We phased him in slowly. For weeks he went for an hour. Then he went for an hour and a half. Once he could handle that, he stayed for 2 hours. Every life change at home threw him off again. By the end of the year he still wasn’t at school for the entire half-day. His many red flag behaviors drove us to seek evaluation for any neurodiversities. He registered off the charts for hyperactive-impulsive ADHD. While this is just a label, it pointed us in a good direction for his specific struggles and resources to help.
We have developed and tried to implement routines. We have purchased sensory items for him to bite instead of his friends. We have a visual timer that shows remaining time in pie pieces so he has a warning for upcoming transitions. We have seen specialists for digestive woes.
We are constantly evaluating our expectations to determine which hills we are willing to die on because it’s all hills all the time over here and they just can’t all be defensible.
We have talked and listened and shifted our perspective. We have discovered that 99 times out of 100 the reason he is upset is not the reason we would have guessed, and the solutions we are throwing at him aren’t coming close to the problem he’s actually having.
Re-adjusting to school was hard. He was able to do the full half day, but almost never without incident. His amazing teacher has a sixth sense for his triggers and preempts so much, but she’s one person in a room of twenty preschoolers with a wide range of needs; she’s just not going to catch them all.
We helped Oliver make a box to keep teethers and other sensory objects on a shelf at school to use when he got mad. He was allowed to keep his lion lovey on the shelf too. Sometimes he removes himself from the classroom and finds a rug in the hallway to calm himself down without any prompting. The progress he has made is impressive and I can only imagine exhausting for him; it’s been exhausting for us.
Then, Thanksgiving and Christmas came. For all the joy and love and holiday magic of the season, it is also still a stressful time even if you aren’t a 3 year old who thrives on routine. Personal life stress plus holiday stress threw me into probably the most intense anxiety whirlwind followed by the deepest depressive pit I’ve ever endured. Any tether the poor kid had to normalcy and stability was hanging by a thread and fraying from the strain.
I knew his behavior at school had dipped again, however, knowing why and knowing how to work with it kept him afloat. I was already working with his teacher on a new plan for pick up. Given the distance to his school, I arrive to pick him up from the playground anywhere from 15 minutes early to 5 minutes late. Depending on the chaos of the classroom, sometimes they aren’t even out to the playground when I arrive. I don’t know how it took me 2 months to realize, but letting Charlotte play on the playground and giving him and unpredictable amount of time to keep playing until I unilaterally decided it was time to go was confusing for him and sent him into his go-to “I’m not in control of this situation”, fight-or-flight mode.
As we have been doing with every issue we’ve encountered for the past year, we talked to him about it, found out his concerns, stated ours, and then set out to find a solution. We asked his teacher if we could send an analog watch with a mark at 12:00 so he’d have a visual cue for pick up. She wasn’t against it, but hearing that he was concerned about having time to play with his friends, she suggested that he be allowed to play until the all-day kids lined up to go in for lunch. Assuming I had the time to wait, he would then be allowed to play and expend some energy as long as any other given friend from his class.
This worked instantly. Not only was he not panicked about when I’d decide he was done, another problem I hadn’t noticed was addressed. Since his teacher now tells him it’s time to line up and then hands him over to me, he doesn’t have any confusion about who his adult is. Even trying to come up with an adult world example of this dissonance makes me uneasy because I certainly couldn’t tolerate mixed signals as to which realm of expectations I was being asked to operate under. This new pickup process is simple. Until they line up, it’s school rules; once he’s with me, it’s mom rules.
Seeing him flourish and improve at school proved a great contrast to the turbulence at home. Knowing I was not holding up my end of the bargain on routine, empathy, and stability, I made my mental health a priority. I started therapy, and then, against every non-confrontational bone in my body, I walked away from that therapist and found a better one. I took the scary leap of letting go of my barely working antidepressants to try possibly better antidepressants and a stimulant. I hope they’ll move me from just surviving to somewhere closer to thriving. So far I have felt much worse than ever before and also much better than I have in a long time; it hasn’t even been a week on the new meds.
Just when I felt like I could breathe normally again, because my head was predictably above water more than below, we had a snowy weekend, a day off of school, and then a delay day.
For most families that means snowmen, hot chocolate, movies in pajamas, and maybe a pancake breakfast before heading back to school. For the Olivers of the world it means disregulation. He doesn’t have an existing protocol for packing up his sled and coming home. He doesn’t have a routine for dad being home extra days in a row followed by dad having to go back to work. He’s excited that he gets to sled outside his school with his friends instead of going to the playground, but he also has to create a whole new construct of expectations, rules, and possible outcomes.
This particular day was a perfect storm of familiar enough that the differences were glaring. His 6th Sense teacher was helping another group of students inside the building when I came for pick up. Given the unique snow situation I thought it would be fun to let Charlotte play too until the all-day kids went in. Not having foreseen the “authority figures from two different worlds” problem, I figured letting him play was all I needed to respect. And for a while, things were fine.
