To School, or Not To School

It has been a long time since I have posted. I spent some time enjoying the last few posts that I did, following my own introspective mind through the process of debating keeping my business going, what my thought processes were and how I moved forward. Okay, the blog did not really chronicle how I moved forward. I seemed to have fallen off of the face of the earth. But here I am again, sharing what my brain has been mulling over for the past couple of years.

One thing that has happened, or hasn’t happened, is me getting my bearings back. I still haven’t located that passion, that drive that I had before that propelled me to read and look into everything that I could regarding education. I’m not entirely sure of the reason, other than I don’t really have a good outlet for this passion any more. I worked with a lot of stress for the past few years, and am still working in a stressful situation, although not the same one I was in before. I am trying really hard to not jump ship and land myself in yet another stressful work situation that I am not going to be happy in.

I think one of the reasons why I have been so unhappy is that my research has reached its logical conclusion, and it has been paired with life experience. That is the most dangerous pairing, because it means that there are tangible results to back up your hypothesis. And my underlying hypothesis this whole time has been that schools are not a healthy place for children. With all of the sitting in class, doing worksheets all day, with little experiential learning and not much connection to “real life,” school can drain the life out of some kids.

My own daughter went through k-5 and half of sixth grade in school. In first grade she was put in a remedial reading program because she was not reading at the school’s predetermined reading level. That was my first red flag for my daughter. She became very anxious about reading because she was not reading fluently enough for her teachers. But she loved to read, and her comprehension was off the charts. The next red flag came in third and fourth grade. She had switched schools and her grades started falling. I’m not sure what the differences were between the two schools, but third grade is when things start to get a little tougher because benchmark testing begins that year. Her third grade teacher and I had several conversations about her work, and her fourth grade teacher and I had to work out a behavior management plan for her because she was having a hard time focusing in class. I got the school system to do some testing and they determined that she had ADHD. I then got her tested by a psychologist and she determined that my daughter not only had ADHD, but Aspergers as well. The diagnosis wasn’t too much of a surprise to me; I had been going back and forth between the two as possible diagnoses for a while simply because of different things my daughter does, quirks that she has. But I didn’t think her diagnosis would come back as both.

Fifth grade was a nightmare as I tried to keep her off of medication. She could not keep up with homework and her attention and focus in class were non-existent, according to her teacher. In sixth grade I finally caved and started looking into medication options. I didn’t like any of the options because of the side effects. I didn’t feel good about putting my daughter on medication that could cause depression and anxiety, and my daughter complained because the medication I did put her on made her feel less happy than usual. On top of that, she was at a new charter school, and she began to develop anxiety habits like picking all of the wood off of her pencils and leaving a long piece of lead attached to an eraser. The teachers suggested mechanical pencils and stress balls, but with her lack of focus she would forget to bring these things to class half of the time. Her homework load became ridiculous and she began to have tantrums in the evening over homework that was taking her all afternoon and evening to complete. It was not a good situation, and I talked to her therapist about pulling her out of school. She had a therapist to help her with social skills, but even that situation was frustrating for me as a parent, because all I saw happening was the therapist pulling out a game to play, misunderstanding something that my daughter did or said, not listening to what my daughter had to say about what she did or said, and then my daughter having a tantrum because she was being misunderstood. Every week I watched this frustrating scene repeat itself over and over. But the therapist was a good support for me when it came to working through all of the considerations for pulling my daughter out of school.

I pulled my daughter out of school at the end of the second quarter of sixth grade. It was one of the most terrifying things I have ever done. Our society is so conditioned to believe that if your child is not in this system of schooling, then they will not be successful in life, that my hands were literally shaking as I walked down the steps out of the school after filing the disenrollment papers. The only thing that was going through my head was the terrifying thought that I was going to break my kid.

There is a process that I learned about before I pulled my daughter out of school called deschooling. When I first heard about it, I took it to mean the decompression phase that most children who are pulled out of public school go through before they really start to become curious about learning again. And there is a lot of truth to this process. My daughter is in the middle of this process right now, and I constantly have to remind myself that what she is doing during the day is okay. And it isn’t like she isn’t learning. More on that in a minute.

