Monday, February 9, 2015

Raising a "Normal" Child - Preschool

I think the worst part so far about raising my son is having the expectation that school will be a place to watch him thrive and be challenged, and then have that expectation blow up in your face when you instead feel like school has opened your eyes to the possibility that your child is somehow broken. I have come to realize that my husband and I realize we are not alone in this experience, and this post is for other parents who are feeling overwhelmed by their children's inability to "behave" in school. (Warning: it's long, and the beginning of a series.)

Disorganized does not mean broken
I can't imagine any parent being happy to discover that their child has some sort of disability. In the United States, ADHD is the most common disorder affecting children today, if these statistics from the CDC are accurate. But in my quest to discover why my child was "broken," I discovered why there are people out there that think ADHD is a myth. As it turns out, my son is quite "normal" after all.

When he was a toddler, he was happy and inquisitive. He was also stubborn and strong-willed. He was every bit as much a carbon-copy personality of myself, tempered with the tactile need to experience his world through his hands - like his dad. There didn't seem to be anything odd or abnormal about his behavior or development. Although an only child, he did have opportunities to play with other children at parks, playgrounds, and family gatherings. Not once did we think he had socialization problems.

And then he went to "preschool." Suddenly, our happy son turned into the holy terror of the classroom. He attended child care full-time for a little over a year and his "teachers" were young and inexperienced. I know because for a short time I was one of those "teachers." He "wouldn't play nicely" with others, hitting them with toys or pushing them away. It felt like every day I received some complaint or incident report about his behavior. Finally, I couldn't take it. My son's behavior wasn't entirely his fault, right? It had to be that, even though I enjoyed working with these people, they weren't trained teachers and they weren't even parents themselves so how could they possibly know how to teach my son? Right?

I decided to put him in a bilingual preschool where he could experience cultural diversity and gain a second language. I also eventually quit working for the child care facility because I had come to realize that being a parent also does not qualify you to be an expert in child care. Not when the job included "curriculum" and expected you to be an uncertificated educator. The company offered job training, but I concluded that in order to do the job right it required extensive education that cost money; and the investment was not worth a low-paying job in the high-stress child care industry.

But my son fared no better in the bilingual school. In fact, he grew worse, even becoming physical with the teachers. My husband and I started to believe that maybe, just maybe, there was something wrong with our son's behavior. Maybe the teachers were right to assume that his behavior was "not normal." I cried some nights thinking about where I went wrong as a parent, and my husband would get depressed every time he thought about instances of misbehavior. By the time he was in kindergarten, our son was behaving badly at home, embarrassing us at parties (which he stopped getting invited to), and choosing not to play with anyone at parks or playgrounds. Our hearts were breaking and our dream of a happy family was falling apart.

I know some people would quickly discount "parenting how-to books" as a source for raising kids, but I am not afraid to seek out other perspectives, especially when we live in a society that no longer believes in extended family bonds. I mean, really, how close are you to your parents, both physically and emotionally, and when was the last time you asked (or received unsolicited) advice from a grandparent or elder relative? Since I live far away from the people who raised me (except my mother, who lives in the same state, but still not conveniently close by), I had to search for parental support through reading. I've read dozens of parenting books. Most of them are not worth buying, but every one was worth reading. One in particular I would suggest to parents having difficulty with boys is Back to Normal by Enrico Gnaulati.

I understand now that my initial instinct, that my son's first "school" experience was not appropriate, was correct. Child care is supposed to be "caring for your child," and preschool is supposed to be a socializing exercise to prepare them for working with others in school. Neither of these things is supposed to BE SCHOOL. I shouldn't have been expecting anyone to "teach" my son anything other than how to share, how to express his feelings appropriately, and how to make choices.

"Curriculum," while a wonderful opportunity to give children experiential learning, is not developmentally appropriate for young children if it requires a rigid structure and schedule. SCHEDULE is good. It allows children to understand the concepts of time, transition, and even delayed gratification. STRUCTURE is bad. It forces children to give up any sense of control over their already tightly controlled environment, and this at an age when DEVELOPMENTALLY they are trying to understand their individuality and place in their environment.

I also understand my mistake in putting my son so soon into a bilingual "school." He was trying to deal with baggage from the last preschool, and now he also had to deal with learning a new set of expectations that came with a language barrier. I hadn't known it yet, but my son had become anxious. Basically, adults scared him because they were the ones always scolding him. I know now that we - his parents - must have scared him, too. I had inadvertently ramped that anxiety up by putting him into an environment where he didn't understand what other children and teachers were saying around him. Even though they would often speak English to him to help connect the two languages, they spoke the other language to everyone else.

By the time we put him in kindergarten, my husband and I practically anticipated the calls and emails from the teacher, telling us how poorly our son was behaving. And in true self-prophesying fashion, that is exactly what we got starting barely a month into the school year. But unlike the "teachers" our son had in the past, his kindergarten teacher saw the positive in him - the first who ever tried to look beyond his negative behavior. If he had a teacher like her from the beginning, I know now that our son's experiences would have been different.
Happier times

I now find it not unreasonable for me to assume that the care givers we entrust our children to in their early years should have proper schooling in at least basic knowledge of how children develop both physically and mentally. This assumption does not come cheap, as cost often goes up with quality. I also realize that as resilient as children are, you can traumatize a child inadvertently through misguided choices. Learning all that I have, I would have done so many things differently.

