Saturday, January 28, 2012

On Schooling, and On My Kid is a Bully

I did a post recently on Schooling, which sparked some cool discussion, and I wanted to continue it.  This discussion is also relevant to my post on Matthew bullying his peers, so I thought I'd tackle both in one shot.  Or try.

When I was home for Christmas, I talked to both my brother and my dad about my brother's experience with school.  I had some of the facts about my brother's homeschooling experience wrong~he was home for about half a year, my dad said, and although my dad (as a former teacher) was in charge of his 'education,' he said that they hardly did any schoolwork.  My dad said that Chad was so much more mature than his peers in many, many ways, but just didn't fit in the box of normal as far as reading is concerned.  What Chad needed more than schooling was a break from it all, so my dad kept him home and they worked around the farm and did a very minimal amount of schoolwork here and there.  And the following fall, my brother started a grade ahead of where he left off, skipping grade five altogether.  My brother essentially repeated grade one and skipped grade five.

My brother hardly remembered this period of time, but he had a lot to say about school.  He said that the experience of repeating a grade is really hard on a kid's self esteem, and that school is largely a waste of time.  He said it is good to learn to read and do math, and the basics of the three 'R's,' but that beyond that life experience adds more to a person's life and is more useful as an adult than formal education.  He speaks from experience, since he is a very successful entrepreneur who owns two businesses, a farm, a home, and has a healthy, growing family.  All markers of success and emotional health.
I said that from my perspective it seemed that elementary school offered a ton of support and extra learning assistance built around the way his brain was wired.  However, once he hit high school, he was largely left to his own devices.  He agreed, and said that, "In high school, I was on my own.  It was a complete waste of my time."  Based on his experience, he will send his kids to elementary school but it will be entirely their choice whether to continue on beyond that, and how; be it online, homeschooling, or conventional high school.  He likes the small, Mennonite school in his town and would prefer Birch and their other future kids to go there because he likes the Mennonite emphasis on community and good morals.  He likes their sense of discipline and hard work ethic.  But he is open to other elementary school options as long as the school itself is small.

I appreciate his perspective.  I lean more towards valuing continued education, and value diversity over small, tight knit community schools, but I totally value the fact that Chad's experience made him think outside the box, and become wide open as far as his children's educational choices.

I also appreciated the perspectives of everyone who commented on my last post.  Building community around and within a school environment is important to Louise, remaining open to re evaluating how conventional school is working year by year is important to Sara, schooling at home through play is important to Asheya, and Caryn points out the fact that sometimes it feels more pressing to make a choice when there ARE choices, as opposed to when there is simply one choice and everyone takes that path as a matter of course. 

I have to say, that for my high needs kid, I would be at a loss as to how to teach him at home.  I could easily 'teach' Ayden; creative ideas to spark his imagination, and then let him follow his mind where it goes.  But Matthew?  Harnessing that kid's attention long enough to get him to put on his shoes is a herculean feat.  Education?  Good luck.  I'm just not an expert in 'special needs,' as it were.  This is where I need the experts to help me out.  People who went to school for five years to learn how to be teachers, and then the support staff who have further education (or as in the case of the school psychologist, six years of education pertaining to psychology~and in her personal case, LOTS of personal experience with learning challenges within her own family so she *GETS IT*), and administrators who have experience...  Yeah, I need help with this one.  This kid is intense.  Lovely, amazing, gorgeous, wild, and intense. 

I'm so glad we got the ball rolling last fall to test Matthew for learning challenges.  If we had not, and this is a year earlier than most children get tested, Matthew's behavioural issues would feel incredibly overwhelming without much chance at resolution.  I feel like once we get a diagnosis we can research specific to his challenges and support him better than we are now, which is mainly fumbling in the dark, with parenting tools specific to 'normal' children (I tend to think of ADHD and SPD as 'normal' manifestations of variety within our species, and not 'pathological,' nor 'disabilities,' which is why I avoid the phrase 'learning disability(ies)' when talking about them.  We as adults need to bend the way we teach and parent around him and the way his brain is (quite beautifully) wired to operate.

