It all happened very quickly, it seemed that our hope and expectations were becoming limited when searching for the school that was the right environment for our little boy. It turned out the only school we viewed that ticked all the boxes was also hitting us with a huge red cross due to the age barrier and our son being a year too young.
Thinking of other options, homeschooling, tutors, our search for a school for a bright intelligent boy who had Aspergers and PDA was becoming slim. It was an easier option to de-register from the school system but my son wanted to be included, he wanted to belong to a school at which he could make friends! The thought of another dog walk with me in the woods as a PE lesson and lessons at home were starting to wear thin. I tried my best to provide a positive homeschooling environment by joining the local home ed groups, accessing learning through outdoor activities but it wasn’t ideal. Not for me or for my son. It worked for 7 months and I would have made it work longer if my son wanted this but he was craving to be back at school, I wasn’t a teacher and he didn’t want to be taught from me.
As much as he displays PDA and anxiety he also has a need to be competitive, he didn’t get this with me. This made his learning stop. Lack of competition ensured a lack of interest.
We were coming to a bit of a standstill and the thought of staying at home and learning in September was becoming more real until one day, we took a trip out to view a school 45 minutes drive away. The school seemed perfect!
- Open space for my son to escape and calm down in a meltdown
- Staff were patient
- Teaching right from wrong and a positive mindset
- Relatable core values including a “can-do” approach
- Life skills
- A school providing love help and support
- Speech and language therapist on site
- Ed psych on site
- Small classrooms
- 1-1 support
- Other children just like him
We approached our local authority about this school as they had already determined that no school in the area could meet his needs. This school would meet our son’s needs and had 6 spaces free for September. We had to move fast.
The last week before schools broke up for summer we were given the heads up the place was agreed!
From the outset, the whole approach with the new school was a breath of fresh air. I received emails and calls from the head even during the summer break when most teachers seem to be non-contactable!
The first stage was to show my son around the school, even with the school not having any of the children present (we were approaching school holidays) he was allowed to visit to get a feel for the school. He enjoyed walking around and looking at the different rooms and the size of the school. He enjoyed visiting the school farm and looking around the computer room. We had a big thumbs up and a smiley face as we left the school gates.
The second stage would be for my son to meet his key worker a week before he started school. This was done in the form of a home visit and we couldn’t wait to meet her.
On the day, his key worker arrived – knocked on my door and introduced herself to us. She sat and played games with my son and took an interest in him. He needed to trust teachers again and to believe that teachers liked him. Too many times he was held by teachers and restrained over a number of what we believe were minor incidents that shouldn’t have resulted in restraint. The trust of all adults in a school environment was completely broken down and this needed to be worked on. The session was relaxed and basically time for the key worker to build a relationship with him. She left after just under 2 hours and our son was looking forward to his first day feeling confident with a familiar face he would see on his first school day.
It was all so different – we had the chance to choose our own timetable as parents, we knew our child the best (it was refreshing to hear that the teachers were listening to us and that they wanted to work with us). We asked our son if he wanted to just do mornings to start with. His response was “No! I want to do a full day right from the beginning, if I get used to doing just mornings it is going to be very hard to then change to a full day and I don’t like change so I am best to start as I mean to go on!” That’s my boy! However, now going into the end of his second week we have a very tired boy, it’s very overwhelming adapting to all the different changes for him but he’s coping well.
As we arrived on that first day I stayed around for the morning, which I am glad I did. First stop was to try his uniform on as school provide this. Their ethos is that all boys are the same and no one is better than anyone else … from the jumpers down to socks and shoes!
Our son doesn’t like trying on clothes at the best of times but this was something that had to happen. We walked into a small room with lots of uniforms and started trying on clothes. We got through the T-shirt and jumper, the PE kit, comfy clothes for lounging around then came the trousers – at that stage he’d had enough. I could feel him bubbling, the teacher could see him getting frustrated. We only had shoes left to fit, but they knew this could be done tomorrow and stopped the fitting there. We already had the eyes rolling and the huffing and puffing and his tone was getting louder, this wasn’t on his terms – PDA strikes again!
Happy to be out of the uniform room and getting to his “house” was the next step. At this school, boys have assigned houses and not in the traditional sense either – these are actual living spaces. These houses are where the children relax and eat. The house is their “safe” place. The house would be the place that my son would be spending most of his time with slow integration into the classroom over the next month or so.
On collection after the first day, I was made aware that there had been an incident of my son lashing out at the teacher. It was clearly understood that it was his anxiety and not behaviour that had caused this. It was blatantly obvious as the incident happened over cooking biscuits! Something that he would have loved but PDA hit him big time, first-day anxiety and testing the water all thrown into one.
