If you have been following my posts you may know how much school has been difficult for my son and myself. I am also sure that I have made some educators angry when I wrote a post called, There are bad teachers . . . If you haven’t read it, I suggest you do.
Between third grade and fifth grade I prayed that my son could survive long enough to finish each school year. I say survive because those three years were torture to my son. With all of his health problems, the school actually made things worse. I had expected the educators to be the experts when it came to educating children with learning difficulties and health issues. Unfortunately, I found out that is not necessarily true.
I am ashamed to say, as a result of this elementary school and the information they had been providing me, I had very low expectations for my son. The school drew a bleak picture of a young boy who did not pay attention, was not organized, wouldn’t say hi to his classmates, had difficulty reading, was always sleepy, was struggling with math, could not physically write, was not a self-starter, and made up symptoms to look like Tourette Syndrome. With all of this observations, I truly worried about what would happen to him when he is an adult.
I must say some of the things the school experienced we also experienced at home. For example if you told my son to do three things, you might get one of them accomplished. His bedroom is an absolute danger zone. I used to try to keep up with it, but I gave that up long ago. I keep telling and showing him that everything has a home.
The most annoying situation is when my son misplaces everything. I always joke that he would lose his head if it was not attached. I can’t tell you how many mornings we were scrambling to find this or that before school. I kept explaining to him that if he followed the rule and put everything in its home, then he would know where to find it. I have tried every trick in the book to correct this behavior with no success. What we did do, which I did not realize until he went to school, was we had subconsciously adapted our home activities and behaviors to fit his needs. At home I learned to only give him instructions for one thing at a time, or the night before school we laid out all his clothes and got his back pack ready. We didn’t do this to be organized. We did this because we knew we would be looking for something in the morning which would take up all of the time.
My son also has a little OCD. As a result of this, when he loses something he will obsessively be on the hunt for it. I can remember when he was very young, before he was diagnosed with any of his health issues, he had a toy which was a learning toy consisting of an airplane and three animal passengers. The airplane interacted differently with each character. He loved the toy, but as you can guess, he kept losing one or more of the characters. We spent so much time looking for them, and if he couldn’t find them he got very, very upset. Usually we would eventually find them, but there was one time when they were nowhere to be found. I was so tired of his extreme grief, and obsessive hunting, that I went to the toy store and bought a new one. Thank goodness he grew out of that toy.
So I am not surprised to see these issues at school. In fact our neuropsychologist said that my son has impaired executive functions, which includes organizational skills. Since this has been identified as a part of his medical issues, there are objectives in his IEP to improve that behavior or learn other skills to help him remember. The school used a pictorial schedule for him so he knew where he was supposed to be at different times during the day, but that was the extent of what they worked on. Numerous times his homework was left at school. It was a miracle to receive flyers for field trips or book orders. His assignment notebook came home but you couldn’t read any of it.
Then sixth grade came, which meant going to middle school. I could tell that things operated differently there. At the end of fifth grade, representatives from the elementary and the middle school met with me. The purpose of the meeting was to understand my son’s health and educational needs. It was probably the best and most thorough IEP meeting I had ever had. There was no topic left unaccounted for, and there were indications that they were making a genuine attempt to create a successful learning experience. They also knew that the learning experience starts on the first day of school. Not one week later. Not a month later, which was our experience at the elementary school.
A couple of weeks before school started for the sixth grade, the middle school invited my son to attend four half-day sessions with the purpose of getting used to the school and to know where everything was, such as the gym, the lunchroom, and the health office. They also worked through the procedures of a day, including their schedule, their locker, going to lunch and getting on the bus. It was a great program, and it took some of the anxiety away for starting a new school.
School started and my son was very cautious. Cautious about the new school. Cautious of being a new student. Cautious of his peers and the kids from the upper grades. I will admit I was very anxious for him, and waited with my breath held, praying that nothing happened. I didn’t want us to go back into survival mode for another three years, with his progress at school continuously slowing down, with minimal forward movement.
His schedule was set up so that all of his core subjects were held with the special education teacher, Mrs. G and a small group of students. The remaining classes were with mainstream teachers and students. A number of factors happened in the beginning days of school which created a very positive effect for my son. First of all, he did not start school at the same time as the rest of the students, because he was newly diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. When school started we were in the middle of getting him stabilized and learning everything we needed to do to support his diabetes which was really daunting in the beginning. The delayed school start was good because all of the other students were in a rhythm by the time he started. As a result of this the teachers were able to focus purely on my son with individual all the individual attention he needed. Not only was he starting a new school, but he had a new health issues that had to be dealt with throughout the day.
