I have always known my son was not like other kids his age. Whether it was because his premature birth meant his development was delayed, or that his gross motor skills did not indicate a future as the star quarterback, I knew he was different. And when he showed signs of ritualistic behavior (OCD?) and impulsivity (ADHD? ODD?) I figured that he would certainly stand out from the crowd.
He was eventually diagnosed with NVLD (Nonverbal Learning Disabilities), a learning disorder typically characterized by a significant discrepancy between higher verbal skills and weaker motor, visual-spatial and social skills. Kids with NVLD often have trouble learning math and extrapolating from the small to the bigger picture. Often, NVLD is compared – or even confused – with a diagnosis on the autism spectrum because of the similar challenge these children have picking up on social cues.
His behavior from first grade to third grade progressed from unusual to odd to dangerously impulsive. It’s when his own frustrations caused him to be a danger to himself and others that he was removed from public school and placed in a local therapeutic day school.
After two years in the therapeutic school environment (and the proper medication regimen) his behavior has vastly improved. He is in better control of his emotions and is on track to be returned to the public school arena.
At the start of the next school year, he will transition from private school to the public middle school, and that scares me.
Although my son is bright, friendly, good-hearted and extremely likable, his quirks make him appear different, and different is not a good thing to be when you’re entering middle school.
When you’re turning 11 or 12, you’re going through so many physical changes that are potentially scary or, at least, uncertain. You’re looking to your peers to validate that the changes occurring in your own life are similar to those happening to the kids around you. To be the same means to be safe. And to be different means to be isolated. Isolation is frightening for a pre-teen. I know. I’ve been there.
How do we encourage our children to be okay with who they are, while at the same time helping them to feel safe and validated in an environment that doesn’t champion differences? I think the first step is acknowledging that we need to confront our own anxiety about our children’s well-being, and become better prepared to address upcoming challenges. Here is how I will make the big transition:
- The district has scheduled a meeting that helps parents prepare their child for the different experience they will encounter in middle school. Of course, I will attend that. But I’m also going to meet with any and all staff members who service special needs kids. I need to know specifically how they help the students who are lacking in executive function and social skills.
- Once his class schedule is determined, I will ask permission for him to tour the school. He needs to become familiar with the layout and the best way to navigate the building to get from class to class.
- I will research the school’s various clubs so that he can find those that are the best fit for him. If he can identify his interests, he can hopefully find like-minded friends who will serve as allies for him.
- I will befriend the parents of the special needs children who attend my son’s new school. It will be beneficial to find those who understand what I am facing, and cathartic to be able to lend support as well as receive it.
- I will do everything I can to help him find at least one good friend – a peer to whom he can relate – because I’m not sure how valuable a pep-talk from your mom can be when you’re at the age that your brain is telling you that you need to start separating from your parents.
My sensitive, quirky boy will go to middle school this fall, and eventually he will enter high school and (hopefully) college. Somewhere down the road he will eventually find a job and a career. I will be anxious as he moves from one challenge to the next, but I will address those fears and do all that is possible to help him achieve independence and success in life.
And I will always encourage him to be his beautiful, unique self.
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