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Grade One, continued

Let me take a minute to describe the composition of my son's class at the start of the grade one year: there were sixteen boys and seven girls. Most of the girls who had started school in my son's year had been sent into the French Immersion stream; most of the boys had not. So there was some imbalance. (My son's grade two teacher was horrified by this imbalance, but I'm getting ahead of myself).

My son hadn't really interacted with all of the kids in his kindergarten class, and the one boy he really liked was a year younger. So he was now in a classroom of, as far as he was concerned, strangers. The young blonde boy who was determined not to be The Victim was not in his class, which was good. The child did continue to cause problems for the children in the class he did end up in, which was bad. There was, however, one boy in my son's class who disliked my son, and who tended to be quite physical.

My son, as I've mentioned, was pretty good at running around and making noise. He was therefore attracted to children who would also run around and make noise; some of these children did not actually want anything to do with my son. One in particular was not, as they say in classrooms, inclined to 'use his words', and often used his little fists instead. But it was very hard for the teacher, because--as she told me when I discovered one incident--no matter how hard she tried to keep him away from the physically rougher kids, he gravitated towards them. Why? Because the noise, to him, was more interesting and more lively -- I think he associated it with having fun. Or play. He was also very physical, and had some difficulty separating good physical interaction from aggressive or mean interaction on their part.

So the boys to whom he naturally gravitated at the beginning of the year were also the boys most inclined to physical bullying.

There was one girl in his class who didn't mind my son. She was aggressive in her own way, but she was determined. For instance, if she walked up to my son and said hello, and he failed to hear her (which he did, because he failed to hear anyone saying hello), she would say it again, loudly; if he failed to hear that, she would snort in disgust and smack him on the shoulder or the back of the head and say, "I SAID HI." And he would turn, and say, "Oh, hi", looking slightly surprised to see her. He wasn't upset, on the other hand, and would often then talk with her. She decided she liked my son (not a crush) so she'd interact with him once she'd gotten his attention; she just didn't wait to get his attention.

That was, sadly, necessary, and I have to admit that I thought it was funny--mostly because it didn't upset him at all.

But for the most part, he felt quite isolated in the classroom for the first half of the year, and it was exhausting for him; I've mentioned that at 2:30 in the afternoon he would zone out and start to run around the class shooting invisible storm troopers. He did this pretty much every afternoon.

Now imagine that you are the teacher of this class of twenty-three, and you have one boy who you understand is going to do this because he's incapable of sitting still at that point. You still have to, oh, take the other twenty-two kids in hand, and they have to sit for that hour. It's understandably hard on the other fifteen boys, because this one child is allowed to run around and make noise, while they're expected to sit and do work.

As the Teacher, it is important to get across to those other twenty-two kids that my child is not the Teacher's Pet. He is not allowed this behaviour because of your insane favouritism. As the Teacher, you are also trying hard to integrate my son into your class in a way that doesn't imply he's inferior, stupid, or to be pitied.

How are you going to approach that?

I ask this question in this fashion because I want to convey the enormity of the task; it is not, and was not, simple. As the parent of an ASD child, I desperately wanted my son to feel at home in his classroom--but as a parent, period, I also understood the need for the other children to feel the same way. And I was well aware that some of my son's behaviours, preferences, and reactions could be very, very unsettling for those other children.

Especially the sitting in the lap or randomly touching. At six years old, on the other hand, it's not nearly as threatening as it might have been at twelve or thirteen, and by that time, he had internalized enough that random sensory touch input was no longer instinctively required. It was, however, the only certain way to get his attention at the end of the school day.

My son's grade one teacher started by trying to build some connection for my son between he and the classroom activities, if not the children themselves; she understood that she had to make the class a safe space for my son - while simultaneously making it a safe place for the other twenty-two children.

The first thing my son's grade one teacher asked us, during our first interview, was therefore what he liked to do at home. At this point he didn't interact at all with other children in class (except in a disruptive way), and he was clearly uncomfortable. We told her that he liked to play on the computer. The classroom was equipped with an imac (one of the very old ones, I think third generation). Children were given a block of time on the computer, and she suggested that she could double the time he was allowed to spend playing on it.

