First day back at school for Ben and Molly, and I’m holding my breath in anticipation…
Miss Molly? No worries there. She’s back to the same routine, same Montessori school, and was pretty much out the door with the car started for me honking the horn in the driveway before I could finish saying, “Time to…”
And besides…it’s Molly. I could drop her in the middle of the jungle and she’d have the gorillas dressed in ball gowns and tiaras enjoying a rousing game of “Magic Fairy Princesses Dragon Battle Tea Party” before you could say, “Gee, I didn’t know Rapunzel had a sword.”
Ben, on the other hand…
Ben had a tough time last year, and I’ve been kicking myself since May for not having recognized it sooner.
I voiced my worry about Ben more than once before the school year started last year: 9 times out of 10, grown-ups meet Ben and they love him. (This morning I heard that a grandparent he chatted with last week raved about him for days.)
On that 10th time though, for whatever reason, there is a mismatch – Ben is having an off moment, or that person is having an off moment – and it’s almost impossible to recover from. My greatest fear for Ben last year, going into a new school for the first time, was that it would be that 10th time…and unfortunately for Ben and his grade 1 teacher it was.
I could tell right away that Ben and his teacher weren’t a perfect match, but I kept hoping it would get better as she got to know him…and I kept defending her to Ian, when in retrospect he really had a better handle on it from the get-go.
…And when Ben told me about the girl in his class who was pinching him under the table and I emailed the teacher and she said she had addressed it by switching their table groups, I thought that sounded reasonable.
…And when Ben started coming home with notes in his agenda about how he had “made poor choices” or “had trouble remembering to keep his hands off other kids” I chalked it up to new atmosphere and new peer group, reminded him about the school rules, and left it at that.
…And when his teacher proudly declared at the meet-the-teacher night how she has high expectations of her class, doesn’t lavish praise on them, and makes sure to apply her rules equally across the board, I thought, “Well, sounds about right, I guess,” but a little voice in the back of my head whispered, “they’re only in grade 1.”
…And when Ben kept coming home with bumps on the head and scrapes from accidents on the playground but shrugged and said, “My friends looked after me,” when I asked what the teachers did, I told him again that the teachers are there to help and he has to tell a grownup if he is hurt.
…And when his teacher called to talk to me again about how Ben’s behaviour was getting worse and his school work was starting to suffer – “It’s like he’s just not trying his very best sometimes,” I promised to have yet another talk with him.
…And when we had that talk, and Ben told me he can’t focus in school because his brain keeps making him focus on other things so he misses the instructions, and I suggested that he ask his teacher to repeat them, and he said, “No, because I don’t want her to say, ‘Well, you should have been listening to the example,'” and he imitated her irritated voice so handily that I could hear her in my head and I wondered how many times a day he hears it.
…And when he told me about the boys in his class who are mean to him – his “worst enemies” – and how he can’t wait for the month to be over so he won’t be sitting with them any more, and how they tell him his work is no good, but then they ask if they can copy it, and they ask him to play “Dare or Truth” and then dare him to throw his pizza slice across the room, and when he doesn’t they lick his pizza and put it on the floor…and I remember that they’re the same boys who call themselves the “bug clinic destroyers” and devote their recess time to trying to break up the game that Ben and his friends play…and I remember that the other times I’ve mentioned them to the teacher, she’s said, “Oh, that really surprises me, because they are such *nice* boys,”…and it’s like the picture is slowly coming into focus and I’m recognizing something I wish I had seen months ago.
…And when I email his teacher to tell her all this and Ben comes home and report that she’s taken his table group aside to talk to them about how they all have to make better choices at lunch, because there is no throwing pizza, and how she has told Ben that he’s not the boss of the bug clinic – “She doesn’t understand,” he says, “I’m not bossing the other kids around; I’m a boss like daddy is at work – the manager who makes the schedule and the business cards and the trophies for the best workers each month so we can help the bugs,” suddenly it’s in high-def and I’m finally getting a crystal clear picture of how this year has really been for Ben.
…And then when he finally breaks down, telling me, “I AM bad – I do bad things all the time – just look at all the things Madame has written in my agenda about me,” and flips back through his agenda, page after page, to show me all the notes, I hug my sensitive, perceptive, gifted boy and I sob along with him.
So finally, finally…in the last month of the school year…Ian and I had the meeting with Ben’s teacher that I wish we had had in October.
And finally, in the last month of the school year, I manage to get her to realize that his outward classroom behaviour doesn’t match his internal emotional state.
A huge part of the issue is that he is so sensitive and perceptive to people’s moods – he can perceive the inflection in tone or change in expression, and he internalizes everything. So if he perceives a negative emotional affect, he assumes that it’s his fault – that the person is upset with him. Because his teacher is fairly strict and curt, he assumes she’s always mad at him, and she doesn’t like him.
And he won’t go to her with problems – if he misses an instruction because he’s zoned out, he won’t ask her to repeat it – he’ll just try to figure it out on his own or from the other kids. And in the end he gets it right, but sometimes he’s the last one finished because he’s done the exercise 3 times with 3 different methods before he’s figured out which one he was supposed to do.
And if other kids are picking on him in class or outside, he won’t tell either – so the issue with the last little while is that the other kids at his table were picking on him, so he wasn’t doing well with his desk work.
In this meeting when I talked about the other kids, she said, “I just don’t understand. I mean, Ben has dealt with much worse before. I mean, earlier in the year there were other kids being MUCH worse – like, really being mean, and it didn’t bother him, so I don’t understand why this is bothering him now.”
…and I calmly explained that this is obviously the entire issue, because Ben doesn’t GET upset – he internalizes everything. So if other kids are being mean, he doesn’t get upset with them – he assumes that he has done something wrong. And then he comes home and breaks down and tells me “I’m bad – I do bad things all the time – just look at all the things Madame has written in my agenda about me.”
And that’s when I cried.
And we explained that Ben needs a lot of positive feedback, because he fixates on the negative – so he needs many more positives to make up for every negative that he hears – and right now he’s only seeing and hearing negative, so he’s assuming that he might as well just keep messing around because what does it matter anyway?
And then she tried to reassure us that these are perfectly normal classroom behaviours and she’s not concerned about them in grade 1.
And then I said I understand that she feels that way as a teacher – but as a social worker, if Ben was a kid that I was counseling, and he had told me the things that he has told me about the feelings underlying those behaviours, I would be VERY concerned and want to address them.
Because basically I don’t give a crap about the behaviours either in and of themselves, but in Ben these particular behaviours are concerning because they are a reaction to something that is going on with him emotionally.
And at that point, she finally stopped being defensive and started listening a little harder, and for the last month of grade 1 we agreed on a plan for lots of positive feedback, especially written in his agenda, and lots of checking in with him, at least once a day, asking him how everything is going and if he wants to talk about anything, to build trust – if not with her, at least with the teachers in the school in general.
It took nearly the whole year, but I finally made sure Ben’s voice was heard and his needs were met, at least for a few weeks. Whatever happens, this year I’m not going to be afraid to be *that* mom.
I was a basketcase putting Ben on the school bus this morning – fortunately he didn’t share my trepidation.
…and I take that as a good sign!
Birds flyin’ high, you know how I feel
Sun in the sky, you know how I feel
Breeze driftin’ on by, you know how I feel
It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me.
Yeah, it’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me,
And I’m feelin’ good.
~ Feelin’ Good, Anthony Newley & Leslie Bricusse