Does He or Doesn’t He

Today, Robert did not go to school.  Every time I tried to wake him up, he responded the same way, “Five more minutes.” He got up, went to the bathroom  and returned to his bed.  He slept until 2 PM.  Maybe a little longer.  I worried.  I wanted him to be sick.  Because if he was not sick,  he was depressed.  I can deal with his sickness.  I cannot deal with his depression. He cannot share his emotions, his feelings, his confusions.

One of the aspects of Robert’s obsessive compulsive behavior is the fact that  for him the need to fulfill his real or perceived obligations trumps all his needs and wants.  Thus, I  can never tell what he wants, because he is enslaved by customs and compulsions. In particular, I never know if he wants to go to school or if he is forced to go to school by his OCD.

This dilemma presented itself most painfully in the years he had most problems in schools:  2005/2006 and 2009/2010.   It was more and more difficult to  wake him up before school.  He was getting there  later and later.  As I walked him to school, with every step his feet became heavier and slower. He was always tense.  He had this very serious expression on his face, as if he were approaching execution but determined not to waver.

Yet, he expressed the wish to go to school.  I couldn’t understand.  All signs were indicating his reluctance to get up and go to school, but his words demanded that he attends the school.

He was enslaved by what was expected of him and by what he expected of himself and unable to get out of that hold.

Now , the same thing happens again. Robert doesn’t want go to school, but he feels he has to.

I  understand why he is so unhappy there, what a bad match this classroom  is for him.  I knew he was not learning much there, now I am afraid he is pushed into depression.  That is something I simply don’t know how to deal with.

It is a year dreadfully similar to those two horrid years 2005/2006 an 2009/2010. My son is suffering for being in a classroom with teachers who still don’t know him and don’t like him.  He continues to be alone in a way nobody understands there, as if his very humanity is questioned.  He feels the lack of sincerity and continues to be confused by artificial “help”.

Even I don’t understand what he goes through.   A few observations allowed me only to see how stressed and lonely he is there, and how nobody really relates to him.

Today, he slept until 2 PM.  He was not sick after all, he was depressed.  He did not want to get up.  The same pattern from 2005/2006 the terrible year at TEC  and 2009/2010,even worse year at Norwood High School, is emerging yet again.  Robert is late for the school bus, Robert sleeps through the day, yet he still asks to go to school, unable to escape the compulsion.

I am heartbroken. I have understood two years ago that Robert learns very little at school, but today I also realized  that he is being destroyed there, the same way he was damaged in those two fatal school years.  I did not expect that.  But it happens again.  That is just too much to bear.

I know it is a chaotic post.  I am writing and trying to prevent outbursts of anger from burning  this page.  I am trying to understand why nobody is seeing what I have observed in the classroom.  I am angry and sad.

And confused.  I still cannot tell for sure,  Does he or doesn’t he want to go to school when he says , “School, school”.  I only know that he has more problems getting up in the morning and…. living.

Mind Your Words

There are errors in teaching that easily go under the radar.  They cause a great confusion on part of the learners and yet the instructor hardly notices that it was he/she who has sent baffling directions.

A few times in the past, Robert was asked to find the value of a simple expression by substituting the variable (letter) by a number.

For instance: M+7 where M=4

3F where F= 5

and so on.

He did not have problems with those demands.  He learned quickly and sailed through those problems.

So I thought that I could move to the next step and with the help of the curriculum  Momentum Math grade 7, I asked Robert to write verbally presented expressions:

3 more than a number,

5 less than a number,

Add 8 and a number,

Subtract 10 from a number.

I did not analyze what such directions meant to Robert.

Thus when he hesitated after writing, “3+….” I did not understand his confusion.

Only when he later wrote “3+3” or “3+ 8” I understood the problems.

First, since I asked him to write a number, he responded with hesitation because I did not tell him what number exactly he should write.  But he also couldn’t ask, “What number?”,  He is not capable of using language this way yet.  So he tried to guess.  The first guess was the same number he already wrote, “3”.  The second guess was the number from another problem a little above this one, “8”.