The second thing that occurred was when my son went to his first class in the special education room. He saw that his assigned desk was beside a girl that he went to school with in kindergarten, first and second grade. They were huge friends. After second grade she moved and we had no way of contacting her. In fourth grade at the end of the school year the fourth graders from all of the elementary schools in the area participated in a field and track event. It was there that he met up with her again. They kept each other’s company throughout the track event. They exchanged phone numbers and talked with each other for the next year, meeting again at the fifth grade field and track event.
My son walks into class and this girl is his desk partner. Unbelievable! I have since heard from his teacher Mrs G that they are really good friends and do everything together. I think this is one thing that reduced his anxiety about school. In the previous year my son was a victim of a bullying situation, and he was very anxious about running into these students at the new school. Finding his friend eliminated that concern entirely. He knew he had someone to back him up.
The third event that happened during the beginning days of school, my son’s special ed teacher, showed him that a teacher could have empathy. She acknowledged that things have been hard for him, and said she was proud of him enduring it all. This empathy from Mrs. G was a total new experience for my son. She understood his health issues and showed concern. She had previously taught kids with Tourette Syndrome and understood the disorder. She didn’t berate hm when he had tic episodes. She didn’t accuse him of faking it. She didn’t tell him to stop it. What a relief.
Another event that happened is Mrs. G was totally supportive of moving his education forward, and she recognized that praise was a great motivator, or telling him a story that she had some of those problems too. This was a message to my son that she understood him and had been there herself.
One of my son’s education issues up to this year has been that he has dysgraphia which are a result of a couple of factors including tremors. Until recently he could not read his own handwriting, let alone have someone else read it. In the past there were attempts to use a speech-to-text software program, and to teach him typing, with not much success. I think if a little more effort would have been done one of these mechanisms would have worked. As I watched him learn, I realized how important it is to visualize your own writing. Without being able to do this, it really hampered his ability to learn spelling, grammar, writing complete sentences or capturing information in a report. Up to now he had missed out on all of this. Besides providing alternative methods of writing, the elementary school also did not give him extended time to complete his writing. The combination of all of this resulted in a sixth grade boy who could not write and had not learned language skills. It just seemed his previous school just ignored the importance of being able to see what you write and how it would affect everything he is doing.
His new special ed teacher, Mrs. G knew about this issue, and beginning the very first week of school she told him that she liked his handwriting and that he was doing a great job. This little comment was a huge thing for my son. The day she said this he came home from school and told me what she said and he was so happy. I suspect she is also giving him the time he needs to do his writing. Believe it or not his handwriting is improving. He can read it. I can read it. He has a way to go to catch up with the spelling, writing proper sentences, or organization of information, but that is expected. In the past he had given up writing, even though I tried to work with him. Today he is writing pages and pages of information. He has even started a blog discussing video games. He does the rough draft and I work with him to find corrections, and then he publishes it.
Another new educational experience is that this Mrs. G has the philosophy that she really didn’t care what the kids read, as long as it was appropriate and they kept reading. My son has been attracted to graphic novels. At his previous school they would not let him read graphic novels. His special ed teacher said he needed to read some books with more structure and that were more substantial. Okay, his beginning chapter books were thirty pages long with limited information on each page. His graphic novels were about 250 pages long, but in total consisted of more reading than the beginning chapter books. This year my son has said to me that this school is letting him read the books that he likes and chooses. As a result of this he is reading all of the time, and now his reading interests have expanded beyond graphic novels. I can’t tell you how happy this makes me. I have always been a big reader, and I have wanted him to experience the enjoyment of reading, which hadn’t happened up to now.
Now for the pièce de résistance. We recently had our first IEP meeting at this school. Mrs. G was reading the objectives and results that were written by his previous teacher. For example a goal said, the student must on three out of five attempts, initiate his work in the classroom without reminders from the teacher. I suspect this is a goal for getting him to be a self-starter. Mrs. G said that she was not experiencing this issue. She said that my son is always ready to get his work done and is usually the first one done in the class. She said she has not had to give him any reminders to start his work. She also said since he had missed some school, due to his new health issue, he is easily able to keep up with the rest of the student. She continued through the review of the IEP and all of the objectives had the same observation. She said, “He is not having and of these problems at school. Looking at his IEP, it is as if he was a different kid.” Wow. That was a big statement. At one point she questioned me about what was going on. I explained I didn’t want to get into the details, but I thought we had some teacher issues previously. Also attending our meeting was the OT specialist who has worked with my son since first grade. During this discussion he tried to intervene and say that my son had really matured over the summer. Bull. Yes, there was some maturing but not to make a night and day difference.
Anyway, I am so thankful for Mrs G and the Middle School. She is doing a great job with my son and I am so appreciative. I am now seeing that he will be okay, and with time will be able to self sustain as an adult. She keeps in contact with me weekly. She predicts when my son may have an anxious moment and eases him into it. I absolutely love her. This year is going to be a big turning point for my son. He is loving school which is a big relief.