Here are some practical things parents that can do to help their children achieve the two goals of education: developing tools for learning, and a good attitude toward life-long learning.
Do your homework
Before enrolling your child in the school, visit it, get to know the overall philosophy and talk to parents whose children have the teacher your child will have. If you have a choice of teachers for your child, meet with all of them prior to school entry, observe their classrooms in action, and use your best parent’s intuition to decide, “Is this the person I want to teach my child?”
“My child needed a high level of everything since the day she was born. She seemed to be constantly in my arms for the first year; she weaned at three years; she slept in our bed until age five. Needless to say, where she went to school and who would be her teacher were major decisions for us. To whom I entrusted my child mattered a great deal to me. I really wasn’t afraid of her going to school because down deep I knew that she was a solid and secure child who could handle the challenges of school, yet I wasn’t going to take any chances. I arranged for her to have a teacher whom she had met several times and knew. I also arranged for her to be in the same class as her friend. I made a point of being a frequent volunteer at the school and going on all the field trips. I am happy to report that she was much loved by the teachers, who called her “the best adjusted child in the class.” She was also liked by her peers and was a straight “A” student. Yet, school was not always a positive experience for her. During particularly difficult times or years I home- schooled her.”
Be sure child and teacher fit
It may be tough to find a teacher who strikes the right balance between nurturing and education. Demand both.
“I was so reassured by the teacher’s caring attitude that I didn’t pay attention to how little my child was being taught. In an effort to put Susan into a nurturing environment, I had underestimated her desire to learn. I soon realized that she needed to be challenged in order for her to stay “plugged in.” My fears had led me to get Susan into a safe, nurturing school. I discounted her abilities. We feared that if a school were too highly structured and had expectations that were too high, it would be difficult for Susan. Yet, we found that the class we chose had no structure and no expectations.”
“When September arrived, the teacher of our dreams entered our lives, and this year proved to be a turning point for Haley. Mrs. B understood that some children process information differently. She taught with a lot of worded pictures, visualizations, and soft music every morning as the kids settled into their work. She was very specific with her instructions and expectations. This was the setting that Haley needed to thrive. Feeling loved unconditionally by Mrs. B, Haley had the freedom to be herself, unusual temperament and all. Haley and Mrs. B were a good fit and my daughter soared academically and socially.”
Help your child adjust
Going from home to school is a stressful transition for many children. Expect a temporary regression and some mood swings when your child begins school. Some of this is due to the different expectations that your child is now required to meet and the lower level of tolerance teachers and peers have for unusual behavior. Your child feels free to “mess up” in front of mom, but not in front of the teachers or classmates.
“‘Acting out’ her day helped Karen to get used to school. After school, she played school and imitated her teacher. She converted her walk-in closet to a classroom. We gave her an old white board that my husband used for seminars, and she was ecstatic. She would act out the part of her kindergarten teacher in the way she viewed her, as harsh and unloving, and act toward her students the way she saw herself being treated (complete with silk blouses and high heels). This gave us a wonderful opportunity to talk about how she felt when Miss H would treat her like that. Playing school was therapeutic for her. It allowed her to work out a lot of her worries through play, and actually helped her get ready for the next year of school.”
When in doubt, take your child out
Don’t persist with a bad experiment. Some children process information differently. Some need a lot of visual aids and do best in a structured yet flexible environment. High-need children are more likely to need one-on-one attention, and many of these children are little perfectionists who fear failing to meet the teacher’s expectations. They often feel free to “mess up” or misbehave in front of mom, a basic fact of childrearing, which explains why some children perform better for teachers than parents, and why others fall apart from the pressure outside their home. Some children are likely to be ultra sensitive about school because they equate their performance with their value as a person. Children need the right balance between academics and nurturing. Brighter children also tend more to become bored in school. A bored child will deviate into undesirable behavior and be labeled as a troublemaker. If, after a few weeks, the nice child you sent to school on the first day is not the person who comes home every day, take this as a sign that you need to make a change.
“When kindergarten started, we hoped Kendra would find a structured environment in which we knew she would do well, as long as it was accompanied by a nurturing teacher. It wasn’t long before she started showing signs of regression. She became more aggressive and negative at home. After sitting in on her class, I saw the problem. The teacher was tall and intimidating. She had little warmth in her disposition and attitude. She had structure, but no flexibility and had expectations that Kendra was having a hard time meeting. She had a harsh, intimidating voice, even when speaking to me. It soon became obvious to me (and Kendra) that she was not one of the teacher’s favorites. Because of the way the teacher singled her out when she disobeyed, other kids in the class were also picking up cues that Kendra was undesirable. Kendra began having constant stomachaches, nightwaking, constipation, and didn’t want to go to school. We had a conference with the teacher who felt that Kendra needed to conform to her rules. In her eagerness to please this teacher, Kendra became an annoyance in the classroom. She was having more time-outs and was becoming more frustrated. We considered changing schools or classes, but being first-time parents we didn’t want to rock the neighborhood boat. In retrospect, I wish we had pulled her, but I didn’t have the confidence then that I have now.”
Going from home to school is a major change. After you have decided the when and where of schooling, start gradually. While some children plunge right into a full day or full week of school, high-need kids usually need a more gradual introduction. While you may need your child to go to school for a full day, your child may only be ready for a half day. Since behavior often deteriorates in the afternoon hours, most high-need children do best in morning preschool or kindergarten (unless, of course, you wish to enjoy your child during her best times of the day and let the teacher handle the worst). You may need to “go to school” a few hours a day in the early weeks as your child gets accustomed to being there.
As we have repeatedly stressed, because of the mutual sensitivity between high-need children and their parents, these kids catch your moods very easily. If you are anxious about your child going to school, your child will likely also be anxious. Moods between parents and children are contagious, especially between high-need children and high-touch parents. Give your child the message that school is fun, you’re excited about it, and it’s okay to be there.
High-need children will tax the creativity of their teachers just as they do their parents, so it’s important to make sure the teacher and the child are a good fit and to continue to monitor the effect of the school on your child’s intellectual and emotional growth.