A friend called the other day to talk about some concerns that she had about her daughter’s schooling.
She told me that her kiddo is in third grade, and explained that she was particularly concerned given that she has been told that third-grade is the most crucial of the elementary years. It was, she told me, a vital building block for pretty much everything that follows. Essentially, she had been told that if her daughter fails to learn what she needs to learn in third grade, the rest of her education will be doomed. I could almost hear the Jaws music as she spoke.
My voice dripping with sarcasm, I told her that she was absolutely right. That it was a well-known fact that the trajectory of all of our lives can be traced back to third grade. I mean, we all know that if a girl doesn’t have her fractions down by the end of the year, her parents might as well just order her a pair of Perspex heels because little Sally’s gonna need them when she’s grinding up against a pole at 18. Right?
I told her that I had heard that third grade was critical too. One and two years after hearing how critical first and second were and one and two years before hearing how critical fourth and fifth are, because apparently every one of them is THE critical building block for all future learning.
Listen, I said, the skills that one hopes their child will attain in all of those grades help to form a basis for what follows, clearly.
Turn off the Jaws music and nod and smile when the drama queens in town tell you that (gasp!) THIS year is THE ONE that matters. That kind of pressure isn’t helping you OR your kid. Oh, and it’s just kind of a waste of energy. And by kind of, I mean it is. By the way, my dad, who you might remember was a middle school principal for 45 years, said later when I brought this up that kindergarten is the most critical. Because, and I quote, “that’s when they learn to flush.”
But all of this was incidental to the conversation we were having, which was about how to approach her daughter’s teacher about some concerns regarding her development.
She explained that her kiddo had a rough year last year. That she seems to have difficulty sitting still and an even harder time paying attention, especially for the ever-increasing periods of time that are demanded of her as she grows. She told me that she gets into trouble for not listening and not following directions. That she is struggling to keep up even though she is extremely bright and capable of doing the work. She told me that they’re looking to pursue an evaluation, but that in the meantime, she wants to figure out how to approach the teacher. She was particularly concerned about not limiting her kid’s potential based on the teacher’s perspective of her and not stigmatizing her in the eyes of her peers. And she told me that she feels awful that she didn’t pursue it earlier.
This is what I told her.
Take off the hair shirt. It does neither you nor your kid a whit of good, so take it off. You’ll have plenty of time to wallow in the rear view mirror during the evaluation process, which is about as much fun as an enema, so save it. Spend your time and energy looking forward, for both of you.
Talk to the teacher openly and honestly about your concerns. They will not come as news to her. She is the one who has pointed out the behavioral difficulties, after all, so she sees something. But what does she see? Or more to the point, what do you want her to see? A kid who doesn’t sit still and doesn’t listen when she’s told to? One who appears to be defiant because she doesn’t follow instructions? One who won’t focus on her work? One who is creating a disturbance with other kids?
- OR -
A kid who is having a lot of internal trouble sitting still. A kid who desperately wants to follow instructions, but struggles because her attention wanders and then she doesn’t know what the instructions are. One who has no intention of disrupting class but sometimes doesn’t know how not to.
Or, wait, how about this … A really bright, great kid who needs some help figuring out how to navigate through some challenges in order to live up to her potential. Yeah, let’s go with that.
When you talk to her, tell her that you are worried because you never, ever want anyone to put limits on what they think your kid can do because you know that there are no limits. Tell her that you just want to explore ways to support her so that she can reach her potential. Tell her that you want to work with her (the teacher) to do that. That you know that you’ll need to rely on her expertise, but that so too, she can rely on you – that she can always talk to you, brainstorm with you, ask questions. Tell her that you are pursuing an evaluation toward the end of helping everyone to get the tools they need to support your daughter, which will, in turn, make her job a whole lot easier.
As far as the kids, I said. they’re third graders. They care both more and far, far less than you think. They see other students being pulled out of the room for services all the time. Extra adults coming in and out of the classroom to observe your kiddo? Yeah, they might ask who they are. And the teacher will say, “They’re just here to watch our class today,” and they will be on to the next thing. Ooh, something shiny. They’re third graders.
