Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Finding Balance

Well, it's been a while since I've added updates, mainly because Ben's life has been pretty smooth for the last couple months. We had to adjust his medications a while back, but he seems to be doing well on the new dose. And after he went a bit crazy and attacked a classmate right after school one day, we seem to have him on a balanced recess vs. quiet time schedule that keeps him pretty focused.

Huh? I haven't told that story? Sorry about it is:

A few months ago, I drove to the school and then sat in my car, in line behind somewhere around a zillion other parents, at the top of the circular drive that is supposed to be used for dropping off and picking up kids in front of the elementary school (you'd think all the parents would be clear about this system, but there continue to be some who think it's a "put it in park and have a picnic" lane...but that's for another time and another blog...), waiting for my turn to pull down and gather my offspring. As I sat there, I spotted Ben standing near the kindergarten equipment, pummeling the heck out of another child. And not just any other child, but the one he'd had the most trouble with from the time we started preschool--the one who has a mother who already thinks I'm incompetently raising an antisocial child (as if there might be a way to competently raise an antisocial child...). The one whose mother thinks we have family meetings about the best way to attack an unsuspecting innocent from behind.

Because that's what happened. This child (whom I will refer to as "Billy" in order to preserve his privacy) stood waiting for his mother, and as I helplessly watched from the top of the hill, Ben approached Billy from the rear and laid into him--hitting, scratching, kicking--completely unprovoked. I saw the whole thing. So did Billy's mom, who was also trapped among the pressing auto throng, and she was not happy. Not at all. When we finally reached the children, this mother "invited" me to join her in the Principal's office. I found a parking spot (resisting the incomprehensible custom of parking right there in the circular drive, but again I digress...), took hold of Ben's hand, and for the first time in my life, reported to the Principal for reprimand.

The first thing I discovered was that Ben had already been involved in a problem at recess earlier in the day involving Billy and a couple other boys, too. In that situation, Ben had decided that the other boys were doing something inappropriate, and so he announced that he was going to get a teacher. These boys knocked him down to keep him from reporting their wrongdoings. Billy's role (because he happened to be standing nearby at the time and witnessed the event) was simply to defend Ben when the Principal was trying to sort out the reports. Billy took Ben's side.

In the Principal's office, Ben explained that after school, an older boy had made a loud noise and scared him. The Principal asked him, "Ben, if another boy scared you, then why did you attack Billy?" Ben explained, "I was going to get the other boy, but then I saw Billy, so I attacked him instead."

Oh, gentle readers, I know that right now you are plumbing the depths of your psychological knowledge to make some kind of sense of that response. You are thinking that surely there must be a connection--something to do with Billy's familiarity, or with finding some sense of safety in attacking someone who had just championed Ben's cause an hour earlier. But here's a small insight that I gathered years ago about Ben:

Don't try to make sense of anything. Ben does not live in the same world that we do--he does not process social expectations like you or me, and he does not act in logical, rational ways when he is pushed into a state of alarm or intense emotion. He just reacts, usually violently, and that's all there is to it. But back to the story:

After Billy's mom completed her quite justified torrent of tears and frustration that her son was not being protected adequately from mine, the Principal assured her that we would make some changes, and then he excused her and turned to me. He made some suggestions that I agreed with. First, we decided that Ben should not go outside for recess for a while. Instead, we decided that I would put together a recess bag filled with legos, and playdough, and art supplies, and Ben would spend recess times in the office adjacent to the Principal's office, doing projects on his own. Second, we agreed that from then on, his teacher would walk him to a specific door after school where I would be waiting to meet him, so as to minimize his contact with other children and limit his exposure to the noise and chaos that floods the school grounds after the final bell.

I know--it seems cruel to tell a child that he cannot go outside and play during recess time. But to Ben, this was a slice of heaven. For two weeks, he quite happily reported to the Principal's office during each recess break and played quietly on his own. Not surprisingly, his behavior and performance in class quickly improved--especially in the afternoons when he had previously been having a difficult time with his behavior. After two weeks, the Principal thought it would be best for Ben to go outside for at least one recess. Ben met this suggestion with resistance, insisting that he would much rather be alone with his toys, but wisely the Principal suggested that just because Ben is more comfortable being alone, that does not mean that it's in Ben's best interest to spend so much time away from other children.

So for the last month or so, Ben has been spending the lunch recess outside. The Principal has an aide keeping a close eye on him, and honestly, I have no idea what he does when he's out there. Sometimes I ask him if he has friends that he plays with, but the answer is always the same: no. When I ask him to tell me the names of some of his friends, he always says, "I don't really know." When I ask him to tell me the names of some of the kids in his class, the response is usually also the same: "Um...I'm not really sure." Occasionally he comes up with a name or two, but usually not.

Still, we seem to have struck a balance that works. Ben spends one recess outside, and then he spends the afternoon recess in the Principal's office. The Principal has supplied several puzzles--Ben's favorite activity--and Ben works those puzzles each afternoon. His teacher reported that when Ben comes back to class after he's been working on his puzzles, it's like he has been reset, and he can focus on his work just as well as he does when he gets to school in the morning.

I find myself thinking about next year already. It's time to request teachers for the coming school year, and I'm at a loss. I fear that no one will have the skills and the patience that Ben's current teacher has. No one will understand him quite so well, or accommodate his challenges quite so adeptly. I'm sure I'm wrong--certainly there are 2nd grade teachers who will help Ben succeed. But I worry. Balance is a precarious achievement at best, and I just don't want to lose it--not when we finally seem to have found it.

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