Tag Archives: Education

Leaving Space For Mistakes And Growth

Growing up is hard. Sometimes, I forget that a little bit, and I don’t give my children quite enough grace as they figure things out and learn lessons. Other times, though, the giant invisible hand of God’s Own Spirit reaches out and clamps over my mouth, whispering into my ear, “Shhhhh. Only say kind, gentle, helpful things right now. This kid’s still learning.”

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This is my Jackson. He’s in fourth grade. Y’all, fourth grade is hard! H.A.R.D. Hard. I think it is the hardest grade of all. There is so much schoolwork to learn. So many state Standards of Learning tests. So many details and maps and people in Virginia history. (Virginia has a LOT of history! Like Virginia is such an overachiever and show-off in the history books! Really, Virginia, you need to have such important roles in Native American history, the European settlement of this land, the Revolutionary War, AND the Civil War? Give another state a chance already!) And math takes a giant leap between third and fourth grade. I don’t know; it just seems like schoolwork is injected with steroids or something at the beginning of fourth grade. And then some pre-puberty hormones kick in. Which doesn’t at all seem fair! Just as school gets extra hard, their emotions start getting all wonky and they develop an actual need for deodorant. But that’s fourth grade. H.A.R.D. Hard.

This year, Jackson has been learning so much. All the math and social studies and science and writing things. All those hard things. And also a bunch of the other hard things – how to be a good friend, how to work hard and not give up, how to be responsible, how to be funny but appropriate, how to be funny without hurting other people, how to not get caught up with the crowd in bullying or being mean. So many big lessons.

Yesterday, we had a conference with his teacher. The usual mid-semester conference to check in and take the temperature and check the pulse of this child and this school year. Jackson showed me some of his work and told me what he’s most proud of and what he wants to work on and how he feels about the grades he’s earning and the work he’s doing. Last week, we had a conversation at home about how just one “zero” can affect a grade, pulling an average down an entire letter grade. We had talked about the benefits of learning this lesson in elementary school and the importance of trying. Yesterday, as Jackson and I looked at some of his work, we talked about different kinds of “C” work. If we work really hard and do our very best and earn a “C,” then that is a “C” to be proud of! But if we don’t do half the work and make a “C,” then that is a “C” to feel disappointed about. Showing up and trying is important.

So Jackson was telling me that he is really proud that since he realized last week how much a “zero” hurts a grade and is a bad choice, he has made better choices and has worked harder at completing work. He said, “I’m really proud that I learned a lesson and that I’m changing. I’m doing better.”

When his teacher joined our conversation, she affirmed that, yes, she does see a difference already. Then, smack in the middle of a really hectic, busy, exhausting week, this teacher said something that breathed air and life back into this momma’s sails. I’m pretty sure a bright spotlight shone down from heaven and a choir of angels began singing quiet background music as she spoke. This sweet, sweet teacher said,

“Jackson, one thing I love about you is that you learn from your mistakes. This year, you have made some mistakes and bad choices, but you always learn from them. You listen to us and then you make better choices. Everyone makes mistakes, but not everyone does that. Not every adult does that! But you do! You are good at learning from your mistakes. And I’m really proud of you.”

And she gave him a high five. And he grew an inch and a half on the spot and his face lit up with a huge smile. And I just wanted to scoop this little teacher up in a hug and squeeze her and blubber-cry all over her. Because yes! This! This teacher sees my kid! She sees beyond his mistakes and she is gentle with him and she gets that he is still learning. She gives him an opportunity to learn from his mistakes because of her grace and kindness. And so he does.

Fourth grade is hard. H.A.R.D. Hard. But it is a little bit less hard when you have a teacher who leaves space for mistakes and growth. When you have a teacher who says kind, gentle, helpful things because she knows her students are still learning.

Teacher Appreciation

It’s Teacher Appreciation Week at my sons’ school. Recently, I asked some teacher-friends what parents can do to encourage them and make them feel appreciated. So, parents, here are 5 ways you can make your child’s teacher feel loved and appreciated ~~

IMG_5218 Silas and his beloved third-grade teacher. She made the transition to public school a non-issue for him. He stops by her room to give her hugs every day.

