Every parent who has ever delivered their child to school on their very first day at the tender age of 5 years will recall the myriad of emotions which flooded their parental being at that moment:
- excitement that the big day has finally arrived,
- pride at how mature and excited your child is at reaching this important milestone,
- relief at being able to finally deliver your school-ready child to the door and into the teacher’s hands,
- sadness as he walks away from you without a second glance, and
- perhaps some apprehension or even fear for your little one as he takes his first steps out into the great big world without you.
This will depend to a large degree on your own educational experience as a child. However if you have taken all the reasonable steps to prepare your child socially for this great transition in his life, with regular attendance at play centre or kindergarten, your fears will for the most part be unfounded. Your child will be off and away on the most exciting adventure of his young life. He will return home at the end of his school day tired but happy, full of stories of new people and experiences and will awaken the next morning bright eyed and bushy tailed ready to go back for more.
Most children adapt quickly to the new environment, settle into new friendships, learn the routines of the classroom and school, take delight in the stories, games and activities provided for them each day, and enter quite effortlessly into the stream of lifelong learning.
As parents, underlying and supporting all of this preparation is a deep sense of hope and optimism for our children, for all of the wonderful opportunities that this education will bring to our child as he grows into adulthood.
For some children, however, this story is very different. The first few months or even a year may pass uneventfully.
Then something changes.
Your child is no longer so keen to go to school each day. He may develop a sore tummy in the morning which miraculously disappears by 9.30 am if he is allowed to stay at home. The 15 minutes of homework set by his teacher each day takes twice as long to do and constant parental attention is needed to get it done. His delight in reading to you each night dissipates as he begins to struggle with the more complex stories, stumbling over words which he knew yesterday, and losing the thread of the story as he struggles to decode the words.
He may become anxious and have difficulty falling asleep at night. When you ask him what he is worried about you may hear things like “ we have to sit still on the mat for too long”, “ I don’t like writing time” , “I had to stay in at lunchtime because I didn’t get my writing finished”, “nobody wants to play with me” or “the teacher growled at me because……”. When asked what he likes best about school he will invariably answer “playtime”.
Then the annual parent/teacher conference arrives. Instead of the usual good news the teacher tells you that little Johnny is not keeping up with the rest of the class. He seems to be a bright boy, but is not performing to his capacity. Is there anything going on at home which could be disturbing him? (… parental guilt suddenly raises its head!).
The teacher doubles her efforts to catch your child up. She is puzzled because other children in the class are learning well. She may feel responsible for your child’s lack of progress (which she most likely is not) or she may look elsewhere for answers.
If he is six years old when this happens he may be placed in the one-to-one Reading Recovery programme which seems to help many children with gaps in their learning, but when this comes to an end he backslides and falls behind again.
By the time your child reaches the age of seven the teacher is reporting a range of other difficulties which may include lack of concentration, distractibility, difficulty following instructions, needing clarification and repetition more than usual, reversals of numbers and letters, poor spelling, below age level in reading, poor fine motor control with messy writing, difficulty sitting still, and a lack of confidence when trying new tasks.
All of the joy, enthusiasm and pride which was present in both parents and child on that first day of school is being gradually whittled away. If nothing is done, by the age of nine this child will “hit the wall”.
What can be done?
The child’s school has a number of interventions available depending on the severity of your child’s difficulties.
If he is feisty and spirited he will begin acting out, trying to get attention in any way he can, by disturbing others or becoming the class clown. If he starts to lash out at others in frustration he will quickly attract attention and additional assistance will be organised for him by the school. In many ways this can be a good thing because both teachers and parents are quickly alerted to the fact that the child needs help.
A Resource Teachers for Learning and Behaviour ( RTLB) may be called in to do observations, assessments and make suggestions to the teacher. A plan of action to support the child will be put in place and monitored over a period of time. An IEP (Individual Education Plan) process may be initiated with input from a group comprising teachers, parents and RTLB. Goals will be set for the child to reach over a period of weeks. For children with behavioural problems a temporary teacher aid may be put in place to keep him on task during the most important or challenging hours of the day. These measures will most certainly be helpful for such a child, but are usually temporary and dependant on meagre funding. Once your child begins to improve with one-to-one attention, this assistance is usually withdrawn.
If your child is quiet, well behaved and wants to please, he will try harder and harder and eventually become burned out and disheartened when his efforts do not yield the desired results. His self-esteem will drop and at the tender age of nine or ten he may “tune out” believing himself to be a failure. These quiet, non-disruptive children may stay “ under the radar” and, as they do so, may fall through the legendary cracks of our education system.
The transition to Secondary School usually brings some of these children to light, but even then it may take several years of struggle before the child’s true situation becomes known.
One such student appeared at the door of my clinic recently towards the end of Term 3, after his parents were told in a Parent/Teacher conference for the very first time that their 16 year old son had failed all of his NCEA English units. His mother arrived in tears at our doorstep directly from the conference, on the recommendation of the school counsellor, begging for some help for her son.
Until that day she had no idea that he was failing, as her son had become very non-communicative over recent months, had fallen through the cracks at school, and was keeping himself “under the radar” as much as possible. He was excelling on the sporting field and had decided that, although he was “dumb” (his words), he could succeed in other ways instead. Unfortunately (or fortunately as it happens) his chosen career path was to become a Physical Education teacher, for which he needed to pass English.
What can a parent do if this or a similar scenario presents itself ?
If at all possible if is far preferable for children with learning difficulties to be picked up as early as possible. In general, if your child is not reading at age level by 7-8 years of age then some investigation needs to take place. Teachers should be frank with parents when reporting on a child’s progress at school so that if something is amiss it can be attended to as quickly as possible.