by Katy C.
Last August, I withdrew my son from Prince George’s County Public Schools and began to home school him. This was a big step on many levels, impacting not only the environment of my child’s day-to-day life, but also my expectations for his future, our goals for his learning, and the financial security of my family. So why did I do this? From my perspective I had very little choice; it has turned out to be a very good decision.
My son’s elementary school treated him as a behavior problem that could not be solved. His behavior became more of a problem the more he struggled with his environment. He spent most of every day struggling with feeling overwhelmed. The school viewed him as extremely defiant and disorderly, but in fact he felt unsafe, overwhelmed, and incapable of learning. The message that he received from school is that he was a failure at learning and conforming. He became angry; his teachers became frustrated.
My son entered kindergarten in PGCPS with a recent diagnosis of a neurological processing issue. Although I brought the issue to the teacher’s attention before the first day of school, I waited until the end of kindergarten for a 504 plan.
The next year, things went downhill in terms of his behavior and learning. The school conducted a battery of tests, with some prompting from me subsequent to external visits to multiple doctors. The testing returned a wide variety of issues, including learning disabilities, sensory issues, processing problems, ADHD, and giftedness. After all of this, my son received an IEP in the last week of April his first grade year. He began to receive some supports for reading and behavior.
I had some objections to the school’s approach, and I was told, “Don’t worry, let us try this. If it doesn’t work then we will adjust it.” So I trusted the school. I waited. When I got the notice for the next IEP meeting, the stated purpose was to review progress. That sounded right to me.
My son’s behavior got worse and worse. At school he was kicked out of the classroom on what seemed to be a daily basis. At home every morning the first thing we did was deal with the explosion that resulted from the first question: “Is today a school day?” Every night we fought over homework, and we had serious discussions about the day’s behavioral problems. My son told me that he was “the worst kid in class.”
Ross Greene tells us that “behavior is communication.” What I understood from my son’s behavior was that he was under incredible amounts of stress at school, and that what we were doing to help him wasn’t working. What I think the school understood is that he is defiant, disorderly, and in-the-way of running the classroom. The school increased the severity of the discipline, and my son increased the severity of his behavior.
That next IEP meeting was to let me know that the 30 school days when my son had his IEP in place was enough to tell them that there was nothing they could do for him. The IEP is supposed to be a year of support, but the school had already “exhausted its supports.”
I think that the school worked very hard to get him to behave. I don’t think that the school tried to understand what his behavior was communicating. I don’t think that the teachers understood what his constellation of differences implied for his learning or his needs. I don’t think that there was a program in place into which special education could fit him, and I think that all involved were so tired of his behavior that they were no longer interested in trying.
On a higher level, schools are interested in academics first, and if a child has social, emotional, environmental, or behavioral needs, that will always be secondary. Teachers and parents know that this is backwards, and learning requires social and emotional needs to be met first. For students who need something the environment isn’t already providing, the kid is mostly expected to adapt or suck it up.
They referred us to the county IEP team for a placement at another school. There was nothing I could do to object. The meeting was not a forum for decision making but was to inform me of decisions made at some other level. In mid-August, I met with the county IEP team which referred me to a program that would better suit my son’s needs: very small classes and an environment that could meet his sensory needs. Once again, great, right?
The week before school started I toured that program. The first thing that was clear to me was that it is designed for kids with severe emotional and behavioral disabilities. They showed me the physical restraint holds they use when kids have meltdowns. They showed me the room with carpet on the wall and no furniture or windows that they use when holds don’t work. The teacher warned me that my son would pick up bad language and behaviors at first and I shouldn’t let it worry me. When I asked about his access to special education and TAG curriculum, I was told that he would gain access when he was able to get back into the mainstream classroom: behavior first.
That was when I pulled my son. Behavior is not first. Behavior is second. Behavior is a kid’s way to tell you that s/he is in distress. It is our job, as adults, to interpret that behavior and find a way to help them manage and feel safe in their environment. PGCPS could not do that for my son, so we no longer attend.
What I have learned since then is what my son learned in his years at PGCPS. That had been impossible for me or the school to see through the fog of bad behavior and high intelligence. My son did not learn how to read or write at school, nor did the school identify his dyslexia and dysgraphia. What he did learn at school was that if he needed something, he should misbehave to get it. That he was incapable of learning, and he did not deserve the trinkets awarded to the other students who were better behaved. The student I started with this fall was incredibly angry and untrusting in his ability to work through things that challenge him. That is heartbreaking.
Thank goodness things got so bad so fast. I imagine with dread the damage that would continue to be done to my son’s spirit and potential if he did not act out so strongly. I think that many children are in that position. Thank goodness I am able to re-arrange my work to accommodate the home school. Thank goodness I had some college savings that can now be spent on tutors and therapy. He is absolutely in the place he should be, and that is with someone who wants to figure out how he learns so that I can teach him, in a space that feels safe.