Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Moving Up

Five and a half years ago Ethan toddled off to preschool with a backpack that was almost as big as he was. The date was November 29, 2010, and he'd just turned three the day before. That day he met a group of amazing staff -- teachers, paraprofessionals, therapists, and more who played a critical role in helping him be all he is today. Some of them have moved on but many have continued to be a part of his school day -- until June 15, when he "graduates" on to a new school for next year and meets an entirely new group of people who will be a part of his third to fifth grade life.

Ethan at three was most certainly a different person than he is today. He began school in the self-contained autism classroom with pull-outs (like snack time) with his peers in the special ed pre-K room. Right away we saw the school most definitely could get him to do things we could not (isn't it like that for many parents?). On day one, he did a craft for the first time (with help, of course). He also sat for circle time. Some of his social anxiety had caused that to be a monumental endeavor (whenever we'd attempted to do play groups he'd be out the door, or trying to obsessively flip the light switches). In that first half-year Ethan had speech and OT, and started PT. He grew to truly love some of his therapists in addition to specials like gym and music. There were bumps along the way (aren't there always?). We thought he could handle being in special ed. preschool rather than an autism room from the start. The school did not. We also wanted him to repeat three-year-old preschool when fall came around, and they argued to push him on. This got me so frustrated. Why, I asked, would you push a child who already has social challenges to go through his school career always younger than most of his peers? They acquiesced.

That fall he repeated the Threes. That was the year he actually started talking in school. His teachers came to me, amazed, even though he'd been speaking at home for some time. Apparently in school he rarely did. He still cared little for other kids, though. Never mind parallel play; he didn't even want to play alongside other kids. He'd wait until they vacated a certain area and then move in.

The next year they restructured the school system in town and everyone moved to a different school -- but thankfully, almost all of the staff Ethan knew and loved came along to the new school where he started the Fours. Ethan began to get familiar with some friends. He loved his teacher who played some rockin' dance music every day when they had to pick up. He fell into a good groove at his new school. And so did we.

I will say this: I know we don't have the "best" school system in the state. We're not a town people gravitate towards for its schools. Yes, sometimes people move away to get better services. And I know some people even within his school, working with the same staff, have had poor experiences. I can't speak to that. I'm sorry about it, and I hate to hear these kinds of stories. I only can say that in Ethan's case, we developed good relationships, and we had a lot of success. This may be because Ethan adapts well and responded well and quickly to various interventions. We weren't fighting for MORE services as so often parents are. I don't know. I can just say that we have been pleased, and grateful for the people who have worked with him, the services he's received, and the relationships he and we have built along the way.

I had no idea how kindergarten would go for Ethan. He started the year with a shared paraprofessional and speech and OT. He had a fabulous teacher who worked with him through his fears of cafeteria noise and the fire drill. By the end of the year he was reading well, no longer needed the para, and had graduated from OT. Ethan got along with kids, but he still didn't go out of his way to play with them -- except for his two buddies after school. Day after day of time on the playground one-on-one with them did him good -- although it was always a struggle to get him to play their games rather than his own ideas.

In first grade Ethan was blessed with yet another fantastic teacher (I give a lot of credit to those staff who helped each year to almost "hand-pick" the teacher that would be best for him). His speech therapy dwindled as focus shifted to his social skills group. One of the highlights of the year had to be when he performed in the class play his teacher traditionally has her first graders put on at the end of very year. He said he wasn't going to do it. He said he was scared. But he did it anyway. Just the way we all have to do things scared sometimes.

Then, this year. Ethan has a teacher who I think is in her second year, but you'd never know it. She's a pro. She's been wonderful. The social worker who runs his group has been awesome as well. I will always remember second grade as the year Ethan learned about his autism and decided to tell others about his autism. And, as the year he decided he wanted to play with other kids on the playground rather than climbing the monkey bars alone.

I can't forget to mention his gym teachers and music teacher. Ethan's always been the athletic type and has adored both his gym teachers. One retired last year but I can never forget the trophy he let Ethan take home for a weekend after he made an incredible shot in basketball. I think it made Ethan's week, if not his year. And then there's his current teacher, who teasingly these days races to get him out of the car at drop-off time before Ethan can open the door and beat her to it: she's awesome. She's seen this kiddo since he was barely three years old. This year she's given him several "awards" for being a good example in gym class. This always amazes me, since I was the kid hiding in the back during gym hoping to not do much of anything.

The music teacher he's had the past few years has been great for both Ethan, and the school. As one who was always involved in band and chorus and feel these things are just as important for kids as sports and academics, it always warms my heart to see a teacher passionate about bringing a love for music to kids, for fighting for creative ways to get more kids involved and to keep music an important part of the curriculum, at all costs. Since Ethan's a musical kiddo he's always loved his class, and again his teacher has said he's been an excellent example for other kids and a fast learner.

I realize this is reading more like a book. It's kind of rambly and not very well-written. I guess that's what happens when you try to condense five years into one blog entry. So what am I really trying to say? Well, I have no idea how things will go from here. Upper elementary scares me a little; middle school even more. The stories Anna tells me sometimes are troubling. But I can't get melancholy and fixate on that. All I know, in this moment, is that we are looking back on five years and a whole lot of progress. And I'm so thankful for all of the wonderful people who have been there to give Ethan the best start possible. It's a special kind of person who willingly spends their entire day working with small children. The demands on teachers are incredible these days. There are so many things about schools I wish we could "fix." But as for Ethan's experience in particular, I wouldn't change the overwhelming majority of it. Thank you, all. We'll miss you.

2010: First day of pre-K

2011: Anna walking Ethan to school

2012: Last day at Roger Wolcott School (2nd year of pre-K Threes). From left, Ethan's teacher, social worker who runs his social skills group this year, and the awesome classroom para who loves him to this day).

2012: First day of pre-K (Fours) at Oliver Ellsworth school

2013: Checking out kindergarten the night before school starts

2014: First day of 1st grade

2014: One of the school singalongs hosted by Ethan's wonderful music teacher

2014: Field Day for 1st grade, with Ethan's awesome teacher in the background

2015: First grade play

2015: First day of 2nd grade

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