New Year, New School, New You?
Now is a good time to look back, and see where you’ve come from; how far you’ve come. And to look forward, to where you want to go. For me, it is a hiatus, and a time to gain some perspective: like lining yourself up, and taking a deep breath, before jumping into the unknown.
Last year we took our boy out of his primary school, after a four year uphill battle to get his needs met. The last night of his previous life in that school, he told me once again, how unhappy he was, and how undervalued he felt, and I finally let go: told him not to worry, he won’t be going back. Ever. And the next day, I removed him from the school and I haven’t looked back since, until now…
When we pulled him out, with no other school to go to, I wondered if my family would disapprove; if we would lose the friends we had made at his school; if the general belief that bullying happens everywhere, and is ‘just part of school life’ was true, and so it would happen all over again at a new school; if that other false belief: autistic children will never really have ‘a normal school life’ or ‘normal friendships’, was also true, and if rejection and social isolation at another school would just leave him feeling even more isolated and hopeless.
After me home-schooling our boy for four months, we had trial days at other schools. We looked at state schools, private schools, and Steiner schools. And we settled on one that felt right, after a second trial day. Any school that seemed nervous about meeting his ‘needs’, or overly earnest and all too ready to lower their expectations of him, we politely, but firmly, told to go to hell.
And as for our doomsday predictions?
None of that happened. None of it.
Instead, what happened was this:
Sleepless nights disappeared.
Nightmares vanished into thin air.
Suicidal thoughts reduced to zero.
Gratitude rose exponentially.
Fights at the new school went down to 5%.
Smiles went up by 90%.
Sense of Humour recovered.
Social and Academic Confidence gradually climbed… and climbed, and continues to climb.
Self worth? Bags of it.
Reports from teachers? A*
He even chooses to play 50% less computer and to do… other things, with other actual people!
In short, he began to thrive.
So why did it take us so long, to make that jump, into the unknown?
Looking back now, with a new perspective, the reasons were several: some, our own; others, false beliefs foisted on us by the society we live in, and swallowed by us, whole and undigested. Here they are. If you are struggling with the choice as to whether to change your child’s school, maybe you might recognize some of these…
The Misconception of ‘Resilience’.
This word is bandied about by many a teacher. Especially with reference to children they secretly feel they do not have the expertise to deal with.
You see, we are taught that ‘strong’ people ’never quit’. That we must solider on regardless of the toll it is taking on us, as if all that matters, is that we stay the course, whatever the cost. And that letting go of a pointless goal, in a system that we have such little control over, and which is rigged against us, just shows how weak we are: as if, if we stuck it out, some magical shift would happen, or that we would be handsomely rewarded for our sacrifice.
That shift probably won’t happen. We may never be rewarded. Don’t believe the lie.
Soldiering on has it's benefits in life. But this stoic repetitive fight is not resilience. This is foolishness. When we stepped back and saw the bigger picture, we realised that we might have to retreat from a battle in order to win a war. True resilience is accepting when you need to let go, to walk away: accepting that defeat, regaining your strength, learning from the failure, getting up again, and finding another, better way to fight. Or even better, using stealth tactics and removing the need to fight altogether.
Now I am spiritual but not religious. But the Serenity Prayer contains all the wisdom we needed in 2018:
"God give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference".
The last point is the most important.
2. The Pervasive Belief that ‘Bullying is a natural but unfortunate part of every childhood’.
What a load of shit. Read Unbullying: It can be purchased on Amazon.
If you were subjected to bullying in an adult relationship, you would call it domestic abuse, whether that be emotional, physical, or psychological, gaslighting, set-ups, constant passive aggressive silent treatment and/or intentional social isolation included. And every sensible person would be telling you to leave that relationship.
If you were called abusive names continuously by strangers in the street, or by your neighbours, this would be (hopefully) unusual, and, depending on the slur, probably be considered a Hate Crime, or Harassment.
If you were punched and kicked in the face repeatedly by your peers at work, that would be deemed assault, and you would either retaliate with force, or call the police, and it would most definitely be A CRIME.
And the elephant in the room? Head Teachers, Teachers and TAs can be bullies too; all be it usually in a much more sophisticated, insidious, officious, and oppressive way. In your child's classroom, they are all powerful. Sometimes they don't even realize they are doing it. And the face they show you, may not be the one they show your child. Just putting it out there.
Bullied children feel unsafe, and are unhappy. And unhappy children, do not learn well. There are biological reasons for this. When the brain is constantly in survival mode, the part of the brain that learns, is not operating as well, if at all. Do a little research and you will find the science to support this. Being the constant target of bullies can lead to hyper-vigilance. Couple that with learning differences, and you've got grades that stagnate, or worse still, slide backwards.