Then he decided he wanted a turn on the sled after another classmate reached the bottom of the hill. His teacher’s communal classroom blue plastic sled is an exact replica of his sled, except she bought hers at Target and his was clearly handcrafted by elves in Santa’s workshop.
He grabbed the sled. Classmate grabbed the sled. Oliver pulled. Classmate pulled. Oliver tackled Classmate like your over-competetive cousin at the backyard post-thanksgiving football game.
Oliver often dials it up to eleven when his peers would top off at maybe a six. This extreme reaction even surprised me. My ever-quantitative hypervigilant constant evaluation of my son’s triggers would have expected a level 8 reaction at most. I was down that hill faster than your over-competetive cousin when it’s time to go out to the backyard for the post-thanksgiving football game.
I started out calm(ish) by sheer virtue of the WTF factor. ” Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! What happened?! Look, Classmate looks hurt! He looks sad! Can you go talk to him?”
Oliver was in the wrong. There’s no debating that. When a preschooler is that enraged he is in no place to logically assess the ratio of his wrongdoing against the perceived wrong against him. What both kids needed in that moment was their person, in this case, their Mom. When Oliver is given space and time to calm down, he always comes to empathy, apology, and restorative justice on his own. His logical brain gets it when he’s not hijacked by his emotional brain.
My logical brain knows this when I’m not hijacked by my emotional brain. Sadly, I was shocked and embarrassed by his behavior. It was pick up time, so many parents witnessed my kid losing his bananas… again, including Classmate’s mom. In order to get everyone moved along as quickly as was humanly possible I tried to rush the apology. I held Oliver’s arm, half dragging him up the hill to talk to his peer. Another adult mentioned to me that I ought to say something to classmate’s mom because she was visibly upset. As I was intentionally strapped to a ticking time bomb, hoping to throw myself on my womb-fruit granade, I didn’t take the well-intentioned suggestion.
I tried guilt, I tried anger, I tried offering false alternatives, anything to get him to “sorry” faster. If you know Oliver, you can only imagine how well this went for me. I ended up leaving a crying Charlotte on a snow bank while I ran to catch Oliver before he ran into traffic in his efforts to flee from me and from his own embarrassment and anger. I caught him and contorted myself into a five point harness, trying to aggressively hug the anger out him. When I saw the other family heading to their car, I hefted my 34lb sack of hissing, kicking potatoes over my shoulder, and tried to carry him to face his moral obligation to apologize. I’m out of shape; we didn’t make it.
You know how I said he comes to empathy on his own given space and time? It’s been 2 days. He still gets angry when I try to talk about it with him. Eventually he told me he only wants to talk to his therapist about it. We haven’t seen his thoughts and feelings doctor since September. I honestly believe I botched my reaction so badly that he can’t separate the feelings that drove him to push from the feelings he had after.
I’m not saying this to shoulder all the blame for his behavior nor to excuse it. I just know where my kid is and where he isn’t yet and I’m slowly learning what gets us moving 1 step forward and what sends us 2 steps back. Moving forward means solving the underlying problems and building the skills so he doesn’t feel like every confrontation is an attack and, even when he does, he can find something in his mental/emotional/social toolbox that works more like a screwdriver and less like a hammer. Here, he was seeing me throwing hammers while telling him to find his screwdriver. It was a setback, but recoverable. At least I thought so.
So we come to the second chapter of this edge of your seat thriller: the phone call.
Mrs. Teacher called that evening to set up a parent-teacher conference to talk about where Oliver was. Classmate’s Mom would be meeting with her and the school’s director to discuss the incident, including a review of handbook guidelines regarding disruptive behavior.
I made it through the call without crying, barely. Then the old familiar anxiety took over. How badly was this kid hurt that the director was involved? I knew Oliver had regressed a bit, but is it worse than I thought? Am I that parent who refuses to believe their kid is “that kid”? Do all the other parents hear stories of violent outburst Oliver? What if were getting kicked out? What if we have rearranged our schedules, made Charlotte take half naps in the car, and continue to experience financial hell for the only school we’ve ever found where Oliver thrives, only to be asked to leave?
I joked with John at dinner that if we no longer have a to pay for school at least we’d be saving $X/month. Oliver chimed in with the ever optimistic “Then we would have enough money to go to Disney World!” We had been speaking somewhat cryptically so he wasn’t fully aware what we were discussing. Still, I couldn’t help but think that kind of dream come true wouldn’t send quite the right message after what had happened. On the other hand, my knee jerk reaction to sh** hitting the fan is to start price checking vacations to the happiest place on Earth.
To add insult to injury, we scheduled our conference directly following Oliver’s 4 year checkup, complete with shots. We went from school to McDonalds and spent a leisurely 45 minutes at home eating nuggets while watching “Daniel Tiger Gets a Shot”. Then he endured his immunizations and was brought immediately to his grandfather’s house while we went onto the conference. While he enjoys time with his Grumpy, he does not enjoy transitions, and was already upset he couldn’t spend the night there (and stay in one place for a while) before we even dropped him off.
