Why Meeting Needs Matters

On one side of the table sits his mother, father and psychologist. They are in agreement with the psychiatrist who diagnosed the generalized anxiety and a trusted friend, a mental health nurse. He is too young to label based on a collection of intermittent behavioural quirks. He is a smart and thoughtful child. Eager to please. He loves learning new things and calls home with infectious excitement when he does well on a test.

But sometimes, the classroom is too noisy, too confining, too confusing. Damp weather aggravates his allergies and makes it hard to breathe. The letters jumble together and make reading difficult. He is expected to do the work assigned, but he knows his writing is not as nice as his classmates. The social story to show him the options he has to escape to a safe and quiet place have been distributed to the teachers. There are behaviour expectations, type-written in full sentences taped to his desk.

He describes school as “Hopeless.”

On the other side of the table is the principal, vice-principal, behaviourist, and his teacher. The words oppositional, aggressive and defiant hang in the air with a tangible malice. “He is the most significant behaviour problem we currently have in the entire school.” The behaviourist asks if the anxiety is “clinically significant”, because the diagnosis from the psychiatrist written on a prescription pad that’s been in his student file for over a year does not meet school board criteria.

The psychologist closes her briefcase and takes a deep breath. “The first thing we are going to do is stop looking at this child as a problem, and start looking at him as a child whose needs are not being supported in an educational environment.”

From that moment, things only got worse.

At dinner, his father asks, “Did you have a good day at school today?”

His body suddenly grows tense, his eyes divert from his father to the food on his plate. He sighs, suddenly overwhelmed and exhausted, breathing out a reluctant, “Yes” because he thinks that’s what his parents want to hear. He stops eating, curls up into a ball on his chair, and buries his head into his lap.

Bedtime is a frustrating attempt at delaying the imminent day to follow. He has nightmares and crawls into bed beside his mother every night. He never has nightmares.

– * –

His mother sits in front of the desk in the small office, opposite the vice-principal of a new school in another school board. She explains that he is too young to label based on a collection of intermittent behavioural quirks. He is a smart and thoughtful child. Eager to please. He loves learning new things and calls home with infectious excitement when he does well on a test. He has generalized anxiety and specific food phobia. He has developed a very real mistrust of teachers and school staff.

The vice-principal organizes a team meeting a few weeks before he will start the new school.  The VP doesn’t like labels, she doesn’t find them useful. The staff gathered around the table insist this child is not a problem. He clearly needs extra support in an educational environment. These things will take time, but the process of determining what resources are currently available, what additional resources will be required and what works for the child will begin immediately. They plan to use social stories to explain his role as a student and that the staff are there to help him. He can point to the photos of the support staff if he is unable to verbally ask for assistance.

At dinner, his father asks, “Did you have a good day at school today?”

“I like this school,” he replies with excitement, “The teachers are nice and I know they aren’t going to hurt me.”

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I can’t really explain where we’ve been with our neighbourhood public school. It’s just far too painful to revisit. Now that the kidlets are enrolled in another school, I’ve had the opportunity to look back and process the tidal wave we were riding, the one that had us careening from one crisis to the next. I’m still waiting for that proverbial bomb to drop, to be sighted by the sniper hidden in the shadows, or to wake up and discover we still exist in educational hell. 

I am thankful to see what TJ described as ‘hopeless’ just a few months ago is but a fading memory. Every day I see what ‘normal’ is – or at the very least, what normal should look like in terms of a supportive educational setting that sets all children up to be successful with learning.

Behaviour is communication, and not all children have words. According to a Ministry of Education document, inappropriate classroom behaviour is broken down into three categories: communication; executive function deficits; and mental health. Each has unique behaviours, some that overlap, but the recommendation to teachers and support staff is the same. “Take the time to listen to the student, build trust and understand their needs.”

And yes, I understand that needs are met through providing appropriate resources, and resources cost money. I’m willing to entertain that the improvement we see might be the difference between a well-funded school compared against one that might be strapped for cash. Our particular experience isn’t really about money. It’s about attitudes. It’s the difference between fix the child or face expulsion vs accepting that all children have needs. Providing for those needs ensures every child is seen as valued and deserving of a quality education. We lucked out finding a school that makes the least dangerous assumption with every student.  I can’t imagine any child thriving in an environment where that child fears for his safety.

I like to think that what we’ve been through is the exception and not the norm. I like to believe that we can put where we’ve been behind us and move on. I love seeing my children excited about going to school, and knowing they will be safe there. I am forever grateful to the teachers and support staff that have given us something we thought had been lost forever.

Hope.

Related content:

Snagglebox: What Does A Meltdown Feel Like
Emma’s Hope Book: The Trouble With Treating Behaviours
What Fuels the Helicopter
Anxiety in Students: A Hidden Culprit in Behaviour Issues
Down Wit Dat: Balance
Musings Of An Aspie: Executive Function Primer IV

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3 responses to “Why Meeting Needs Matters

  1. After I read your post I spoke with my little guy. He was reluctant to write. I know it is hard for him. So we use the tablet as well. Typing is easier, he is 7. He has so many ideas/thoughts in his brain but struggles with the complexity involved in writing. It is about finding what helps them most.
    This is where he would get so lost in the school system as it is..
    Thank you for helping me figure another piece of it all out.

  2. Your story made me cry…It is just too familiar for me as a child and what could of been if we had left my youngest in school..
    We took him out of school almost a year ago. He has low muscle tone, lax joints and developmental delay especially when he was younger. We have had some amazing therapy and the team there are remarkable.
    We have some feeding issues but more and more I see these related to sensory issues and found the post on Snagglebox about selective eating the best ever. We have been using her ideas over the past week and see improvements. We know he is a grazer due to his condition but all the stress around him eating/food just wasn’t helping.
    Yesterday huge leap forward with writing.
    These amazing, special and wonderful children need people who take the time to understand them, find ways to help and support them.
    There is a huge difference between a label and a explannation: a label you are lazy, not trying hard enough, disruptive– the explanation ( in our case) is you have a connective tissue disorder which makes your muscles, joints, skin stretchy so makes motor skills including eating harder.. So we find things to help- a writing slope( can be a 3 in binder) turned on its side, a chunky pencil, lots of time invested in helping you develop those motor skills. A gym ball to work on core stability and to wake up those stretchy muscles.
    Thank you for sharing this..I hope it continues to get better for you and your children.

  3. oh this is heartbreaking to read. I am so glad you are in a better place now, You are so right the attitudes of the leadership and teachers makes far more difference than how much money is available for buying i-pads and white boards. I know so many of my friends kid’s who are still trapped in schools that don’t understand that they have needs. Thank you so much for sharing this with us
    Sarah

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