Last Day of School

I sat in the sunshine on a bench out in front of the school. In a few moments children would burst forth from the building, free for the summer. At the moment all was quiet and a breeze flipped the pages of the planner in my lap. I closed my eyes and tipped my head back. I was at the school early for a reason. I needed to find the principal and have a talk with him. But he was not available for a few more minutes. So I sat.

Sometimes everyone means well and things still go wrong. Those good intentions can be so deceptive. I can talk to the teacher and feel her love for my child. I can talk to the child who puts a brave face on yet another incident. I see all the love, the compassion, the good intention, and I think that everything is fine. And it is. But at the same time it is not. All children have difficult days. Teachers, school administrators, and parents know this. And so we manage the difficulty, hoping for a better day tomorrow. But somehow, without anyone quite noticing, my daughter slipped into a place where difficult days were normal. Where the rare day is the one when she climbs into the car and says “I wasn’t mad today at all.”

Kindergarten children burst forth from the building with parents in tow. This means that the principal now has time to speak with me. I walk into the building, leaving sunshine for shadow. I rehearsed this conversation in my head all morning, now is the time to speak it. I was going to just let it go. I did not know that anything could be fixed so late. Then yesterday I overheard my daughter telling her brothers about a conflict during which she hit another child and had to be physically restrained by her teacher. It sounds like the incident itself was handled with wisdom, but if not for me eavesdropping, I would not have known. I am left to wonder what other emotional events have occurred at school about which I have not been informed.

I told the story to the principal and he was quite concerned. He agreed with me that I should have been called. We spoke to the aide in the LRR (think time out room) to discuss the times my daughter has been in there, other incidents about which I was not called. That room is bare. A single desk with a computer on it sits off to the side. Across a sea of carpet, huddled against the wall are five cubicles. A desk and a chair sit in each one, all facing the wall. This is the place where children are brought when they need a space to calm down, or when they must be removed from regular classes. The aide prints out a sheet documenting four times when my daughter was brought there. I was called once.

Behavioral modification techniques rely heavily upon a very fast action and consequence cycle. The most effective systems use an almost immediate penalty or reward for a specific behavior. The younger a child is, or the more impulsive a child is, the more immediate the consequence must be. These techniques have no chance at all of working if the consequence is too far delayed. Even more important is targeting a specific behavior with a specific consequence. I can’t even begin to work on modifying a behavior if I do not know the shape of the problem. I am not guiltless here. Part of my job as a parent is to communicate with teachers, to ask how things are going. This I did not do. I was not in the school regularly. I did not check up on how things were going. I was busy and distracted, so I trusted that the school staff would contact me if things got out of hand. And they did. Sometimes. Because they are busy and distracted too.

I held the paper in my hand. It contained four paragraphs telling me the details of four incidents. Removed from classroom for fighting. Would not settle down. Did not want to go back to class, said it was quieter here. My eyes water for what I read between the lines of text. But I must know if I am to help. I must know all of it. I must feed that intuitive center in my brain from whence solutions might spring. What I hold in my hands is evidence, solid evidence about my child’s experiences. I need more.

At my request, the aide makes a note that I am to be called even for small incidents. Next Fall I will have to check and make sure the note is still on the file. I have already decided that I have to be in the school much more often next year. I need to be speaking with her teacher at least weekly. I need to hear all the stories, see how she interacts with peers. If I do this, I expect that the staff of the school will be happy to support me. And if they do not, that is evidence too.

Meeting over, I return outside. My kids are already waiting in the bright sunshine, with class assignments for next year in hand. My daughter has a new teacher. That is what it says on her paper “New Teacher.” She will be in class with a complete unknown, someone who has not yet been hired. This could be good news or bad. I will know next Fall. For now, I breathe a sigh of relief as we walk away from the building. Summer will have conflicts aplenty, but I will witness them. I will know what they are. And perhaps by summer’s end I’ll have a better grasp on what my daughter needs.