Sunday, July 6, 2008

Instilling Fear

Probably the most valuable lesson I have learned when it comes to my kids is that you should never let someone instill fear in you that your child is not capable of something he is. Just because he is Bipolar, has emotional delays or ADHD does not mean that he is not much more capable than you, and others, think he is. I think this happens all the time, with therapists, teachers and parents. The best example I have of this is a school the boys attended when we first came to Albuquerque.

All my children had been schooled in Montessori back east, and Albuquerque Country Day School (ACDS) was the first non-Montessori school we had ever seriously considered for our boys. There was only one Montessori school within reasonable driving distance from our new home (though there were others further away), and I did not care for the Directress. ACDS presented itself as a school for all children. They emphasized that they could educate a child who was either years ahead or behind in various subjects, and that children worked at their own pace. They also claimed that they could accommodate children with many different types of learning styles and learning issues (such as ADHD). The school and the classrooms were very small. At the time I was mostly concerned about Sam. He was in 6th grade and I was very worried about his emotional and social development, especially since we had just moved here. I also wanted to make sure he could work at his own pace, since he was so far ahead in most subjects. (Being at a Montessori school for the whole of his elementary years allowed him to do that.) There are three large Prep schools in town for grades 6-12, but I was afraid they were too big and overwhelming for Sam. He needed a small, personal and nurturing environment. The head of school convinced me that ACDS could provide all that.

As a bonus, the school was grades preschool to 12th. Tommy and Will could go there as well. Given they were used to working at their own pace, and that Tommy seemed to be having some transition and sensory issues, it seemed like a catch all. As we continued at the school, Sam seemed to be well adjusted, but he had no friends, and many of his classes were "beneath" him. He was taking English with the 7th graders, yet they were working on grammar that he had done two years earlier. The only thing he seemed to be up to speed on was math, and that was because he was teaching himself. It was basically an independent study in Geometry.

Tommy was the one having most of the issues. He was in kindergarten. His inability to transition was causing frequent melt downs, and his teacher did not seem to have a lot of tolerance for it. She also disagreed with me that he had sensory issues and believed it was all behavioral. She discouraged me from getting an OT eval, but I got on the waiting list for the well known OT clinic here called KidPower. Tommy was also frustrated with the low level of reading and writing that they were giving him, and the even lower level of math that they provided.

Will was far ahead of his classmates in the preschool room, but he was proving himself to be quite social, and he really invested his time in developing those skills. I thought about moving both Tommy and Will to one of the Montessori schools that was a far commute. I was still too afraid to think of Sam in a larger environment. I felt like he would be eaten alive at one of the large Prep schools, but I was increasingly concerned about his academics. He could not keep teaching himself everything. The Head of School kept promising me that Sam would be more challenged; that they would develop a better curriculum for him. One of the parents was going to come in and teach him Java, and he could join an English class with even older students. Sam was not socially adapt enough for a larger environment, he convinced me.

The Head of School's wife ran the lower school and took a special liking to Tommy. Though we did not enjoy his kindergarten teacher there, he would have the Head's wife next year in 1st grade. She adored him. She said she understood him and was completely sympathetic to all his issues. She would protect him and lead us through the process to figure out what was going on with him. Only she would have the patience and nurturing skills to put up with everything that happened in between. The school would tolerate and accommodate whatever Sam and Tommy needed.

Well, that school never made good on any of those promises. There were many challenged and quirky children at this school. The school became enablers of difficult children. But they never really ended up helping any of these kids. Yet, they spent a great deal of energy instilling fear in the parents of these children. They worked very hard at making us believe that they were the only ones in town who would put up with, and help, our kids. They made us believe our children were capable of much less than they are!

And I am ashamed to say that I fell for it hook, line and sinker. Four years later, I still spend time beating myself up about this. How could I have been so foolish? I knew better than that. We have always been extremely involved in our children's education - we were on the Board of Directors and many committees at both Sam's and Tommy & Will's schools back east. I dedicated myself full time to my children and took pride in the attention I spent on them. Was it the stress of the move? Was it the confusion of living some place new? Was it the new and unfamiliar fear of what might be going on with Tommy? Or the old fears I had about Sam being socially delayed and perhaps having Asperger's? How could I have not seen the dysfunction in this relationship?

Well, it turns out these people were terrible at managing money as well, and the school went out of business in less than a year after we started there. There was a subset of parents who left the school because the promises that were being made to them were not being kept (causing some of the financial difficulties). But, there was a subset of parents who fought to try to keep the school running. They tried to raise money, they tried to rework classrooms, reduce space, let go of some teachers, etc. Why? Not because that school was worth saving - it truly was not. Because of fear. The Head and his wife had done such a good job of making people believe their children had no chance of surviving outside those walls that people were willing to do whatever it took to keep the place opened.

How could I have doubted Sam? He was actually a strong individual who respected and liked who he was. We made sure of that when we had sent him to his high quality Montessori school back east. They, on the other hand, spent a great deal of energy instilling a wonderful sense of self in their students. How could I think that they were the only people in Albuquerque who could help Tommy? I am still flabbergasted with the dysfunction and co-dependency of it all!

As it turned out, all these quirky kids had to go to some other school. And you know what, most of them were just fine. They stepped up to the plate and did well at other private and public schools. Sam went, and still goes, to Sandia Prep, one of the three large prep schools in town. He has been enormously successful there; I continue to be dismayed with myself for not starting him there in the first place. They have met his academic challenges, and he now has a boat load of good friends. How could he have become friends with anyone at ACDS? They were all too dysfunctional to make friends. We needed to provide him with an environment of "normalcy". And then, as most other kids did, he did what he was capable of and started living a more mainstream life, while keeping, and being proud of, his unique sense of self.

Tommy was one of the ones who did not do well at first (see Feeling Like a Castaway: The Need to Build Community). He fell apart as the school fell apart. We might have predicted that if we had known he was Bipolar. Sometimes I wonder if that school had stayed in business, would we ever have found out that Tommy is Bipolar? But, eventually Tommy stood back up on his own two feet and moved on. This is mostly because of an OT and a Behavior Therapist (and eventually his parents) who believed that Tommy was capable of doing more than many other people thought he could.

Sam recently asked me as we drove by what was once the school, in a tone that was curious, yet dismayed, "why'd you send me to that school when we first got here?" "Because I was afraid, and I am truly sorry for not seeing you for who you were," I apologized. Believe in your child, regardless of his issues, and don't ever let anyone scare you into thinking he can not survive, adapt and mature, like the rest of us. Tommy and Will are at their current Montessori school because I truly believe it is the best place for them, not because I am afraid to do anything else. Sure, a transition would be brutal, but it is amazing how much more comforted you feel when you believe there are options.

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