Some thoughts on school

This week you will most likely have seen loads of first day of school and back to school pictures. This time if year is joyous for many kids and their parents, and for others, it is, well – not joyous.

Squid was desperate to start school. He thought he was getting a giant knowledge key so he could unlock the secrets of the universe, and start to really delve deep into science and maths and art. So when his teacher gave him a number two to color in (and stick two dots on!), the disillusionment was crushing and profound. He kept hoping, and I kept advocating, but after 5 terms at that school, it became evident that nothing was going to change.

So we moved to NZ. Partially we hoped that an inner city school wouldn’t be as socially conservative, and that our whacky rainbow obsessed atheist leftie six year old would find a better social fit, but we also hoped that he would find his groove academically too.

The first teacher started to send him home with books well below his reading and comprehension level. I wanted to trust the system, but I hesitantly asked what the deal was, as he was reading (by choice) much more complex stuff at home. The teacher replied that although his reading was excellent, his comprehension just wasn’t up to scratch, and that he needed to work on his comprehension before tackling more complex texts. Given that I had been discussing what he was reading at home with him for a few years at this point, I found the comments puzzling, but “hey, she’s the trained professional” is what we are socialised to say, so I backed down.

When we started to consider moving to NZ, one of the things we uncovered was One Day School, a one day pull out program for gifted kids. Entry to this was only open for kids that tested as gifted, defined by them as “on or above the 95th percentile” in any one or more sub categories of the WISC. Hoping that ODS might provide a bit. More intellectual stimulation (and mostly some weirdo peers to socialize with), we paid for the testing.

Chris, who did the testing, said to me afterwards, “he qualifies for inclusion, but I have to say that for most kids I only say that they are able to attend. But for Inigo, I am going to say that he needs to go”. In her opinion, his mental health was a risk if he didn’t find a place where his gifts were not just tolerated, but also celebrated. (One Day School with Reema, and then Mind Plus with Diana have saved all of us. Inigo wrote last year that Diana was “a beacon of hope and happiness”. Without that one day a week, I dread to think how any of us would be coping today.)

A copy of the report was sent to the school. The teacher put up his reading level significantly. Apparently his comprehension wasn’t faulty, but his interest in answering questions in the proscribed format was. His teacher was starting to “get” him. And then he changed teacher.

Year Two (called year One in Australia) he had 4 teachers. One in Australia, two in NZ public school and he started at one Day School (now called Mind Plus). With all that upheaval, we didn’t expect that it would be a brilliant year for him socially or academically, but it wasn’t that bad, considering.

Year Three he was placed in a class with a fairly new teacher who was moving down from teaching older kids. She said she had an interest in gifted kids, and our conference at the beginning of the year was hopeful. But things didn’t go well. Inigo was becoming increasingly anxious about school, and started to get in trouble for not completing work. We decided to bite the bullet and spend the very large amount of money to get a full educational psychology assessment done. If you’re looking, I highly recommend Indigo Assessments in Auckland.

Wow, was that worth the money. Kid has scores all over the place. Usually, people score within about 5 percentile points in each of the five areas tested. Fluid Reasoning, Visual Spatial, Verbal Acuity, Working Memory, and Cognitive Efficiency. A difference of 20 percentile points between two or more sub tests is indicative of a learning difficulty. Two of Inigo’s scores were over 70 percentile points difference.

The positives. His fluid reasoning is so high it falls within the area of the test where it can’t be accurately measured. Don’t play chess against this kid. Or try to win an argument. Or be surprised when he patiently explains quantum physics to you like you’re an infant. His visual spatial and verbal scores are also high, but not crazy high. Just gifted, not “oh my god I’ve never seen that before” high.

The negatives. His working memory is above average. Still better than bad, but a huge disparity for someone with his logical ability. Remembering what he is arguing about could become a real problem. But the biggest disparity was in cognitive efficiency. He may come up with ideas that will change the world, but your coffee will go cold before he gets the words out. Entire civilizations may rise and fall in the time it takes him to put on a pair of underpants. And you can forget about asking him to write anything down.

