Sent home from school: Who is it helping?

Every time I read an article like this, I again thank my lucky stars that we’ve found an excellent school for Puck – one that understands learning differences, works with the child on social skills and self-advocacy, and supports its teachers to get the training and tools they need to make it an environment where students can do their best. I can’t emphasize enough the difference supported teachers and the right approach can make. It’s been a life-changer for Puck. A life-saver, I think.

According to the above article (which I found via Dr. Brian Goldman on Twitter), Ontario students with special needs are increasingly being asked to stay home. I know from our own experience, and those of friends, that the same is very true here in Nova Scotia.

The article, which cites a study from a special education advocacy group, also notes:

  • 58% of elementary school heads and 48% of high school principals requested a student stay home for at least part of a day;
  • Most principals said they made the request due to safety concerns (does not specify whether they are concerned over safety of students or teacher), although many also said they just don’t have the resources to address students’ needs;
  • Poor attitudes toward students with special needs may also be at play;
  • Ontario has received a $1 billion increase in funding for special education initiatives over the past 10 years. And yet, we’re still hearing stories of kids being excluded, sent home, or treated as a behavioural problem instead of a learning challenge (very often the two go hand in hand).

Safety…and/or Support

The National Post article cites one elementary school principal as saying, “If I have asked a parent to keep a student home it is almost always related to safety (the student runs, hits self/peers/ adults, or vandalizes the space he/she is in).”

Puck’s distress was always focussed inward: he would hit himself when his frustration and anxiety peaked, when learning accommodations that had been agreed to were ignored, or there were changes to his daily routine that he wasn’t prepared for. The school’s policy was to immediately phone me and send Puck home for the day. This was the only response. There was no examination of what happened in the class environment to make his frustration rise; no questioning of how to put accommodations in place to mitigate the chance of it happening again. The focus was really on what the school needed, not what the individual student needed to succeed. That’s not inclusive, at all.

(I do understand that teachers are dealing with so much – big classes, lots of students with challenging needs, students with undiagnosed needs, social issues, underfunding, etc. NONE of this makes a situation that contributes to successful inclusion. I can see how sending a child home might seem like the best option in those circumstances).

Contrast this with his current school, with its focus on kids with learning challenges: when Puck hits himself or his anxiety causes him to shut down, he isn’t immediately sent home. He is given the space to calm down and has the option of going to a ‘Chill Out Room’ where he can calm down, work through his emotions, do other quiet activities, and be supervised by a support teacher. When he is ready, he can return to the classroom. He also has an entire class devoted to learning social skills. managing emotions, and asking for what he needs. Honestly, it’s a miracle of a class, and I wish it was required in every elementary school in the province. (I know a lot of adults who could benefit from it, to be honest.)

Nova Scotia’s Situation

The issues described in the National Post article aren’t unique to Ontario. Nova Scotia’s Commission on Inclusive Education estimated that about a third of the province’s 118,000 public school students need some form of support. There are currently about 27,000 students in Nova Scotia with some kind of adaptation, and about 6,000 on independent programs.

Nova Scotia is in the throes of a major overhaul of its public education system. School boards have been abolished, and a new Education Act was introduced this spring. A report on inclusive education that also came out this spring calls for $70 million to $80 million in new funding over five years to support the changes it recommends, and an increase of 600-700 more staff positions in the education system to ensure students and teachers have the support they need in classrooms.

The National Post article notes that Jacqueline Specht, Director of the Canadian Research Centre on Inclusive Education at Western University, says that simply increasing special education funding or hiring more staff won’t fix the problems. The bulk of resources need to be directed toward supporting classroom teachers and giving them training and tools to help keep students with learning challenges in class.

Funding a system that has, for decades, inherently treated kids with learning challenges as problems to be fixed (or sent home) will not magically create inclusive education. More funding does not automatically equal better learning or social outcomes for students with special needs.

Is Sending Kids Home Really the Best We Can Do?

So what do we need? I don’t pretend to be an expert. I’m a social worker and journalist by training, not an educator. My expertise comes from lived experience and knowing the devastating impact mental illness and learning challenges can have on the entire family, both at home and at school. But I do know that when things go better at home, they go better at school…and vice versa.

My opinion: in addition to the changes proposed by the Commission, we need a holistic approach to inclusive education.

  • We need an approach that takes into account the determinants of health and their complex interplay that makes each student’s situation unique.

My child is a fairly privileged white, middle-class male in the province’s biggest city, and we have the means and the advocacy skills to get him the help he needs. This is not true for hundreds of other families in this province, no matter what the Education Act says;

  • We need an approach that understands successful inclusive education isn’t just how a child feels in the classroom; it’s about how the family feels supported to continue on this exhausting journey.

