A week ago, I cried.
Oh, there were many reasons for the tears, most of which had built up over the last few months: I’m in the final stages of divorce, money is tight, our for-sale house has been getting very little in the way of potential buyer traffic, and I probably won’t be able to afford what little inventory is available after we pay off our mortgage.
But it’s always something to do with my kids that causes me to break down.
During the past six months, my son has been preparing to transition from a therapeutic day school to the public middle school in our district, and the ESY summer program is like the final leg of his “exam.” The staff at his current school has been scaring the bejeezus out of him regarding his return to the district, reminding him how much more demanding public school will be, and threatening to keep him where he is unless his behavior improves.
What kind of horrible behavior is he displaying? He shuts down during math instruction and becomes uncommunicative during the lesson because it’s too difficult for him to understand.
My boy – who was strongly encouraged to leave the public school setting two years ago because of impulsive and often violent outbursts – has finally learned to control his anger and manage his behavior with therapy and medication. Instead of flipping a desk or throwing a chair or a computer across the room, he retreats into himself, which isn’t an ideal adaptive behavior but is highly preferable to the one he replaced.
His current school doesn’t see it that way and refers to “shutting down” as another type of “extreme” behavior, albeit one that is on the other end of the spectrum. I don’t trust that they will provide a fair and unbiased assessment when we meet with the public school district for a decision on the matter.
Noah’s therapist, who has been treating him for over two years, is thrilled that he has been able to function in the classroom setting without the threat of harm to himself or others. She agrees that it’s not practical for a student to completely shut himself off and to refuse the lesson, but believes that the school staff is not reacting properly, and should allow a few minutes of “space” before encouraging him to come back and try again. She understands why Noah would want to shut down: math has always been a problem for him, as it is for many who are diagnosed with Nonverbal Learning Disorder.
It may be that he requires an approach to instruction that differs from that which is used for neuro-typical children but, in any case, she feels the staff needs to back off on the threats and scare tactics if they truly want him to feel confident and ready to accept greater challenges. Right now, my anxious kid is nervous about making a change, and she thinks that being told how hard it will be in the real world is making him withdraw more than usual.
So, how do I feel and what do I think?
I’m confused, and that’s why I was crying. After the second consecutive “bad day” (and a few shut-downs during the previous weeks) I was unsure as to what was best for him. It’s disheartening to feel such a lack of confidence about what is the right thing to do.
Noah thinks he must return to public school to make his mom and dad happy, which couldn’t be further from the truth. But it also isn’t right to ask Noah what he wants to do. An almost-12-year-old doesn’t know what’s best for him, and he shouldn’t be the one to make the decision.
If he returns to public school, what if the pressure is too much for him? He may regress, and lose everything he’s learned during the past two years. Can we risk that?
But what if his current educational environment is holding him back? Right now, he attends a school where appropriate behavior is not modeled for him. Perhaps he should be surrounded by students who can help him rise to the level of a socially functional pre-teen boy.
A week ago I went to bed with puffy eyes and a huge headache. But crying was cathartic, and I woke the next day with what I believed was a new clarity.
That morning, I felt certain Noah was ready to move on. I reasoned that he had taken all he could from the therapeutic school environment and that it would be a disservice to him to keep him in a place where he can’t grow.
And, to my delight, he had a string of good days. He would start to shut down, but then find a way to “come back.” The daily notes from his teacher were punctuated with smiley faces.
But the string was cut short today. He brought home a note that informed me he had shut down at noon and had not been able to participate in class for most of the afternoon.
I wish there was a way to be sure, or at least have a strong feeling about his readiness to mainstream. I wrote that Noah shouldn’t make the decision as to whether or not he wants to return to public school, but maybe his behavior is a good indication he’s not ready. Won’t it be more clear-cut to all of us when he’s prepared to make the change or, if not clear-cut, then at least a little less fuzzy?
Chronologically, this is the perfect time to return. He’ll be starting sixth grade, along with the rest of his public school classmates, which means that everyone will be making a transition. If he returns next year, at the start of 7th grade, his classmates will be acclimated and feel established, and he’ll be the odd boy out.
The IEP meeting is just around the corner. Between now and then, I must determine where I stand. Even if it’s not my decision to make, I need to arrive armed with a firm conviction; I can’t let the school(s) take this power away from us.
I’m hoping clarity will visit me in the morning once again.
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