The summary. Kid has a brain the size of a planet, but it’s a planet with a slow metabolism. He’s brilliant, but so slow it would take an exceptional teacher to be able to work with him to bring out what he is capable of. He also had a 99% probability of meeting diagnostic criteria for inattentive ADHD. And possible dysgraphia and dyspraxia/DCD.

We asked the psych to attend a meeting with the school (again, at our cost – how parents without our means navigate this, I don’t know). The psych suggested that asking Inigo to do less volume of work, but to expect a higher quality of work was reasonable. She also provided a list of intervention strategies to trial.

It was a clusterfuck. But I’m still in “the teacher knows best” mode.

He we kept in at recess and lunch for not completing work. He was expected to do the same work as other kids, regardless of his needs or ability. He was publicly humiliated when he became so anxious he started chewing his clothing, leaves, and furniture in class. He was accused of sexually assaulting another child (reaching for a kid, kid moves, hand goes up pants), and accused of being a liar when he tried to explain. He was put in a room with two hostile adults aggressively questioning him with no advocate (and I wasn’t even informed), and not let go until the other child insisted it was an accident.

And when he clung to my leg, and begged me not to leave him in the classroom, the teacher joked about him “doing a runner” or some such inane rubbish. I feared he would follow me and leave the school grounds, so I went straight to the office. I saw the assistant principal and explained my distress. She assured me that if I went back to uni, or got a job, I “wouldn’t be so anxious” about my child.

It still appalls me that I didn’t do more to protect him then.

Year Four, he had another lovely teacher. But things still weren’t great. Academically he was still meeting national standards, and he had at least one friend (and it had been a while since he had talked to me about his best friend the tree). So we coasted, until the end of term three, when he told me that he had had “such a bad day at school that I thought about hurting myself”.

It seemed that this got the school’s attention. His teacher pulled out all the stops to make sure that he was assessed accurately (especially in maths, his pet subject), and he jumped two year levels. Term 4 he was a much happier kid, and we thought we had finally cracked the school code. He was asked for his preference of teacher for the following year, and was able to build a relationship with her before the end of the school year. He was to have his choice of teacher, be in with his best friend, and everything was looking positive for his transition to the senior school for year 5.

2017, his teacher was great, worked hard to make sure she checked in with him frequently so he didn’t lose track of where he was supposed to be and what he was supposed to do. His friendship with his bestie was strong, and he appeared engaged in class and happy to skip off to school. Until he wasn’t.

At the end of term 2, it became apparent that his school performance was slipping, especially in writing. We discussed the possibility of getting a formal ADHD diagnosis and trialing meds. He was thrilled to have another option to try.

Term 3 he went back to school on medication, and hopeful that things would improve. But his relationship with his bestie had started to change, as M discovered new friends, and Inigo became more and more desperate and fixated on M. Academically, things improved a little, but not enough to lift him up to national standard in writing. We begged his teacher again to look at alternative assessment methods.

After this, he went up another 2 year levels in maths, but not at all in writing or reading. I was disheartened to read the teacher comment on his report that he “needed to learn to work independently”. Yes, of course he does. But for a child with significant struggles, that is a thoughtless thing to write on a report. Throughout the year it also became apparent to me that the large studio classroom of the “Modern Learning Environment” was placing extra strain on him. I explained Spoon Theory to him, and asked him how many spoons he was using just to exist in the classroom for a day. Not for social interactions, not for school work, but just coping in the environment. “About half”, was his answer.

This is a deeply sensitive kid, mind and body. He cares deeply about right and wrong and he works really hard to do the right thing. He had no choice about going to school so he worked hard to do what he could to make it tolerable. When told he needed to try harder, he did. When it was hard, he internalised everything. I asked the principal for help. I was desperate. I said, as an indication of how hard things were for him that if things didn’t improve, I’d have to homeschool. She rolled her eyes at me and turned on her heel to walk away.

So that is what we are doing. The ed psych reminded me that the definition of stupidity is to keep doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different result. We told Inigo before Christmas that he wouldn’t be returning to the school. We didn’t have a plan as yet, but we knew that much. He looked sad. I asked him if he felt sad about it. He said, “yes, there are some things I will miss. But I feel much more happiness than I feel sadness.”

