As I sit at home with my brilliant and energetic kindergartner, who has been effectively expelled from kindergarten because they "don't know what to do with him," it infuriates me that the solution is so simple and yet impossible to implement: he needs to play, not sit at a desk all day.
Early in the school year, the teacher expressed some concerns about my son’s having language arts delays and having difficulty forming letters properly. I did what any responsible, well-intentioned parent would do: I spent extra time at home working with him. I worried that he wasn’t going to catch up. If six hours in a classroom were not enough, I would do whatever it took to help at home. We didn't know then that "won't sit still and pay attention" was actually "can't sit still."
One day, independent of my efforts, kiddo got curious enough to want to decode the letters he was seeing everywhere and asked for help figuring them out…and then he taught himself how to read. One day he couldn’t recognize letters. The next day he was reading books to me. He now fearlessly marches up to words he doesn’t recognize, unafraid to fail, and works through them until he understands or decides he needs help.
In all of my years being a mama, I still haven’t learned -- that old chestnut about leading a horse to water is never more true than when applied to a five-year-old with ADHD and sensory issues.
My son can draw crazy complex mazes and 3D figures and does math just for fun. He designs potions and wants to build a science lab in the attic. He builds models with Tinkertoys and Lincoln Logs that I can't wrap my brain around. He gets frustrated watching me play Minecraft because I can’t zip through the menu labyrinth as quickly as he can, and besides, my simple, boxy houses don’t compare to his mansions with swimming pools in the living room.
My sweet boy, who is so curious and smart and open to learning, who dreams up plans for all of the amazing things he is going to create, HATES school. It makes him miserable. He has a headache every morning. Or a stomachache. Or a headache and a stomachache and also his shoes hurt and no way in hell is he getting on that bus. He comes home bearing the visage of an accountant after tax season, complaining that "all of the paperwork stresses me out." This school year, his very first, has been a nightmare for all of us.
As his school year comes to a premature close, he still struggles with writing...and by that I mean he occasionally gets some letters backwards and his letter formation is sloppy. And also there is that really hard part about being required to pull sentences with proper capitalization and punctuation and spelling out of his FIVE-YEAR-OLD brain and relay all of that information to the appropriate spaces on the worksheet, all while there are students around him talking and noise out in the hall and the chair is uncomfortable and how long until recess and THE SUN IS OUT! Oh and the classroom walls are decorated with bulletin board vomit so should he look at the colors or the days of the week or the artwork (“look, there's mine!!”) or the smartboard? So many interesting things!
In my mind, even if my son’s handwriting isn't quite up to academic standards, he manages well enough considering the environment. Have you spent time in an elementary school classroom recently? As an adult, I know I'd struggle to function with all of that visual clutter and noise. I need quiet and a place to rest my eyes in order to focus, so I literally feel his pain.
In addition to having a hard time with writing, he also struggles with sitting still for 6 hours a day...so we have had to slap the customary ADHD label on him and go get a shiny new IEP.
The school treats my child as if he is a broken little monster who can't behave. He's not broken, but school is breaking him. He is anxious. He is stressed. He wants to run away from school. He wants to run away from home. He is terrified of being physically restrained and being trapped. Because of this, he is now terrified of the teachers and staff. He feels like he is a bad kid. He can't sleep. My son has been traumatized by his first experience with school.
He needs OT to help him with his handwriting so that sitting at a desk writing for 6 hours a day won't stress him to the point of meltdown. (Oh LORD the meltdowns after all of the hard work getting that sentence written and there's a mistake and he has to start over. That is a school day-ending level meltdown.) He needs OT to help him with his sensory issues and to work out his extra energy so that he can sit at a desk and be attentive for 6 hours a day. Thankfully his IEP enables him to have frequent motor breaks, so maybe he gets to spend a little less than 6 hours a day sitting there...but the goal is always for him to redirect himself back to his studies.
We take him to therapy to help him with his anxiety and to learn how to modify his behavior.
We do all of these things to help my son be a good student, when what he really needs to be doing right now is playing. My baby boy, who is so brilliant and witty and creative, has had his soul crushed by kindergarten and its emphasis on sitting still, absorbing information, and regurgitating correct test answers.
If this is our baseline, I am chilled by what the rest of his academic career might look like.
We do all of these things – therapy, OT, social skills groups, extra tutoring, medication -- to modify the child. There is very, very little we can do to modify the school’s program to fit the child.
Our public schools are pushing bright students who need a little extra effort, like my son, straight out the door. These children are paying the emotional toll for the school’s policy failures, all in the name of academics and successful district-wide test scores.
My son is not broken. Our children are not broken. Our schools are.