Jaimie had an amazing teacher again this year who coaxed her even further out of her safety shell. Added to the growing list of 'new things' for Jaimie, she actually tried face painting on a field trip this year (yes...you read that right). Jordy had a few social struggles, but she got straight 'A's all year and has been flagged as 'Gifted'. (That's a whole other post.) Sophie, who barely spoke a word to her preschool teachers or played with other kids at the beginning of the year, found her voice and was right in there learning, laughing and sharing by the end of the year (also another post). Xander, however, had a very bumpy school year that I am relieved to say has a happy ending. And that's the focus of our post today. Not necessarily what happened to Xander, but how the school and I worked together to make things attainable for him.
I hope our story can help another 'sensational' caregiver out there struggling with similar concerns.
I haven't talked alot about what Xander has gone through this year. I'm not sure why, exactly. Perhaps it's because I wanted to make sure there was a silver lining...a bit of hope...to pass along to all of you. For awhile, I was really beginning to doubt it. My sweet little boy who overcame so much in Preschool last year was slipping back inside himself and I wasn't going to let it happen without a fight.
I made sure to sit down with the teacher at the beginning of the year and explain to her not only what SPD was but also what Xander's form of it was, including his other issues (eg: speech, communication, etc.). I gave her information, reports, Xander's School Accomodation sheet and anything else I thought would help. I asked for a place to put Xander's lap cozy, headphones and other fidgets that he could get to and made sure to explain what these things were for and when they should be used. She seemed to 'get' it and was very willing to work with me.
I was so hopeful at the beginning of the school year. Xander's teacher was receptive to learning about SPD and working with me on how to set him up for success. She was positive, energetic and believed whole-heartedly that children learn best when their bodies are in motion. She also believed that each child learns in his or her own way and in order to teach, one has to understand what those unique ways are. And with a young, equally energetic TA by the teacher's side, I thought Xander was set up in the best possible way for a good school year ahead. And he was...at first.
Xander was starting to bond with the TA and even though he still wasn't playing with the other kids at that point, he was playing alongside them. But on the third week in September, I was told that the TA was gone. There was no warning or explanation; we just showed up at school in the morning and I had to explain to Xander that not only was there a sudden change in routine but the person he trusted to guide him through is morning wasn't there anymore. Nice. Things got progressively worse from there.
It seemed like there was a new TA introduced every week, and it was really wearing on Xander. All kids need routine, structure and consistency. It gives them a sense of safety and comfort, and there just wasn't any of those things. The other kids never seemed to get out of that whiney, crying, "I want my mom" stage that many Kindy students have at the beginning of the year. So picture that from Xander's perspective: crying, yelling, behavior issues, no routine, no structure, no sense of regularity at all. And, worst of all, the teacher seemed to be unravelling too.
She was one of those types of people who had a smile on her face and a 'Zippy Do Da' attitude no matter was going on. I mean, I'm all for maintaining a positive attitude, even in crisis. That's how we stay focused and keep our perspective where it should be. But this woman was over-the-top...almost animated. And it was very irritating trying to talk to her because all I ever got from her was, "Oh! Xander is doing so well! He's just zooming right along so well!" I got that even when I was trying to explain to her that I was concerned things weren't so well when his sensory exercises weren't working at home anymore, he was withdrawing on all levels and refused to talk about school to me. Her response? "Oh my. Well he seems okay here." This is what I got every single day.
By the end of October, Jordy was coming home on almost a daily basis telling me that Xander was either hiding under the playground equipment crying or standing on the edge of the park crying. He wouldn't even let Jordy help him, which is extreme. Again, I tried talking to the teacher and she gave me the same responses about him doing so well and that, maybe, I was worrying too much. That's when I decided to talk to the principal.
The school got a new principal who is very good. He has a tremendous amount of experience working with kids who have high/special needs and believes wholeheartedly that the communication line between school and home should be strong and clear. When I addressed my concerns to him, he agreed that Xander (and the other kids in the classroom) needed more stability and was working on getting a permanent TA. I knew his hands were tied and it wasn't his fault but I was really getting frustrated for Xander. So I trusted he was doing his best and that things would, hopefully, get better.
It wasn't until December that they found a TA, and by then I wasn't even sure it would make a difference for the kids in that classroom, especially for Xander. But the TA's presence did seem to make a difference in that there was finally some structure and she was a heck of alot tougher than the teacher was. And the teacher seemed to relax a bit with having the extra help with the behavior kids and those with language (not speaking English) issues. But Xander was getting lost in the shuffle because no one was helping him. The teacher had to keep pulling Mrs. Young (Jaimie's TA when she was in Kindy) out from the Spanish Kindy room to be with Xander while the other TA worked with the other needy kids.By January, Xander was barely speaking, highly sensitive and was starting to act out at home. That's when I confronted the TA.
