school stress
3 January 2002
Dan and I are meeting the director of Damian’s school and the director of education tomorrow morning to discuss his classroom placement. In my last entry, I said the floor time therapy switch was only part of the solution. This, we hope, is the other part.

This is the gist of what we’re planning to say:

First, we love this school. The philosophy, the various therapists, your attitudes... it’s very much in sync with our own views, and we think it’s a great place. Our concerns for Damian have nothing to do with this, or even with his particular teacher, who really is terrific. But when we had the floor time clinic back in November, you said that Damian has tremendous potential, that he’s obviously very smart, but that right now you can only see glimpses of what he’s capable of. You spoke of a generalized anxiety that seems to be holding him back, and we talked about various ways to alleviate that.

We think you were absolutely right, he does have this anxiety. But all the gentleness in the world at home and by his various therapists won’t do enough unless we deal with the problem at the source. The source isn’t home: we see a verbal, engaged, inventive, even a bossy Damian at home.

The source is school. Specifically, his class: the Mixed class he joined in September. It makes him anxious. You can see it when he walks into the room. He hunches his shoulders. He sometimes starts shivering. He speaks in a near-whisper when he speaks at all, he doesn’t enter into the group activities unless prompted. He’s shut down. What you have to understand is that he’s not oblivious to his surroundings, he’s far too aware of them. He’s a very sensitive child and the unpredictability of the lower functioning children in the class scares him. He withdraws, self-protective.

Sally (a floor time therapist) told me that she was once playing with him in the sand yard. He was having a great time, he didn’t want to stop for a snack. Then Kahuna (another floor time therapist) walked in. Damian adores Kahuna. He would normally run to greet him. But Kahuna was with Jack (the lowest functioning kid in the school, who is in the mixed class with Damian). Damian saw Jack and instantly decided he was done with the sand yard. It’s a big yard. He could easily have avoided him, and I think would have had it been anyone else. But he didn’t want to be anywhere near Jack.

Children like Jack and Sidney are the reason he’s afraid of other children. This fear is the biggest thing holding him back right now. He can’t learn to socialize if he’s too afraid, he can’t have the kind of fun with them he has with us if he won’t allow them near, if he always has his guard up.

The last time we spoke, back in September, you said you didn’t think he was ready for the next level, the Jumpstart class. He never will be ready if he stays in the Mixed class.

Interestingly, the therapists keep teaming him with boys from the Jumpstart class: sweet kids like Cam and Thomas make sense, but they’ve even matched him with a couple of the most outgoing boys. They may be loud and boisterous but they’re more aware and in control of themselves than most of the kids in the Mixed class. Damian loved their exuberance, getting into the spirit of the thing, shouting along with them. He can handle it. He can even handle a bit of aggression: in Winter Camp last month, Jules was upset that Damian had toppled "his" foam block tower and charged into Damian, knocking him down. I expected Damian to burst into tears. He did get upset. Know what he said? "I want to knock it down again!" He was unfazed by Jules' aggression, I think because he knows Jules has more on the ball than kids like Jack and Sidney.

Another example of Damian’s readiness to interact with other (more normal) kids: he’s been going to My Gym for a couple of months now. He loves it. He watches the other kids, listens to the teachers, follows the instructions. And I’ve watched him get closer and still closer to the kids in circle time. One exercise had the kids roll into balls, pretending to be eggs, and then rock side to side. Damian rolled into another little boy. He rolled away. Then rolled back. Not only was he not spooked by the accidental contact, he did it again. On purpose.

You have talked about how a child can have pleasure in being at the top of his class, that it can give him confidence. For Damian, this benefit is massively overshadowed by his insecurity in that place. It shuts him down to such an extent that he can’t perform well enough to have that pleasure. He used to love circle time, clapping and stamping and waving his arms like a butterfly. Now he sits shrinking into his chair, willing himself elsewhere.

We became very concerned about him shortly after Thanksgiving. We thought he might be sick: he had diarrhea, he stopped eating, he started sleeping more. He also started regressing, having problems with word retrieval and joint attention, things we thought we’d seen the last of months ago. We kept him home from school, but he wasn’t sick, he was stressed. May (his old teacher) left at the beginning of November, but that didn’t account for the timing. But Susie, a TA who has been with him since last spring, left to join the pre-K class. Damian lost his one ally, the one person who still knew something of what he was capable of and who tried to help pull him out of his shell. He suddenly had no adult he could trust, no buffer against the other kids. You could say it’s just a transition problem. I don’t think it is. He had no problems starting at the school last spring, he didn’t have this level of problem when we moved to a new house in the summer. No, it’s the classroom itself.

Sometimes we give him sick days when he’s not actually sick. We find that he does better on those days. He’s more talkative, more imaginative, more responsive, more himself. Admittedly, he may always be more himself at home than at school. But right now there’s far too big a dichotomy between the two.

Heidi, his private occupational therapist, has been seeing him since the spring. She knows his strengths and abilities better than anyone else. She came to visit him in class in November. She told me that the kids there were so big, so loud, so impaired, that she’d be scared and shut down in that atmosphere, and he's such a sensitive kid, it's not good for him. She knows what special needs classrooms are like: she works full time for the Santa Monica School District. She said it was too bad he wasn’t eligible for the SMUSD, that there are better places for him. I think she’s wrong about the school, I think it’s a great place for him. But the Mixed class? No. It’s not an appropriate placement for our child. It’s actively harmful and we want him out as soon as possible.

I already know the biggest argument they’re going to make, and it’s a tough one to rebut: they have a class size limit of nine. The Jumpstart class already has nine kids. But Damian can go in there part of the day, and another kid, maybe a child at the high end of the Jumpstart program, can start segueing into the inclusion class (it’s got typical kids and the highest level of spectrum kids mixed together). And maybe there are days when one of the kids is in a mainstream school and therefore not in the Jumpstart class. Maybe Damian can be in the class all morning on those days. The point is, if they want to, they can find a way. And they better damned well want to. It’s our child’s future.

If they say -- and they might -- "Just hold on till September, we’ll switch him then," we’ll have to say no. It’s far too long a time to wait. The clock is ticking. We have two years of golden time. There’s this amazing window of opportunity before a child is five or six when you can change the nature of his brain. And goddamn it, these people are not going to make us piss nine months of that time away. It’s not acceptable.

If we have to, we’ll move him to another school, probably a mainstream school with an aide. If we have to, we’ll keep him home until a spot opens up in the class we want. We’ll do whatever we have to. They’re seriously underestimating him. They see Damian withdrawn and draw the wrong conclusions from it. He’s more capable than they know. The school philosophy is all about seeing each child as an individual and meeting those particular needs. They’re not doing that for my son.

They’re going to have to start. Now.

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