1. Donate classroom supplies. Often, teachers purchase classroom supplies with their own money. You can help alleviate this extra financial concern by donating things like Clorox wipes, tissues, pencils, baggies, glue sticks. Donating needed items reinforces the idea that you and the teacher are partners, working together to educate the children.

2. Volunteer. Whether your schedule allows you to volunteer for one field trip or field day or whether you have time to come in once a month or once a week, volunteer. Offer to make copies or help with school picture day or read with a struggling student. Come during your lunch hour and eat with your child for 20 minutes and help in the classroom for 20 minutes. Again — when you volunteer, your actions tell the teacher that you’re partners. And when you spend 20 minutes making copies, that is 20 minutes earlier your child’s teacher can go home or one lunch period he can sit and eat lunch or 20 minutes she can spend working on the mounds of paperwork she has to submit to the office.

3. Coordinate teacher luncheons. Something magical happens when a teacher walks into the teacher’s lounge and finds tables full of food thoughtfully provided by parents. I’ve seen it. That food is a tangible expression of love and thankfulness. And when the tables are overflowing with food, the teachers are overwhelmed in the best way. They feel loved.

4. Send letters or email messages of commendation to the principal or superintendent. When your child’s teacher makes a remarkable impact on your child, share the good news. Teaching can be a very lonely, thankless job, and teachers can feel like their entire job performance is distilled down to median test scores. I don’t know any teachers who chose education so that they could train students to fall within the right sections of test results bar graphs. Teachers want to connect with children and make a difference in their lives. When they succeed in this goal, tell their bosses. Everyone enjoys being acknowledged for doing his job well.

5. Give gifts and write notes. Whether it’s a gift card to a teacher supply store, a mug of her favorite coffee, a gift card to his favorite restaurant or a couple homemade cookies, teachers enjoy little tokens of appreciation. And the teachers I know especially appreciate thank-you notes or stories of how you see that teacher influencing your child. Sometimes, teachers hear from the unhappy parents far more than they hear from the grateful parents. So a little bit of encouragement can go a long way in reminding teachers that they are making differences in the lives of their students.

Even if it’s not Teacher Appreciation Week at your child’s school, purpose to show your child’s teacher some love this week.

Putting Children In Boxes

jackinbox Can we all agree that this is the only kind of box we should put our kids in?

Yesterday, I told you Caleb’s story.  Today, let’s talk about putting children in boxes. I’m talking about this tendency some of us have to expect cookie cutter children, as if schools and homes are an assembly line cranking out children who all learn the same and test the same and perform the same, children who are “well-rounded” and look great on traditional college applications.

The problem with that — well, gosh, there are too many problems with that. That entire notion is a problem! The beauty of it all is that we are each so distinctive! I am constantly amazed at the uniqueness of each of my six children. All raised by the same parents with the same guidelines and influences, yet each so individual and different. If you have more than one child, or if you come from a family with more than one child, you’ve seen it too.

We are fortunate. The teachers my children have had in public school have taught to various learning styles and seem to appreciate each child’s distinctiveness. But I know that kids still feel pressure to get the right scores and make the right grades and fit into the mold. And sometimes parents feel the pressure too, so parents try to push the children to make all A’s or fall on the right side of the bell curve. I know better. At my core, I value individuality and recognize different types of intelligences. I appreciate that our world needs all sorts of people with all sorts of skills and passions and personalities. And still, sometimes I get sucked in to the idea that all my children should be making the Honor Roll and scoring well on the state’s standardized test. I have lapses into Freaked-Out-Land in which I become a crazy momma who frantically obsesses about whether my high school children are in enough clubs and making the right grades and building the right resume to get into college.

For the LOVE! Can we just all stop already? Can we agree that not every kid can score in the top tenth percentile because – HELLOOOO! –  then that wouldn’t be the top tenth percentile any more? Can we agree that the kids who are really smart at taking tests and writing papers might not be so smart at fixing a dishwasher or playing guitar or creating delicious cupcakes? And all of those things are important in this life. And the cupcake part might even be the most important. Amen? Can we agree that not everyone’s child will get into an Ivy League school, and that’s OK? And can we agree that the kids who do get into an Ivy League school don’t have any more value than the kids who go to community college?

