When I decided to enroll my two year old daughter in a preschool program, I had visions of a happy toddler building blocks, finger painting and singing songs in circle time. What I got was an anxious toddler, unable to navigate the routine of a structured environment with so much going on around her, screaming for seemingly no reason. The reason why we put her in school so young was to teach her to socialize, follow routines, make friends, and have fun. For my daughter, two hours of preschool was a trigger. In her first school, I was told she was acting like a “typical, spoiled only child.” The director of the school suggested I implement some discipline at home (suggesting that discipline was an area of parenting in which I was lacking) and dealt with the behavior by ignoring her. I was told they would leave her where she fell apart, without any redirection, and would wait until she pulled herself together to join the rest of the class. Again, she was only two at the time. Find me any child that age who has the ability to “pull themselves together” without any redirection or support. As a parent, this makes me furious but, as a teacher, even more so. The rule of thumb in behavioral intervention is this: Ignore the behavior, not the child. I’m all for that. But not in this case, and it’s not because this is my child we are talking about. First, if a child is engaging in behavior for the sake of getting attention or escaping an undesired task, then YES, by all means, ignore the behavior. Redirect the child, don’t neglect the child, and IF AND ONLY IF the child was behaving for the desired outcome of gaining attention or escaping a task, then the child will eventually give up and the behavior will stop. When I asked the teachers if ignoring my daughter made her stop “acting out” they told me it did not. But they kept on. In their minds, she was spoiled. She wanted her way so she screamed. And there she was, at two years old, screaming in a corner as a cry for help, while the teachers went about their business. And that was my daughter’s introductory experience to school.
The following year I placed her in a different school. I spent weeks researching every preschool in the area, giving full disclosure of my daughter’s difficulties. I wasn’t sure what we were getting into but any school had to be better than the one she was in. Her teachers were kind but once the behavior started I was quickly told “they didn’t know what to do with her.” Once a formal evaluation was done in her classroom, modifications were sent in by both her occupational therapist and psychologist. Nothing major needed to be done yet the school told us that they could not make the recommended accommodations. A positive reinforcement chart was viewed as unfair to the other children. Giving her breaks or a separate, quiet space to work would be taking too much time away from the other children. So, without these accommodations, my daughter became the “problem” in the classroom. That one child you expect to have trouble everyday. I would be asked to stay behind almost daily when I picked her up to hear their latest issue with her. So while they started the year being patient and understanding, I could see she was wearing them down. At one point I was told she had a meltdown where the whole class stared at her, covering their ears while she screamed. No one removed her from the room or tried to help her. She became a spectacle. The teacher seemed annoyed that the rest of the day couldn’t go as planned because of this interruption. I was told that an “extra set of hands” was needed in order to deal with my daughter but, once that was put into place, the teachers made constant mention of my daughter “really loving all the special attention.” So, once again we were at the point where my daughter was being held accountable for things she could not control. She came into this school with an IEP. Yet they still held her to the same standards as the rest of the class, without any modifications. She wouldn’t have an IEP if she could do that. But they didn’t understand. So, it was time to move on.
This year, my daughter was placed into a special education program by our school district. It has been two weeks and the phone calls and notes home have already started…this time to tell me how great she is doing and how she is already exceeding expectations. She has had one episode in two weeks where she was brought to tears. Last year, she was having 5 episodes a day. Last night we had Back to School Night where the teacher explained what goes on in the classroom. My daughter has no special accomodations. The whole class is rewarded both as a group or individually for good behavior. My daughter has already received two prizes. There are opportunities everyday for them to move around. My daughter is hyperactive so everyday she gets the opportunity to get some of that energy out. These are the types of accomodations she needed in her other schools that they could not implement. Her past teachers saw these accomodations as “special treatment.” I just see them as good teaching practices. What child is not motivated by being rewarded? What child would not benefit from a few minutes of movement everyday? What child cannot use a break when they are feeling upset, overwhelmed or frustrated? I taught second grade and all my students benefited from these “special” accomodations. So, I find it odd that the only preschool that uses such techniques is one that is a “special needs” school. Other than the fact that half the children have IEPS and receive some related services, I find nothing “special” about the way this class is run.
When I graduated with my master’s degree in education I had to write my personal philosophy on education and I began it with a quote by John F. Kennedy which says, “All of us do not have equal talent, but all of us should have an equal opportunity to develop our talents.” As a teacher, I tried my best to hold each of my student’s to their own personal standards as best I could. My goal was to get them to learn in whichever manner served them best. And I realize now that for the past few years I have been searching for that as a parent. I have been told by teachers that my child is not like everyone else, like it was a bad thing. But why should she be? And more importantly, why would I want her to be? She is smart, she is funny, she has talent in bundles. Yet, she has been sad and anxious and disappointed in herself. She has limitations, we all do. As adults, we know our limitations and find a way to be successful that suits us best. That doesn’t make us bad, it makes us human. In school, children depend on their teachers to help them find a way to be successful. They are not mature enough to do it on their own. My daughter wasn’t successful in school because she wasn’t given the right opportunities to be successful. And now that she has been given the opportunity, there’s no telling what she can do!