Getting It Wrong

I always cringe just a little when the caller ID reads “Public School” in the middle of the day. No matter what the reason for the call, it means that my day is about to be rearranged. This particular call was no different.
“I’m trying to give Patch his reading test, but he is just sitting there not working. Can you come down?” My heart sank. It was one of many interactions with Patch’s teacher. She was trying her best to help my son. We’d attempted several strategies to help him engage more, participate more, and get his work done in school hours. Yet here we were, faced with a state mandated test. He’d passed it with flying colors in the fall. I knew he could pass it again, but not if he wouldn’t pick up his pencil.
“Yes I’ll come.” I answered and then rearranged my day. While I was at it, I also rearranged the following day. It was time for me to observe Patch in his classroom. We needed better solutions and, to figure out what they might be, I needed more information.

I had a lot of information already, of course. I’d been observing the teacher since September. I’d paid attention every time I was in the classroom. I watched Patch do his homework. I sat with him every time he brought home unfinished class work. Like Patch’s teacher, I’d watched him gradually freeze up and lose confidence. In the face of a question for which he did not know the answer, he would stop. I began to recognize that he was terrified of getting things wrong. He was also not asking questions if he was confused. Speaking up is hard for Patch, particularly when it will focus group attention on him. I think it ties back to his fear of getting things wrong.

I walked into Patch’s class. He sat alone at his desk. All his classmates were gathered on the floor for a group activity. Patch looked up at me with wet eyes. The teacher kindly and wisely moved all the rest of the class into the music room to practice for an upcoming performance. Patch and I had a private space. I had to begin with scolding. When a child reaches the point where a parent has to be called down, scolding is in order. Three sentences later, Patch slumped into a repentant heap on his desk. It was enough. He knew he’d made a poor choice, so I gave him the opportunity to make a right one.
“I have to be here and you have to take this test. For every minute that I have to sit here and you don’t work, we’ll have a consequence at home. If you keep working, you can avoid adding to your consequence.”

Patch picked up his pencil and the work began. I could not give him answers, but I could repeat the things I’d been saying at home for weeks. “If you don’t know the answer, skip it and move on. Come back to it later.” “Keep your pencil moving.” Patch did keep working. I watched him when the work was smooth. I saw his forehead crinkle when he was confused. But he kept working, right up until he finished and went back to the skipped questions.
“I don’t know how to answer this!” he pleaded. It was a question asking his opinion on a story character. I could tell the question was not looking for a specific answer, but was just checking to see if he had focused on the story enough to pull details from it.
I looked into Patch’s eyes and said “Then get it wrong. Write something about her pink elephant.”
Patch looked at me confused. “She doesn’t have an elephant.”
“Okay. Write something about her purple balloon. Or pick something that is actually in the story. Just read the question and write the first answer you think of. Don’t try to figure out if it is the best possible answer. Just get it wrong and move on.”
Patch looked at me for a long minute, then turned and began to write.

Get it wrong and move on.
Sometimes there is no perfect answer. Sometimes I am exactly like Patch in this. I plan ahead. I study all the angles. I fret about all the repercussions, trying to see how this small decision will fork into future possibilities. But sometimes the right answer is any answer. I need to get it wrong and move on. There is almost always a chance to fix it later.

Patch got his answer right. Once he stopped being so afraid of getting things wrong, he knew which words needed to be on the page. He finished that test in the allowed time. More important, he worked without stopping. We walked out of the school triumphant. Instead of continuing to wallow in misery I was able to praise his efforts.

The next day I observed his class at the invitation of his teacher. He had a pretty good day, possibly because I was there. Watching him reassured me that much of the time he was fairly happy at school. There were just these spots which were hard on both him and the teacher. By the end of the day my subconscious had absorbed enough information to toss out an idea. I shared it with the teacher and she agreed it sounded good.

I made a bingo card for Patch. The squares say things like “I raised my hand to give an answer” and “I worked during all of the assigned time.” When Patch does one of these tasks, he brings his bingo card to his teacher and she signs the square. The central square is the one that Patch is allowed to award to himself. It reads “I told myself ‘I can do this.'” Three in a row earns him a treat when he comes home. A black out of all nine squares earns him a big treat. The bingo card gives Patch small things he can be doing to stay engaged in class. He remains focused on the things he can do. It also gives the teacher several chances to interact positively and praise Patch throughout the day.

The day I was called in was last Wednesday. Today was Parent Teacher Conferences. Instead of having a concerned conversation about how to help him, the teacher and I were able to share smiles about how well things are going. This was our third attempt at helping Patch. Looks like we finally have the right answer. Either that, or Patch just solved the problem for himself. Doesn’t matter. “Get it wrong and move on” has brought us to a good place.