She asked a few other questions and listened to what we had to say; she accepted that my son had not yet developed a clear sense that what she knew and what he knew were distinctly separate entities. I explained the kindergarten situation, and she nodded. She didn't seem hugely surprised by this--but she seldom seemed surprised by much, and she started to work on routines and interactions with my son that would make the class seem more accessible.

There was one thing which she hadn't even considered.

She was, as I mentioned, used to teaching classes that contained between four and six students, all of whom had developmental difficulties of one type or another. She was accustomed to attempting to meet the needs of the students she taught. What she wasn't accustomed to, in a much larger class of developmentally normative children, was the parent response that would follow her attempts to reach out to my son.

Two days after this interview, the mother of one of the girls came storming into the classroom after school. Why? Because this mother had heard that another child had been given more computer time than her own daughter, and she demanded to know why.

Technically, I don't believe teachers are supposed to discuss the difficulties of one child with the parents of another. I'm not certain, though--I never asked. I only know that this happened because the teacher was so surprised by it that she mentioned it to me. She didn't, however, mention the name of the mother in question to me. Which was fine, because the mother in question cornered me the next day and told me in no uncertain terms what she'd done.

The mother in question is a woman I grew to like--but she paid careful attention to every single thing her daughter said had happened in class, and she was determined to make sure that her daughter was never, ever left out of anything educational (and also told us why: she had been so ill or absent with breast cancer that she felt her daughter's early needs had been very neglected while she was gone, and she wasn't going to neglect anything else Ever Again).

So my son's grade one teacher had to balance her attempts to meet his needs with the reaction meeting any of them was likely to get from other parents.

She didn't, however, rescind the computer time. Over the next few weeks, she found the volunteer that would hover over my son to coax him into doing work. I offered to be that volunteer, but she wanted someone who was tied to the school environment, and not the home environment; she felt this was really important.

My son's reading and math skills were good, and he did well in those--when he could be reminded to focus on the work at hand. The reminder, however, was increasingly necessary; if he didn't have someone sitting on him and drawing his attention to the work on his desk, he would zone out almost instantly.

My son, for some reason, hated library time (Wednesday afternoon). If he was going to have a serious meltdown, it would occur in the library. I offered to keep him at home on those days, but the teacher felt that it wasn't necessary, and I (barely) agreed. (My mother reminds me: He hated the library because they had rules about which books could be withdrawn from the library, and it was categorized by age group. But he was only interested in some of the higher level books (he could read very well at this point), and he found it frustrating, because the age limits made no sense to him. In the end, they removed this rule, and he was allowed to peruse and sign out the books that he was actually interested in if he could read them, which he could).

I know I sound strictly logical or rational when I'm writing about these things now--but I also know that I was a wreck. I wanted to trust these other adults with my son, but I hated the thought that he was so upset and I was completely unable to help him. I knew how to make his home a safe space--I knew he didn't feel that school was. But in part, this was because school was unfamiliar. If he could learn the routine, if we could explain the reasons for the routine logically and rationally, and if it remained consistent, some of that stress might lessen.

And I knew that the teacher wanted the same thing for my son: she wanted him to be comfortable in her classroom. None of our discussions ever involved academic work. I had no ambitions for his academic performance, because I knew he was bright; all I wanted was that he learn to be comfortable or happy within the school environment. Because I wasn't in that environment, and his teacher pretty much defined it, she was the better judge--but boy was it hard to make myself believe it.

My son, however, did seem to like her. In fact, all of the kids seemed to like her.


( 20 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 2nd, 2010 01:29 am (UTC)
I know this is a minor point in your post, but - school libraries limiting books by age group? That seems ridiculous to me, and completely self-defeating. Is this a common thing in schools in your area?
Nov. 2nd, 2010 01:33 am (UTC)
I know this is a minor point in your post, but - school libraries
limiting books by age group? That seems ridiculous to me, and completely
self-defeating. Is this a common thing in schools in your area?

I know that in some cases, if the books being picked out are specifically for the class or for class assignments, they're limited because of grade level requirements for reading. If it's just for reading At Home, and isn't part of curriculum requirements, there probably wouldn't be any such limitation.
Nov. 3rd, 2010 07:58 am (UTC)
I am so, so, so, so glad they don't do this at my kiddo's school, or at least not where my kiddo is concerned. *I* would have been incredibly frustrated and upset by this, had it happened to me - and...well, I /can/ imagine what it must have been like for your son, what it would be like for my son if he had to deal with it. This just, it makes me cringe. So much. I don't really have words for it.

