As the last couple weeks of summer draw to a close, I, like many parents, am starting to prepare for all the new things that the beginning of the school year brings. We want our children to be equipped to handle this big new world. We want them to feel confident as they experience new friends, new teachers and new environments. We want them to know they are loved, know they are safe and know they are valued. We want them to be inspired to learn, we want them to feel the joy of new friendships and we want them to feel the pride of accomplishments. It’s a tall order, and I am not sure how we prepare them fully, but last week we had a little crash course in what school may be like for one of my children. Our experience was difficult, but it allowed me to prepare myself for some of the challenges we may face. I started to question what was really important to us, as a family? What do we hope our child gets out of school? What is our ultimate goal? For us the academics are secondary; he had a negative experience in the past, and we want this experience to be positive for him. We want him to feel empowered, we want him to feel a sense of belonging, and we want him to feel included.

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The class my child participated in this week was required by his EI, as he has lacked interest in handwriting. Watching him struggle, and get so upset about going, really had me conflicted. When he said he didn’t want to go, I wanted to honour that choice but in a couple weeks, he starts school, and then what? Part of me wants to just let him stay home, but I have promised to try to give it a fair try. He really wants to meet new friends at “big school,” so I have committed to trying to encourage him to go to school, until he absolutely flat out refuses. Obedience is not something we are comfortable promoting, especially as we hand our child over to a complete stranger. We’ve chosen not to tell our son to “listen to the teacher,” instead we encourage him to “focus on what the teacher is saying.” I feel like “listen” really means “obey,” while “focus” actually means “listen” and the compliance aspect is still a choice.

For this week, I tried to make things easy, not push too hard and be mindful that he is feeling very uncomfortable with this class. I tried to give him lots of control over other aspects of his life, lots of time outside and lots of sensory play. I managed to resist the urge to offer bribes or rewards for compliance. He kept saying “I’m done with writing. I’m never going to write or draw, ever, ever, again!” I was really at a loss for how to support him because to me, learning should not be so unpleasant. I really struggle to support an approach and a system that I feel is greatly flawed. I kept thinking, ‘this class is a mistake. He’s going to despise school before he even starts.’ I refuse to say something like “we all have to do things we don’t want sometimes” or “in school you have to do what the teacher tells you.” So, what can I say? What do I tell him to say? Finally, I said, “well then tell your teacher that. Tell her how you feel. You can always tell people “no” and you can always tell people how you feel.” He said “I can tell my teacher how I feel?” I said “yes! You can always tell people how you feel. It will help them understand.” Well, this seemed to give him relief. A mild resistance continued, but he got in the car. He ended up participating and doing all the activities.

The next day he had a pretty long emotional reaction to not wanting to write (actually the teacher wrote on his board, causing him to feel embarrassed and frustrated, I think). It was so painful, as a parent, to watch, because he was visibly upset, and shut down for about 15 minutes, in a different room from me. I was very close to going to get him (I could see him through a one-way-mirror), but it never escalated and he stayed in his chair . His EI stayed with him and tried to support him the best she could. In the car ride home I said “I saw you were getting really frustrated in there today while you were writing your letters. You know you can tell the teacher how you feel.” He said “I can?” I said “yes, of course! You can say ‘I’m feeling frustrated right now’ and then you can tell them what you need. So, you could say ‘I need a break’ ‘I need to move’ ‘I need help’ ‘I need space’ ‘I need quiet’ and they will help you.” He said “I didn’t do that.” I said “I know but you can do it next time at the big school.” He enthusiastically said “ok! I’ll tell my teacher how I feel!”

That is the lesson I am sending him out into this world with:

You can tell people “no”

You can tell people how you feel

You can tell people what you need

To me, this lesson is more important than his address or his phone number. I want him to know that when he is out around all these new people, many bigger than him, he still has power, he still has a voice and his feelings and needs still matter. I feel much more comfortable sending my child with these messages of empowerment, than telling him to obey his teachers, sit still and be quiet. Leadership is what our educators should be modelling, not management. Yes, the education system is broken in many ways, but that does not fall on the shoulders of our children. Our children still deserve to be treated with kindness, dignity and respect. This does not cost anything, and in the end, it will make the job of the educator easier and more rewarding. It does not take time, money or resources to be kind, it simply takes intent. Just as any parent can choose to become a gentle, responsive parent, any educator can choose to lead with the intention to support and inspire, rather than just manage a classroom. We all have choices, one choice we are making, is letting our child know that he can say “no,” to anyone. I would much rather my child say “no” a thousand times, just to be stubborn, then not feel comfortable to say it when he really needs to.

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