As soon as the teacher was in control and chose the subject of what they were going to do in the lesson he blurted out “it’s rubbish, I don’t want to do cooking”. The teacher calmly spoke to him and said that he didn’t have to do it if he didn’t want to. My son’s response was “It’s going to be boring!” He was so used to teachers at his old mainstream setting giving in as they didn’t know any other way of engaging with him to the point of sitting outside the classroom and usually resulted in him doing pretty much nothing!
At his old school, my son’s anxiety would go through the roof at this point …. yet here he wasn’t being told to leave the classroom, the teacher was in control and confusion of what to do in this situation next got the better of him. Maybe if I kick the teacher I will see what the reaction will be? Will I get sent to the headmaster’s office? Will I get shouted out? Will I get restrained like I did most days? He did lash out but none of this happened. My son’s key worker moved him away from the situation (no restraining involved).
I collected him with tears in his eyes, as soon as he got in the car he burst into tears explaining that everyone left today with biscuits, he had none. It’s heartbreaking for any mother to see that his first day ended in tears. He is still my baby at 8 years old and I want to wrap him up in cotton wool and tell him everything is going to be ok. I looked back on this and learnt already that yes, my son was upset but he was learning from day one that if he wasn’t going to engage with the teacher he would miss out. But that was his choice and he learnt a natural consequence – he missed out on making the biscuits, he also learnt that the teachers are there to support and help him and not to be kicked. They want to build a good relationship with him, they are not going to be quick at restraining him like his old school – they are building his trust each day. We are at the end of week 2 and he has baked every other day and my waistline is increasing!
Midweek the boys do outdoor learning. It’s a nice mid-week break away from the school, it took me by surprise as trying to get my son outside in the fresh air would always be an issue, I am unsure if he sees the demands of a dog walk with me too much as he expected to walk and knows the routes that I take. With school though he is learning outside, den building and cooking over a stove. Each week he has looked forward to the Wednesday day outs!
So many positives and good changes have happened over the course of the last few weeks but there are the blips. Every blip seems to be a learning curve and doesn’t end in a negative. Another example in the house – there is a PlayStation the boys play on in free time. My son walked over and joined into play but as he was playing he waved his arm in the air which caught one of the boys in the face. At this point, my son is suddenly pinned to the floor but before he could shout out the key worker stepped in and separated the boys. To our amazement, our son mentioned that he understood why the boy got so angry as he could relate this back to himself and how he would feel if someone caught him in the face. He said he would feel angry, everything was forgotten about the next day and the two boys had even baked some wonderful cakes together!
We’ve seen a difference in such a short space of time, the way that he does not feel singled out, it’s as if he can see a little bit of each boy in him and realise that he is not the only child that acts that way. I believe the frustration for him was seeing other children complying with rules and understanding them and him being in the world of the mainstream school with other children around him coping whilst he was left in a world of confusion. He has found a place that he feels accepted and understands that everyone can be different but everyone there is learning to be the best that they can be.
I had to giggle when he explained that lunchtime was ok but he had a small issue, “We have to clean our plates and dishes away!” I smiled and explained that he was very lucky we had a dishwasher at home! Life skills are so much more important than understanding the rules of the mainstream setting, the number of hours wasted sat in the headmaster’s office twiddling his thumbs, he was learning so much more each day.
The second week he has started accessing the classroom for short periods and coping well. He even told me that he had done a full page of writing about birds! At the mainstream school he refused to write anything, at home we were managing five lines, no more, his writing became smaller and smaller to the end of the fifth line. This was all on his terms. He was so excited to tell me that he didn’t even feel angry in the classroom. I believe that the small class ratio and high level of adult support is key to keeping his anxiety at bay.
At the end of the school day my son gave his key worker a cuddle – hugs and personal space is a huge thing for him to cope with and hugs are given very rarely. This was a good start to building the adult relationship, I could see we were onto a good start.
At home we have seen a huge difference, he’s been so much more loving and the frustration levels, for now, are down. However, it’s the start of the third week this week. It’s Monday morning and he seems a little grumpy to be going to school. He is worried that he won’t have a good week. What if this week ends bad and I disappoint everyone?
PDA and Aspergers don’t just go away, I explained this morning in the car on the journey to school that we all have bad weeks and bad days. Weekends are for fun relaxing with friends and family and weekdays are for learning and working that’s the difference with a weekday and a weekend. We don’t always like Mondays and its ok to feel that way. We are hoping that the school will do some work around feelings as we believe this is an area which can cause issues for our son. Also, the pressure of a demand that it’s going to be a good week can cause and raise his anxieties as he feels this is a demand to perform well for others and not for him.
As parents, we have explained that there are going to be good days and bad days but as long as the good outweighs the bad then we are all onto a winner!
I can tell the difference already in our son- his confidence is growing, he is feeling accepted and loved which is bringing out the more loving side in him. As a mum with an Asperger’s boy who does not dish out many hugs, I am taking them all and treasuring them.
What a difference the right setting makes.