There is another meaning of the word deschooling, though. Through listening to a great podcast called Fare of the Free Child, I came to see that deschooling is a process that anyone can go through to unlearn some of the structures that schools teach us. One of those, for me, is the importance of how people dress. It always bothered me in school that I didn’t have the fashionable clothes that the other kids had because it was viewed as a status symbol. It bothered me as an adult that I didn’t want to dress in the types of fashionable, or nice, clothing that other adults did. It bothered friends of mine, too; one Christmas this group of friends pooled their resources and bought me an entire new wardrobe that was more to the style of the day. The fact that they did that bothered me then, and it bothers me even more as I am thinking back on it and blogging about it. Were they that embarrassed by how I dressed that they felt the need to do that? It was like they were trying to change me to suit their vision of what one of their friends should look like. It bothered me as a parent that my daughter didn’t want to dress the way the other kids did – not because I thought it was important for her to be “on trend,” but because I was worried that she would be viewed as an outcast because of her choices in clothing. Now I am learning to face my truth: it is okay for both my daughter and I to wear clothing that we feel comfortable in. We both are rather androgynous in our clothing choices, and sometimes we both choose to wear nicer, more feminine clothing. My older daughter is similar in her clothing choices. There is nothing wrong with that for any of us.

Another deschooling lesson for me came from my daughter very recently. I have been getting onto her about her language choices and how she chooses to talk. Not that she is using bad words or anything like that; she is actually the bad word police in our house. But she doesn’t use what I term “proper language” sometimes, and it grates on my nerves because our society views people that use language that is not “proper” as uneducated or unintelligent, and I do not want anyone viewing my daughter that way. But my daughter made the point that people talk in different ways because of the way that they are brought up or because of where they live, and it is not my business or anyone else’s business how they were brought up or where they lived that led them to talk that way, and it is definitely not my place to judge them for that. What a profound statement from my daughter that put my judgment of her language choices on notice! I did have to explain to her that, while that is very true and I appreciated her bringing that truth to my attention, there is that structure in place in our society, and while it is not okay for me to be judgmental about how she chooses to talk she should be aware of that structure even if she does not choose to adhere to it.

Even though I am still terrified daily by my choice to pull my daughter out of school, I see evidences of her learning all the time. We don’t go see the therapist any more, but my daughter told me the other day that she found a YouTube channel that talks about ADHD, Autism, and social skills, and that she is learning how to better relate to other people. And she did that on her own, without any suggestion from a therapist or a teacher, or even from me. During this deschooling time she has been playing Minecraft and Roblox incessantly, which is another scary thing for me (video games all day?), but I know that she is learning something from them or she wouldn’t be playing them all the time like she does. I have always believed that children do not involve themselves in something that isn’t just challenging enough, and that they aren’t learning something from, even if the challenge and learning aren’t readily apparent to us at the time. She is no longer on medication and I can tell that she is happier, less stressed, and less anxious than she was. And my conversations with her consistently show me that she is learning, even if it isn’t the prescribed academic learning that our society deems is so important.

So the question is, to school or not to school? I know that the answer is going to be different for different people, but I think you know by now what my answer is.

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Changing Mindsets Part 4: Take a Step Back and Connect

In my last post  I talked about using observation to discover the reasons why children exhibit problem behaviors. In this post we will discuss making a connection with the child. I understand that it may be hard to connect with a child whose behaviors have been so frustrating and have caused so much tension in the classroom, but this step is vital to changing our mindset about classroom behaviors. The observation process is very helpful in this regard, as it shows the teacher exactly what is happening to trigger the problem behavior. With this information in hand, it is easier to try to make a positive connection with the child because you are able to see that the behavior has a reason behind it. So for Step Seven:

  • Think about your situation with the child. What do you want the child to learn or to do? For example, if the child is hitting other children, you could say, “I want this child to use his words to solve problems instead of hitting,” or “I want this child to put his toys away at clean up time instead of throwing them across the room.”