I had to explain that the word “number” in this context, meant a letter.  Even more confusing. How can a number be a letter?  Such statement went against everything I was teaching him so far.

So I backed off and decided to first replace the word “number”  with a phrase “unknown number” and ask Robert to first replace such expression with a question mark and then with an empty square. I had to rewrite all the problems:

3 more than an unknown number.

Robert replaced it with: 3+ ?

I am still thinking about the next step to avoid confusion which I caused in the first place by not understanding what my words meant to Robert.

I wonder, how many times, while talking with Robert, I also gave him directions which did not make any sense as they went against everything he had learned before?

Car Keys or Lesson Taught

Lesson Learned

On Saturday, October 12, 2013 my husband and I picked Robert from Bridges to Independence program.  We planned to spend the Columbus Day weekend in New York with Robert’s grandmother.  My husband reluctantly let me drive first and so I got in the car, put the key in the ignition and tried to turn it on.  The key did not turn.  The car did not start.  Wrong key in the wrong car.

I tried to pull the key out.

It did not get out.

Jan tried to pull the key out.

It did not get out.

Reaching from the back seat. Robert tried to pull the key out.

We did not let him.

We called AAA.  They said it was  a busy day, so they would come in 35 minutes.

From the back seat, Robert tried to reach the key.  We stopped him.  He tried again.  We stopped him again.

Pam, the instructor from Bridges to Independence Program, offered to drive us both home.  Anticipating that Robert would get more and more impatient, I gratefully accepted.

Robert was not happy.  He did not want to leave the car, the key, and his dad  in the parking lot.

Pam kept calming him down and explaining that everything would be OK.

He believed her, but to the point.

I kept explaining that everything would be fine.

Robert believed me, but …

Jan was waiting for AAA.  I kept calling AAA.

After two and a half hours, to Robert’s relief, I decided to return to Bridgewater and pick up Jan.

Soon after we returned,  three hours after initial call to AAA,  the tow truck from AAA arrived and carried our car to a dealer.  Jan, Robert and I followed in the other car.

At the dealer another problem.  Robert already accepted the fact that the wrong car was stuck in the ignition.  He could not accept however, that my husband tried to leave ANOTHER key, the correct one,  with the dealer.  Two keys for one car!  It did not seem fair or right. Oh, well, somehow we managed at 6:30 PM to get on the interstate 95 aiming for New York City.

Of course, Robert remembered.

“Car key, car key.”

“Mother made a mistake. Put a wrong key in the car.  Mechanic will fix that.”

“Car key, car key.”

“What about car key?”

“At the mechanic.”

With a few slight variations this dialogue was repeated approximately 50 times before we reached Manhattan.

Lesson Taught

Fast forward to Monday morning.

Robert and I went to the car to get a bag of freshly picked apples from the trunk.  The apples spilled all over the trunk.  I gathered them all and tried to shut the trunk.  Robert stretched his arm preventing me from doing so.  He looked at me with a mixture of scorn and disappointment.  Very serious look.

As I froze a little confused, Robert reached to the trunk and retrieved the bunch of keys from it.

He stretched then bent his arm as if he weren’t sure if he should trust me with the keys.

“I will be more careful with keys.  I promise.”

Although the skeptical look didn’t disappear from his face, Robert gave me the keys.

He thought, I learned my lesson.

Don’t Blame Students for Teachers’ Exhaustion

There is a lot of sympathy and empathy for the special ed teachers who have to deal with “difficult” students.  There is much less empathy and sympathy for those children with special needs who are deemed “challenging”.  Most people can imagine themselves in a body of a teacher working with special needs children even if they conclude that such work is beyond their abilities. Not many people are capable of picturing themselves in the skin of a child with disabilities. Even fewer of them  attempt to see the world from the perspective of a special need student WITH severe behaviors. The person (even a child) demonstrating aggressive behaviors is considered a perpetrator and thus the teacher forced to deal with such behavior is believed to be a victim.  People overwhelmingly tend to empathize with victims, and reject perpetrators.