Again, I feel so blessed that while I don't necessarily have super principal of awesomeness for him, he does have a support structure at school that Gets Him.
Nov. 2nd, 2010 02:24 am (UTC)
A lot of schools make some attempt at limiting, even if it's just to make it really clear which areas are aimed at which age ranges. I think they're trying to prevent the younger kids by being freaked out by books for older kids, more than anything.

It backfires pretty badly if it's forced on precocious readers, but good libraries can use it to encourage most kids without discouraging the strong readers.
Nov. 2nd, 2010 10:37 am (UTC)
In my kids' school district, they have the books classified by reading level, and they have the kids test their comprehension and vocabulary (using the AR system) to make sure that they are getting a book appropriate for their reading level. For example, if a kid is testing at a 4.2 reading level (Fourth Grade, Second Month), they are encouraged to check out books with a range from 3.4 to 5.0.

It is explained to the kids and parents that they want the kids to move up in reading level, so the sliding scale will move based upon what the kids are reading and the AR tests they take after finishing books.

Once the kids reach middle school, the district no longer uses the AR system. Of course, by then the kids have other options --reading clubs, projects, etc.-- to keep them focused on reading.
Nov. 2nd, 2010 12:26 pm (UTC)
My husband wasn't restricted by age group, but by the number he was allowed to take out at one time. He was a voracious reader (still is), and his mother was a town librarian. He had to get a written permission slip that allowed him to take out more books at one time.
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Nov. 2nd, 2010 02:20 am (UTC)
which is *exactly* the word i used in 1975 when i had a showdown with the librarian over books

I think this is what happened! He could read quite well, but he'd picked up so much of that on his own because we didn't really want him to be bored in school. And yes, he didn't want the books that were considered appropriate for the grade level; eventually he was allowed to choose his own.

I think, in his case, it wasn't boredom -- well, no, let me take that back. It was boredom, but it was combined with his sense that the rules were entirely arbitrary, that they were being enforced from above with no sense and no consideration. That, on top of all the other new and difficult things, was probably just too much, and it's not something he could have easily explained. On the other hand, I admit that at the time, I wasn't doing a great job of explaining the necessity to either the librarian or my son either; I'd approach it entirely differently now.

Edited at 2010-11-02 02:20 am (UTC)
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Nov. 3rd, 2010 05:39 pm (UTC)
D'you really think you had to be a "little coloured girl" to earn her enmity on that? People like that, they don't take being set down by anyone but an authority figure -- you could have been any gender or skin color and (s)he'd have hated you after that.

I think, in this case, she was adding personal descriptors denoting her younger self, rather than making a broader statement. However...

In my experience, while your point is accurate -- authority figures of a certain type dislike to be humiliated in public by anyone -- there are definitely authority figures who would like it even less, imho, coming as it did. There's a hierarchy of humiliation. From above = bad, but unavoidable; from the sides = bad, and maybe you can get back at them; from below = bad and someone will or should suffer. But there are degrees of expected 'below', for which the anger would deepen.

So, the librarian would have hated it regardless, yes -- but coming from a little colored girl (self described), it would have been worse, imho.
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Nov. 2nd, 2010 03:57 am (UTC)
I remember reading basic zoology books in first grade. Why? Because snakes and frogs were fun. In kindergarten, I could read and write well enough that the teacher didn't know I was left-handed until the parent/teacher conference a month or more into the school year. As you know so well, my love of reading has not faded yet.

I want to thank you for sharing these thoughts and experiences and realize how personal they are.
Nov. 2nd, 2010 06:21 am (UTC)
The library meltdown is rather familiar; we went through something like that with RIley in Kindergarten until the librarian realized what was going on and gently guided Riley along to more advanced books.

The advanced reading ability has been kind of a struggle for us with Riley; he's been a voracious reader and his vocabulary is pretty amazing. The school librarian has become quite helpful and Riley is one of her favorites (she started a special reading award for end of school awards just for him in 2nd grade.) I know it sounds like parental bragging, but the advanced reading has it's own problems, as you know.

