In the past 2 weeks, I’ve had 3 conversations with mom friends…darn good moms might I add… who have shared with me accounts of their tear filled parent teacher conferences. Note, these were Kindergarten parent teacher conferences. 5 year old little people. They’ve each been told that their children aren’t quite fitting into the box of expectations for “kids their age.” They’re not sitting still. They’re distracting other kids with their inability to focus. They’re not understanding the curriculum like the others kids are. They’re not sharing appropriately. They’re not drawing enough detail in their pictures. They’re only writing 2 sentences in their non-fiction story books and are expected to write 4. They’re not including enough color and word bubbles in their illustrations. They’re touching other kids in line. Their work looks like that of a child who didn’t go to Pre-school. Teachers from all different schools are passing along these reports to my Mama friends. And my Mama friends cry. Some of them cry every night in anticipation of what the teacher will say the next day. They cry about their kid not fitting in and about their rocky looking future as a student. All these tears are over their 5 year olds, based on the observations of their very first real teacher. And their first real school.
I have a rather obnoxious amount of experience in this arena, given my stunted 1.5 years in the schooling system. It was made clear after a brief month of Kindergarten duties that our Dude didn’t fit into the box of expectations so firmly placed on newbie students. He was struggling in areas that the other kids were not. His work was not being completed in the same fashion as the other little learners. He couldn’t sit still. He was “kicking” and “hitting” kids in line if they touched him. He couldn’t focus and follow direction like the other kids. He wasn’t comfortable in his desk and was so inappropriately walking around the room when he was expected to be conforming to his rock hard little chair, with his feet firmly planted on the floor directly below him. What was wrong with him? I was convinced that he was misbehaving and refusing to conform to school expectations. I cried. Every night. Just like my Mama friends.
I’m ashamed to say that we punished him for the lack of star stickers he would take home. He was nervous. Every single day. His joy started weening, just enough that we noticed it. As I’ve highlighted earlier in this blog, we started down the exploration of Sensory Processing and ADD and the light bulb went off. Our kid wasn’t misbehaving. He was being the kid God made him to be and was doing the best his little 5 year old self knew how to do. He was struggling to find his way into a box that wasn’t intended for him. He’s not boxy. Not even a little bit. Eventually, we got to the point of putting our foot down and making it clear that all the standardized expectations were NOT okay for him. The hearts of the team at our prior school were in the right place, but they had nothing to offer our son in terms of aiding in his learning. He deserved better and we weren’t going to stop until we found it.
We quickly found a version of better at our local public school. By quickly I mean 7 days. We quite literally yanked him out of his private school and he finished off Kindergarten with a joyful bang. In addition, we started enlisting the guidance and hands on training of an OT clinic. And we started forking over the cash. God placed two angels (three including the principal) to watch over him and re-discover his joy in the classroom that second half of the year. As a result, I stopped crying. In fact, I looked forward to teacher reports and visits to the school. It was a safe place for our family.
It’s November now – 4 months into 1st grade. I wish I could say that its been rainbows and unicorns. We didn’t necessarily expect to receive reports of his honor roll status and exemplary social skills, but we were expecting a version of flowy. Ritilin was introduced after the first two weeks of school, which provided immediate positive results in the areas of focus and participation. We made it through a goodish parent teacher conference, signaling that Dude is right in the middle of the pack academically. He doesn’t stick out, good or bad. But “excelling” is certainly not a word that was used. Although the focus was better, it was still an area of concern. And perhaps a Friday social support group that teaches “appropriate classroom behavior” would be recommended. And do we plan on keeping him on the Ritalin – perhaps increasing the dose? And perhaps there are other techniques we can offer for when he acts quirky -like when his chair shocks him and he refuses to sit in it again for fear that it’ll shock his little toosh again. “Is this normal for sensory kids to be fine one minute and not the next?” Or what do we recommend for when he’s making noises in his throat and it’s disturbing the boxy kids and he gets upset when they bring this to his attention and has to sit in the hall until his “impulses” are under control. Or the reality that we have to point out that his “bumpy day” might have a morsel to do with the lock-down drill that was planned for that morning. You know, where students gather in a corner of their classrooms, holding hands and singing songs in their heads to avoid making noises that could lure the evil person on the other side of the locked door. Noises just like the ones my son has no control over.
