Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Surviving School (For parents of "difficult" kids)

Some kids adapt easily to school, do well academically, make friends easily and rarely break the rules. Some are fortunate enough to sail through on pleasant little boats of almost unconditional approval and popularity, while others at least manage to fly under the radar.

My children are not like this.

My children are noisy, disruptive, and prone to extreme emotional outbursts. Loud ones. Sometimes even violent ones.  My children struggle with a variety of the kinds of challenges that come with acronyms and unintelligible latin sounding names.

My children are academically "on track" but require some accommodation. They belong in a mainstream school but it's an uncomfortable fit. Despite their intelligence and creativity (or perhaps because of if it) my children are bloody hard work. And mainstream schools don’t generally know what to do with very bright but very...um.. “different” kids.

Also, I have a confession to make: I loathe school. I loathed it as a school-kid and I loathe it as a parent. While there are individual teachers that I admire and respect enormously, my own school experiences mean that I’m more than a little anxious about the potential impact a thoughtless teacher could have on any one of my children’s lives and future. 

Added to this is the acute discomfort I feel when dealing with other parents in a school-related setting. And, when it comes to making polite conversation with the parents of those successful little sailors who look at me or my children with smug self-righteousness, I often find myself barely restraining the urge to tell filthy jokes and swear too much.

When you hate the mere idea of school as much as I do, parenting a school age child who has social, academic or emotional challenges is a bit like being an alcoholic who joins AA. You have to face your weakness head on: "Hi, I'm Penny, and I can't stand schools. Or PTA meetings. Especially PTA meetings."

Realize that mainstream schools cater to "typical" scholars

Most kids are a bit like pottery clay - they can be kneaded and shaped into a satisfying design, dried, painted and then fired in a kiln. At the end of the process, you end up with a beautiful piece of art. But some kids are more like air-drying clay. You can shape it, and mould it, and leave it out to dry. You can even paint it. But if you put it in a kiln it will simply burn away.

Schools assume that if it looks like clay and it acts like clay, it’s clay. But it’s not. And if you are a parent of an atypical child, it will probably be up to you to teach the teachers about the difference between pottery clay and air-drying clay. If you don't educate the educators and advocate for your child on an ongoing basis, you child will simply burn away.

Work with teachers

Meet with your kids’ teachers as early on in the school year as possible. Sometimes this requires an insistent (but polite) demand, rather than a friendly request. Because my son is on medication for his ADHD and also has SPD, when he started in Grade One, I needed to make sure his teacher understands that maintaining the correct dosage for his medication requires ongoing observation and assessment. This requires a close partnership between me and the teacher and it means that a first-time meeting at the end of the first term is not going to cut it.

I also usually supply a few well chosen articles about ADHD and SPD (especially SPD) if it seems appropriate, so that the teacher understands what he/she is dealing with.

Bottom line: Insist if you need to, but have that first meeting as early as possible in the school year.

Create a Support System

You might feel like you are the only parent struggling with your child’s school, but you are not. There are probably at least one or two other families in your child’s class or grade who also have challenges. Find those parents. Make friends with them. Babysit for each other, and encourage your children to make friends with their children.

The relief of a play-date in a home where both you and your child feel emotionally safe, cannot be underestimated. Forget trying to find kids who will be a “good influence” on your child, encourage friendships where your child will not be judged for being themselves, and where your parenting skills will not be judged on the basis of the times when your overwhelmed child has a screaming meltdown or anxiety attack.

Develop a thick skin

School grapevines rival the Internet for producing bulls**t. Every social group has its designated scapegoat, and every class has its designated “troublemakers” . If you have a challenging kid, chances are this label will be slapped on your child (our you) at some point.

Unfortunately, gossip-mongers and drama-queens tend to hang out in the same corner of the schoolyard (or school parking lot). If  you or your kid incites the righteous indignation of a drama queen, a gossip-monger will then light up the WhatsApp group chat (a.k.a. gossip superhighway) with stories of the outrage.

Ignore it. These people absolutely no idea what your family is dealing with. Karma’s a real thing.  It won’t take long for the more sensible people in your educational circle to figure out who the gossip-mongers and drama queens are. And then they’ll ignore them too.

What are your thoughts on coping with the demands of your kids education? Please share in the comments below.

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