The beginning of the school year is a period of great anticipation and anxiety for parents, especially if your kid is heading off to school for the first time. For many families, that anxiety quickly dispels, as your kid settles in with a new teacher, new or returning friends, and a routine that offers a mix of stability and challenge.
For other families, however — families like ours — that settling in never happens. When you have a child whose particular combination of gifts, challenges and personality simply don’t fit their school, the beginning of school (or the beginning of each school year) ushers in a period of crisis.
We’re now four years into that crisis, and after talking with a friend who’s just starting down a road that sounds like ours, I realize I’ve learned something about how to navigate the challenges of school with a kid who doesn’t fit the mould. (Here’s a short version of our story.)
If you run into challenges as your kid starts school — or if you’ve been struggling with school challenges for a while, as we have — perhaps some of these suggestions can help:
- Listen to this podcast. I had long since set aside Ross Greene’s book when our child psychologist recommended his podcast. Listening to the very first episode is transformative. Seriously, you need to do this for yourself. The other episodes I’ve listened to are great too, but the first one is the one that actually made me feel better.
- Remember that school issues are harder for your kid than they are for you. If you’re getting emergency calls from school that force you to leave work, or facing daily battles over getting to school in the first place, it can feel like the school struggle is your struggle. But if your kid is having such a tough time with school that it’s disrupting your work or family life, then your kid is probably having an even harder time than you are. Approaching this with empathy — rather than as something your kid is doing to you — will really help build and preserve the relationship you need if you are going to figure that out together. And believe me, that will be incredibly hard to remember at the moment that you are dragging a screaming 7-year-old to class so that you can make your urgent, 9 a.m. client meeting.
- Recognize the differences between school and life. One of the things we really struggled with was the sense that we had to make Peanut fit into school — instead of vice versa — because in the real world, you have to be able to follow the rules. But the truth of the matter is that school requires a lot more rule-following than life does. Adults have a lot of opportunity to find the type of work, workplace, and social context that works for them; school is mostly one-size-fits-all. Kids who have a hard time in school aren’t necessarily going to have a hard time in life. So don’t feel that making your kids fit into the standard school system is an indispensable part of turning them into happy, health, successful adults.
- Look for flexibility. Your school may set the expectation that kids attend full-time or not at all, but in practice, you may find that they are willing to accommodate a different kind of arrangement. We’ve done half days, we’ve sent Peanut part-time to public school and part-time to enrichment classes, we’ve done homeschooling with supplementary classes at a private school. The one thing that our public school system was not willing to accommodate was the idea of sending someone other than a parent as an in-class helper, because it violates collective bargaining agreements. (I get that you can’t have well-off parents paying to send additional resources into the classroom, but it bugs me that this essentially privileges families that can afford to have a stay-at-home parent.)
- Be the squeaky wheel. Part of what has made our guy so challenging is that he absolutely will not put up with a situation that doesn’t work for him: if he’s bored or frustrated he brings the whole classroom to a grinding halt. That makes life difficult for his teachers, classmates and family, but it also ensures he gets his needs met. But a lot of kids — especially girls — may turn their school problems inward, so that it manifests as anxiety, disengagement or tears instead of disruption. In either scenario, don’t trust that the school will sort things out: advocate vociferously for your child. Ask for a support worker to come in and develop a plan to work with your kid, and insist that the teacher actually follow it. Meet with the teacher every week, and the principal once or twice a month. Ask what they are hearing and seeing in the classroom, and tell them what accommodations or supports your child needs. Be prepared to be pushy, and make sure that the teacher and school follow through on any plans you discuss.
- Go with your gut on who to trust. Schools, psychiatrists and other experts love to tell you that they know how to handle kids like yours. Maybe they do…and maybe they don’t. We spent a lot of time listening to and working with “experts” whose approach and perspective just didn’t gel. Over time, I’ve learned to trust my gut on who to work with: we’ve worked with two amazing psychologists, a wonderful developmental paediatrician and an incredible public school support worker who took a shine to Peanut in kindergarten and has stayed in touch (entirely beyond the call of duty) for four years. We chose Peanut’s new school in large part because I feel like the principal really gets him. I wish I’d spent less time working with people who never felt right to me, and just followed my instinct to find and work with the people who clicked.
