Every year when school starts, Kane is excited about a school supply.
He couldn’t wait to use his scissors in kindergarten. He loved his colorful notebooks in first grade (before he realized he had to write in them). The perfectly sharpened colored pencils in second grade were a humongous hit. The third grade start-of-school tossup was between his own special markers and his “tambourine” colored stylus.
On Friday evening of the first week of school this year, Kane said over dessert, “Mama, I love school more than home.”
What?!?, I thought, my feelings immediately bruised. At the same time, I realized that we’d not yet had a start to the year where he said anything remotely similar.
“Can you like them the same?”
“I don’t mean to hurt your feelings.”
Very astute of him, I thought, and I’m obviously not disguising my feelings very well on this one.
“I’m really happy that you love school. I guess I want you to love home the same, not less.”
“I do like home, but I like school more.”
I decided to get over my hurt feelings. “Can I ask why?”
“I love to learn. If I was home all the time, I would need to be learning and then I would love it just as much.”
“That’s awesome, buddy.”
In my head I’d already started chanting He loves to learn! He loves to learn! This is going to be a GREAT year!
“I hate writing.”
The irony is not lost on me. I am a writer, but my child struggles with general reading comprehension, as well as receptive, expressive, and pragmatic language.
He’s currently in third grade and is reading actual words that third graders read, but barely comprehends passages at a first grade level. He’s good at math, but he struggles to understand directions and word problems. He loves science experiments, but he doesn’t like to write down his observations. Any subject that requires writing, which is many of them (but feels like all of them), takes him much longer to complete.
During the school day, Kane receives the help he needs. He is mainstreamed, but has accommodations and modifications to his workload that provide him extended time to complete assignments, multiple ways of receiving directions and checking for understanding, preferential seating and settings, weekly time with an occupational therapist, daily time with a language therapist, and multi-daily time in a special education class. He also has incredibly conscientious teachers who genuinely care about pairing him with topics he’s interested in and who use a variety of techniques to encourage his enthusiasm for learning. I am incredibly grateful for what they do, because he is able to accomplish so much more with the right supports.
But I absolutely dread the days we get homework.
I am certain that I do not have the same bag of tricks at home. I can’t push him easily to complete homework on a week night, after a long day of school. So, we have to fit it in over the weekend. But he also needs downtime over the weekend. He has absorbed so much during the school week that, without it, he won’t be prepared for the next week. Problems that should take us a minute take us many more. A set of worksheets that should take 30 targeted minutes can stretch into hours. We alternate work with playtime and rewards. But it’s easy to be distracted by the delights of home, and it’s harder to get back to work. Kane also constantly delays, negotiates, and battles with the two of us, which is something he wouldn’t dream of doing at school.
And then there’s the general frustration with concepts he doesn’t understand.
For example, this weekend, Kane challenged how to spell multiple words. He wanted to know why “word” was spelled without an L, but “would” is spelled with one. Completely logical question, for which I had no answer that he would accept. I tried comparisons, by telling him that “could” and “should” are also spelled with an OU and L combination. I tried showing him the differences in words, by telling him that “would” and “wood” sound the same, but are also spelled differently. I told him that there are spellings within the English language that we simply abide by. But he was looking for a way to connect the dots in his head, and my lack of an answer that made sense to him also completely frustrated him.
And so, instead, I agreed that our language is one of mystery and madness at times. I agreed that it’s hard for him, but he can still do it. If I act like it’s simple because it’s simple for me, I negate the struggles he is having.
When I was his age, I loved to read and write. I accepted the rules and the exceptions to them, was a perfect memorizer, and demonstrated proficiency with ease. In other words, because I was good at reading and writing, I loved it. When it doesn’t come as easily, or when a person has a learning or developmental challenge that naturally makes it harder, it becomes more of a hurdle to overcome. We all tend to shy away from the things we don’t have a natural affinity for, and likewise, gravitate to the things that come more easily.
At the same time, learning is something that stretches us, possibly even more so when it’s challenging. When it’s harder for us, the victory of accomplishment is that much sweeter. If we can learn to embrace curiosity and enjoy the act of discovery, we can become lifelong learners. And, as they say, practice makes perfect. When we gain little wins, the bigger wins seem more possible, and the work feels less insurmountable.
But it also helps if we’re internally motivated. It’s incredibly challenging to get Kane to care about a worksheet when he’d rather memorize the lines to a movie. So, we have to get creative. We build in rewards. We pick and choose the timing. We pick and choose the amount of work we do in a sitting. And it takes far longer than I want it to.
If autism has taught us anything though, it’s that we do things in our own time. Kane’s development is his own, and I have to be okay with that. We work daily on what balance means, and it’s not something that we master as much as evolve our understanding of. Some days we’re going to be better at it than others. The key is in not giving up, but in giving ourselves breaks. In having compassion with the struggles and perseverance in spite of them.
And if Kane’s got any one skill in spades, it’s perseverance.