Loving Children Who Love to Hate Starting School

Welcome to September! The last two months here at Positive Adoption, we’ve focused on Autism and Spectrum Disorders. This month we’re focusing on education. Whether you home school, private school, charter school, online school, or public school, education is something parents have to be intentionally involved in. Adopted children, especially, may need focused help to catch up with their peers, because of missed school, trauma making it hard to absorb information, a new language, or more.

Today’s post was written by Audrey Simmons. Audrey home schools her two kindergartners on the spectrum and, as a teenager, taught kindergarten and second grade to younger, adopted siblings while living at home. She taught her youngest brother to read and is still pretty proud of that. Totally Broke Tuesday is going to focus a bit on homeschooling this month, while the overall theme is education in general.

When I was younger, our new curriculum for the year would arrive in the mail sometime in the mid to late summer and “unboxing day” was an exciting event. We’d go over every book, flipping through pages and exclaiming about our excitement. I’d marvel at how complex some of the math or science at the ends of the books seemed and my mom would have to confiscate readers that we attempted to start plowing through right there on the kitchen or living room floor. We were enthusiastic, and we were not an anomaly among homeschoolers. I know families who have started school a week or two earlier than planned just because the kids were so excited to start.

Some of these same kids, including us, would burn out a few weeks in and start complaining about math or writing– we weren’t saints, just kids– but that excitement sometimes made it easier to launch into our schedule and getting used to school again.

However, if you’re homeschooling kids on the spectrum or adopted children with attachment issues or learning challenges, you might not get that shot in the arm of enthusiasm. Maybe you home school but you and your child both silently (or loudly) dread each upcoming year.

Summer has been nice and you’re reluctant to start again what feels like an uphill battle, both ways, in a snow storm…just to start working, much less getting through the material itself.

One thing that can help is getting materials that plug in to a special interest, like a science or physics book structured around the study of cars, but where a neurotypical or attached child might immediately be excited to start, it might feel like this has backfired when working with autistic or attachment-disordered kids. That “unboxing day” might not have the same meaning for these kids.

Please don’t lose heart. Chances are, your child doesn’t hate the learning environment, you as a teacher, or the material– all things parents tend to interpret resistance being signs of– your child probably just has difficulty with transitions. Be consistent. Be pleasant. One of our biggest enemies, mentally, is our own expectations. If you are expecting a child to be thrilled to start, to switch to each “new book,” you’re going to both have a miserable day. If you anticipate some feet-dragging, some crying, some upset, you’ll be better prepared to handle it and not feel derailed.

For many kids, the transition to a new schedule is difficult, but where neurotypical or attached children may be whining and complaining six weeks in to the school year when you also want to come up with excuses for a day off, autistic children may be better motivators! They might be the kids pulling out the books, insisting on the new schedule that they’ve adjusted to, and helping you stay on track!

But some kids take much longer to even reach that point, if they ever do. Some kids with learning delays or oppositional disorders might rarely be enthusiastic about school as a whole. But after you’ve settled into your new schedule, resist the temptation to “change things up” unless you know for certain something isn’t working. These kids aren’t motivated by change. Be consistent in your schedule. And then start finding ways to introduce some excitement.

It might be themed stickers or small toys. It might be short YouTube videos. There is controversy about the health of offering food or treats as a motivator or reward, but I’ve found some success in offering a single chocolate chip or other small item for each broad task. Another thing that my kids in particular respond to is games– we can transition to a reading lesson if they know that I’ll sit and play an alphabet or word game with them, like Bananagrams or Pairs in Pears, after we finish or to aid the transition. Be willing to try this even if you feel like your child should be “too old” for such motivators!

Later this month, we’ll talk about pinpointing trouble areas, like diagnosing issues if the material is too difficult or too easy, coping with comprehension or motor skills delays (this is tricky if one has a huge lag and the other is advanced), and how to handle or process your own frustration and disappointment.

But as for today, do not lose heart! Do not grow weary of doing good. And you are doing good, giving your child(ren) a safe, attachment-fostering learning environment and presenting them with educational material. Our goals might sound like “teaching him to read” or “getting through algebra,” but ultimately your goal is to be faithful in the job you’ve been given and loving your child well. Your reward will come from God, not from your child. Take a deep breath, remember your child is not the enemy, and know that you aren’t alone.
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