My son’s school didn’t give him a chance

Lunch is packed, the uniform is on and too big, the eyes are wide with new beginnings.  There are so many stories about the momentous first day of school and so much advice about the preparation. But what about the days and weeks that follow? Such a major shift in a child’s life takes adjustment and time.

Time I feel, our society is no longer willing to give.

Day one of school and my son skipped into his uniform, the excitement palpable. Before I knew it he was walking off into the distance, hand-in-hand with his new friend, heading for the classroom. I exhaled with relief and gratitude.

Day two and there were tears. "It’s boring" he said, "I’m not ready for school".  We had big cuddles and talked about getting used to new things. Day three took a new turn with the surprising comment, "I’m the naughty kid", accompanied by a rather chuffed expression.  I thought I had better meet with his teacher to find out exactly what was going on.

Day ten and instead of time with his teacher, I was met by a frazzled senior member of staff. She had been observing him in the classroom and noticed he was "distractible, defiant, and very tired". Fair enough I thought, remember what it was like to start a new job?  She asked me if he had had his vision and hearing checked or been seen by a paediatrician? In answer to my quizzical expression she continued, "well last year we had a child with a life-threatening illness so it’s always worth investigating these things".

As I shifted uneasily in my chair she said the school counsellor would be called in; and then threw this bombshell, "Listen, your child is most likely on the spectrum". Now I had heard the phrase "on the spectrum" thrown around liberally at school, as if it is common knowledge. I know it means having Asperger’s Syndrome or autism. While I am grateful for any support my child may need, the instant diagnosis and medicalisation of my son’s behaviour in week two of kindi was somewhat shocking. It turned our household upside-down.

On the bright side, a conversation had been started and I had been jolted into action.  Fortunately I have several close friends who have known my son since birth and are specialists in early childhood education.  I turned to them in desperation. "How can they be saying this to me so early on? Is there no settling in period? They don’t know him and they are already slapping on a label!" Over several long conversations, including middle-of-the-night ones with my husband, we gathered the support we needed and forged ahead.

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My first step was to request a meeting with the principal to discuss what her colleague had said and how I thought it inappropriate and premature. I was astounded when she backed her staff member, even without knowing my child. She described his behaviour as "extreme" and agreed that he was most probably "on the spectrum". At this point I should have politely asked for the Principal’s medical qualifications. Instead I reminded her of meeting my son at the transition. I told her of the child we knew. I said it was early days. I handed the Principal the phone number to my son’s preschool. "Please speak to them," I suggested. Thankfully the principal did just that. His former carers were shocked and perplexed the school was so quick to pathologise my child. They, like I begged the principal to give him more time.

Has the world gone mad? Here was a five-year-old child, adjusting to a new way of life! Where was some breathing space for him? Can’t we give kids time to face challenges? Are society’s expectations of children so high that they are doomed to fail just as they are setting out?

Finally, after weeks and many tears and sleepless nights, I met his teacher. We talked about exactly what was happening in the classroom and what strategies were being used to help him acclimatise to school. The teacher was open, honest, and willing to work with us without grasping for a quick fix. For that we were extremely grateful. From then on, he began to settle in.

Some children start school with barely a ripple of emotion, some lap it up with joy, some cry, some conform, some rebel, some are silly, some need support.  But where I ask, and this plea catches in my throat, is their period of grace?

We were lucky that we had resources to fish our bedraggled child out of the swirling mess of this horrible beginning, to reassure him and hold him tight. But I think of those parents who don’t have that support at hand.  What would happen to their child and their relationship to learning? Would the child be punished? Humiliated? Medicated? Know and listen to your child, communicate with the school, trust your instincts and find the right support.

I am proud of the way my child negotiated his way around a new situation. It was the adults around him that struggled most. What I clung to during this time, what anchored me in the storm and what I will be forever grateful for were the beautifully brazen words of a trusted friend: ‘Advocate for your child. Be bold’.

And give them grace.

Did you child have difficulty settling into school? How did you deal with it? 

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