First, I would never have sent my son to any preschool or child-care facility without first researching the experience of its staff. For many working parents, child care is a necessity, not a luxury, and cost becomes the dominant factor in a family's choice of "preschool." In my case it was a luxury, as I chose not to work after the birth of my son, and if a quality preschool was unaffordable, I should have forgone it. Working parents must weigh the developmental needs of their children before putting them in ANY child care setting. Either make sacrifices to your budget to accommodate a higher-cost-but-higher-quality preschool, or consider having a stay-at-home-parent. If you are willing to take your chances with your child's early development, then by all means, go with what you can afford, even if it isn't quite the quality you want. Your child may have the right personality to handle conformity and quickly develop appropriate coping skills. All I'm saying is that I took a chance and my son couldn't cope.

In hindsight, I would have rather kept my son at home and continued socializing him through public outings than put him in an institutionalized setting before the age of four. Thanks to the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act, "preschool" is exactly what it sounds like - school: where children learn to listen to "teachers" and to follow directions by doing activities when they are told and how they are told to do them. Toddlers are literally in a classroom-like environment where they have learning centers that teach them to recognize words, count to ten, even write. The Common Core is a direct result of the NCLB act, and preschool is now preparatory for Kindergarten Common Core learning standards.

Every preschool and child care provider will tell you that their philosophy is that children learn through play. But in my experience, there isn't a whole lot of playing involved. Here is an example of how STRUCTURE can harm a child's development:
Imagine your three-year-old child's day starts off being dropped off at 7am, where for an hour she gets to explore her classroom, but isn't allowed to play with anything other than what the teacher puts out. Let's say it's a couple of picture books, a few dolls, and a basket of blocks. But she's interested in the trains on a shelf. If she tries to play with the trains, she is scolded by her teacher.
From 8am to 9am is breakfast and story time. Your child finishes her breakfast but isn't interested in the story. She sits in back of the group and quietly traces circles on the carpet and sings a song. Again the teacher scolds her for not listening, but also for being disruptive. 
image via the
From 9am to 10am children rotate through "activity centers" where for a set amount of time, we'll say 20 minutes, children get to play at one of these centers: math, reading, art, building, or sensory (such as a water or sand table). Your child chooses the art center. After 20 minutes the teacher tells the class to choose another center, but your child is not interested in the other centers and chooses to stay where she is. Again, she is scolded because she is not following the rules set by the teacher. 
From 10am to 11am is outside time, where the kids can go to the playground. Your child likes to swing, so she runs to the swing set and hops on. Both swings are full now and there is another child waiting his turn. She doesn't want to give up her swing and tells the boy to go away. The boy tells the teacher, who tells her to get off and let the boy have his turn. She tells the teacher no, she isn't done swinging yet. She is now in trouble again for not sharing the swing, and being disrespectful and uncooperative. 
11am to noon is spent in guided activity. This is where the teacher performs a curriculum "lesson" in the form of a group project. It could be making a block city and creating a story to go with it (teaching citizenship), cutting out handprints to make a tree mural and talking about how a tree grows (science), or learning to sing a song about counting backwards (math). These all sound like wonderful learning opportunities, and they are. But not every child will find every "lesson" to be fun and engaging. And if a child is not engaged, the child is not "listening" and therefore not behaving appropriately. Oh dear, your child is in trouble again. 
Now, this is only half of your child's day. The rest of the day is filled with more activity centers and guided lesson plans. By the time you pick your child up at 4pm, she is stressed and unhappy, although you may not notice it at first. For the next few weeks, she may still enjoy going to preschool because it is her chance to see friends. But eventually even her friendships will become strained because by now, she has earned the subconscious label as the class trouble-maker. 
No teacher would ever tell you that your child is being labelled. And in practice he or she is not. But the way adults and eventually other children start to change their own behaviors around your child in anticipation of poor behavior will inevitably imprint itself upon your child's sense of self that she really is "a problem." And once that is cemented firmly into a child's mind, it is a difficult monster to remove.

If I knew then what I know now, that monster would never have gotten a hold of my son. Back then I did not understand how my child's personality was not compatible with such a rigid structure. I also didn't understand that my son needed a chance to breathe and remove that monster growing in his mind and eating away his self-image before jumping into a new and completely different kind of preschool. I didn't know about transitions, the best way to offer a child choices, or recognizing stress and anxiety in a child's behavior. I do know about these things now, and I also know it isn't too late to help my son. My child is just as normal as the "good kids" but forced to conform to a completely different definition of normal that most children, especially boys, simply are not ready for. It's not ADHD, although it is anxiety, which does get to have a classified disorder. But it is something we can address as a family and as a community. I know that my child is not broken.

Image credit Mari Z.
Before you give up on your child and yourselves, try one more time to discover what is really going on with your child. If I were to take a psych evaluation today, it would most certainly slap an ADHD label on me. Why? Because I have a hard time organizing, I don't maintain focus on one thing for very long (I walked away from this post six times already), I have poor math skills (thank you third grade teacher), and I hyper-focus on one kind of activity (I can read for hours). Do I think I have a mental problem? Maybe, but this one isn't it.

Some might want to see a similar label placed on my child, if only to give a diagnosable excuse for his behavior that doesn't lay blame on either parents or school. But I am willing and happy to take that blame. And I also have every intention of putting blame on the school he goes to now. My expectations have not changed. It is their responsibility to make sure my son thrives and is challenged. But I go further in that they will provide an environment that is safe and non-threatening where he can succeed. Bullies come in many shapes and sizes, and a school's communal expectation of "normal behavior" can be just as damaging as any classroom bully. Believe in my expectations, and adopt them yourselves. Fight for your child's right to have a successful school experience now and in the future.

No comments:

Post a Comment