And the label, if there is one? DON’T BE AFRAID OF IT. First and foremost, know that YOUR attitude about your child’s challenges is what she is going to breathe in and internalize more than anything else. If you are afraid, she will feel fear. If you speak in hushed tones about “things that we keep secret,” she will learn shame. The label is a good thing. It’s the key to the toolbox and the knowledge that she’s not the only one.
Whatever you find out, tell her. If you make it a matter-of-fact, developmentally appropriate discussion about strengths and challenges, explaining that all kids – and adults - all have a set of both that makes us the nifty and fabulous people that we are … well, that’s what it will be.
I offered a framework for the conversation. Never mention a challenge without a strength to offset it. You know how it can be hard for you to sit still in class, honey? I know that can be tough, but it’s also why you have so much energy and why you’re so great at kickball! You know how it can be really hard to pay attention sometimes because your mind wanders? Well, that’s part of what makes you so creative! It’s why you tell those amazing stories! I told her to include herself in the conversation. Start a sentence with, “I remember how that felt when I was a kid ..”
I told her that if there’s a label for it all, she could say, “And, as it turns out, the particular group of strengths and challenges that you have has a name. And lots and lots (and LOTS!) of other people have it too.” I told her that that part is important. That kids tend to think they’re alone, that everything comes easy to everyone but them. It’s human nature, isn’t it? Think of the comfort that we find in those whose challenges we recognize as our own. It’s a gift to know that there are people out there who feel like we do. The label can give her that, I said.
I told her not to worry about saying this stuff out loud. That kids are far more self-aware than we think they are. That even if she doesn’t compare herself to other kids, her daughter knows that she’s getting in trouble in class. She knows that she’s having a hard time paying attention. She’s frustrated when she loses the thread. All of that takes its toll on a kid’s psyche. A label doesn’t create the issues, it just helps to describe them.
Feel her out, I said, but know that she already knows.
And the kids? Dear God, they’ve all got something going on these days. I overheard a conversation once among a group of “typical” fifth grade girls. One of them was telling the others that she’d just found out she had ADHD. Every other kid in the group piped up with, “I have …” or “I am …” or “I take ..” Every. Other. One.
I told her how I feel about the big old looming fear (cue the Jaws music again, please) among educators and parents about stigmatization in the land of autism. I told her that I can’t help but laugh when people worry about Brooke being stigmatized by the tools that she uses in school, be it a bungee cord across her chair for her feet or a fidget in class or a book about Dora the Explorer when everyone around her has moved onto whatever the heck they’ve moved onto. I laugh, I explained, because my kid will stand out a hell of a lot more when she’s screaming in frustration or hitting her head because she’s overwhelmed or picking at her skin until it bleeds because she’s anxious than she will reading a Dora book.
I told her that a kid who is getting in trouble for being disruptive is already standing out.
So let’s review, I said. Not blending without the tools … so give her the tools. I even did my impression of Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny for good measure. “Oh, and you BLEND?”
I told her the story that I think illustrates it best. If your kid could only walk with crutches, I said, what would you do? I mean, crutches are pretty stigmatizing, huh? Can’t miss em. So perhaps we should leave them home. She’ll be fine at recess. Just put her on the swing! No one will be the wiser. It’s brilliant, no? Hullo? NO. Because as soon as the bell rings and it’s time to go back inside, your kid is on the swing with no way to get inside. Is a child crawling into the building less conspicuous than one using crutches?
So that’s what I told her.
This stuff isn’t easy. I speak about it in matter-of-fact terms because I’ve had ten years to figure it out. But it’s not easy. Whether it’s attention difficulties or executive functioning challenges or social / emotional issues, it’s hard to say, “My kid is having trouble,” and it can be even harder to act on it. But she is. Because it’s the right thing to do for her kid.
And in case she’s reading this (after so generously allowing me to share the story with you, for which I am grateful), I’ll add this:
Don’t worry, my sweet friend. Third grade is not the end-all-be-all, but even if it were, she will do just fine. Because she has a mama who turns to others for help when she needs it, who asks the right questions, and who loves her so fiercely that, well, there’s really no choice. You’ll find your way through this, and you’ll find the keys.
Love you, friend. I’m always here.