- Learn the lingo. If you’re plunging into the world of kids-that-don’t-fit, you’ll come across a lot of jargon and acronyms. A few crucial terms:
- ASD – autism spectrum disorder
- LD – learning disabled
- 2E – twice exceptional, i.e. gifted + LD
- DS/DD – dear son/dear daughter, widely used to refer to kids online (e.g. DS9 = 9-year-old boy)
- Gifted/highly gifted/exceptionally gifted/profoundly gifted – gifted comes in a lot of different forms, and kids at the extreme end of the gifted spectrum have their own particular challenges. It’s worth figuring out (roughly) where your kid falls on this spectrum.
- Get assessed. There are lot of different assessment processes out there, but the psych-ed (psychological-educational) assessment seems to be the usual starting point. If your kid is having issues, get in line for an assessment as soon as possible, with the best person you can get into see. If you’re relying on the public school system to provide that assessment, it may take a couple of years before you get an appointment; if you have the means to pay for it, it may be worth having a private assessment sooner. If you have extended benefits, some parents have found psychologists who will split the fee (typically $1500-2k) across both parents and child (since the parents are part of the process) so that it can be covered by your benefits. But a psych-ed doesn’t fully assess for autism, anxiety, ADHD or other mental health/developmental issues, so you may need separate assessments with a developmental paediatrician, psychiatrist, occupational therapist or other experts. Keep all your assessments in one place (ideally a folder full of PDFs), because the chances are good that you’ll need them again and again.
- Hone your own expertise. I spent a long time deferring to experts before I started reading up on 2E kids myself. Some invaluable resources: Misdiagnosis and Dual Diagnosis of Gifted Children and Adults (a must-read); Dan Siegel’s The Whole-Brain Child; Ross Greene’s The Explosive Child (I hate the title, but apparently so does he).
- Find other challenged parents. When you’re parenting a challenging child, it can be incredibly painful to be part of the everyday conversations that parents have, comparing notes on their kids. At a certain point I just couldn’t be part of those conversations anymore, so I sought out parents who were having atypical parenting experiences: friends with kids who had learning or behavioral issues, parents I met through homeschool programs, other moms I met on Facebook groups. It only takes one other family like yours — or one other friend who has similarly challenging kids — to transform the lonely experience of raising a challenging kid or navigating the school system. Facebook is a great place to find groups for parents with similar challenges, and there are also forums and email lists for just about every type of kid and family.
- Let go of the one-school dream. When our son started kindergarten we were excited about having only one set of pickups and drop-offs, because he would be at the same school as his big sister. In retrospect, I wish we’d never entertained that one-school dream, because it made it harder for us to recognize that our kids have very different needs and might need very different schools. The hassle of two sets of pickups and drop-offs is a lot less than the hassle of constantly negotiating with a school that is a poor fit.
- Rule nothing out. I would never have expected to homeschool, but it’s turned out to be the only viable option for us at this stage. Homeschooling doesn’t have to mean teaching your kid yourself; it’s shocking how many fully certified teachers are available on Craigslist for $18/hour. (Though in my experience, hiring a teacher may replicate the same problems you find in schools — because they are trained the same way. But there are lots of other kinds of tutors and therapists available, too.) My husband would never have expected to send a kid to private school, but when you have a kid who just can’t be accommodated in the public system, that may be something you need to rethink, too. The more you can stay open to a wide range of possibilities, the easier it will be to find something that works for your kid and your family.
- Don’t expect anything to stay the same. Once you do the work of finding a schooling approach or arrangement that can work for your challenging kid, you may breathe a sigh of relief and thank god that you’ve figured it out. But if you’ve got a challenging kid, don’t expect your great arrangement to last forever. In the past four years we’ve had to reinvent our school, childcare and work arrangements every six months. That’s a problem in and of itself — I’m sure our kids and careers would benefit from more stability! — but it’s been an inevitable consequence of a challenging kid who needs skilled tutors and caregivers…the kind of people who go back to grad school instead of committing themselves to five years of working with our family. Accept the likelihood that you’ll have to reinvent your arrangements periodically, and leave enough wiggle room in your life that you’ll have the capacity to cope when you reach the next crisis, staff change or transition.
- Don’t expect anything to change. For the first three years of our school struggles, we kept expecting to turn the corner and find the school, teacher, medication, parenting approach or developmental stage that would see Peanut settle into school. Once I stopped expecting the miracle cure, things got so much easier. I re-organized my work around the possibility that I’m going to have a very challenging kid for another three, five or even ten years. I started treating every day as a new day — not just to let go of resentments from a bad day, but even more importantly, to be prepared for a rough day even if the previous day or week had gone well. Best of all, I stopped seeing Peanut as a problem to solve, and actually just got to experience him as my kid — my fascinating, exasperating, amusing, suffering, loving kid.