Monday, March 7, 2011

I Feel Dirty

Last week was the occasion of a meeting and several discussions about what to do about Younger Daughter and her difficult behavior. She will probably continue at Natural Friends, but we are being urged through a series of hoops, and she might have a "shadow" (a 1-on-1 aide) in the classroom next year.

If a child shows certain behaviors at school but nowhere else, who is at fault, the child or the school? We all know how schools want to answer that question. Having been through this already with Older Daughter, I am constantly asking myself, how much of this problem is being caused by the school in the first place? Is Younger Daughter acting up due to anxiety or boredom? If so, couldn't we address the anxiety or boredom directly?

I have also become enormously skeptical of what I call the "disability-industrial complex." We are surrounded by an army of specialists with their hands out. Behaviors and personality types that used to be tolerated are now labeled, diagnosed, medicated and treated. And for what? It's been great for the bank accounts of therapists, doctors, and drug companies, but can we really say it's been good for the kids?

I am wary of the language used to discuss misfit kids. I know that "we want her to make better choices" means "we want to enforce compliance" (and really, how many choices does a child actually get to make during a school day?) I know that "we wouldn't want her to feel different" is all about conformity.

If they could, schools would fill themselves with clones of the same child: the compliant, easygoing, sociable, eager-to-please good student, of slightly above-average but not threatening intelligence. But where should we send the rest of our kids?

I really loathe these meetings, where we discuss what's "wrong" with Younger Daughter and how she might be "fixed". I always come away feeling dirty, as if I've betrayed her.


  1. FedUpMom -- What a sad, frustrating situation you find yourself in. I'm wondering what your daughter thinks of it all. Does she have an opinion as to why she behaves the way she does at school? Does she verbalize, or indicate somehow, that she is anxious or bored?

    I too am skeptical of the "disability-industrial complex." (Great term, by the way!) I've seen so many friends fall into the trap of actively seeking a label for their child so that they can get the help they think they need. It doesn't seem to occur to them that their child may not be the problem. I think it's great that this does occur to you, and that you continue to resist the school's attempt to define your child. You are in a difficult position, but you are certainly not betraying your daughter. On the contrary, by continuing to challenge the school--for instance, by questioning its dubious offers of "help"--you're demonstrating that you are your daughter's greatest defender. (Obviously, at some level you must know this, but I figure, it can't hurt for me to point it out!)

  2. northTOmom, thanks! I can always use a little support and hand-holding. Yes, it is frustrating and difficult.

    I've tried asking Younger Daughter about it, but apparently her self-awareness and verbal skills aren't quite up to the task.

    I think the core of her troubles is anxiety, stemming from the very rocky beginning of her life. I think school tends to be a problem for her because it reminds her of the orphanage, perhaps subconsciously.

  3. I don't know if this describes your daughter's situation, but I've noticed that schools are much more concerned about reining in kids who they see as non-compliant than they are with not freaking out the kids who are more sensitive or anxious. The so-called "strict" teachers may keep the more rambunctious kids in line, but they also really stress out the self-conscious or anxious ones. They just seem to think that that's the price you pay for bringing order to the classroom.

    Yes -- "disability-industrial complex" is a great term. They may say that they're concerned about a child's "disability," but it's only the noisy or disorderly disabilities that bother them. The kid who's quietly on the verge of a nervous breakdown isn't really on their list of concerns.

  4. You know, all Elf needed was a smaller class and a little time adjusting to transitions. Well, they don't have smaller classes and time to adjust to transitions. After testing, they concluded he must be emotionally disturbed and packed off to a place where they have smaller classes and time adjusting to transitions.

    I'm not stupid. Only think of the behaviours he would have learnt there. After about two weeks of homeschooling, the kid stopped hiding under tables and crying and has done fine since.

    Unfortunately, his father says it's time to try public school again. So I feel badly as well, like I am betraying my kid. But what could I do? Divorce my husband and get a job? That would be hell. :(

  5. Chris -- what you say is true. In my little family we've already experienced the two extremes you describe. My older daughter was deeply depressed, and as far as the school was concerned there was no problem, because her test scores were high, her grades were good, and she didn't cause any trouble.

    So I've been in both situations -- trying to convince the school there was a problem when they claimed there wasn't, and trying to convince the school there isn't such a terrible problem when they say there is.

