Before you can act based on the courage of your convictions, you have to tussle with uncertainty.
Luckily, you can reduce uncertainty with research, questioning and careful observation. But even when you know you’ve done your due diligence, it’s difficult to get to a place of 100% confidence when the choice you must make involves your child.
For six months I’ve known that my son is preparing to transition from a therapeutic day school to the public middle school in our district and that the ESY summer program will serve as the final leg of his “exam.” The staff at the therapeutic school has been scaring the bejeezus out of him regarding his return to the district, reminding him how much more demanding public school will be, and threatening to keep him where he is unless his behavior improves.
What kind of horrible behavior is he displaying? He shuts down during math instruction and becomes non-communicative during the lesson because it’s too difficult for him to understand.
My boy – who was strongly encouraged to leave the public school setting two years ago because of impulsive and often violent outbursts – has finally learned to control his anger and manage his behavior with therapy and medication. Instead of flipping a desk or throwing a chair or a computer across the room, he retreats into himself, which isn’t an ideal adaptive behavior but is highly preferable to the one he replaced.
His current school doesn’t see it that way and refers to “shutting down” as another type of “extreme” behavior, albeit one that is on the other end of the spectrum.
Noah’s therapist has treated him for over two years. She is thrilled that he is functioning in the classroom setting without harming himself or others. She agrees that it’s not practical for a student to completely shut himself off and to refuse the lesson, but believes that the school staff has not responded appropriately, and should allow a few minutes of “space” before encouraging him to come back and try again.
She understands why Noah would want to shut down. Math is a problem for him, as it is for many who are diagnosed with Nonverbal Learning Disorder. It may be that he requires an approach to instruction that differs from that which is used for neuro-typical children but, in any case, she feels the staff needs to back off on the threats and scare tactics if they truly want him to feel confident and ready to accept greater challenges. Right now, my anxious kid is nervous about making a change, and she thinks that being told how hard it will be in the real world is making him withdraw more than usual.
So, yes, he has eliminated the behavior that sent him away in the first place, but these shutting-down episodes make me worry that he’s not emotionally ready for a change in environment and class size. If he returns to public school, what if the pressure is too much for him? He may regress, and lose everything he’s learned during the past two years. Can we afford that risk?
But what if his current educational environment is holding him back? Right now, he attends a school where appropriate behavior is not modeled for him. Perhaps he should be surrounded by students who can help him rise to the level of a socially functional pre-teen boy.
I’ve been back-and-forth on this for a while. It’s disheartening to feel such a lack of confidence about what is the right thing to do, and last night the stress was too much for me. I broke down sobbing. But crying was cathartic, and I woke the next day with what I believed was a new clarity.
That morning, I felt certain Noah was ready to move on. I reasoned that he had taken all he could from the therapeutic school environment and that it would be a disservice to him to keep him in a place where he can’t grow.
And, to my delight, he had a string of good days. He would start to shut down, but then find a way to “come back.” The daily notes from his teacher were punctuated with smiley faces.
But the string was cut short today. He brought home a note that informed me he had shut down at noon and had not been able to participate in class for most of the afternoon.
I’d done my research. I listened to the “experts.” I know my own kid oh so well. But even after doing all my homework, I wasn’t completely certain about my decision.
Then I recognized that I can’t wait for complete certainty. I had to ask myself what were the risks of waiting versus taking action now.
I decided there won’t necessarily be an “a-ha” moment for readiness, and that now is the perfect time for him to return to public school. He’ll be starting sixth grade, along with the rest of his public school classmates, which means that everyone will be making a transition. If he returns next year, at the start of 7th grade, his classmates will be acclimated and feel established, and he’ll be the odd boy out.
I made a decision. I stand firmly behind it. And even though I’m not positive it’s the right thing to do, I feel sure enough.
I’m willing to live with that sliver of uncertainty.