And today, of the way home from his first psych appointment (booked months ago when things were at crisis level), we started talking about the good things at school. He listed them off one by one, but then reiterated that he was happy with the decision not to return.

“Because mama, all of those things are just the relief from a bad thing, not actually good things.”

When someone is hitting you with a stick, it feels great when they stop.

4 thoughts on “Some thoughts on school”

  1. Sounds like my son’s friend Sam. He is now doing an electrical apprenticeship after several attempts at Uni. Guess we get to see more of Inigo, which is a plus.

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  2. Hey Lara I know this decision has been a long time coming for you and that it’s a big one but I’m sure you feel a lot of relief now. I had some similar issues to Inigo in primary school. Academically I was considered below average and publicly humiliated on a number of occasions by a teacher for my messy work (which I had tried my best at) but in HSC I got 97.5%. I was bullied and socially isolated and I remember having trees as best friends early on. I have done lots of therapy sessions around this and visualised being taken out of the school and homeschooled with two different therapists. I am very lucky my kids seem okay with school. CA has had his struggles but loves the social side and academically has been doing so much better the last year or two. He’s happy with his first two days of high school. ID hated year 7 but he doesn’t want to consider other options at this point. I’m hoping things will improve this year. Academically he’s still getting good results even though he says he hates the work. Mostly his misery has been caused by the social side though. I was surprised to discover he’s got a similar dynamic with his so called best friend to what I had in year 7, the friend is playing mind games, nasty one day nurturing the next. ID is very self conscious like me and that makes it tough, I so envy CA as he’s not like that. Eden is very excited about starting kindergarten and I think he will love it. Because of my own experience I have always been adamant that I would never force my kids to attend school if it was damaging them psychologically and they would prefer to be homeschooled. You have always been a fierce advocate for Inigo and done your best to protect nurture extend challenge and educate him and trust me he will remember and appreciate that and it will save him a lot of money on therapy!

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  3. Are there no other schools in your area? We’ve found a school which caters to both james’ special needs and which also caters to his need to learn at a higher level in some areas. So he is doing regular work in English etc but is doing advanced year 10 maths and science whilst in year 9. The school has loads of special needs teachers and one who is a gifted/ special needs teacher. He is able to have separate supervision for exams so that he is not overwhelmed by too much sensory input. They are also happy to adjust assignments for him when needed. Going into the advanced class has meant that he has made a super group of friends who are all equally gifted and geeky at the same time. For him that is really important, as being Aspergers and gifted he needs the social stimulation and natural Social training that happens when he is with his peers at school. He is mixing with like minded kids on a daily basis, but still stays in touch with friends from his old school. There are many different kinds of schools
    around. Sometimes it can take time to find the right fit for a more unusual student. It took us several years but eventually we right the right place for him. I agree that you shouldn’t be doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result but there are many different options when it comes to school with many different results.

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    1. Hi Jane 🙂

      Yes, there are other schools. But we’ve decided for now that some time away from formal education is what he needs for his mental health. I don’t think that homeschooling will go forever and we do anticipate that he will return to school (in some form) at some point. We have been to see the local public school that is our best option for when he returns, if that ends up being this year. Unfortunately, this year would have been his last year of primary school which is a rotten time to be joining a new school with an established cohort, especially when socially and emotionally vulnerable.

      After 2018, he’d be starting intermediate school, which is 2 years. If he starts in 2018, he’d be starting with a new cohort, so the timing is better. And depending on how things go between now and then, he may even be able to start high school in 2019, our local public high school has a reputation for being really great with quirky kids, and hopefully he’d be able to skip between higher and lower grade classes that match his strengths, and whatever weaknesses he still has at that point.

      In the meantime, having fun and being a happy kid is the priority, with a secondary goal of increasing his comfort level with writing, both in terms of the physical process, and learning to touch type so that he can express himself with fewer struggles, and we address his deficits before the gap between him and his peers widens too much.

      Right now, I’m really happy with the decisions we’ve made for him. We’ve agonised for years about the decision, and I am really confident this is the right path for this kid, for this term. Next term, we reassess 🙂

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