    For instance, at the last meeting Younger Daughter's teacher again mentioned that Younger Daughter spends a lot of time "upside down". Really, what difference does it make?

    HappyElfMom, I wish you luck. We are also looking at the public school again. I figure I can fight with their administrators for free.

  6. Younger Daughter might like the public schools. Have you thought perhaps the tiny class size at her current school is place to hide! It would make me anxious if I wasn't great at the work... ( and I wasn't ) Plus the public school would be more rough and might appeal to her style. Perhaps the problem is the current school isn't enough like the orphanage? In that case, the one to one situation would make her even more anxious.

  7. Anne, we have an appointment to talk to the new principal at Local Public Elementary next week. I'll keep you posted!

    The public school would have a bigger class, and it would be more varied. Younger Daughter might not be such an outlier there. It might be more comfortable for her, as you say.

  8. I guess I should add that Younger Daughter is actually quite happy at Natural Friends. It's the teachers and administrators who aren't happy.

  9. I think the tiny class size is a good part the problem for both sides. It's small enough so YD actions effect the whole group, making teaching harder and I'm guessing it's boring/ anxious making for her...making her "act out" and not do what she's asked to or whatever it's called.

    But I think the one to one idea not helpful here and would add to the difficulty ....if the orphanage is indeed the cause for her actions. Because she got little of that sort of attention there, and so her base line for that is lower than others. We always think more attention is the answer...but perhaps it's the cause. Already at NF she gets more in one day than she got in a month or more while growing up in the orphanage

  10. PsychMom adds...this is an interesting daughter was brought home from China at 13 months and she has always functioned very well in group settings. She distains anyone paying close attention to her, even "looking" at her for too long, and does not like being the center of attention. Yet, I have few doubts that she's a ring leader for mischief a good part of the time at school.
    I don't think she can be easily led, but if there is a chance something could be fun and exciting and a bit daring, she's more than willing to participate, and when her confidence is high..nothing much will distract her.

  11. Hmm ... I'm starting to rethink the whole situation. I went to pick up YD from her "Chinese Culture Club" after school, and found her sitting quiet as a lamb working on the coloring project the group was doing. It's a small group, about 6 kids, with one teacher. So maybe it's not about group size?

    Even her 1st grade teacher says, "if she's got something interesting to do, she's fine." So give her something interesting to do!

    Apparently the problems arise when YD is expected to sit quietly and listen to something she's not interested in. If she's interested, for instance if the teacher is reading a story that YD likes, she can sit quietly. But if she's bored, she starts moving around.

    I think it's one of those deals where we demand more from children than we do from adults. Even cubicle dwellers are allowed to doodle on a pad of paper during stultifying meetings. Couldn't we let kids play with a few legos during their equivalent?

  12. FedUpMom, I urge you, go spend some time in your daughter's class.
    If she's having real significant problems there and not anywhere else, well, that's most peculiar, isn't it? What if the problem is as simple as, her teacher is inept? It happens.
    If that's the case, there's a damned high chance this problem will "magically" disappear next year.

    Then there's this bittersweet part..... speaking from experience, it takes a little while for a mom to see one's own child might really have a persistent learning or developmental problem within them.

    Don't feel dirty, you're doing a great job. She's got a good mommy.

  13. Apparently the problems arise when YD is expected to sit quietly and listen to something she's not interested in

    Hey, I know the feeling. I think it's significant she was doing an art project when she was doing the same stuff as the others kids ...and she "acts out" ( for want of a better term ) when bored, as you say...with abstract concepts?? I found abstract concepts
    totally confusing and utterly boring when I was her age...however the child behavior expert called upon in this case was a Dr. Wooden Ruler! ( well it was the dark ages)

    I believe sitting in on the class a good idea...if she will not keep running over to you! lol!

    We are definitely tougher on kids than ourselves!

  14. @FedUpMom said "I think it's one of those deals where we demand more from children than we do from adults."

    I've pondered this one before, too. At every adult class or meeting I've been in people wander in and out, check their email, surf the web, get coffee, etc. Yet kids are expected to sit with rapt attention...

  15. From child is exactly the same way..if she's interested, just try and distract dice. But if she's not interested, best to let her roam. But oh...I forgot, they're not allowed to roam and must look at the teacher at all times.