The thing is, he wants to read more adult books, and with the adult reading level comes more adult subject matter. It's become a real challenge to find new series he can read that aren't too advanced for his 9 year old social maturity level; many of the more adult (as opposed to middle grade 'baby books' he disdains, or Young Adult books that he plows through in an hour or two) sci fi/fantasy stories he likes deal with sex or horror, sometimes abuse or whatnot. His advanced reading of these and biology textbooks has actually gotten him in trouble at school sometimes because he knew 'too much for his age'. We had a few conferences after one incident this year where he carefully corrected some of his classmates' misconceptions about how sex functions in mammals such as Homo sapiens (complete with detailed and anatomically correct drawing).

sigh. I feel so much like I'm flying by the seat of my pants on all of this parenting stuff.
Nov. 2nd, 2010 04:32 pm (UTC)
We had a few conferences after one incident this year where he carefully corrected some of his classmates' misconceptions about how sex functions in mammals such as Homo sapiens (complete with detailed and anatomically correct drawing).

I did that, except instead of drawing, I took the relevant medical encyclopedia to school. It had lovely transparencies that layered over each other to show the bones, ligaments, tendons, muscles, nerves, and organs. I don't recall a conference, though -- perhaps my classmates were just better at keeping a secret!
Nov. 3rd, 2010 05:41 pm (UTC)
sigh. I feel so much like I'm flying by the seat of my pants on all of this parenting stuff.

I think this is true of all parents, everywhere, regardless. If I get permission, I will one day write an LJ post about the parent I admire most in the world -- he makes me feel like I never do enough, not because he looks down on me, but because of the example he consistently, constantly sets (i.e. the good way).
Nov. 2nd, 2010 12:32 pm (UTC)
Fascinating. I wish my ASD son had had such a sympathetic teacher in his younger years; as it were, he was leading the edge of the diagnosis's acceptance in US public education on the West Coast (finally educationally labeled when he was 16).

I came here from mskit's journal; always interested in reading more about kids on the spectrum (my son is an adult now and I teach middle school special ed).
Nov. 2nd, 2010 02:17 pm (UTC)
As always, thanks for sharing. I'm digesting this as you go on.
Nov. 3rd, 2010 07:05 am (UTC)
Hi there--I'm here via mizkit, who is an old college friend. She posted today that you were writing this series of posts and I popped on over to take a gander.

I spent five years working with learning-disabled kids (mostly; there were some adults) and came across more than one ASD case in my time. I spent my first 2+ years working clinically with students one-one-one, and the second 2+ years as an educational consultant in a couple of different elementary schools.

Unfortunately, I had no educational or early-child-development knowledge in my background, nor any knowledge or support about working with the highly impoverished. Most of the kids I worked with clinically were there because they were unable to function in a regular school setting; I even worked with a couple in a residential facility. As far as the schools went, the ones who were able to afford people like me were usually recipients of need-based grants.

I so desperately wish I'd been able to read back then the things you're writing now. They're brilliant and logical and make sense, and even though I've left that field of work long ago and far away, your insight into your particular situation is fascinating.
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Nov. 4th, 2010 10:27 pm (UTC)
I was pointed at these series of posts recently by my wife, and have been slowly working through them.

My parents tell me that when I was 13, the staff at the central library in the town where I'd done the last four or five years of growing up asked my parents if it would be alright if the library were to issue me an adult library card, because I had read my way through every book in the library that I was interested in that I could get access to with a child card. My parents, in what I sometimes consider a rare moment of wisdom, said that this would be fine. I then spent about the next four or five years reading my way through the rest of the library, including the reference section. I would bring home six or seven books at a time, then return them the next day or the day after, having read every one of them from cover to cover.

That was 1973. It would be another 33 years of confusion, misery, and isolation before I was finally diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, and at last understood why all the parts of the world that involved humans had always been so incomprehensible.
Nov. 6th, 2010 01:47 am (UTC)
That was 1973. It would be another 33 years of confusion, misery, and isolation before I was finally diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, and at last understood why all the parts of the world that involved humans had always been so incomprehensible.

Social interaction has very general rules, and I think it's the ability to generalize that most ASD children are missing; the more severe the ASD the deeper the problem. So...that was hard. We tried to approach socialization as if it were math. Our son was very empathic -- if he could understand the reasons for someone's pain; we were trying to broaden the reasons and fill in the steps so that he could eventually evaluate the reactions of other people.

I'm not 100% certain we were great at this, though.
( 20 comments — Leave a comment )