One aspect that is so often ignored in this discussion of inclusion is the emotional, financial and professional toll having a child with special needs takes on the family. And let’s be honest: that burden falls most heavily on women. This is a feminist issue.

When Puck started school, I was employed as the Senior Policy Advisor to Nova Scotia’s Minister of Health. I had a Master’s level education, a varied work history, and was a published author. The future’s so bright, I’ve gotta wear shades.

Flash forward to now: I’ve only been able to work part-time over the past couple of years, and that work has been through self-employment, because Puck’s needs are too great. When a school is phoning you every day to take a child home because he is unmanageable or unteachable, you are not going to be able to sustain an executive-level office-based job for very long. Self-employment gave me the flexibility I needed to be there for him, to take him to appointments, to take him to the ER when he was in crisis. But the toll this takes cannot be ignored: my career has suffered, and to be quite honest, I’m not sure where my “career”, as such, actually is now. I lay awake at night worrying about it, because in my late 40s, how do I start over? Our finances have been cut almost in half (and again, I realize we are very fortunate to even have a two-income household).

There is seldom acknowledgment that sending a child home from school repeatedly places a large economic burden on the family…on the mother, usually. In his last year at that school, Puck was only in school 20 days between January and June. He was sent home repeatedly when his anxiety was high and he was ‘unteachable’. Missing so much time meant, of course, that he fell behind and his anxiety became even worse. Eventually, it just didn’t even seem to make sense to send him. By April, he was pretty much home with me full-time.

Contrast that with this year, when he was seldom sent home and his emotional issues were dealt with on-site: his academic progress has been astounding, and he’s now performing above grade level in some subjects. When the emotional health is supported, children thrive.

If only we did the same for all kids. And their parents.

  • We need an approach that addresses stigma.

In his old school, so much of Puck’s interactions with his teachers were based on fear. The teachers didn’t have the tools or training they needed to understand how to help Puck. They didn’t have support. As a result, they treated Puck as a problem. Other students saw this, and also treated him as an outcast. Puck, of course, also picked up on the stigma, and internalized it. It was common for him to say that he was stupid, or bad, or would never be good at school. He might not have heard those words from his teachers, but he felt them in his heart.

(Now, by the way, he tells me he’s good at math, likes art, and is an excellent writer. Stigma-free teaching for the win!)

I’m hopeful that the new Education Act will give teachers more support to help kids with special needs and learning challenges…to actually keep them in school, and not to send them home as a default.

Parents and teachers need support in order to help our kids thrive. Sending them home does no favours to anyone. It may remove an immediate stressor, but it doesn’t improve outcomes. And it certainly doesn’t create inclusion.

 

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Confessions of a Report Card Junkie

I’ve never liked New Year’s Eve. It feels fake and forced. For me — a true nerd — beginnings and endings were always defined by the school year. September was for new intentions and possibilities. June was the end of a chapter, a frenzied season of field trips and prom and report cards and ‘grading day’, followed by a drowsy mental hibernation on the beaches of the Northumberland Strait. 

I was a report card junkie. My friends were pretty, or popular, or athletic, or talented. I wasn’t those things. But I was smart, and grades became my validation and my drug. School was what I was good at, and report cards were my proof that I had value in the world. 

Taking pride in your accomplishments is wonderful. But defining yourself through someone else’s evaluation of you, or by the awards you’ve won or any external validation, isn’t really healthy. That sort of praise or feedback can be fleeting. And when it’s gone…who are we? Who are we, if we are not the Brain, or the Athlete, or the Beauty? Who are we without our labels (Did The Breakfast Club teach us nothing?)?Read More »

If you give a Mom a popsicle…

When Daisy was a toddler, we had a fluffy calico cat named Scarlett O’Hairy. Daisy adored her and wanted to be just like her. She’d sleep like a cat, all curled up with Scarlett in a patch of sun on the floor. She tried eating like a cat (but even her love for Scarlett couldn’t convince her to take more than one bite of the foul-smelling food). Once, in the wee hours of the morning, Daisy saw Scarlett jump off my bed and decided to do the same thing. While Scarlett landed gracefully in the laundry basket, Daisy fell into the dresser and split her forehead on a sharp corner. This resulted in a trip to the pediatric emergency room, and four stitches. Another time, Daisy took up Scarlett’s favourite pastime – digging in the houseplants. She ripped leaves off the plants for Scarlett to eat and crammed mouthfuls of potting soil into her own mouth. This resulted in a call to poison control, and a decision that maybe a baby brother or sister would be a safer companion than a cat.