I get some comments from some of the (few) people who know about this diagnostic process about how we need to avoid LABELS.  I have a few words to say about labels.  A diagnosis is power in one's hand.  Trust me, after years and YEARS of operating with an undiagnosed anxiety disorder, the state of mind I had dubbed this wild kind of crazy that has no name, or alternately the something that is wrong with me, I can assure you that a diagnosis is power.  I am calm, today, despite myriad life circumstances whirling around me that would have thrown me wildly off balance in my previous existence, because I know what is wrong with me.  It has a name.  It has treatments that work.  It has supportive organizations and groups of people who either also live with it, or who work as experts in their field to help manage it (often both simultaneously).  I have power over my anxiety disorder because I know it's name.
Similarly, Matthew has something in his brain that operates differently, and when we know the name of that condition, it will give us power.  It will give his teachers and support staff power.  Most of all, it will give MATTHEW power to harness his full potential and unleash his circular shaped intelligence upon a world that draws almost exclusively in parallel lines.
The problem with labels is that adults who should know better use them.  They slap them on kids and see the diagnosis as descriptive of the entire person, and treat them unfairly.  They do things like ask a ten year old who is acting squirrely, "Did you take your medication today?!" in front of the entire class.  On a weekly, sometimes daily basis, in the most humiliating tone known to mankind.  True story: this happened to a boy named Paul who was in my grade five class.  I used to seethe inside at her when she humiliated him that way.  It never failed to shame him into submission, but she lost all my respect pretty early on in the year.  Take that, Mrs. Lortie.  Eat some crow, you shameless woman.

I fear that for my kid.  Of course I do.  That, or something similar.  But I'm pretty confident that I am in close enough communication with Matthew's teachers that I could detect a lack of respect for my kid and celebration of his strengths and recognition of him as a whole person pretty early on and request a change in teacher.  If it were not granted, I would have absolutely no qualms about changing schools.

The problem is not inherent in getting a diagnosis, the problem is the damn adults.  Upon whom I wish all manner of evil.

Having grown up with a brother with diagnosable learning challenges, who was mature and bright in so many ways that went unrecognized by school, and who was incredibly helped and supported by said diagnosis in elementary school, I'm fully on board with testing.  Testing early, and thoroughly, by high quality support staff.  Because knowledge is power.  And I need help, raising this kid; I need tools that work, I need support circles of other parents, I need teachers who know how to bend their curriculum goals around my child's wonderful brain so that he can learn and grow.  And I need something fast, so we can help him internalize a sense of self control so that he doesn't jeopardize any more friendships.

On the one hand, yes, I wish teachers were present for lunch time at school.  But this is law, in BC, that teachers must have their full lunch break and not be required to supervise during that time.  We don't have lunchrooms, for teachers to take turns or for parent volunteers to rotate supervising our kids; each class eats in their classroom, at their desks, and there are not enough administrators or parent volunteers for 18 divisions, every day.
When I was growing up, we ate lunch at our desks and our teacher supervised us.  She/he shooed us out after ten or fifteen minutes, and then the teacher went to the staffroom for lunch break.  I don't totally see what was wrong with this picture, but then again labour laws are in place to protect workers from burnout and unfair treatment.  All I can say is that paramedics do not have scheduled breaks (except for transfer fleet paramedics), and that in my 9 years of work I never once had a one hour lunch break.  PLENTY of times we sat around on our duffs for hours on end waiting for calls, but also plenty of times I worked 12 hours straight and the only time I sat down was while we were driving in the ambulance.  I've eaten many a sandwich or yogurt while driving Code 3 in traffic on the way to help out a dying someone.  I'm guessing the thinking is that you can't not respond to a life or death call because all the ambulances are out to lunch.  Rotating lunch breaks won't work because SO frequently all ambulances in one town are busy, that you would get pulled off your lunch break so often as to make it kind of ridiculous to even try and eat.  We usually ate between calls, or at the hospital while waiting for a non critical patient to get a bed.  A process we not so respectfully dubbed "babysitting a patient," or "sitting" them.  "I'm just sitting an SOB, you go grab a coffee and I'll watch your patient," was common.  Nobody ever complained, and I didn't really see anything wrong with this.  It's the nature of the job. [SOB=Shortness of Breath, not Son of a Bitch.  FYI].