But the children are not the ones who are in charge of the situation. They don’t control what  educational settings they are pushed into.  They don’t make decisions over applied methods,  communication strategies, presentations of topics, or  demands put on them.  Often, they cannot even find words that would approximate their feelings, needs, and wants. They cannot share  their happy or sad  experiences,  their ways of processing information, and specific ways they understand and manage their environment.

If the teachers feel exhausted, it might be because they are either not prepared or don’t get enough support.

They are not prepared to teach children with specific learning issues, because they do not get proper training and compatible experience.  They don’t get support because the administration placed too many students in the classroom, the aides are not properly assigned or trained, there are no  basic materials  needed for teaching academic, vocational, or life skills. That is not the fault of the children.  That is the fault of current methods of preparing teachers for their jobs and of the administrations that don’t provide proper resources and support.

When Robert was three years old, he managed to exhaust his teacher.  Robert was following her dropping on the floor at her feet.  He demanded the same attention she was giving him before the new student joined the classroom.  That was the typical approach in this program.  Each new student got 100% attention from the main teacher which lasted until another new student arrived.  When that happened, the student was turned loose or transferred to an aide.  Robert did not want to be passed to someone else.  He grew attached to the teacher. Too attached, one might say and thus tried to get his teacher back with all the tools he had at his disposal – following, crying, and flapping on the floor in front of the teacher.

Nobody noticed that he was not the one who CREATED this situation. He was not the one who CHANGED it.  He was “only” reacting to the environment DESIGNED by others.

A few months later he started with new teachers in a new program.  The teachers had less formal education ( Bachelor Degrees not Master Degrees) , and almost no prior experience.   But, they received training aligned with their students’ specific needs.  They knew proper methods.  They were supported by supervisors with years of experiences.

In this educational environment, Robert did not exhaust his teacher.  He did not have time. He was busy learning.

Dumbing Down

October 8, 2014

It was raining all Sunday.  Our plans for apple picking were not executable and Robert understood that too. Although he reminded us, “Apples, apples”, he didn’t insist on a trip to the orchard.  It was a day for indoor activities and a trip to a museum seemed like a good idea,  Since we had a few passes to the Planetarium in the Science Museum, I made three reservations for the show Big Bird’s Adventure: One World, One Sky. Everything went smoothly.  We got to the museum on time, got our tickets, waited in line patiently, found good seats, watched calmly, and left promptly. Maybe too promptly.

Neither Jan nor I asked Robert if he liked the show.  We both knew that Robert would answer, “Yes, yes, yes”, but he would not tell the truth.  “Yes, yes, yes” is the  answer Robert gives after every movie or show.  The only way to check if he really liked a presentation would be to ask, “Do you want to see it again?”  Then he might assertively reject or approve such opportunity.

We could ask, “Did you like the show?”, but neither Jan nor I felt like it.  We were both ashamed of our choice.  The show was for very little children.  Not for 21 years old  man.  We were dumbing Robert down.  He was clearly bored, the same way we, his parents, were.

Why then I chose this show out of the three presented in the Planetarium?

Well, I thought it would be easier to get Robert readjusted to the place, by presenting him with something… simpler.  But why I even thought that he would need readjustment? He was in the planetarium before, although a few years before this visit.  He was, also, a frequent visitor to OMNI theater.  Just this September, he visited it twice to see a documentary about Canadian railroad and a beautiful film about Jerusalem.  He loved both presentations. He behaved perfectly.

There is really no logical explanation except admitting that maybe deep down, we, the parents, are as prejudicial in regards to Robert’s abilities  as some (SOME) of his teachers and  school administrators are.

The Vertex in the Middle

A year ago, in the post , I noticed that the word that impeded Robert’s learning of division of fractions  was not “multiplication” , not  “reciprocal” but “instead”.  I used seemingly simple direction, “Instead of dividing, multiply by reciprocal.”  I also concluded that this rule was much more important not as an advice on how to divide, but as an example of the meaning of the word “instead”.

