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.