We spent the better part of half-term calming down our child, chasing around his moods, finding ways to chill him out, de-stress, and reconnect with his happier self. As he hits his pre-teen years, we are still struggling to find our footing with a new (or more apparent) set of challenges related to his Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. During this break we also were trying out a new medication regime (meaning, we are seeing if we can take him off 24-hour meds and give his poor strung-out body a break). But we are not at all convinced the chemical roller-coaster of medication in 4 hour spurts is good for him (since he cannot yet understand it) or good for us (since we too ride this roller coaster with him).
But we managed, even if we did not succeed in keeping him off the meds for the entire holiday as we had hoped. He even had some moments of joy, including an afternoon spent walking down country lanes with a sweet family who invited him over for a few hours. He walked two inches taller that day with his friends, feeling independent, valued, and also grown up as he played so well with a 15-month old.
We breathed a collective sigh of relief when he went back to school Monday morning, relatively optimistic (meaning, we at least managed to get him into his uniform on time) and presumably ready (meaning we had cleaned out his backpack and pockets for all illicit candy and extra change and old drinks bottles, his jacket was recently washed, shoes looking relatively spiffy, etc.). He was fortified and ready for this next half term.
Or so we thought.
By about 8.30 am we were quickly notified we had screwed up and failed to attack homework projects that were supposed to be done over the holiday. Threat of a detention was now hanging over his head 15 minutes into the new half-term.
To be honest, we were so busy surviving over the half-term, we didn’t think to look. The school’s state-of-the-art homework app has somehow reset itself on my phone and, no, I have not yet figured out where I wrote down the PIN. We had arrived at a deal with the school last half-term that since homework was such a battle at home, they would seek to do it with him during the morning clubs, homework clubs and extra time they have in his schedule for one-on-one time. We are supposed to do an online reading program at home, but before break they said they are revisiting whether or not that might be too easy for him. We simply did not realize there was a bigger project due and they had not flagged it for us in the crazy days prior to the break.
Fast forward to home time after school on this first day back when, to avoid the detention, we were supposed to do the project.
Not. A. Chance.
It’s hard to describe how gripping this can be when our son’s more primal defensiveness gets stirred up. This child was not going to sit down and do this homework. Not then, not that night, and as I have just discovered, not this morning. There is no room when his brain gets this stressed out for creativity, for problem-solving, for negotiating. When this defensiveness kicks in, it is a full out battle royal in which he is fighting with every fiber of his being to defend himself. Imagine the ferocity of the terrible twos on steroids. He is standing up for that which he cannot fully explain, so it becomes a whole body vehemence, an insistence that his will must be heard.
We have been through a very difficult 12 hours as a result of the homework-that-is-not-done. (I have learned that it is not enough for me to say ‘difficult.’ What I mean is that things have been so rough that my husband and I have alternatively been behind the closed kitchen door, heads hung low in defeat, tears in our eyes. I mean it’s been some of the hardest days of parenting, and we have been having too many days like this recently.)
I cannot imagine any educator would think this one model was worth the screaming, throwing, breaking, kicking, shouting, poking-himself-in-the-eyes chaos we have just unleashed in our efforts to avoid the detention he says he doesn’t care if he gets.
At root of all of this, I think he a) feels defensive/inadequate/confused, and b) doesn’t understand the assignment. The idea is to make a model of a Burgess model of city design – it’s an abstract concept of how cities are designed from their inner central business district, to an industrial ring, then lower-income, medium-income housing and surrounded by more green space. Either his brain cannot handle the abstract concepts of it or he knows something about this assignment that I am not doing right and he cannot explain it to me. There was mention of Play-Doh, though we had a giant escalation when I brought out the dough. Instead I chopped up a shoe box, helped cut out concentric circles and mock-ups of various buildings, and was ready for him to help label things.
Not. A. Chance.
We kept the dog safe and scissors tucked away in case they were added to the very many things sailing across the room. My husband and I were bewildered, pre-caffeinated, and not at our best.
Sure, there are some out there reading this who will know we should have prioritized calming him down. We did. Or we tried. We tried foot rubs, quiet time in the bedroom, time sitting together on the couch watching the umpteenth rerun of Total Wipeout. Last night before bed, we had some lovely head-on-my-shoulder cuddles in the semi-dark. It was all fine and dandy, until The Homework reared its ugly head. Again and again.
Finally, this morning, we decided to put it away and not do it. We agreed to send in a note to the school. Fifteen minutes later, our son said quietly, “Fine, I will do the homework.” Foolishly, I became optimistic and cheery. He came to the table, scrawled one label on the model, I asked him to write more neatly, and zoom, we were off again, worse than before.
“I hate gold awards anyway!” our son shouted at one point. He must have seen some of his classmates’ models. He must know what I was trying to get done in the short space and with his limited patience/attention span was not right, not good enough. Yet again, I feel sadly like we have set him up for failure.
Interwoven in all of this was a fixation about how he needed to ‘style his hair’ – something he has been saying since he came home from school yesterday. We don’t know if this was due to comments from friends yesterday or if it is regression because he found other things hard. But that was his primary focus over night. He needs a haircut, yes, but there is no ‘styling’ that can physically be done to this hair now at this length, at least not with my meagre skills in this area. An answer of course that did not meet with a gentle reaction. (This is not a diversion but a continuation of an old/ongoing story. One of these days I must write a piece that focuses solely on the major impact that hair, wigs, hairstyles, bandanas, scarves and hairbands have had on our world, a fixation that has revived itself since he came off the 24-hour medications, probably due to sensory needs.)
So, where are we? Wiped out, drained, defeated, scared. My husband took him to the tow path by the river for a scooter ride to hopefully get out some of this negative energy before school. We are ready to up the level of meds now to 8 hours a day, though we are worried that this violent reaction may be a growing side effect yet again to yet another stimulant medication. We are worried that we cannot keep up with this escalating distress. We are worried that our professional lives are suffering as a result of this disequilibrium at home. We are concerned that it took 45 minutes to convince our son to get dressed for school, to repeated and heartfelt screams of “I hate school!” No parent wants to force their kid to do something that so clearly is disturbing him. I have just heard from my husband that today was by far the most extreme behavior en route to school, complete with kicking, spitting, hitting, and verbal distress, though he finally settled down to finish the model with the assistant at school when he saw some of his friends touching up their models. So, hopefully, detention at least has been avoided.
The hardest part of days like today and yesterday is when they hit you when you least expect it. This time, the trigger was a homework assignment. It is squarely our fault that we did not catch this, that the communication with the school fell through on this one, that we pushed on with trying to do it despite knowing he would have an escalating reaction. His brain injury makes it impossible for him to track due dates and to remember such things reliably.
But seriously, homework for a kid who uses every ounce of his being just to survive a school day? It certainly is not educational. It feels destructive and counterproductive. There are not enough hours in his day to decompress. Our work at home should be focused on reinforcing his ability to walk through those school doors in a positive frame of mind, fortified and ready for the day. For our son, that task is more important than any model made of clay or old shoeboxes. That self ease is what will allow him to succeed academically since for him to learn he must be relaxed.
I used to love homework. I would stay up until midnight, overachieving and stretching my mind. I never thought I would say this, but I have learned that homework has a Dark Side for some kids. It’s not helping, that’s for sure.