The small steps that helped my son negotiate school
Philip was about three when I first noticed that something was not quite right. As an educational psychologist, you might think that I would have read the signs a little earlier, but as a doting mother, I now see that I was studiously ignoring them.
“The ladies in the nursery”, he pronounced with his usual self-assurance that grey morning, “will probably say that it is cloudy today. But it’s not cloudy, mummy, it’s overcast.”Where on earth, I mused, had he heard that word? It was the moment I had been dreading: confirmation of all the little worries that had been totting up over the previous few months.
A week earlier, the nursery head had told me she was concerned that Philip showed no interest in engaging with any of the children or adults there. Then there was the obsession with Thomas the Tank Engine, the rigid adherence to routines, the resistance to tasting new foods, the ease with which he completed fairly complex jigsaws and his apprehension about wearing anything new or “rough”. Yes, it was all falling into place and as it did so, I felt as if I was falling too, down a sinkhole of despair; whatever lay ahead for my beautiful boy?
A different path
This might sound odd, coming from a professional, but I decided not to proceed down a formal route of diagnosis and multidisciplinary interventions; I had seen at first hand how this process was not always as helpful as it could be and so I determined to try to deal with the situation myself.
I quickly learned that there was no way of making Philip “normal”; he did not want to play with other children and the praise of unattached adults held little value for him. But what I did understand from those early days, was that with a lot of direct instruction I could help Philip to act in ways that made him less conspicuous and therefore less likely to be targeted as different.
Early school days were a trial for him; he hated the noise of the classroom and any activity that lacked predictable structure distressed him. He did not instinctively smile back at others and I had to remind him daily of the rules of interaction. “Why on earth should I care about what someone else thinks of me?” he later asked.
Having navigated the first few years of the infant department with some success, the situation broke down during his third year of formal education. Philip was miserable; he knew he was isolated, but didn’t understand why and his teachers were frustrated by his lack of interest in anything they were doing in class. Philip was clearly an able child, but was doing nothing. I wondered if the problem was my expectations, so I withdrew him from the school and enrolled him in a Steiner school. From that moment, everything changed. Philip attended without tears, the class was small and informal, but the structure of each day was securely predictable. He made his first friend and became an avid reader.
Once he was more accepting of the school scenario, I moved him to a small private school and then a larger one. These small steps allowed Philip to gradually adapt to educational expectations and acquire at each stage sufficient confidence and social skills to deal with larger groups and the outside world.
Now nineteen, Philip is studying physics at university. He has a small group of like-minded friends and a girlfriend, but above all else, he is happy. I think that the worry for most parents is that their child gets the chance to be who they are, to have friends and to enjoy their lives. While bringing up any child presents a series of challenges, this is particularly so when trying to support a child with subtle, but potentially significant, social and emotional issues. But it can be done, and I would advise anyone struggling with similar issues to keep calm, give clear direction and remain supportive. You will see your child grow in confidence and be able to show to the world the wonderful person that you have always known them to be.