The TA was alot more honest with me about what was going on with Xander than the teacher had ever been. And I was furious with what she disclosed to me. First of all, the teacher had never used Xander's sensory tools with him. Not once. They'd been sitting up on the shelf over Xander's hook from the first day. The teacher's logic was that she wanted to wait for him to ask for them rather than just giving them to him. My issue was that Xander isn't able to self-regulate yet and needed to be reminded his tools were there before he went into sensory overload. So waiting for him to ask for the tools wasn't going to happen. When a child like Xander or Jaimie are in the throws of a sensory meltdown, the tools aren't going to work anyway, never mind waiting for them to ask for the tools.
Next, Xander was refusing to do certain tasks in the classroom, not because he was being difficult but because he needed help (a) figuring out the task, (b) setting up for the task, (c) understanding the task, and (d) having enough time to complete the task. Because the TA was being made to work with all of the other kids needing her help, Xander wasn't getting any one-on-one time that I was told he was getting. No wonder he didn't want to talk about school or was completely lost doing any of his homework. He wasn't being taught the work in a way that was suited to his learning abilities.
The kids weren't respecting his personal space nor were being taught to. From the first day of school with Jaimie, her teacher Mrs. P. always made sure to teach about Jaimie's needs and triggers without singling her out or making her feel bad. Xander's teacher never did this for him. Even when I told her that Xander came home several...no many...times crying that kids were sitting too close or touching him or sticking their faces in his or spitting, etc., she did nothing. She told me she taught about respecting space but the TA said that wasn't true.
Xander spent many mornings hiding under work tables or the teacher's desk when things got too loud in the classroom. Why didn't they use his headphones? Or separate him to a quiet place for a little while? Or give him his lap cozy for circle time?
The part that upset me the most was being told that my boy was begging to stay in for recess because he couldn't handle the activity, noise or anything else about it. The TA told me that she actually gave him extra little jobs to do so he'd have an excuse to stay in but couldn't do it all the time. I mean, the woman deserved to have her break too! Mrs. Young was asked to go out with him a few times but, again, she had the kids in her own classroom she needed to help.
I was livid. I held it together the walk home then lost it at home. I was angry that the principal hadn't done anything about the situation, as there had been other complaints. I was so pissed off with this teacher whose casual, passive attitude and unwillingness to share these things with me earlier contributed to things getting as bad as they had and I my heart broke for poor Xander who had to go through all of that crap!
The next morning I was in fighting mode and ready to make changes immediately. As I came around the corner to the entrance to the school, there was Mrs. Young. She came up to me and put her hands on my shoulders.
"I have an idea that I'd like to run past you," she said in her usual calming voice. "Everyone has been made aware of this idea, including Mr. Willows (the principal). But I wanted to be the one to talk to you about it."
Basically, her idea was to move Xander into the Spanish Kindy room. There were only 15 kids in that room, compared to 26 in the other, so it would be quieter, less chaotic and less busy. ander would have Mrs. Young, who had worked closely with Jaimie years earlier and understood ASD, SPD and speech issues. Most importantly, he'd finally get the one-on-one attention for his needs. Yes, there was the Spanish part but, you know what? I know my boy is very capable as long as his environment is set up properly. I eagerly agreed.
He started the week before Spring Break (at the end of February), and I noticed a difference in him right away. He was happier, more responsive, less sensitive and actually liking going to school. As the months went by, Mrs. Young gave me daily reports that he was doing his work (with extra time to finish the assignments, extra instruction and attention), he was playing with other kids and could even go out for recess on his own. (Mrs. Young started with playing with him outside of the park, giving him lots of other ideas for games to play when he couldn't handle being on the park.) He thrived. My little boy was back.
Xander is the perfect example of how a kid with ASD/SPD can climb mountains when he's given the right tools, has his environment set up properly and is surrounded by patient, kind, attentive people. Part of me is still angry that it took so long to get him the help he needed, but I see how well he's doing now and try to focus on that. Although he still has a long way to go, Xander's fine motor skills are getting better, he can hold his pencil well, he participates in crafts/classroom activities, he can print his first and last names and can say most of his letters and numbers in both English and Spanish!
I just came back from my final IPP meeting with Xander's teacher. She's already started pitching for him for next year by stating he'll need a TA next year and giving instructions in the IPP report of what they did that worked for him and what he'll need for next year. How amazing is that?
As a sidenote, when we came back from Spring Break, there was a letter posted on the English Kindy door stating that Xander's old teacher had 'retired' and there was a new teacher. There was no further explanation of what happened, only connecting her departure with illness. The new teacher is alot like Mrs. P. - tough but fair. I hope she sticks around next year.
Happy Mother's Day. I Love you.
So, 'sensational' caregivers I hope Xander's experiences this year help you in some way. Stay on top of things, keep doing what you're doing and never, ever be afraid to address any problems or concerns when they come up. They are the experts but you are the expert with your child and his needs. And together you are all a powerful force in setting your child up for academic success.