|Ben and his classmates listen to a story on Literacy Day last year on Halloween.|
Last week we had my son’s annual service plan meeting. Service plans are the equivalent to an IEP in the private school world. As I sat at the table, listening to my son’s OT, SLP, and classroom teacher raving about how Ben is meeting and exceeding expectations in all content areas, I reflected back to meetings gone by. My boy, who at age four would cry when someone put a writing instrument in his hand, is now writing full pages most every day in class, and even writing books at home for fun. As I listened to the SLP describe how they would be raising the expectations for Ben’s goals, I remembered back to that scared mom that I was when Ben first received his autism diagnosis over three years ago. I never thought I would be in the place where we are at today. There is still lots of work to do, but I never could have imagined this place three years ago.
We were recently with family who hadn’t seen Ben in awhile. They commented on how much he has matured, how much more he’s talking and interacting, how calm and secure he seems. I see it too, now that I am teaching at his school and he visits me for writing class once every three days. He sits up straight and listens. He raises his hand to share. He completes his work without (too many) reminders. He doesn’t “stand out” in the classroom as I was once told he did.
As a wise mom once put it, “Now does not mean forever, and never is a load of crap.”
We are getting there.
And, to be quite honest, my goal is not for Ben to look or act neurotypical (our society’s perception of “normal”). I do, however, want him to feel happy, confident, and successful, both in school and in life. And it appears that we are on that path.
If someone were to ask me what brought about this dramatic change in Ben the learner at school, from the highly anxious child who counted the days until the weekend, who could not sit still and focus or do hardly any tasks on his own, who could show that he could spell or count at home or with his OT, but not in the classroom, I would say this.
The difference for us was not more therapy.
The difference was not a special diet.
The difference was not a particular intervention program or person or technique.
And, while all these factors certainly do help (though in all honesty we’ve never done the special diet thing), the one factor that mattered most of all is the factor I don’t think we talk enough about.
Ben struggled in public school, yet he is very smart. It wasn’t that Ben couldn’t do the work being asked of him. He had difficulty because of where and how he was expected to do it. This is not in any way a negative reflection on his teachers. I have personally known and have the highest respect for all of the teachers Ben has had in school. That is one of the privileges of being an educator myself. Ben was not getting what he needed in public schools because the public school environment is not inherently designed for the needs of a child on the spectrum. And, as I've seen time and again, it's not just autistic kids who are struggling in the public school setting.
Here are five reasons why I believe Ben's new school environment has made all the difference for him. Please keep in mind that each child is unique, as is each educational environment, so each child will respond differently and progress on his or her individual time table. We all want our kids to succeed, and it is hard to remember that it is not a race. Also, I wish every child had the opportunity to learn in an environment that matched his or her needs, because I have seen what a striking difference it can make for a child.
The following list describes the environment that works best for our kid. If your child is struggling in school, I would encourage you to look at these factors and see how they are impacting your own's child's ability to succeed.
1) Smaller Class Sizes
Smaller class sizes mean that teachers can more easily individualize learning, meet with children in small groups more frequently, and provide each child with the support that he or she needs. Ben is lucky to be in a classroom with only 8 other students this year. He does not attend a special autism school or a school with an emphasis on special needs (though some children certainly benefit from specialized schools). We were just fortunate that this class was created and he had the opportunity to be a student in it.
2) Reduced Demands on Curriculum Pacing
Ben is a smart boy and has always (okay, mostly) comprehended the content at his grade level. His greatest difficulty was keeping up with the pace demanded of him in public schools. The teachers in public school are under enormous pressure to follow a curriculum roadmap and to “get it all in” on a predetermined timeline. They must move forward in the curriculum, regardless of whether or not all learners are ready for it. They try to differentiate, but the days go fast and there is never enough time. Ben needs the flexibility to work at his own pace without feeling pressured to perform and “move on”. Surprisingly, I have found that in this more relaxed environment he is actually working faster (almost too fast).
3) Predictable structures to the day
At Ben’s school, the teachers spend time each morning talking through what to expect in a day. This does a lot to help alleviate Ben’s anxiety, because he knows what to expect. There are also predictable structures and routines throughout the day. The schedule is not constantly changing, leaving him to wonder about what will happen next. Ben has always done best in a classroom with a high amount of structure and predictability.
This year, his classroom teacher also taught in his classroom last year, and his classmates are mostly the same as last year, so the transition into the year was very seamless. Typically we have to spend time at the beginning of the year talking Ben through what to expect in the new classroom, with the new teacher’s procedures and expectations. This year, he already knew, and that has made a big difference in his adjustment period to the new year.
4) Social Learning Is Valued Equally to Academic Learning
Because of the academic demands in public schools and the pressure to perform well on standardized tests, time in the classroom to discuss social skills has dwindled. Teachers worry that if an administer were to walk into their class and witness something not academic, they would be marked lower on their evaluations. In the private setting, the teachers have more freedom to talk about social skills. We have daily morning meetings, which help build class community. In addition, at Ben’s school, the children eat lunch in the classrooms with the teachers and have more time for center activities and creative play. This helps to build relationships while fostering creativity and imagination, things that are sadly often missing from the public setting. In addition, Ben is able to practice the social skills that he definitely needs in a natural, authentic context.
5) Supports Push Into the Class
Ben’s school follows the inclusion model, so supports such as language therapy push into the classroom. This allows for more seamless learning.
The moral of the story is this. Each of us has to make the very personal decision about which learning environment is best for our child or children. Sadly, not all public, private, or charter schools are created equal. Many parents decide to homeschool, or do a homeschool/private school hybrid. What is important is that your child feels happy, confident, and successful. For now, we’ve found such a place. At least until middle school…pray for us when we have to cross that bridge...
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