3/5/12

When Child and School Collide

We knew, absolutely knew, that our oldsest son was going to LOVE school and school was going to LOVE him.  He was So ready, he loved to be with other kids, he loved learning new things, he was the kind of kid who you could truly "see" the wheels turning in his brain as he studied something new, or made connections in the world around him and beyond.  I thought to myself, "This is the kind of kid you want in the classroom, he is so hungry and motivated to learn." 

Then began school.  As far as his learning in preK, we heard nothing strikingly bad, or good from the teacher, or from him really.  What we did hear; "He seems to lack empathy for his classmates at times.", or "He gets himself ready, but he has difficulty waiting for the other kids."  and preK was just the start.  Later came the phrases, "lacks self regulation", "has difficulty attending to circle time", "motor running", then "biological", and "organic".  Our parent brains screamed inward, "What???? Should we be worried?  Well, we have seen a little of that.  Is there something wrong with him? What did we do wrong? What did I do wrong?  What did you do wrong?"  Despite our concerns, though, my fatal mistake was believing that if something serious was wrong, the school would recommend a child study. . . wouldn't they? It certainly wasn't up to me or my husband who did not see these difficulties at home, through our parent tinted glasses.  As far as my memory held of 7 or so years prior (those delightful years before NCLB), if my teacher self felt a child was having a difficult time, I spoke with the principal, and we held a child study meeting with parents and staff.  Wasn't that how it worked now?  Was this school different?  Silly me. 


Though we may have seemed to the school, to be making light of our son's difficulties, "lacks empathy" shot panic to our hearts from the start and wreaked havoc on our parental confidence, and stress levels.  After all parenting belief number one was, "If we are good parents, our kids will be good kids."  It took some of those late night, staring at the ceiling, tears soaking the pillow arguments about methods for discipline and "Is he just a bad seed?"  I had never believed in that way of looking at children, but I also had no explanation for the snapshot handed to us by the school.

I threw belief number one (good parents=good children) out the window by second grade, when the principal opened a meeting with, "We feel that you (parents) are not being supportive."  I amazingly kept it together (ie. I didn't reach across the table and scratch his eyes out) and said, "If being supportive means punishing him at home for what goes on at school, you are absolutely correct!  We tried it your way in K and that did nothing but make matters so much worse!  He was a mess, he couldn't sleep, he began to have toileting accidents."  I also went to pages 12-13 in Ross Greene's book Lost at School, which none of the staff had read or heard of, and ran down the list of assumptions pointing out most of which we or our son had been accused of that are proved incorrect if you accept Greene's primary mantra "Kids will do well if they CAN", rather than common misconception "if they Want To". 

By this time I had also read Dr. Mel Levine's A Mind at a Time, and I knew there were critical skills my son was lacking, despite his apparent strenghths, that were preventing his success in school.  (He has a lot of difficulty regulating his attention, and emotions.  He isn't always able to understand other people's emotions without being explicitly told what they are feeling).   I was angry that the staff at his school seemed oblivious to this concept, and seemed instead to be stuck (especially the principal) on expecting the behaviors to change via punishment.  I was appalled at the thought of other children (poor babies) being punished for lacking skills, and the parents (poor parents) who for whatever reasons believe the schools version of the story. "He is lazy."  "He is manipulative."  "You are bad parents", "He wants attention.", "He has a mental illness." 

As the saga wore on, we were getting answers that didn't answer anything and I was basically trying to solve this puzzle myself.  One teacher tried to be helpful at first, but in my stress I unwittingly went overboard trying to seek her input.  I know as a teacher, I would have been frazzled by this parent I had become walking in unexpectedly talking my ear off about different ideas and theories, after all there were 16 or so other kids in the class to think about, and So much work to do.  Another teacher didn't see fit to put into place strategies we found that worked, because she was "concerned about fairness to the other kids" and her version of positive discipline was to call the "time out" spot by some friendly name.  

And so I began my own independent study on "How do I help my son succeed in school?  What is this biological something?"  Basically I was a mess, my child who I had hoped would love school, not only didn't love school, he would run away when the bus arrived.  I could not reconcile the ridiculously inept handling of my son's issues by people who had chosen the vocation of teaching, my vocation! "What is wrong with these people?"  I began sending packets of information to teachers, principal, superintendent.  Some included information on teaching Gifted learners, because though some of my son's skills were very poor, his IQ was very high.  All those packets to all those people went unacknowledged. I thought to myself, "Great, they think I am crazy and if they ignore me I will leave them alone." 

   At the worst point, I was called frequently to come and pick my son up from school.   I felt as if I couldn't leave town to grocery shop I had this invisible tether and the school could yank on it whenever they saw fit.  Stress had begun to wreak havoc on me and the entire family (I can see that now).  Try raising a family of "happy children" while being squeezed in an impatient, distracted, angry fog. It doesn't work.  Because. . "If Mama's not happy, ain't nobody happy."  So, We spent about a year seeing a therapist who got to know my son and basically reassured me that my son was really ok.  It was a nice sort of oasis, really, and an important one.  Because what I really needed and what my child really needed at this point was for someone to say "he is ok", "you are ok" no matter what else might be going on.

 
Rewind back to when I taught first grade.  Back then while teaching, I really tried to be sympathetic to the needs of the kids.  I thought I was good at relating to those children who didn't fit the mold.  And on some level I did understand them more than some teachers I had met.  I often heard what the kids were communicating without words.  At some point a year or so into my son's story I realized how much I didn't know about how these kids learn, and I felt some regret.  But really, I could only act according to the information available to me at the time.  Some of the most important ideas about learning are fairly new (ie.last 10 years or so) 

I recall a discussion with my boss, principal, who was questioning the use of Time Out, which had become the latest and greatest classroom tool, and I remember thinking, "yes.  Time Out works."  I didn't really understand why she was asking me if I felt it worked back then, but now I know.  I understand.  I have learned.  Time out only really works for the kids who don't really "need" it.  For children who don't have the skills to succeed, Time Out will not teach them the skills, and therefore will not truly help them succeed.  I am not sure if she had that thought in her mind then, but she was so smart, I am guessing that is the case.

My biggest realization though really was how judgemental my view of parents often was when I was a teacher, and how little I really knew back then.  Now I know without uncertainty, Some kids have difficulties learning things that others take for granted and it isn't because their parent didn't do their job!  It dawned on me that so many parents are being judged harshly and their children are not getting the help they need to learn the skills that others take for granted.  I had read somewhere that every parent wants to do what is best for their child but they don't all know how to do what is best.  I have always remembered it, but now I understand it.     

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