The fact that teachers in practice work six hours in close proximity to students, and then another 2 to 3 hours (or less, for experienced teachers) on prep or marking after students have gone home kind of makes one think that a full hour in the staff room is perhaps not all that necessary.  But on the other hand, teachers are quite hassled in our province and don't have fantastic working conditions in other areas, so perhaps the full hour is a part of a necessary support system to ensure the longevity of our teachers' careers.

It's a moot point anyway, because the full lunch break for teachers is law in our province, for a unionized work force, so there is no changing it.  Less than optimal supervision it is, then.

But shouldn't a seven year old be able to control his behaviour enough to be unsupervised for ten to fifteen minutes while he eats his lunch?  Matthew is partially culpable here, too.  It is NOT too much to expect of him to be kind to others for ten unsupervised minutes.  Well, it might be, but you can see my point.  But I know that his profound lack of impulse control is at the root of his behaviour.  I also know that a small measure of the cause lies in power acquisition.  He is human, and thus he appreciates the merits of acquiring power.  Because he has so little impulse control and is so highly distractable, he has less autonomy and freedom of choice than most seven year olds.  We have to monitor him more closely and implement more rigid standards and routines and expectations than we would with a 'normal' child, and I know that affects him.  So he has 'less' power over his environment than is developmentally appropriate (and always has), plus the normal human drive/need for power, so I think that exercising some power over his peers is appealing.  Because his low impulse control is (largely; there is some choice involved on his part) responsible for the diminishing of autonomy in his life, it sucks that the very thing he needs is something his brain won't allow him to get.  We simply cannot give him the autonomy he craves because when we do, he goes wild.  He's relieved when we implement external controls for him, but at the same time he wrestles with them.  It's a tough thing.
I may even be wrong; this is simply my take on him and on our lives.  As his mom I'm a pretty good authority on what makes Matthew tick.

So what I'm praying for now, is the right diagnosis.  Teachers with tools and skills that work with my child.  A name for me to go forth and research treatments and support for.  Something I can take to my naturopath and say, "What do you recommend?"

Some days, Matthew's impulse control is so low and his behaviour so juvenile, frustrating, repetitive, distracted, hyper, or rude that I'm like "UNIVERSE, SHOW ME THE PILL AND I'LL USE IT, SHOW ME THE MAGICAL MEDICATION THAT WILL FIX THIS KID, SHOW ME THE MONEY."   Of course I know this is the wrong approach, but I want to express to you the extent of my frustration in trying to teach my child the most basic skills.  How can a person be expected to learn when the sound of a knife falling to the ground and the feeling of an itch on his or her knee feels just as loud and important and vies as strongly for his or her attention as the parent in front of them re explaining for the hundredth time why shoving people under the trampoline when there are people on it is dangerous?  And when that person lives in a family with six people, one dog, a cat, and a fairly loud family volume?  Show me the magic, man.  The magical key or keys that will help tone down the wild distracting chatter of his brain and help him.  Help him to focus.  Help him to pee in the toilet, one hundred percent of the time.  Help him to read by accessing his cache of memorized words, and sounding out the ones he doesn't have memorized.  Help him to think, "It's not mine and I want to respect others," right after "I want that."
I want him to do the right thing when it comes to kindness and respect for his friends because it is the right thing to do, and not because he wants to please me or his father or his teachers, and not because he is afraid of getting caught, or the consequences if he does.  But he's just not there yet.  He's nowhere near internalizing the right thing to do.  Most seven year olds don't have this down ALL the time, but most have it figured out SOME of the time.  Matthew has this figured out NONE of the time, and it will cost him in social relationships if we cannot help him.

And that is where we are at, with that.  Le sigh.


Dionna @ Code Name: Mama said...

I am always interested to hear from adults who were homeschooled, having never had the experience myself. I'm really happy to hear your brother's thoughts.
And you should never have to apologize or explain why you choose not to HS your son - of course HS'ing isn't for everyone!
As far as the control/autonomy quandry - is there another area where you can offer him *more* control in an effort to make up for the lack of control he gets in certain school settings? I wonder if you could give him a regular opportunity to just let go - either at home or at school - that would give him the sense of being the master of his own fate. Even if it is in play - there is a section in Cohen's Playful Parenting about how important it is to give children some power, since they so often feel powerless.
It's so obvious that you are in tune with him and thinking about how you can best help him in this part of his journey. Wishing you continued wisdom and peace with every decision - he is lucky to have you for a mama!

melissa said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
melissa said...

