Monday, June 16, 2014

A Case for Bringing Back Summer

The following is an excerpt written by an autism mom named Kristine Barnett, from her book “The Spark”:

“For the past year and a half, every moment that Jake had been awake had been about autism:  drills and therapy and pattern recognition to work on his lowest skills.  In all of this, we had forgotten something vitally essential childhood.  Typical childhood experiences- like watching your cold fingers wrinkle up under a sprinkler on the first superhot day of the year- are important for everyone, not just typical kids.  Every family needs to have special traditions that celebrate who they are and what matters to them.  I knew from my own days growing up that such traditions don’t have to be a big deal to be meaningful.” 

As summer officially kicks off in full swing, children celebrate the end of school year and the beginning of long summer days filled with play and relaxation.  However, for children with autism, along with other children with disabilities or just struggling learners, school most likely will not end in the summer.  Many children will take part in Extended School Year summer programs geared towards helping them retain their academic skills and continue to develop their social skills.

While as an educator, I know the research about the “summer slide” better than most.  In case you haven’t heard of the term, the summer slide refers to the phenomenon in which students will lose academic ground over the summer and enter the next school year even further behind then when they left in May.  This is why many schools offer summer programs and services that are geared towards stopping this summer slide.  I believe that these programs have merit, and I support any parent who chooses to enroll their children.  However, I have chosen not to enroll Ben in these summer programs, and here’s why.

While I believe in high academic standards, I also equally believe that Ben needs time to be a kid.  The fact that he has autism does not make this need any less real. 

Ben deserves time to play on the beach, run through the sprinkler in our front lawn, throw water balloons, and paint at his art table for hours if he feels like it.  He deserves trips to the movie theater, to the pool with his friends, and outside to catch the ice cream truck as it slowly drives down our street.

I think it is easy to discount the importance of allowing a child with special needs unstructured time when the overpowering message is that every moment of therapy is vitally important.  And while it makes logical sense that filling every moment possible with targeted, systematic, therapeutic work will help to close the developmental gap, my gut tells me that sometimes we have to slow down in order to leap forward. 

Because I’ve watched my child over the last few months of school slowly burn out.  I don’t remember counting the days until the weekend when I was in Pre-K.  Actually, when I was in school, we didn’t have Pre-K at all.  I went to a half-day kindergarten, but I digress.  During the school year, Ben’s days are filled with school, after school therapy, and then extracurricular activities, depending on the season.  And, while my son loves being busy, this break-neck schedule was starting to take its toll.  I cannot imagine asking him to sit through another 8 am – 4 pm school day through the summer.  Even adults get time off.  He should too. 

And then there’s the expectations that children are expected to achieve in school.  Academic standards have changed.  If you haven’t been in a classroom in the past few years, then you may not be aware of this shift.  The expectations for a student leaving Pre-K is roughly equal to what we would have expected an incoming first grader to have mastered a few years ago.  Ben will be entering kindergarten knowing all of his letters and sounds, able to read several sight words and easy, repetitive books.  His friend Nikki who will be in his kindergarten class (and who also has autism) can already read books on a second grade level, if not higher.  It is not uncommon for children to enter kindergarten already reading.  Ben can write his name and write a simple story with a beginning, middle, and end across three pages.  He can count to 100, and up to 10 in Spanish.  He can skip count by 10s.  He knows his shapes, including ellipse, rhombus, and hexagon, and the list goes on. However, if your incoming kindergartener can’t do these things, don’t panic.  The kindergarten year is the great equalizer, and those wonderful kindergarten teachers are able to catch most children up during their kindergarten year.  However, we teachers know that children who enter kindergarten with those academic skills under their belt definitely have an advantage.

However, for Ben, the academics aren’t what makes school challenging.  The hard part for him is to sustain focus while sitting on the carpet for an extended period of time (think up to a half hour at some points).  He has had to learn to wait his turn, take turns, share, and participate in large and small group activities (but only after the teacher calls on him to do so).  He has learned independence, which includes everything from putting on his shoes to opening his containers at lunch.  He has had to learn to navigate the big school building with his classmates, all of whom are 5 years old or younger.  They’ve had to walk down the hallways in a quiet line, attend school assemblies, sit with the older kids in the lunchroom, and play appropriately at recess.  When I was Ben’s age, I was learning to cut and color at a small, home-based daycare where I attended a few days a week with a few other kids my age.

School is hard enough work, with a daily schedule dictated by grown-ups.  This leaves very little room for choice in Ben’s day.  I believe in the summer Ben deserves to have time to explore his interests and choose what he would like to do.  He deserves to make memories to sustain him through those days at school when the challenges rise up and seem insurmountable.  He has earned his break. 

Another huge reason that we have a school-free summer is that we live across the country from our family, and summer is the time when we visit them.  Starting when Ben was a few months old, every summer he have hopped on an airplane and flown up North to see family.  Along the way, we’ve created summer traditions that Ben remembers and anticipates long before the big trip.  Things like fishing at my aunt’s pond.  Things like going camping in a log cabin and making a fire with Papa to roast marshmallows.  Things like decorating a golf cart and riding around the campgrounds while Papa lets him take the wheel when I’m not looking.  Things like going to the park with his Papaw and walking on the old train tracks looking for forgotten treasures.  Or having a sleepover at Granny’s house and making homemade waffles the next morning and pouring syrup on them with those tiny bottles from Cracker Barrel.

These are the family traditions that weave a rich tapestry of memories that Ben calls up time and again during the year.  Through these simple but powerful moments, he forms a bond with his family members that last him through the long months when he only communicates with them through phone calls and Face Time.  No extra learning time in summer school is worth sacrificing these moments.

I believe that these special summer moments only strengthen his experience in school, because they provide him with a strong background knowledge that many students are missing.   For example, if he reads a story in class about camping, he can picture what camping looks like in his mind, because he camped with his family during the summer.  Experiences are our most powerful teacher, and in the summer, the real world is Ben’s classroom.

But lest you think we’re not working on any school-related skills at all, let me reassure you that our summer will still be filled with therapy.  Right now, I’m sitting at Starbucks typing this blog, while Ben is attending a camp offered through his private Occupational Therapy sensory gym. Throughout the month of June, Ben will be participating in a social skills group, a fine motor group, and a “Get Ready for Kindergarten” group.  Then we’re off to visit family and friends, where he will have the chance to practice his social skills with all those relatives and friends at birthday parties and get-togethers.  He sharpens those fine motor skills on a daily basis as he paints and mixes colors, makes bead projects, and designs sticker-studded masterpieces.  I’ve also amassed a huge collection of beginning reading books, and Ben is very proud that he is slowly learning to read them to me as we practice every day.  I have every confidence that his academic skills won’t slip this summer but will continue to strengthen through this authentic practice.

We have all heard the saying that a child’s play is their first work, but I think it’s easy for special needs parents to dismiss the power of unstructured play and exploration because we feel the pressure of the clock that is ticking, pushing our son or daughter further and further behind their peers.  And that makes us easy targets for any person or program to prey on us, promising a quick cure if only we will invest our time in their product.  I know that therapy has its place, and the amount and type of therapy is a very personal decision for each family, but, for me, I’m going to make sure to make play and family time a big priority in the summer.  And even if you are a parent whose child is attending extended year classes every day this summer, I encourage you to carve out those times this summer to make special memories with your child.  Start summer traditions, even if it’s as simple as setting up the sprinkler in the yard or having a water balloon war.  Your child will thank you for it.  I wish you a summer of fun and enjoyment with your family, with memories to last a lifetime!

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