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Scarlett O’Hairy: on Wednesdays she wore pink.

 

We’ve spent a lot of time in the emergency room over the years, for cat-induced and other ailments: ear infections, kidney infections, strep throat, croup, broken bones.  Eventually, toddlers pass out of the Walking Germ Bag phase. Trips to the emergency room become so infrequent that the kids actually look back on them fondly: misty watercolored memories of being safe and warm, wearing brightly coloured johnny-shirts and wrapped in warm flannel blankets, and being treated by kind people who gave them popsicles and stickers and cool-looking bandages. 

My memories of those visits are equally nostalgic. Maybe that sounds strange – I mean, what parent looks fondly back at illnesses and middle-of-the-night trips to the ER? But like my kids, I don’t remember the illnesses much. I’ve thankfully forgotten the vomiting, the search for clean sheets in the middle of the night, trips to the hospital through dark streets with time standing still. What I do remember is how we were all treated. My kids were treated with compassion and kindness. I was also treated so well. Everything was well-explained, follow-up instructions and appointments were clear, and the health professionals seemed as concerned with how I was coping as with how my kids were managing. Once or twice, I even got a popsicle of my own.

I’m nostalgic for that, because these days my visits to the ER are for Puck’s mental health crises — something that can’t be treated with stitches or antibiotics, and is a genuinely terrifying kind of pain. And when we get past this, my experience with the mental health emergency room is not a memory on which I’ll look back fondly.Read More »

Updating my Privacy Policy

Here is a science lesson: pearls are formed when an irritant invades an oyster. The oyster probably wishes it could just get rid of the irritant and go about its business. But it can’t. It has to live with it. So it hides the irritant. It excretes a fluid to coat it, glossing it over until the sand or parasite at its core is no longer recognizable. It’s become something else. What was painful to the oyster becomes beautiful and desirable to someone else. (Of course, it’s ultimately stolen from the oyster, so all that hard work of coating and hiding was for nothing.)

Our life stories are pearls. They often start from pain, but we learn at an early age that no one wants to see the pain. So we find ways to cover it, to dress it up and make our pain socially acceptable. We drink. We alter our bodies. We use humour. We work too much. We deny ourselves, our feelings. We lie. We fit in.

There are stories you can tell, and stories that you are supposed to lock up inside you. The ones we lock inside us aren’t pearls, though. We still feel the irritant, the pain. We can see what they really are. All else is fairy tales. 

I’ve been quiet here over the past several months. So many times, I’ve sat in front of my laptop and started typing. Each time, I edited. Coated the irritant. Ultimately, I deleted.

After writing about my experience in politics in my #metoo posts back in February, many people reached out to me. Most were supportive. Many wanted to hear more or to share their own stories.

A few others, though, wanted me to just be quiet.

Sometimes, it only takes a few voices of dissent to silence us. Ninety-seven voices can tell us what we’ve said is relevant and important and helpful. Three voices can tell us we’re stupid and misguided and should just keep our stories to ourselves.

Guess which voices echo loudest in our heads?Read More »

Fantasyland

Everything in the room is colourless and plastic. The grey walls haven’t seen paint in years. (Are they actually painted grey? Or has time and neglect turned them this colour — a blend of sorrow and blur?). In the middle of the room are three beige, too-small plastic chairs – the sort parents force their rear-ends into during kindergarten visits. One bigger, mottled faux-leather chair, ripped and spilling orange innards, dominates the space – the only speck of colour in a room devoid of cheer and decoration.

This is where furniture and parents’ hopes come to die.

Just down the hall (around the corner where the other families can’t see us) is the regular children’s emergency department. I’ve been there plenty of times, with both my kids. We’ve gone there for middle-of-the-night ear infections, cuts, broken bones. There are clean cubicles adorned with stickers of cartoon characters. Nurses bring popsicles. They do their best to ensure children are comfortable and not scared.

This time, we’re here for a broken mind, not broken bones. It seems they don’t bring popsicles for that.

It’s two weeks before Christmas. Just a week earlier, we were on a family vacation to the most magical place on earth. Earlier that morning, I’d been on the national morning news, talking about a book I wrote.

Now, we sit in this colourless room, waiting for a member of the mental health emergency team to talk to our 12 year old about why he’s suicidal. And as we sat there, I was getting texts from people to congratulate me on my media appearance, or to comment on my vacation photos.  These two realities don’t align. But which one is real, I wonder? Read More »

The Island of Misfit Parents

School starts in one more sleep. Puck is excited, for the first time ever.

