A few months ago, my son, who is in second grade, went on a field trip. As the class assembled in the parking lot, a new child joined in. He had metal leg braces and difficulty walking. Nobody quite knew how to talk to him and so he was left by himself at the edge of the crowd. But my son seemed drawn to him. As the little boy in braces began to struggle up the steps of the bus, my son went over to help and then sat beside him. Throughout the bus ride, they talked together.
According to the teachers, that new little boy soon seemed like the happiest child in the group. One of the most sociable children in the class had made friends with him, and that goes a long way towards building self-esteem when you feel isolated and anxious.
I’m very proud of what my son did. He showed compassion. He was still a new pupil himself, and he had suffered bullying related to a disability of his own. The way he was treated at his previous school was so horrible that he might easily have decided to pay it back rather than forward. But kids can be amazingly smart about how to treat one another. After all, it wasn’t the children who bullied him at his old school. It was the adults.
Our son’s movement problem emerged slowly – so slowly that we didn’t notice at first. When he was five, he moved more like a three-year-old. He was happy and chatty, but he had difficulty writing, drawing, cutting, pasting, and sitting straight and still in a chair. Milk tended to spill an awful lot in his vicinity. His kindergarten teacher at his elementary school noted these difficulties, but the school decided he was in the normal range and didn’t require any extra support.
The following year, he started first grade at the same school. In November 2012, we met with the first-grade teacher, who told us that our son’s writing was a useless scribble compared with the other children’s. He was at the bottom of the class. We were taken aback. Poor writing can have an impact on reading and on math. Why hadn’t the teacher told us earlier? During math homework, our son seemed so anxious about the effort of forming each digit that he couldn’t think about the question itself. And yet, apparently, he didn’t qualify for any school occupational therapy to help with his writing.
A worse surprise followed a couple of months later (this is, among other things, a story of escalating shocks). At the start of 2013, my wife requested a meeting with the teacher to follow up on our son’s classroom progress. We were braced for bad news, but we couldn’t have prepared ourselves for what the teacher had to say. She brushed aside our concerns about writing and reading and math, and informed my wife that, for almost a month, since before the holiday break, our son had been ‘touching himself inappropriately’ in class.
The teacher’s description was vague. She seemed extremely uncomfortable talking about the issue. When pressed, she explained that he never put his hands in his pants. He never opened his pants. He never exposed any part of his privates. According to the description, he seemed to be rocking rhythmically in his chair, or rocking when lying on the rug during story time, and the rocking was bumping his groin area.
It happens that my wife and I are both psychologists, and this description of our son’s behaviour worried us a great deal. First, six-year-olds just don’t engage in behaviour with a sexual intent. Secondly, repetitive rocking is a classic hallmark of anxiety in children: the physical motion is self-soothing. It ought to go without saying that any child who engages in strange or extreme repetitive behaviour should get help right away. But the school did not offer help. We were told that it was our responsibility to make our son stop misbehaving.
Very worried, my wife and I got to work. Immediately after that January meeting, we found private therapy for our son. We brought him to weekly occupational therapy for his movement problems and weekly psychotherapy to help him adjust to the stresses of the classroom. The movement therapist found that he had significant muscle weakness and co-ordination difficulties. The psychotherapist diagnosed him with school-specific anxiety.
He saw himself as the dummy of the class because he couldn’t even write his own name. When we brought him to school, he would cringe away from the staff and refuse to say hello. The repetitive rocking in the classroom was almost certainly a classic self-soothing strategy triggered by his anxiety about writing. The rocking movements in turn might have been affected by his co‑ordination problems.
While we were busily making arrangements to help our boy, his school embarked on a campaign of its own. Our son used to attend an after-school programme run by the YMCA, where his teachers always spoke highly of him. Without our consent, someone from the school contacted the staff of the YMCA programme to tell them about his classroom difficulties. This person apparently labelled his problem as sexualised behaviour and speculated that his parents might be abusing him. The first we heard about this was when the after-school staff told us about it.
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