The start of each school year brings anxiety for any parent and child, I think. But when your child has special needs, that anxiety is magnified.
Early on, it wasn’t so difficult. Cordy was in a special needs class for kindergarten because of her autism/ADHD, with limited inclusion time in a traditional kindergarten classroom. Her inclusion time was carefully supervised and we had daily reports on how it was going. We wanted to see her do well and get more inclusion time, but there wasn’t much pressure for her to do well since she’d never been in a typical class before.
After doing well with her inclusion time in kindergarten, first grade was entirely a success. It was her first year being fully mainstreamed. She briefly started her day in the special needs classroom, then spent the remainder of the day in her first grade classroom, with a quick check-in at the end of the day with the special needs teacher. There were a few small bumps along the way — most involving keeping Cordy focused — but none of them were dramatic and through good communication with her teachers, we got past each of them easily.
So when second grade came along, we again prepared for the transition and new experiences coming her way. The teacher knew Cordy from lunchroom duty, and Cordy seemed to like her already. Many of the same kids from her first grade class would be in this class, too, and we assumed second grade was going to be just as smooth as first grade.
The school year started well at first, but we soon were getting reports of problems from the special needs teacher. Cordy was distracted. There were occasional outbursts from her. She was hiding under her desk at times and refused to come out.
Cordy’s aide (who was a shared aide & wasn’t always available) was first called on to calm her down and get her focused with the class again. But soon the teacher couldn’t handle the distraction and would send her out of the class. We worried that her second grade teacher was frustrated with the behavior issues and had written her off as a trouble child.
Then, not even a month into the school year, Cordy laid down on the ground when it was time to line up for recess and refused to go back inside. When the principal asked her to stand up, she stuck out her tongue. This resulted in losing her second recess and spending that time in the behavioral management classroom. For my perfectionist child, this punishment was interpreted by her to mean that she was a failure at everything. She even signed her behavior management paper with the extra words “worst child.”
For a month, I felt like we were losing all of the progress we had made. Cordy was beginning to dread going to school. We had to enforce consequences for bad behavior at school, while trying to determine what had changed and why she was acting out so much. Many evenings I’d cry after putting the kids to bed, feeling helpless, unsure of how to guide my child back from being so lost.
And then one day Cordy needed to get something out of her classroom before we left, so I went into the room with her. I stood next to her desk, taking in the entire environment around me, and suddenly it started to make sense. Her desk was the closest to the door, furthest from the teacher. The desk was also right next to the pencil sharpener and the coat racks.
Now imagine that situation as a child who struggles to tune-out all of the sensory input around her. The grinding of a pencil being sharpened. The rustling of coats being pushed aside and unzipping of backpacks to grab forgotten items. Doors shutting, people talking, and footsteps as people shuffle past the open door in the hallway. A fan providing a steady hum to circulate the hot air in the room. General classroom noise of kids whispering to each other, papers being shifted around, chairs creaking, etc. And a teacher attempting to be heard over the noise by raising her voice to make sure everyone hears her.
It’s no wonder she was distracted. Cordy has trouble focusing and is easily upset by too much sensory input. She interpreted her teacher’s loud voice as yelling directly at her. The background noises irritated her and triggered anxiety attacks, causing her to hide under her desk or shriek in class. Taking away her recess times only confirmed in her mind that she was a problem who is different from other kids, and deprived her of the physical activity she needed during recess (stimming) to release that anxiety and help her find focus to get through the remainder of her day. Her brain was short-circuiting before she reached midday, keeping her in a constant state of fight-or-flight.
I was convinced at this point that the only way to improve the situation was by changing the situation. I spoke with her special needs teacher and then with the principal about switching her to the other second grade class, explaining my hypothesis that she was acting out based on sensory overload and anxiety. I had gathered all of the evidence, matching up behaviors with probable causes, and was prepared to advocate for my sensitive child until some change was made.
Thankfully, they agreed. They’ve known Cordy since pre-K, so they knew she’s a kid who enjoys school and loves to learn. They could also see the behaviors were not because she was a difficult child, but instead were the symptom of her struggling with a difficult situation. We agreed to move her to the other second grade class immediately.
They also suggested sending her to third grade during reading, reasoning that because she was testing far beyond second grade in her reading ability, more challenging work could keep her engaged so she’s less affected by the sensory environment. The idea of her going to another class for reading made me nervous, but they assured me she would always have her aide for that part of the day to ease the transition. I also asked that she no longer lose recess for behavior issues, but instead lose other privileges, like computer time, so that she could reset herself with time on the playground.
The changes were implemented the next week and the transition was smooth, other than Cordy announcing to her old class, “You’re all too loud, so I’m leaving this class!” Oops.
We saw results on the first day, when my normally moody child came out of the school with a smile on her face and told me, “School was great today! I love my new teacher. He has a quiet, calm voice.” The remainder of the school year wasn’t perfect by any means, but there were no further calls home from school or major disruptions in the class. Changing the situation worked to change the behavior.
Having a daughter with autism/ADHD has changed how I think of education and how I view a child’s behaviors. I’ve learned that a classroom setting is not one-size-fits-all, and that behavior problems in school can be clues to a mismatch between child and classroom. The child who was happy in first grade and now a “behavior problem” in second grade probably isn’t trying to cause trouble. Instead, there’s something bothering her, and finding the source of the behavior can help correct it.
The greatest lesson I learned from last year is to stay involved in your child’s school and be an active part of setting up the right routine and environment for your child. We’ve always kept in touch with the special needs teacher and the principal, and it’s that relationship we’ve had with them that helped us get such quick action. If you see a behavior change in your child at school, consider what the underlying problem could be. In our case, we knew Cordy needed fewer distractions and a change of classroom. Other parents may find insecurity is the cause, either due to bullying or self-doubt over more difficult material.
Since learning to be a behavior detective last year, I’m feeling confident that third grade will be better. We met with the teachers ahead of time to discuss strategies for keeping Cordy’s focus and how to handle her anxiety. They’re aware of what to look for as well as what could be causing her behaviors. If there are problems, they’ll contact us to work on solutions together. We’re a strong team going into this year, and our early planning and communication will hopefully ensure a positive and productive third grade experience.