The Difference of One Year

Today marks the one year anniversary of our son attending a therapeutic day school.

A year ago, we were an emotional wreck. Our dreams of having our son mainstreamed at our neighborhood school had ended. And with that, we felt disappointment, failure, hopelessness.

But, as the old proverb says, every end is a new beginning.

In retrospect, the actual end of the dream did not come suddenly. It was more like a slow-motion crash that you see happening, but are powerless to stop.

Throughout the first several months of Kai’s kindergarten year, we received near-daily incident reports from his school about some inappropriate behavior he had engaged in. He wasn’t listening to his teacher or following directions. He was trying to hurt himself or someone else. He was shouting or otherwise acting out.

Beyond the behavior issues, Kai was making almost no academic progress. While all agreed that he was a very bright kid, you couldn’t tell by the work, or lack thereof, that he did in school every day.

The pressure we felt was enormous.

There was the pressure we felt from others. My wife, who took Kai to school every day, suffered the disapproving glare of the other parents. Whether real or imagined, she felt that they were looking at her and thinking, “here is the terrible mother and her bad kid.” I was certain that not all of the other mothers felt that way, but was disheartened when I found out that some did indeed complain to the principal that our son was in their kids’ class.

We also had a lot of self-imposed pressure. We thought that if our son didn’t do well in school now, he would never be self-sufficient in life. It was as if his entire future rested on whether he could succeed as a kindergartener. With each passing day, as incidents continued to occur, the dream was being crushed, and the pressure kept building.

Finally, about halfway through the school year, the school “suggested” that we find alternative placement. It was the end of the dream. But, over time, we would discover that the pressure was gone as well.

Our immediate concern, though, was to address the “what now?” question. We were discouraged to find out how few viable school alternatives there were. While we found a number of schools that specialized in kids with autism, all seemed to be more appropriate for kids that had more severe disabilities than Kai. For higher-functioning kids, there were few choices.

We ended up visiting five schools, a mix of both private and public. One school’s approach was at odds with that of our son’s therapeutic providers. Another had the right philosophy, but did not have kids that were developmentally similar to our son. Another was too far away, we decided.

We ended up going with a public school that did not specialize in kids with autism; rather, it is a school for kids with behavior issues. When we were first asked to consider this school, we had trepidations about sending our son there. A school for kids with behavior issues? Our son isn’t a bad kid like those kids. Won’t he learn bad behavior from all of them? Wouldn’t he be better off at a place where the kids are well-behaved so they can model the appropriate behavior for him? I do realize that we felt a similar sort of prejudice about these kids as the parents at our neighborhood school had about our son.

Nevertheless, we addressed our concerns with the program coordinator of the school. He first asked us how it was working out for our son in our neighborhood school where kids are modeling good behavior for Kai. We had to acknowledge that it was not working out so well. He then explained that kids like our son cannot learn proper behaviors simply by watching their peers. They need more help. They need to be taught how to cope, and how to make better choices. This therapeutic school has the staff and supports in place to do this, he said. He went on to explain that any poor choices that the kids may sometimes make are not examples to be followed, but, rather, are used as learning opportunities for all the kids.

And so, Kai started going there last February.

It turned out to be just the place for him. The other kids, we soon found out, weren’t any more “bad” than our son. Some have ADHD, some are bipolar. Some have autism. But, like our son, they are bright kids who have struggled with maintaining appropriate behaviors.

The staff at this school are well trained, expert at dealing with kids with special needs, especially those with the issues our son has. He does excellent academic work there. He gets speech therapy. He sees a social worker twice a week. He gets help on developing social skills. And, most importantly, he is learning how to control his impulses and to make better choices.

As we turn the calendar, I want to point out something else that is notable. While today is Kai’s first anniversary at school, yesterday marked the completion of his first whole month of school without a major incident.

What a difference a year makes.

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