Is my son making it through 1st grade? Yeah. He’s just fine. And he’s getting a bit of help from the school OT when he needs to go crash into a giant mat. But I’m crying again. Just like my Mama friends. The level of advocating I’ve been striving for has reached tipping point. We’ve purchased an absurd amount of “tools” that can be used in the classroom. Vests, headphones, pencil toppers, chewables, seat cushions, noise charts….ridiculous. We’ve sent “tips” on how to handle non-boxy situations. We’ve offered suggestions on other teachers to consult with who are brilliant at understanding and relating to non-boxies. I’ve written books of explanations to his teacher on how kids with sensory struggles and severe ADD view the world. I sent cinnamon gum to school in bulk in order to help with the involuntary noises. And finally, I sent a book about understanding kids who struggle with sensory and ADD issues to school and wrote a post-it recommendation to READ IT. I’ve been advocating my Dutch ass off and I have officially reached the point of advocation exhaustion. I just made that a real thing, despite spell check’s zig zaggy arguments.
I had a spur of the moment, run in meeting with our God-send of a Principal last night and I spilled. Everything. I stressed our desire for our kid being understood and not being alienated or punished for things out of his control. I told her that I don’t have any advocating left in me. I told her we understand what our Dude’s challenges are and we are not there to defend his every move but that we need him to sense joy and understanding in his learning environment as it relates to HIM. If nothing else, we need him to know how frickin brilliant he is.
Our principal heard every word and understood beyond what my voice was able to say. She told me that my son was a remarkable little human who emanates joy and was doing the very best that he knows how to do. She told me that my efforts at advocating for him and instilling faith into his heart are going to produce a marvelous young man. And she made me promise that I wouldn’t doubt that one day of my life. She told me that my advocating days are over and that his school would now be stepping up to ensure that his needs are being met. I cried. Shocker. I heart that woman for so many reasons. She runs that school like clock-work and has a million larger than life tasks in front of her. And in the midst of that, she finds the time to check on my son after fire drills to make sure he’s okay. She looks him in the eye and makes sure he’s okay. She’s a safe place for him. For me. I felt better after our meeting. Stress oozed out of my pores. And yet I still feel this sense of sadness that I can’t shake.
My advocating junkie self has been analyzing the return of the tears and this feeling of sadness. And here’s my what I’ve concluded is my thing. We’ve been blessed with this principal mighty woman and a school with programs that can help. We’re grateful for that and we adore our school community. It works for so many kids who attend there. But there has to be more in the realm of education than what we’re offering OUR little man. Decades ago, someone inscribed the codes and structure of learning into a boulder on the side of some inaccessible mountain. And no one has been ballsy enough to touch that boulder. Maybe they climb up to get a glimpse, but the journey ends up being too daunting and expensive and scary and they bail.
Based on the self proclaimed minimal understanding I have of the education system, there are state standards and expectations handed down to teachers and administrators that are to be treated as gold. Teachers don’t have space for deviating and allowing students the freedom to learn in the way that fits their intelligence models. They don’t have the time to invest in understanding the ways in which their students learn. So in the case of the non-boxies, the goal is to utilize whatever services are available to take the stress off the teacher and allow a “fair” learning environment for the kids that don’t struggle. Because how “fair” is it to throw 28 kids together who view, feel, taste and analyze the world from totally different perspectives and expect them to learn in a cohesive group? It’s not fair. For any of them. Learning isn’t a one size fits all concept.
We can’t expect our son and the realms of other kiddos who aren’t boxy learners to be forced to learn in a boxy format. We can’t expect him to draw the conclusion that he’s different and requires extra help, support groups and one on one in order to learn in the way that is “normal.” Thus forcing him to conclude that the brilliant way in which his mind operates isn’t “normal” or celebrated. We can’t expect him to keep his remarkably creative mind at bay so that he can learn the important things. We can’t expect him to wait until he gets home to share the complex mathematical and astonishingly scientific invention he created in his ever imagining brain. It’s not appropriate to talk about this invention while completing the boxy math handout required of every 1st grader in the public school system in the state of Colorado. And if he thinks about it during his writing time, he’s not going to get those four non-fiction instructional sentences on the page that are expected of him. Or draw the word bubbles that are a part of his semester goals for growth. Let’s just be clear. My kid’s entire brain is one giant word bubble. So the mere fact that this has been noted as an area of needed growth is nothing short of amusing.
I crave more for my beautifully non-boxy son. And for every kid out there who doesn’t naturally learn the way they’re expected to learn in 90% of schools in this country. I crave an environment that recognizes his complex mind and his refreshing view of the world around him and celebrates his inability to sit still and draw word bubbles. I pray that a shining knight will find that ancient boulder, catapult it off the side of the cliff it rests on and force us to piece it back together again. What a majestic sight that would be. For my son and for all my Mama friend’s kiddos who deserve to learn in a way that speaks to them.
I don’t have the answers to any of this heart language but I don’t plan on giving up. God planted our little man into our lives very intentionally and expects that we’re going to knock his socks off with our ability to maintain that little boy’s joy. And I’ll be darned if I do anything less.