Friday, April 18, 2014

The Pathology of Education, Part the First

This has been a rough rough year for my Monkey Child. Bright and cheerful in Kindergarten, known for her smile, it has been distressing this year to find her angrier and more sullen and frequently weepy and a lot LESS smiley. Formerly a pretty chill kid, she has been increasingly fidgety, constantly humming and tapping pencils and jiggling legs - while she's always been a kid in motion, we've seen a dramatic uptick in the fidgeting this school year. While siblings aren't always known for getting along like best buddies, Monkey and Bookworm have been butting heads more and more as the school year goes on. It's also been hard to watch her school grades drop. I've been watching my baby girl, such a bright spark, implode, and I'm worried about that spark going out entirely. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I've seen her truly joyfully happy since school started; before this year, I could probably count on one hand the number of meltdowns she had in the course of a year. She's been keeping up a pretty good front in school, but when she gets home, she has NOTHING left. Something is Very. Very. Wrong.

Concerned by the increasing gap between her academic ability and her grades in school, when the pediatrician asked, at our annual well-child visit, if we had any other concerns, I spoke up and right then and there got a referral to a neurodevelopmental pediatrician in our HMO. Within 2 weeks she was assessed and given a diagnosis of ADD and has a referral pending as of this writing for a speech/language assessment. Wow, that creates the perfect storm of crazy thoughts, and here's why (long-background-story alert!):

When Bookworm was born, it became more and more apparent that there were "wiring" issues: sensory problems where she became so easily overwhelmed that she was hitting and scratching people and melting down with alarming regularity, to the point where she was suspended - TWICE! - in the first month of public Kindergarten; social difficulties, having a hard time reading people and making friends; visual problems big enough that she couldn't find a pencil on her desktop if there were more than 2 other items on the surface; coordination issues that made her handwriting outright dysgraphic; motor planning problems that to this day can make it hard for her to get things done easily. With a laundry list THIS large, it should have been a no-brainer that she should have been assessed and gotten HELP with these challenges, but despite repeated attempts through the school and through the same HMO, I was left hanging, with no support to speak of. We spent hundreds of dollars on our own for OT until we simply ran out of money, and when we finally got the concession thru the HMO that OT was needed, I was the one who shlepped Bookworm an hour each way once a week down to DC because they wouldn't spring for anything closer to home.

At her first real assessment thru the HMO, after all the checklists and questionnaires were scored and compiled, she scored "clinical" for PDD - and at the time I didn't know what that was, and they weren't about to explain it to me! - and "normal" for attentional issues, but at 5YO I was still sent home with a prescription for Ritalin - for ADD!!! At the very least, the fact that she was hurting other children and throwing furniture at this age should have been a contra-indication for stimulants so strong that they're registered as Controlled Substances, but they weren't brooking any disagreements from me, and I was too physically and mentally exhausted (I had a second child in the middle of the preschool experience) and bewildered to know where to go next, so for the next many years, we muddled through as best we could. I researched my own DIY OT, read up on Sensory Processing Disorder (and found I knew WAY more about it than Pediatricians #1 and #2), and homeschooled her for 2 years, working on social skills and finding whatever resources the public library had to offer, including social stories, which are a widely-used way to help kids on the spectrum learn social skills. I am still fairly sure that she has Aspergers - and that I do as well - but in the absence of an actual diagnosis, there are NO services for her in school, NO accommodations. I even had an assessment for Aspergers lined up and the week before, the HMO decided they would not cover the cost of the test - and we didn't have $600 to drop on one day of testing, and so we continued to muddle.

From the first assessment at 3YO (where she slept like a log the night before and presented like an angel and made me look like a paranoid mommy) till now at 12YO where she's really coping quite well with middle school, even excelling there and LIKING it (which is more than I can say for my own middle school experience LOL), she has come SUCH a long long way - but it haunts me, wondering how much further she COULD have gone with the support, even a little targeted help at the right time. (It also infuriates me that for many many years I wore myself out advocating and studying and doing the therapy that nobody else would give her myself, with NO support from the HMO or the schools.) The special ed resource teachers at her elementary school did let her eat lunch with them in Kindergarten to help get her out of the cafeteria noise that did her in every day, assuming she had been able to hold it together that long, and for that I am eternally grateful, but every time I asked about an assessment, I was put off and talked out of it - and I am angry at myself for not having the mental stamina to deal with pushing that issue, in a school system with a pretty hefty annual attorney payout when special ed cases went to court; I knew that I could not handle another defeat, not one of that magnitude and that degree of finality, not without completely losing what little momma-focus I had left.

Talk about "baggage."

So with all that behind me, the speed and ease of this diagnosis for Little Sister, who otherwise is pretty neurotypical by comparison, is utterly bewildering.

And then, my mind began wandering in another direction entirely. I remembered reading a few articles about how, when Common Core is introduced to a school or district or state, diagnoses of ADD correspondingly increase - a LOT. I thought about my own distaste for Common Core's effect especially on younger grades - Monkey being in third grade this year, at 8YO - and what my specific objections have been from the start: primarily that the academic expectations are too far beyond what most young kids are neurologically and developmentally ready for. (If you have the time - and I highly recommend making the time if you have a child in a US public school! - this 26-minute video of an Early Childhood expert discussing the developmental inappropriateness of Common Core for young kids is outstanding and informative. If you only have half that time, this 13-minute video of a speech by Licensed Social Worker Mary Calamia recounting her observations in her practice of changes in what she saw in both teachers and students is illuminating and possibly uncomfortable, and many of the things she describes WE saw with Monkey.) And I realized that many of the suggested accommodations the pediatrician suggested are things that pretty much ALL third-graders are likely to benefit from: smaller groups/classes, work broken into smaller chunks, with checking to make sure she got and understood the directions, frequent breaks with opportunity for physical movement. ALL of these things are hallmarks of good teaching, especially in Early Childhood where brains are still developing. Early Childhood goes up to 8YO, which *is* pretty much Third Grade. But increasingly, students from Kindergarten onward are doing more and more written work, in seats, in "blocks" instead of smaller chunks; math blocks are about 90 minutes long here, and reading/language blocks 120 minutes long. That is a LONG LONG time to realistically expect a young child to be still and attentive.

Further wanderings took me to the MSA, Maryland's standardized test, given every March. I knew this year was going to be hard; even before school started, I worried that my physical-activity-craving kid most of whose thoughts refuse to be boxed would not fare well on a test that takes up 8-11 hours, depending on grade (longer for grades 5 & 8 who also have a science component in addition to math & reading), but I didn't know HOW bad this year was going to be. When it became apparent that Maryland was planning to administer the test BUT that this year the scores weren't going to be used to evaluate our school or it teachers, I wrote to our county and told them we were refusing to have our children take it. (The first installment of that long and drawn-out episode is recounted here.)

Can you see where I'm going with this? You probably can, especially if you also have a child who has undergone behavior changes in the past year or two since Common Core came to YOUR school, and/or if you have a child who NEEDS to MOVE - in other words, a normal active child, right? Or.... is the child's need to move, to interact, to be social now pathological?

To be continued.....

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Please keep it clean. Differences of opinion aren't a problem for me. Rudeness is. Thankyouverymuch. :-)