Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Please Be Nice to My Kid

The kids go back to school this week and next.* I know that all of us have struggled with the long and life-changing impact of COVID-19, but I suspect it has been especially hard on kids with special needs, who have been more isolated and more cut off from necessary supports than "typical" kids.** When Stow goes back to school next Tuesday, six months will have passed since the last time he set foot in a classroom. In that time, he has not had many chances to chat with classmates or participate in extracurricular activities. He has, in fact, gone through the longest period of isolation of his life. As a result, he has lost ground in terms of his social skills and developed deeper anxieties about his peers and the ways they might reject him.

Third grade was hard for Stow. After a brilliant first six weeks, something happened on his bus, and his behavior spiraled downward in a way that was hard for all of us to get a handle on. By December he had been moved to a self-contained classroom for part of the day, by late February we added one-on-one aide support, and on March 13th he left school for the weekend never to return (thanks to COVID-19). We don't know how the rest of third grade would have gone with the help of the aides, but with the shift to remote learning, we found ourselves cast adrift as we struggled to get him to engage with his teachers and classmates. It's hard to imagine how fourth grade will go, but I expect a wild ride on re-entry and plenty of bumps along the way.

Other kids have always been hard for Stow to figure out, but the gap between him and his classmates grows each year. As kids get older and more aware of their peers and what it means to be cool and fit in, kids like Stow find it harder to "pass" as neurotypical. Stow's day to day life at school isn't like everyone else's. He gets pulled out of class throughout the day so his special ed team can work to help him handle the stress and social overload of school. When he doesn't understand a peer interaction, he can overreact, and his fight or flight instinct kicks in. He misreads verbal AND nonverbal cues. He gets too close to people and talks to them about things that don't make a lot of sense because he doesn't always realize that they can't see inside his head. When he's gets really upset, he cusses like a sailor in order to make sure people around him understand just how mad he is.
This is how he'd like to go to school on the first day. 
None of these things endear him to his peers.

Sending him back to school next week feels a bit like throwing him to the wolves.*** But we also know that this is what we need to do. Stow struggled to learn anything academically with remote learning because online class meetings were too much for him. And, despite our best efforts, school at home didn't provide the degree of structure that he so desperately craves. Most importantly, though, he still needs lots of practice with peer interactions and self regulation, and this is something we simply can't duplicate at home. He needs to be in school with his peers, trying, failing, and learning from his mistakes.

In other words, our only real choice is to throw him to the wolves and hope that the wolves turn out to be very, very kind.

So, please, be nice to my kid and encourage your kids to be nice to him, too. I know it's a lot to ask at times, but please support the quirky ones, the loud ones, the ones who misbehave. Be patient with the kid who interrupts repeatedly, who asks you a thousand questions about your power tools, or who tells you too much about his favorite Lego guy even though he's too old to behave like that, and you're really busy doing something else. When a kid panics or yells or swears or makes a terribly-timed or inappropriate joke that makes no sense, please consider that maybe he's not really trying to be a jerk, that maybe he just really needs help or wants to be your friend.

It's hard to send a child out into the world when you know how much they will struggle, and I'm not above begging when I say this: please, please, please be nice to my kid and to all the other kids like him. Because goodness knows they are working hard than most of us will ever know to do the best they can in a world that isn't really made for them.

"I'm nice."
Edited to add this picture which he insisted on putting up to the camera during his class's Zoom meet and greet. I don't know whether to laugh or cry. I'll probably do both.

* Sorry. This blog post isn't about how we came to the decision to send them back to in-person school. I don't have the energy to write that post right now, but suffice it to say that we feel confident they will be safe or we wouldn't be doing it.

** I'm not going to debate this. Again, too tired.

***Don't get me wrong. He has amazing supports in place and a strong "IEP team;" it's just, you know, hard.

Friday, August 7, 2020

Karate Mama

A lot of unexpected things have happened over the past few months. Perhaps the most unexpected of all is that I am now taking karate classes. Well, kind of.

You probably remember that Stow started doing karate just under two years ago (and that he had a totally awesome Nerf Karate Panda party for his eighth birthday). Well, he has continued to do karate, and since so much of Stow's life and routine has been turned upside down by the pandemic, we really wanted to make sure that he could still do it even during the shut down. Fortunately, he had the chance to keep up with lessons by following videos and practicing at home. And, once it was deemed safe for classes to start in person (with safety and social distancing protocols in place), we decided to slowly reintegrate him; we figured that his anxieties about the coronavirus and about socializing and about change would be enough to cause his head to explode if we just threw him back in to classes (that now looked very different due to COVID-related changes). So, the head of the karate school, Mr. N, kindly agreed to give Stow private lessons until he was ready to rejoin the group classes.

