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.

 

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 »

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 »

Put on your rubber boots, we’re wading through bureaucratic crap.

Puck starts a new school in September, because administrators at the school he’s attended since Primary have stated they can’t support him to the level he needs. He’ll be attending one of a handful of schools in this province that focuses exclusively on teaching kids with learning disabilities and/or ADHD. In the old days, when I was in school, I suppose we called this “special ed”. It’s taken a while for his dad and I to get our heads around that.

The new school is technically part of the public school system, but it’s a private school — meaning, you must apply, be accepted, and pay a sizeable tuition. Because it’s part of the public school system, however, tuition support is available from the Department of Education, if you meet certain requirements:

  • accepted to school (check)
  • diagnosis of learning disability and/or ADHD (check)
  • supporting psycho-educational assessment and IPP  (check)
  • previous attendance at a public school  (umm…..)

And that’s where the rubber boots and bureaucracy come in. Although Puck meets all the requirements and demonstrates a real need to attend a special education school, we’re not eligible for tuition support, because Puck has never attended public school.

Puck struggled socially and academically even at age three. He became anxious and overwhelmed in groups, and showed signs of language-based learning disabilities. Based on his preschool teacher’s concerns, we had a screening with an early interventionist when Puck was four. She found no obvious developmental delays, but there were indications of learning challenges that she felt would likely become more evident in the school system. She suggested to us that Puck might benefit from a private school, where there would be a lower student-teacher ratio and more individualized attention. Our older child, Daisy, was just about to start Primary at our neighbourhood school. After talking with educators, psychologists, and other parents, and giving much thought to what would be best for Puck, we decided to enrol both he and Daisy in a liberal-arts private school.

Daisy thrived at the school. Puck did not. The school environment was nurturing and the teachers well-trained and thoughtful, but from the beginning, Puck was lost. He was unable to identify letters, to read, or to follow directions. He became frustrated and angry, yelling at teachers and hitting himself. His first psycho-educational assessment revealed language-based learning disabilities and slow visual processing speed. The most recent assessment found that his learning challenges are much more severe than previously believed, and are compounded by clinical anxiety and ADHD. Additionally, he was diagnosed with Tourette’s Syndrome in 2014.

After both psycho-educational assessments, the school worked with a psychologist and a learning resource teacher to put in place accommodations. By this January, however, it was clear that the accommodations weren’t working. He was doing so little work that it was impossible to assess whether he was meeting any provincial learning outcomes (although it was evident to all that he was not meeting them). His teachers told us they were unable to teach him — they feel they don’t have the insight into learning disabilities that he needs. He would not be allowed to continue there.

While the academic impact of Puck’s learning disabilities has been profound, the impact to his sense of self and psychological well-being has been devastating. We have watched him devolve from a happy, curious five year old to an eleven year old who calls himself stupid, hits himself in frustration, and feels he is ‘bad’

He feels he’s not worth helping, and that he doesn’t fit in anywhere. We’re desperate to prove him wrong.

We believe the new special education school can help. Going there means he’ll have access to teachers who understand his learning challenges and how best to teach him. He’ll be surrounded by other children who have the same lived experience — he won’t feel isolated, or like he’s the ‘stupid’ or ‘bad’ one. He won’t automatically be sent home every day due to emotional outbursts. He won’t feel left behind, or left out. He’ll have access to specialized programming and services that help him not only to catch up academically, but that focus on teaching him to live (and thrive) with learning disabilities, and to develop social skills. He’ll have the emotional support and understanding that he needs to develop self-confidence, and to be a happy young person.

Maybe – we hope – he will, for the first time in his six years of school, not feel physically ill at the idea of going to school.

But…there’s the issue of money.Read More »