It’s hard to go into a meeting about the wellbeing of your child when you are still exhausted, confused, ashamed, anxious, and angry from your daily struggles with that same child. Luckily those concerns fly right out the window when you hear that this is he 4th time in one month he has hurt this same kid, that he is on a probationary period of 30 days, and if he harms any student in that time he will be asked to take a haitus until the following school year.
*Jaw drop emoji*
When you spend years in fertility clinics and you finally hear that tiny heartbeat on the first ultrasound, you never think “He’s going to have Daddy’s eyes and my temper, and there’s no way in hell he’s going to be able to refrain from hitting someone over a perceived slight for a consecutive month.” We didn’t set up his nursery with calming paint colors and then hang a decorative sign saying “it’s been X# of days since my last incident report” on the wall. The thing is, with bright, curious, fiercely loving, sensitive, active, spirited, challenging kids, you learn to mourn the parenting experience you fantasized about and you love the one you’re with. And not in a settling kind of way, but because you can’t help but love the entire package of them just as they are and just as they grow to be, in their own way and in their own time.
We are lucky to have found a school and a teacher that gets our kid. Where he has structure and firm boundaries, but also empathy and a deep respect of the child, his own will, and his own way. I can’t describe what it’s like to face the possibility of losing that when I am completely out of control of the situation. Even if I wanted to employ strict punishments, sticker charts, or any of the other things neither John and I, nor his school agree to be in his best interest, none of it could manufacture reliable change overnight. For the next thirty days I would be walking on eggshells avoiding artificial dyes in his cereals, worrying that his digestive disturbances would alter his mood, trying to find acceptable outlets for his energy despite winter weather, and losing sleep over whether or not he was losing sleep. Other kids can have a bad day, but Oliver has to keep it together every weekday for a month.
His teacher was prepared to be by his side, like a shadow, for the foreseeable future. She’d be on him like glue during transitions, during any times where things were different from the usual, or anytime her spidey-sense told her he might get upset. I asked and was reassured that Oliver was not specifically targeting this other child; his actions aren’t calculated or bullying but purely reactive and for some reason he has been reacting close to this child a lot lately.
The teacher already takes one or the other children with her if she needs to step out the classroom, knowing she can’t leave Oil and Water under the care of only the one other teacher, or even their one regular teacher and one substitute. For all intents and purposes, everyone involved is doing all they can, but just like I couldn’t rush Oliver’s natural empathy to wring an apology out of him, we can’t rush his maturity fast enough to ensure a peacefully and safe classroom. It’s not fair to anybody, but we all understand that 19 kids can’t be at risk because one kid has a rockier path to building adaptive behavior.
When you think you’ve been squeezed and juiced so that you are only a mere pulpy husk of the person you once were, sometimes you can push a little harder dig a little deeper, and find a little more. In fact, when you see someone who has no familial interest in your child also juicing themselves down to the peel for your kid, it’s damn near impossible to do anything else.
We were ready for constant vigilance. We were ready for our hearts to drop every time the phone rang. We were ready for morning car ride conversations about “using our words”, drop off line send offs of “I love you and remember to be kind”, and hesitant pick-up greetings asking “how was your day?” We were ready to keep him home at the first sign of a bad day, even if that meant turning around from the drop off line and driving the 40 minutes back home.
We will still have a lot of that to contend with, but somehow we managed to come to a solution that should mitigate a great deal of Oliver’s struggles and protect the upset family from further incidents. Not only that, it may actually be better for Oliver in the end.
Starting after the three day weekend, Oliver will get one of his recurring wishes and he will start school by joining his friends at lunch. He will then have the traditional Montessori block of uninterrupted work until all of the children go to the playground and then home for the day. Instead of spending the morning in a full classroom of twenty, he will be at home with me. No morning rush, less nagging, and more time for a complete breakfast. Oh, and ample time for toileting to avoid the years long battle with encopresis that has been running like a disgusting sound track behind all of the more front-and-center behavioral drama. Charlotte will get to nap when she wants to instead of passing out in the car for a half hour at 9am and then refusing to nap the rest of the day. We can pack a lunch that Oliver gets to help prepare, instead of the daily battle between his obvious hunger and his desire to get settled at home before having to decide what to eat.
When he gets to school, half of his classmates will have already left. There will be more space to move, less overall noise, and fewer children with whom to have conflict. He will be less likely to find the materials he wants already in use. In the long run he will need to adjust to more children, more noise, more sharing, more waiting — but now so much of that can be back-burnered while he works on his lagging social-emotional skills in a less stimulating environment. Assuming he adjusts well to the change, I am optimistic that he will be ready to tackle those challenges in the fall, just not literally.