A few days ago, I worked with Robert on naming angles using three letters.  We, encountered the same problem we had done a few months ago, on our first try.  Robert didn’t understand my direction, “Vertex has to be in the middle.”  Robert knew “vertex.  He could point to it without a problem.  He didn’t understand “in the middle”  in the context of the three letters (two of them naming points  on angle’s arms and one naming the vertex).

It has to be said that part of Robert’s problem was the way I introduced this task to him.  Without  thinking, I just followed the problem from Saxon Math 4.  The angle with a vertex A  which Robert was supposed to name using three letters was one of the  four angles in the quadrilateral.  All the letters A, B, C, and D named vertices.  The way I tried to help Robert, confused him even more.

I put the textbook aside, and drew many angles not attached to any other shapes.  Now, there were three points but only one vertex.  Still, it took two days of practice, before the direction, “vertex in the middle”, resulted in the correct answers. This time the culprit was, “In the middle.”.

The most important gain of those lessons was not that Robert learned how to name angles with three letters, but that he understood the concept of being in the middle in one more context.

Identifying Errors, Diagnosing Problems, Designing Intervention

I noticed, while teaching Robert to divide decimals, that he made  quite a few mistakes. It was clear that he lost some of the previously acquired skills.

He made most, if not all,  errors while dividing large numbers by 7, 8, or 9.  I went back to dividing two digit numbers with reminder. I soon found out that Robert had difficulties with these and similar problems:  61:8, 60:8, 62:8 but he was fine with those problems 64:8, 65:8, 67:8.

I noticed a pattern. When the dividend was a digit, two or three below 64, Robert had problems.  When dividend was slightly larger than 64, Robert didn’t make mistakes. This pattern repeated itself with other dividends and divisors.

At first, I just wanted to do reteaching using the old approach.  Upon hearing direction, “Help yourself”, Robert wrote the  multiples of eight (the divisor): 8, 16, 24, 32, 40, 48, 56, 64, 72, 80, placed 61 (60 or 62) between 56 and 64 , found a quotient of 7, and finished dividing without problems. I believe that repeating this strategy many times would  at some point lead to an  improvement.

Still, I wanted Robert to grasp the idea behind choosing 7 or 8 as a  quotient  . I designed other worksheets.  In the center of the page I wrote in big numbers, 64:8. I drew a line through the center of the page (but not through the division).  Above the line I wrote all the divisions with dividends larger than 64 (65, 66, 67, 68, 69), below the line I wrote the ones with dividends smaller than  64 (60, 61, 62, 63).

I made similar pages for different problems.

Why I did that?  What was the difference?

Since Robert could find most of the quotients and reminders, I did not want to lose too much time by reteaching using the old method. I believed (this is all domain of beliefs not knowledge yet) that the new approach would help Robert relearn quickly.

I knew, however, that this method could be helpful only if Robert develops better understanding of numbers. On the other hand, Robert’s understanding of numbers could be greatly improved by mastering this approach.

If I Ever Write a Book

If I ever write a book about Robert, I might title it, Parallel Life, as Robert is never really included.   Hardly tolerated, he remains on the sidelines of the so-called “communities”.

If I ever write a book about Robert, I might title it, Without a Friend, for, sadly, obvious reasons.

If I ever write a book about Robert, I might title it, Born Without Language, as Robert had not had any receptive or expressive language before his fourth birthday.

If I ever write a book about Robert, I might title it Navigating among  Rocks of Rejections, as Robert and I experienced plenty of those.

If I ever write a book about Robert, I might title it, Encounters with Disguised Sharks in the Ocean of Hypocrisy.  Just one chapter on special education laws and practices would explain the title. 

I might write a book with a more optimistic name. It might be From Thoughts to Language, Inserting Language, Making Connections, Finding Guides,  or Locating Harbors.

The title would sound less bitter, but the matter of fact, the contents would be the same.

If I ever…