children of the school, frequently having lunch together, playing with the children, listening to children talk, and routinely collaborating with the student’s toward completing various projects. Although children were given a set of tasks and objectives for each subject area for the day, neither the schedule nor seating was fixed. In this system, under the supervision of their classroom teachers, children were allowed to choose when and where, within reason, to engage in a particular subject area, yet they still had to complete all prescribed tasks each day. Teachers would routinely take the entire class for short walks. Children played together and cooperated with each other, regardless of their age, and such activities always consisted of a wide variety of children, including a child with polio and an American child with limited fluency in Japanese, among others.
In such an environment, Kuroyanagi’s behavior improved tremendously, and she excelled academically as well. Tetsuko Kuroyanagi attributes her current success to the education she received at this specialized school, Tomoe Gakuen. At the same time, in this book, Kuroyanagi is realistic about the educational philosophy and practices at Tomoe Gakuen as not being optimal for every child. In fact, she remembers a child who transferred to another school, finding Tomoe Gakuen to be too chaotic and unchallenging. This is an important point to be noticed, in regard to my own work (e.g., Akiba & Garcia Coll, 2004): the optimal developmental and educational outcomes often result from the match between: (1) children’s own characteristics and needs (e.g., temperament, behavioral tendencies, academic preparedness, curiosity, talents, LD, etc.); and (2) the demands and characteristics that are present in the environment surrounding these children (e.g., school climate, curricula, family interactions and practices, etc.).
Totto-chan always enjoyed the warm support from her family, and the school environment at Tomoe Gakuen fostered a climate whereby Totto-chan’s atypical characteristics and needs were not only tolerated but respected, through its curricula and atmosphere. Since there was a seamless match among the three important agents in Totto-chan’s life (i.e., family, school, and Tott-chan herself), she flourished. This further reminds us that there is no one-size-fits-all curriculum and school policy to enhance the learning and development of all children—LD or otherwise, and it emphasizes the value of instructions and care that are sensitive to each child’s needs and characteristics. Clearly, this lesson is highly relevant to LD children, who have needs and characteristics that are non-normative. Educators, family members, and even peers of LD children will all draw valuable lessons from this book in their own ways. More importantly, LD children are sure to find this story affirming and inspiring, and I highly recommend that they read, or be read to from this book.
Akiba, D. & Garcia Coll, C. T. (2004). Effective interventions with children of color and their families: A contextual developmental approach. In T. B. Smith (Ed.). Practicing multiculturalism: Internalizing and affirming diversity in counseling and psychology (pp. 148-177). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Kuroyanagi, T. (1996). Totto-chan: The Little Girl at the Window. New York: Kodansha International.
Daisuke Akiba, Ph.D. is a tenured Assistant Professor (Educational Psychology) at Queens College and the Graduate Center of CUNY, where he teaches Child Development, Motivation, Cultural Psychology, and Research Methods. He has studied and written extensively on the developmental, educational, and family experiences of children who are non-normative in their cultural backgrounds and psychological characteristics.