3. The belief that it is the child, and the family, who are responsible for making changes to ‘cope’ in the already-good-enough environment: not the environment and/or school culture that is at fault.
The difference in our child is undeniable, and wholly positive. And all because the environment he is in now, is so much different from the last: their ethos is different; their outlook, progressive, positive, evidence-based, and holistic, and to be brutally honest, their teachers are better, more knowledgeable, more able to adequately and meaningfully differentiate, more emotionally mature, more reflexive in their practice, and more dedicated as teachers. And it is only five minutes down the road from his last school. What a difference half a mile can make.
PS. Our child's previous school had a 'Good' Ofsted report. But a Good Ofsted report does not a good school make.
4. Us, underestimating our child’s strengths:
I spent a long time paralysed by the fear that our child would not cope well with the changes. That he would be terrified of starting something new, even though he was the one telling me he wanted to move schools. I was convinced that he didn’t really understand the true implications of the changes; that he failed to see how ‘his issues’ would just… follow him to the new school, because according to the general consensus on autism, (which I had subconsciously swallowed by the way) children with his label, are unable to cope with changes and new environments, or ‘really’ make new friends.
Ha! Nope. Wrong on all counts.
5. Our Fear of Surrender (aka our need to be in control) AND Fear of the Unknown.
If I can’t control the outcome; if I can’t be sure, then it will probably be bad… and worse, all my fault.
In short, where I thought that we were hesitating to move him out of our love for him, we were actually hesitating to act, out of fear.
Moving your child from a school, especially when you don’t have another for them to go to, is a massive decision. It comes with ultimate responsibility: for your child’s future and happiness. And so, acting out of fear, which we often mistake for love, we think ‘better the devil you know’.
But, when you look at it another way, you know that staying still, is most probably, and sometimes definitely going to be bad. Moving, might just be… better!
There is this illusion many of us hold, that when we face a choice, there is a ‘right decision’, and a ’wrong decision’. This talk by Ruth Chang on how to make difficult choices, dispels this myth far better than I can:
The most important thing I learned from our journey in 2018, is that Autism + Environment = Outcome. Not only for children on the autism spectrum, but for other neurodivergent (and probably neurotypical) children too: our co-founder Jan, had a similar experience with her teenager, who is neurodivergent, but not on the spectrum.
So this year, open your mind to the possibility of changing schools. Don’t rush, but don’t wait endlessly either: try everything you can in your given environment. Jan has pulled together a helpful guide on how to talk with schools, to try and get what you need for your child, and how to complain, if you still get nowhere. Click on the blue words above and feel free to download.
If like us though, you tried all of this and more, and got nowhere meaningful, it is most probably, the environment. NOT you, and NOT your child. Even if you could change the environment from the inside, the effort and energy it would take, would probably be better spent elsewhere. Life is short. So hold your head high, and WALK AWAY.
Set out into the vast unknown and know that you will be okay. Find people to support you. We can help too. Contact us for brief therapy, or counselling, to help your child overcome anxieties and bad experiences.
NOTE: you are within your rights to withdraw your child from school. You do not have to give a reason, but you do have to inform your local education authority of your plans to school them, and you must inform the school in writing, and request your child be taken off the school register. The LEA will check you are providing your child with an education. And if you choose to home school, you may move to the bottom of the waiting list for any state school, so consider this carefully before you decide to home school. You do not have to follow the national curriculum. For instance, in our interim period, our son learnt how to cook from his great grandma once a week. And he learned geometry with his dad, who is a builder. We focused on social skills, alongside traditional subjects, and took part in the John Muir award! Our main aim though, was to rebuild his self esteem, ready for a new school.
2018 has been a massive life lesson for us and especially our boy. He has learnt that, despite what the last teachers said, (loudly, and repeatedly), he definitely is resilient: he copes with change well. He can adapt to new environments where his innate self-worth is respected. When I asked him how he felt about his old school experience, he said "It's just XP mum. I'll use it to Level Up." (XP is a gamer's term for experience points).
And more importantly, he learnt about self-respect: You don’t have to stick it out, while the community load onto your back, all their denied inadequacies, fears of difference, and narrow-minded assumptions. You are not a goat. You are free to leave. Do not stay in an environment which does not, and will never, respect you.
And finally, he learnt to feel the fear, and take action anyway: to step off the ledge into the unknown, and fly.
That, is RESILIENCE.
That, is a ‘REAL’ education.
That, is preparing your child for ‘REAL LIFE’.
Happy New Year.
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