Monday, November 17, 2008

One foot in front of the other

Last Friday was the day I volunteer in the library at AJ's school. It was an unusually quiet day. The librarian was working with her classes in the computer lab down the hall. No one was coming in to check out books. I had plenty of time to check in all the returned books, reshelve them, and scan the shelves for Christmas, Hanukah and Kwanzaa books to pull for the post-Thanksgiving displays. AJ's teacher came in while I was covering some new paperback books.

"Don't worry! I did give him the book! I just was worried about him being able to keep track of his work," she said. This was excellent news. And we proceeded to have a long talk about what's up with AJ.

The fact is, some of what is going on is still a mystery to both of us. I don't think we're talking about a learning disability here, although I'm not ruling it out. Nor am I ignoring research on learning disabilities related to "executive functioning" (thanks for the new term, Fern!), because regardless of the cause, the symptoms need addressing and some of the suggestions freshhell mentioned are excellent and already working well for us. Last year we bought AJ a small chalkboard that we use specifically for his schedule. It used to live in the kitchen where Mr. Spy or I would write out first his morning and then his afternoon schedule along with some silly pictures and jokes so that it was something he wanted to look at as well as something he needed to know. Recently, we've moved the chalkboard to his room and had him write out his schedule and then cross off the activities as he does them. This is both teaching him how to help himself and allowing us to see what he's doing. It's the number one best tool we have for keeping AJ on track at home.

But the reason I suspect it isn't actually a learning disability (and I really think it may be too early to tell) is that a lot of the problems are situational -- they take place in school and to a lesser extent in certain situations at home (usually on tasks he doesn't want to do when there's some other activity he wants to move on to as fast as possible). They are not universal behaviors. I think there are some triggers for the behavior, though, and boredom is definitely one of them. A lack of respect for the activity is another -- writing the assignment is important, putting it away neatly is not. I am sensitive to these issues, because I was the same way when I was in elementary school. Once it was done in my head, it was done. The rest of it didn't matter to me -- writing neatly, putting things in my backpack so they didn't wrinkle, even doing the assignment on paper. It didn't matter. I would willfully fail to show my work in math because I thought it was a waste of time, no matter what anybody else told me. I would fail to answer questions in English class because I got carried away with my answer to the first question and wanted to see where it would take me. It wasn't that I couldn't get organized, it was that I didn't really care. I wanted to do the right thing and I tried when people asked me to, but at a gut level, I didn't get why it was important. It appears to me that AJ is showing signs of a similar attitude problem. And while such an attitude problem is one he needs to know how to solve to get through a lot of real life situations, I think the attitude itself may eventually serve him well when channeled for good instead of evil.

At school, AJ is easily distracted by other children. He's often overstimulated by a lot of activity, even as he's attracted to it, and he always wants to know what else is going on. When he's working, he likes things quiet and still. He doesn't get that at school. And he likes it that way -- he's a very social kid and he wants to interact with others. But at 7, he still doesn't have the self-control needed to be consistent about his in-class work habits. I am not concerned that he doesn't yet know how to do this. I am concerned that he doesn't seem to be understanding that learning how to do this is extremely important. But working on him both from home and from school, I am hoping it will try to sink in.

From the beginning, we've been focused on helping AJ learn how to organize himself. Fern mentioned trying to talk out loud to AJ about how I'm organizing things as I do it. This sounds like an excellent idea. And while I think I've always done some of it, I bet I could do more. He has the ability to organize when he wants to -- woe betide he who messes with the elaborate ordering of his baseball cards! He just doesn't like to take the time to think about it, because, I think, he gets overwhelmed with possibilities. I need to try to help him take that part of his brain that deals with his baseball cards and apply it to other things.

Jill mentioned that her son's teacher had handed out an agenda/planner to each kid to help them keep track of their homework assignments, which had to be initialed in the planner each day. This gave me an idea. I stressed with AJ's teacher how lists seemed to work for AJ at home but that when we tried to have him write lists for school, that he ran into the same problems he did with other assignments -- he often forgot it or didn't do it. I suggested that I could write up a checklist -- one page for a week -- that we could tape to the front of his take-home folder, so he could run through it each day, a list of all the things he needed to remember during class. I told the teacher I'd be happy to make it, but that I needed her help for what to put on it, since I didn't know all the routines of the classroom. She agreed that it sounded like a good thing to try and she's going to think about things to put on it and get them to me. So I feel like we're on the same page about this and that she will try to back some of this stuff up in school.

The other issue that his teacher is worried about is the damage AJ occasionally inflicts through his carelessness -- ripping books by shoving things into his desk without looking to see where they are going, absent-mindedly spearing his pencil at the desk, leaving marks and holes, bending back the covers of a book he's engrossed in. I'm not sure what to do about this beyond drawing his attention to it and asking him to be careful, which we've already done many times over. I did, though, suggest to AJ that he should pull out the stack of things in his desk, put the thing he wants to put away on top, and then put the hole thing back in. Part of his trouble is that there's way too much stuff in his desk. But he can't really do much about that. It's just the way things are when there are 27 kids in a class and there's nowhere to put anything. And I suggested to the teacher that there should be consequences for the damage at school, just as there would be at home -- a missed 10 minutes of recess, for example, which is a standard punishment for misbehavior in the classroom. As Jeanne mentioned, if the behaviors start causing more trouble for him, I think AJ will get it.