You seem to be approaching this whole situation with a very level head. The route you have chosen for school makes perfect sense for your family, and I can totally see the value of a diagnosis for Matthew. I hope that comes through soon and gives everyone who cares about him a bit more insight into how best to help. You're an incredible mom, f'real.

Your brothers insights are pretty fascinating as well, and I'm inclined to agree with him in many ways.

literal mama said...

Couple things: I 100% support and encourage diagnosis because of everything you said. Knowledge is power and we all, everyone, have to stop labeling people based on one part of a person's being. I HATE it. This is intolerance and intolerable.

Second: I am paid for 4.5 hours of work each day (I'm a high school teacher). Each day I spend 3 hours in direct teaching, 3 more hours prepping and marking, about 30 mins meeting with students to discuss, help, etc, another 30 mins meeting with other teachers, support workers and admin to ensure that no students are falling through the cracks (we are a no kid left behind school and we take it very seriously, so this actually takes a lot of time), and then I coach, which is about 6 additional hours per week, unpaid and honestly, unappreciated. So on an average day, I work 7-9 hours (almost twice what I am paid for). I know that there are teachers who do not put this kind of commitment in, but not many. My son's grade one teacher, uses her 40 minute lunch break to wolf down some food, talk to the support workers, answer emails or calls from parents and to get ready for the afternoon. Rarely, do teachers sit down, socialize and eat. The laws around lunch breaks is almost unchanged in BC from 30 years ago, outside time was longer then for kids.

Just so everyone knows.

melissa v. said...

@Dionna~thank you! It is good to feel supported as I navigate this new-to-me area of parenting. I'm so glad Melissa Kemendo wrote about the topic of schooling, because I would never have thought to ask my brother and dad for their perspective on the partial year of HSing, and the now completely relevant experience of school for a special needs kid. It was very insightful to talk to them. And great for me to hash out exactly why we choose the education method we do, and how it works and how it doesn't work. =)
As far as autonomy goes, I appreciate your suggestion! Whenever we can, we give Matthew options. It is one of those great coping techniques you learn with toddlers that persists as a helpful tool right up to (so far) nearly 9 years old! For example, I always purposefully put vegetables he doesn't like on his plate or in his bowl, and give him the option to leave behind any vegetable he likes. I guess what the conundrum there is, is that, given the freedom to choose fully what to eat or not eat on his plate, he quite literally will eat nothing. But age appropriate freedom would be more free range choice with regards to food. Does that make sense? We give him choices as much as we can, but it is generally not enough to meet his autonomy needs, without threatening his nutrition needs (his will and persistence is that strong, he loses weight when left more freedom with food. He's a 38 lb seven year old. He's got no room for weight loss.)
And free play is a great outlet. Summertime is better for this; our backyard and trampoline are more accessible and the neighbourhood park has a wild ravine that he spends hours running around in, unsupervised. Winter is tougher to create space for him to physically let go, but he's still allowed plenty of free play time with few rules, and spends lots of time building worlds with lego, blocks, K'nex, etc, and building forts with his brothers. Which is so great!
It doesn't seem to be enough to meet all of his autonomy needs, though. Right this minute he's building a huge system of train tracks in my kitchen, taping the tracks to the hardwood floor and building ramps up to the counter... engrossed in his imagination and engineering feats. And it's not enough.

Maybe he needs some more, and I will think hard about creating this type of space for him in new ways. It is so important for their growing sense of self! Thank you!

melissa v. said...

@melissa, I was hoping you would weigh in on this topic! Thank you for your supportive comments on this and the Bully post. You're so thoughtful and authentic in your comments, it is obvious you read carefully and consider my point of view, which I appreciate so much.

I'm really hoping a diagnosis will be a powerful tool for us to help Matthew in ALL areas, and also in his social behaviour. I think the thing I want to preserve most is his charisma and cheerful authentic outlook. If he loses friendships and or feels unintelligent, it will threaten those characteristics. Plus it is obviously not okay for him to threaten other children.