I am apprehensive.

His new school seems to sense the apprehension parents will feel. It offered a ‘Parent Orientation Night’ a week before school starts, to help ease our fears.

Daisy is almost 14, and Puck is 11. I’m a seasoned veteran of Parent Nights.

For the past six years, I’ve attended the Parent Information Night at Daisy and Puck’s liberal arts private school. They’re social events, held in the cafeteria of the newish, bright and cheerful, purpose-built school. Parents are served wine and beer, cheese and snacks. I usually rush to Parent Nights after work, so the wine and cheese does double duty as social anesthesia and my supper. Perfect.

The parents mingle – some, who socialize with each other regularly, mingle readily. Some Socially Awkward Penguins (like me) fiddle with our wine glasses and hope the actual information part of the meeting begins quickly.

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The past couple of years, as Puck’s behaviour deteriorated, have been increasingly awkward. His classmates’ parents give me wan smiles and drift on past. I am marked as That Mother. The one with the ‘Bad Kid’ who always gets sent home from school. The one their own kids tell them about breathlessly across the supper table.

The school Puck will go to this year isn’t bright and new. It’s a repurposed 1960s-era neighbourhood school, patched up and old-school in every sense. Cloakrooms. Blackboards. Dim, long corridors. On Parent Night, parents shuffled quietly into a gym that smelled of decades’ worth of rubber-soled shoes and floor polish. There were no refreshments, no socializing. I found a seat in the middle of the room, and looked at the families around me.

My discomfort was immediate. Some parents had brought a child with them — perhaps unable to get child care, or perhaps hoping to make the child more comfortable in the new school surroundings. These children were not like the children at Puck’s old school. They looked…different. They were 12-year olds who hid their heads in a parent’s shoulder. They were eight-year olds rocking in their chairs. They were high school students, biting their nails and tapping their feet to diffuse anxiety and energy, oblivious to the room around them.

They made me nervous.Read More »

Life Lessons Learned from Tetris

I’m hungover. I’ve been hungover all summer, actually.

There’s been no alcohol involved. Those who knew me in university will be amused to know I have one drink of wine these days and need a nap, so that type of hangover isn’t too likely. What I’m experiencing is one massive anxiety-hangover.

I’ve had migraines and stomach issues this summer, which I know are my body’s way of releasing all that tension I felt over the past school year.  I stopped imbibing those stressors a couple of months ago, but I’m still waking up each day surrounded by a mess, not quite sure how I got here, and feeling like hell.

I have fewer stressors in my life at this moment, but I’ve got more anxiety. Stress isn’t the same as anxiety. Stressors are things can make a person sad, angry, or worried, while anxiety is a feeling of fear, dread, and apprehension. Stress is often caused by external influences, while anxiety is an internal response. Anxiety can manifest on its own, without any real “trigger” or cause.

It almost seems that without being in a constant ‘fight or flight’ mode, my brain no longer knows how to function. Not having stressors is actually anxiety-provoking for me. I lie in bed late at night, sure that I’m forgetting things (and chastising myself for little things I did forgot to do five months ago, or when I was 13) and making endless mental ‘to do’ lists. I struggle to focus during the day, and have even started drifting off to sleep mid-afternoon. Too often, I find myself at the end of another day, having accomplished little on my many colour-coded to do lists.

My anxiety has turned me into a procrastinator. I was never a procrastinator. I was the type of student who finished an assignment weeks before it was due. Now, I know how much I have to do, but I can’t get out of my own way and do it. Instead of working, I spend too much time on social media, letting my inner critic jab me in the ribs and point out how focussed and productive and successful everyone else is.

I started off the summer by trying to be patient with  myself. I tried to practice self-care, and give myself time and space to bounce back and feel like myself again. But as the summer has gone on, my anxiety has only gotten worse. The level of my anxiety-hangover has grown in direct proportion to how well things appear to be going in my life. I’ve lived for so long with our anxiety amp turned to 11 that I can’t remember how to dial it back. Without a crisis to focus on, I can’t seem to focus, at all.

While everyone else went to the cottage last week, I stayed home and went on a midsummer cleaning binge. Cleaning and organizing helps me focus, and it’s also much easier to do when no one else is around. So I grabbed recycling bags and hit the closets, throwing myself into a task that was productive and didn’t require me to think much.

One of the treasures I found was my old GameBoy, circa 1990. It came with one Mario game, and Tetris. Tetris was my favourite — again, all about organizing and focussing. Things I used to be good at, back in the day.

I feel a bit like I’m living in that Tetris game, these days.Read More »