Now you have reframed the situation. Before you were only focused on the problem behavior, which usually leads to punishment and frustration. Now you are focused on what the child needs to learn, which leads to teaching. That brings us to Step Eight:

  • Based on how you reframed the situation, what can you teach this child that will help them be successful? This can be as simple as, “I can teach this child which words to use in order to solve his social problems,” or “I can teach this child where each toy belongs so that he does not feel so stressed during the clean up transition.”

Up to this point, this problem behavior has caused a lot of anxiety and frustration in the classroom. It is important that you create a plan for staying calm during these situations. This child is watching you during these moments and the calmer you are, the calmer the child will be. The situation may not end as smoothly as you would like, but you will both be calmer. So for Step Nine:

  • Think about your reactions up to this point and write down what you will do differently during the next situation with this child. What can you do to stay calm in the heat of the moment? How can you use this situation to teach rather than punish?

More information will be given about stress-management and calming techniques in a later post.

These action steps are adapted from Conscious Discipline by Dr. Becky Bailey. To return to Step Six, click here.  For Steps Four and Five click here. For Steps One, Two and Three click here.

In my next post we will begin discussing the stress response.

Our Brains on Stress

In my last post I wrote about classroom stress and the choice that you can make between being calm and being angry in classroom situations. I also wrote about how you should not give away your power to a child. After all,

No one can make you angry without your permission.

Now it is time to examine what goes on in our heads when we are faced with a stressful situation.

In 1996 a research study was conducted about the effects of parental anger. The study revealed that anger causes people to form mistaken beliefs about the actions of the person they are angry at. These mistaken beliefs are called “trigger thoughts,” and for teachers, they prevent us from seeing the underlying causes of children’s behaviors.

The researchers grouped trigger thoughts into three distinct categories:

  • Assumed Intent – when we assign intent to the student’s actions, usually negative. Assumed intent usually means that we feel the child is misbehaving on purpose in order to upset us or another child.
  • Magnification – when our thoughts make the situation seem worse than it actually is.
  • Labeling – when we use negative words to describe the child or their behavior.

Below is a list of trigger thoughts that have been adapted from the 1996 study, as well as from Dr. Becky Bailey’s Conscious Discipline system. See how many of these trigger thoughts you can identify as being part of your thought process when you become angry in classroom situations:

Assumed Intent:

  • You are just doing this to annoy me.
  • You are deliberately defying me.
  • You know this is wrong and you’re doing it anyway.
  • You’re trying to drive me crazy.
  • You’re trying to see how far you can push me.
  • You are tuning me out intentionally
  • You are doing this deliberately to get back at me, hurt me, embarrass me, spite me, etc.

Magnification:

  • I can’t stand this one minute longer.
  • Your behavior is intolerable.
  • You have gone too far this time.
  • You never listen, pay attention, etc.
  • How dare you speak to me like that, look at me like that, etc.
  • You turn everything into a power struggle, lousy time, nightmare, chaos, etc.

Labeling:

  • You are getting out of control.
  • You are manipulating me.
  • You are lazy, malicious, stubborn, disrespectful, ungrateful, willful, selfish, cruel, etc.
  • You don’t care about anyone but yourself.
  • You’re deliberately being mean, cruel, hurtful, a jerk, a smart mouth, etc.

Trigger thoughts are very powerful. They usually enter our heads when we are stressed, and they have the power to transform that stress into powerful negative emotions. Imagine this scene, for example:

You cook a very special dinner for your spouse or significant other. You have spent a lot of time and effort to put this meal together. You proudly set the food in front of him, but he barely acknowledges the work you did or even the taste of the food. You become over-anxious and concerned that your loved one isn’t enjoying the meal, and as the silence continues even after the meal has ended, the trigger thoughts roll through your head:

“He doesn’t care about anything I do.”

“He is so ungrateful and selfish!”

“He purposefully didn’t say anything about all the work I did! Well, I’ll show him!”

And then you begin the silent treatment, when all along your significant other was simply distracted by his own stressful day at work! Rather than stopping and allowing yourself to discover why your significant other was behaving this way, you allowed your trigger thoughts to light a fire under the stress and anxiety you were feeling, and that created a huge explosion of anger. But you forgot one important thing:

No one can make you angry without your permission!

In the next post, we will discuss how to begin changing our mindset.