    FedUpMom, it's school that's the problem not you or your daughter.

  16. @Anne -- I'm not sure what you mean by "abstract concepts". YD is definitely interested in what I would call big issues (do they count as abstract?) -- love, death, God, etc.

    I've been thinking about how much of school is verbal, and in a very narrow sense -- listening to people talk.

    I know that I have a very limited ability to listen to people talk with any interest. I find that under ideal conditions (interesting subject, dynamic speaker, I'm not worried/sick/hungry etc.) I can really listen to a lecture for about 1 1/2 hours. Then I need a break.

    Now, I'm sure nobody is asking YD to sit and listen to one speaker for 1 1/2 hours. But at her age and personality type, asking her to sit and listen to a stream of words that she's not interested in for 10 minutes is a tall order.

    It seems like schools have a very high proportion of control freaks, and maybe also of super chatty types who like to talk all day long.

  17. Rejoinder from the top of my head I thought that the average length of attention span for an adult is about 45 minutes. I googled it and saw references to half that...20 minutes folks. And that's adults, who are normal functioning adults.

    We expect way too much of young children..
    Even my 9 year old has trouble watching a movie. At home she flips the button all the time on the DVD player, only watching the sequences she really likes. If I sit with her, she'll watch a new movie from beginning to end, but never again. If we go to a theater, popcorn is the bigger draw....honestly.

    School is not a natural fit for most children.

  18. PsychMom, I have always wondered about juries in this context. How can they bear to sit in the courtroom day after day and listen to hours of testimony? Even in an interesting case a great deal of the testimony is boring technical details. I'd be in a coma by the end of the day.

  19. Oh, and @ Suburban Chicken Farmer, I actually think YD's 1st grade teacher is quite good. She's not as radical as I'd like, but then who is? She's quite fond of YD and vice versa.

    Sitting in on the class would be tough for me because it would radically change the whole dynamic. YD would be on my lap the whole time. Maybe I should try it anyway, now that you mention it ...

    I do think YD has real issues, including language delay and problems with anxiety and trusting adults (I figure she earned that one!) There's no simple answer here.

    And thanks for the note of support!

  20. Now, I'm sure nobody is asking YD to sit and listen to one speaker for 1 1/2 hours. But at her age and personality type, asking her to sit and listen to a stream of words that she's not interested in for 10 minutes is a tall order.

    That's exactly what I mean by abstract concepts. She's not doing something she's interested in ...she's listening to what bores her. However staying still and attentive while being momentarily bored is a societal skill she will need in the future , , but perhaps not so soon! lol. But the shcool seems to feel it is time.

  21. Anne, this discussion remimds me of the old Charlie Brown TV specials, where the teacher just makes incomprehensible nasal bleats. Here's a bit on youtube:

    Charlie Brown teacher

  22. As a teacher it is really informative to read these posts! I am similar to a lot of kids- listening for a long time to anything makes me batty so I try to gauge their attention spans and keep my read-alouds short, interrupting myself a lot to get them talking to each other. It seems to help a lot. And even if that doesn't get them to stop sighing in rejection of some story they hate, I try not to get offended and ask them why it's boring. That wakes them up.

    But I mean, what is your daughter doing that's so terrible? If she's yelling, loudly interrupting, hitting people and guffawing then maybe she's got a problem. But hanging upside down, doodling, even twirling about is pretty harmless. Maybe the teacher feels judged when an admin comes in and the class is looking less than perfect? I don't know the whole story and granted, I teach in a tougher environment but your child sounds fine.

  23. Anonymous, the school is supposed to write a letter listing the problem behaviors and the environment they occur in. That should give us a clearer picture ...

  24. I understand your skepticism about her getting a one-to-one aide. It sounds great but from my experience, works for very few children. I have had several in my classroom and the children tend to resist them- they feel stigmatized. Honestly, we'd be better off with an extra set of hands, as well as eyes and ears to respond to ALL the kids.

    Anyway, what I meant to say is that sometimes kids can't be "fixed," at least not on the timetable that we might want. If she has issues with trusting adults it will take time and patience for her to adjust. Hopefully your family and your school can come to a positive conclusion for your little one.