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.