So it was a productive conversation all around. Our parent-teacher conference is a week from today, so we will have a chance to follow up quickly. And from there, we'll see how things go. Thank you so much for all of your comments and suggestions. I'll report back next week.


Jeanne said...

While I'm all for gifted kids learning to organize themselves, I am SO against elementary-age boys missing any of their already limited recess time! They need to run around!

My Kids' Mom said...

Well, for torn books I'd hit him in the wallet. For messing things up, spending recess time indoors cleaning the messes seems perfectly appropriate. As you said, it has to have meaning to him.

My child is moaning and groaning next to me, having to write spelling words five times each. "But I already know how to spell them after I wrote them once!" Sigh.

harriet M. Welsch said...

Jeanne, I agree about the incredible shrinking recess, except that I think it is the most effective punishment for AJ, because he values recess a great deal. Also, his school does an okay job. They only have one recess (after lunch), but they have gym class every day and the gym teacher is great so they have a lot of fun and there's usually some free play time. They also have a break called "dance party" -- I'm not sure if it's every day or just a few times a week -- when the school nurse will come on the intercom and announce it and then play one rock song and they all boogie their little hearts out next to their desks. If I were an elementary school teacher, I think I'd institute a daily dance break. The kids love it and it gets the wiggles out.

Anonymous said...

Harriet, I do not like that teacher!

Harriet said...

Readersguide, I really think she's pretty good in most respects. She's been giving AJ work that is quite challenging for him in the regular classroom in a way that has not made him feel singled out. It helps that one of AJ's best friends is not too far behind him, so they're able to work together a lot of the time.

We were unusually lucky last year in the way AJ's teacher just "got" him from the very beginning. I don't think his teacher this year does. And even more challenging, I think at the beginning of the year she thought she did. I think that she's starting to understand the difference between smart and gifted -- that it's not just a matter of AJ being faster or knowing more but of learning differently. I think now she's realized that there's more going on and she's trying to help, but she doesn't exactly know the best way to do it (and that's okay, because neither do we -- there's a learning curve for all of us). She's an incredibly orderly person herself, bordering on rigid, but not quite going too far, so I think this particular kind of difficulty in the classroom frustrates her. But I also think her order will ultimately help AJ, once they figure out how to work together. Also, it's clear that she understands that AJ isn't just causing trouble, that he's genuinely trying to do things right most of the time.

And if the recess penalty is any of the cause for you not liking her, that is actually a school-wide policy for certain types of behavior, and it's not enforced until a student has had two previous warnings in the same day and then does a third thing, so it's kind of a last resort. (I think the full list of penalties is 1 warning, 2 warnings, 3 miss 10 minutes of recess, 4 miss all of recess, 5 see principal, 6 call parents. Or something like that. I've never personally seen anything past 2).

Also, It's still early. At this time last year, we were still figuring things out with his teacher and it wasn't until conferences that we really got things ironed out. Hopefully we will be on track.

Anonymous said...

I'm not trying to minimize these issues. But I've always thought that part of the problem here is a clash of cultures. Some kids are taught to value neatness and organization from a young age and others have parents who allow them to be kids without stressing the neat/organized aspect of things. I hope these issue get easier for AJ. My co-worker was told last year that her son had poor "executive function." She was not happy.

FreshHell said...

I think, yes, this is something that needs to be tackled long-term. Obviously, with you guiding him at home (with no other distractions, like siblings for example) you are able to help him order his life.

This teacher, to cut her an immense amount of slack, has 27 children to teach and discipline and if she's not orderly - even rigid - chaos will ensue.

And, I would bet she's never come across a student like AJ. Dusty's teacher admitted the same thing. Despite her having access to her test scores, etc. It will take time to work out a method at school that mirrors, as closely as possible, the method you've worked out at home. And it's tricky. Because if there's a substitute, what then? It won't be perfect and you may have to try a number of things and keep in contact with his teacher. All things you know already.

I do think there should be repercussions for destruction of books and property and see nothing wrong with the punishment being loss of the thing he loves the most. After all, he does seem to have other opportunities for outside play after school, etc., so it's not like he's living in a prison with a tiny slit of a window to tell him whether its day or night.

Just keep plugging away and perhaps you can meet with the teacher more frequently than just two p/t conferences?

Anonymous said...

I'm sure she's fine -- your description of her just punched all the buttons I'd grown when dealing with M's horrible, rigid, imaginationless and mean 2nd grade teacher. And part of it was her complete inability to deal with anything but the type of kid (smart, well-organized boys with hides of iron who didn't have a lot of imagination were the favored ones)that she particularly liked. Shy, sensitive, compassionate, dyslexic M did not do too well in that class. She just sounds to me like the sort of person who's looking for what's wrong with your kid rather than what's right. Obviously, everybody has something they need to work on, but it always seems easier to me when the focus is on how much you are doing well, rather than well, yes, but here's what you really suck at. But maybe that's just me. (I guess I still don't like her!)