I did think of you and your post, when my brother stated the extent of his children's educational freedom of choice! It is a thought provoking stance, and rather common sensical. =) I'm so glad you posted about education! It sparked all kinds of interesting discussion! Thank you!

melissa v. said...

@Sara, I was hoping you would add to this aspect of the discussion! I will publish your comment so that people know the inside scoop from a teacher. I knew you would have a better perspective on lunch hour teacher activities than I do.

I wonder though how much different high school is from elementary school? You mention K's grade one teacher but honestly I have not seen this behaviour in the teachers at our school. At lunch time, if I happen to be in the school, I see all the teachers gathered in the staff room eating their lunches or relaxing. This is not wrong! It is what everyone should be able to do at lunch! But I don't see any computers in the staff room or any meetings going on. The majority of the time these activities must happen SOMEtime! I'm just not sure when. I'm not sure it is during lunch hour, but then I am rarely in the school watching the teachers for the entire lunch hour =p

It's not BAD for teachers to have a break, I'm just wondering how bad it would be to have teachers stay in the classroom for the ten minute eating period of lunch, like my elementary school teachers did. I assumed the change was because of union legislation that had changed in the ensuing years but it sounds like I'm wrong there!

If you read the comments on my bullying post, someone commented who was appalled that kids are unsupervised at lunch and felt the school was responsible for Matthew's behaviour because the kids are unsupervised. That is where my explanation came from.

I think also that tons of outside classroom teacher activities like meetings and such happen in the hour or two after school. Staff meetings I assume happen before school, but I don't know for sure. I don't think many teachers in my kids' school work very many hours for free. The school is a good one, but it has lots of very experienced teachers, and not many extra curricular activities like the basketball commitment you have. Other high school teachers I know describe commitments similar to yours, volunteer hours that are unappreciated and unpaid. You also work part time; if you had a full time position you would be paid for more than 4.5 hours per day; would you work more hours, or is part of the hour/pay gap in your case the nature of the beast with part time work? I know in my job, full time paramedics had a much better gig than part timers and we often worked the same number of hours. I worked tons of hours for $2 or $10 per hour and paid my daycare more than I would make in a day, often.
You are a committed and passionate teacher and I am so grateful. I know I couldn't do your job, and I'm just so grateful you can. And admire you for your obvious talent for it! It has ups and downs, I know. No job is perfect, all the time, but you are well suited to your profession.

Thanks for your insight into what work hours are like for teachers...

Amy Willa said...

It's very obvious that you are in tune with Matthew's needs and that is paramount! I can understand your mindset and empathize with you completely, as I also suffer from panic induced anxiety (for years, completely undiagnosed "frantic bits of crazy") - and my daughter (3) has been labeled a "bully" and "overly impulsive" and "aggressive" by a preschool teacher, and singled out as a "distracting influence" in other activities. . . it feels like someone is punching me in the stomach anytime I hear anything other than a glowing review of my child's behavior, and I find myself scrambling to help her be "normal" . . . but I WON'T squash her individuality, her personality, or her enthusiasm to make her act like a typical child. At any rate, I hear you! <3

lori said...

Wowsers! As always, your posts give my brain about thirty awesome, totally interesting trails to run down, and I hardly know which to focus on! I love thinking about education and schooling (and I do think those two things are very different), about community, about the unique gift of each child to a family and the world...

In fact, I don't think I'm going to really comment anything yet, other than that I'm reading and totally into this, but I may have to come back to it, as one or another trail surfaces above the others.

Except. Have you seen the little independent film, "The Man Who Planted Trees?" I have been thinking about it in relation to parenthood in general, but it specifically applies to Matthew, it sounds like. You're just plant, plant, planting those seeds, each and every day. The repetitiveness of it would be so maddening when you're not seeing the results you expect, and I say to you, lady, wow. Keep planting. You are a very good mom. A very, very good mom indeed.

Carolin Newmeyer said...

I understand your situation. Many mothers these days have kids who are bullied in school. And there's nothing we can do but to fully understand them and help them be better individuals when they grow up.