Stow practicing at home during the shut down.
Mr. N is a few years older than Ren with a white goatee and shaggy hair. He drives a beat-up van and plays in a rock band on the weekends. And, he's adamant about how things should go at his karate school. He asks parents (who he refers to as "rides") not to coach kids during or after class. His teaching methods require kids to be visually, auditorily, and physically engaged. And, he uses catch phrases about respect, hard work, memory, etc that they can apply to other aspects of their lives. 

Taro being entirely unhelpful.
And, by and large, what he does works. Though Stow has turned out to be a challenging case.

Initially, we thought he would do a couple of one-on-one lessons and then rejoin the classes, but as time has passed, the factors that cause Stow to struggle with karate have become clear. It has also become clear that he isn't entirely ready to rejoin his peers. Stow goes from having a terrific class on a Monday to having a disastrous one on a Wednesday. Ren and I could literally do the exact same thing to prepare Stow on both days and get vastly different results. One day, he could do all of the forms and call out the steps in order, and the next he might wander around the mat, crawl on the ground, or run out of the building. Since listening to instructors and showing respect are important parts of karate, the days when Stow doesn't behave are hard on everyone.

It takes about three months of consistent practice and doing well in class to advance from one "color" belt to the next, and there's always a point along the way where we really don't know if Stow will make it. While Stow will agree that he likes karate when he's doing it, and while he has progressed well with the forms, karate is hard for him because leaving the house is hard for him. In fact, if he had his way, he'd probably never leave the house at all. The house is a controlled and safe environment where he can get deep into a world he's created and where he doesn't have to deal with all of the chaos of other people's unpredictability. He doesn't have to figure out what to do with the fear, frustration, and confusion dealing with others causes him. Stow is very much a fight or flight responder when he's overwhelmed, and pretty much anything can overwhelm him.
Stow at a one-on-one practice.
That means, in the process of working toward any given belt, Stow will decide that he wants to quit karate--not because he doesn't like it but because because he is sure that the teachers and the other kids don't understand him and that he will get in trouble. In the one-on-one lessons, when Mr. N corrects him or tells him to try to do something better, sometimes Stow takes it well, and other times, it sends him spiralling out of control. One lesson, Stow flat-out refused to do anything from the start and only agreed to practice for the last ten minutes, when he realized that we weren't leaving until the lesson time had ended. Another, he got so upset that he stomped out to the parking lot and then back in again to yell at Mr. N. Given how tightly Mr. N runs his school, I was sure he would chuck us out for good after that particular class.

Though he has never admitted it, I am SURE all of this is frustrating for Mr. N. Fortunately, Mr. N has been teaching karate for a long time, and once he realized that we were committed to doing right by Stow while also not coddling him, he has worked hard to understand how to reach him. And since I know Mr. N is on board with trying to figure out how to help Stow succeed at karate, it's a little easier for me to feel ok pushing Stow out of his comfort zone.

That's how I found myself taking karate classes. To avoid a repeat of back-to-back classes where Stow refused to participate, Ren and I made a social story, talked about expectations, and provided opportunities for reward. When none of that worked, I unexpectedly announced, "Well, if you're not going to have a lesson, fine. At least I can."

Not knowing how Mr. N would feel about this sudden change of plans, I followed up with, "I mean, if it's ok with Mr. N."

"Sure," he said. "Cool."

And, that was the beginning of my career as an out-of-shape, inflexible karate mama.

Once Stow realized I was serious, he joined me on the floor. We did the warm up and the practice punches I'd watched him do a million times before. Then we moved into various stance drills and hand combinations. Two things surprised me. First, karate is really good exercise. And, second, it's a lot harder than it looks, especially for people with coordination challenges (LOL). I left my first karate practice with a whole new appreciation for what Stow has accomplished.

Some of Stow's belts (he has two more and will soon have another).
Since then, Stow has asked if I could join his class every time, and every time, Mr. N has graciously obliged. Not only that, he has spent time trying to teach my awkward self how to get better at karate. Stow still resists practicing or going to class when it will take him away from whatever world he's absorbed himself in, but on the whole, he has been a little more willing to be pulled away from those worlds now that he can teach me some karate.

I doubt I will ever get my own karate belt, but I am super proud that Stow has been able to do what it takes to achieve his next belt (RED!!) in a couple of weeks. I am also beyond grateful to Mr. N. It's hard to find a coach willing to teach Stow, and his willingness to keep trying means the world to us, even if Stow doesn't entirely understand how lucky he is.