And, you know what, adults? That means we’re going to have to stop saying in hallowed, hushed, adoring tones, “Johnny got into Harvard.” And it means we’re going to have to stop with all the extra rationalizing and apologizing when a kid goes to community college, “Well, Bobby is going to Neighborhood Community College for a year or two. He’s really smart; he just didn’t apply himself the first two years of high school. I don’t think he realized that all his grades actually counted. But he made the honor roll his last two years, and he’s going to get into a top college after a year of Neighborhood Community College.” No, stop it. Harvard Johnny is no more worthy of a parent’s pride and adoration than Community College Bobby. 

And then, after all of the grown-ups agree on this, can we all tell our children these truths? And can we keep telling them and keep telling them until they believe it? Until they know in the center of their very being that whatever sort of ways they are smart –and they ARE! – those ways are just as important and valuable and beautiful as the ways other people are smart. 

When report cards come home and students are in the middle of standardized tests and the valedictorian is announced, can we promise each other that we’ll pause and take a deep breath  and remember that these things do not define our children? And they certainly don’t define us as parents. Can we promise not to elevate these sorts of things to a higher place than they deserve? Even if our children make straight A’s and ace the tests and have the highest gpa. We can be proud of their hard work and the character that work has formed in them and grateful for the gifts and talents they’ve been given, but let’s not be deceived into thinking that their grades and scores and accolades make them better than in the ways that are truly important in life. And let’s be realistic, those things don’t really even make them smarter than. Because there are so many ways to be smart.

Please know that I am saying this not only as the mom of children whose intelligences are not best measured by big tests and report card grades, but also as the mom of children for whom schools are made. I am not in one camp or the other, friends. I am not trying to devalue anyone’s children and their gifts. I am just asking us all to keep perspective.

If your child fits in the box that is school, that’s OK. Praise their diligence and work and help them be grateful for their gifts. And if your child does not fit into the box that is school, that’s OK too. Help those children find their talents and gifts, help them figure out what types of intelligence they have. Then praise their diligence and work and help them be grateful for their gifts too. And let’s celebrate all the children’s distinctiveness and help them be thankful that we’re not all the same. Because how boring would that be?

Giving Our Children Time To BECOME

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This boy will soon celebrate 13 years of being alive. And we will celebrate because when he was a toddler and a preschooler, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to keep him alive for 13 years.

He was such a curious boy, always climbing and investigating and touching and tasting and experimenting. And I was a little distracted some of the time, what with carrying and birthing and nurturing and keeping alive his little brothers – 3 of them before he was 4 1/2. For a few years, that Curiosity killed the cat saying played on repeat in my brain, a taunting refrain. Especially when Caleb got really quiet. Because with kids, quiet equals trouble.

As a toddler, he figured out how to climb out of cribs and unfasten himself from car seats or high chairs. He could open that child-proof door handle thingy faster than I could! As a preschooler, he enjoyed sneaking into the kitchen and mixing together different foods to see what happened. Cracking eggs seemed to be his favorite. Experimenting with tubes of food coloring ran a close second. He devised elaborate string or yarn booby traps all over the house. And he became obsessed with creating a Duplo block boat that would float, so he was often overflowing the bathroom sink during his trial and error sessions. I suspect Caleb sneaked out of his bed and watched segments of Will It Float on David Letterman because he was often tossing items into the sink or bathtub or toilet to check their floatability — paperback novels, toy cars, toothbrushes, hairbrushes.

Clearly this genius child had the mind of an engineer or scientist! At least, that’s how I consoled myself when his shenanigans threatened his life and my sanity — when he drank some medicine or stuck his finger in an outlet or climbed onto the top of the fridge or climbed onto the top of his crib and free-fell off (again and again and again).

When it came time to learn his ABCs, Caleb the genius wasn’t all that interested. His big sisters and I sang the ABC song to him. We did alphabet puzzles and games and coloring sheets. We watched videos. I pointed out letters and sounds in signs and books. Caleb could not have cared less about learning his letters. Nobody in the history of the world has cared about anything less than Caleb cared about the alphabet. He had some powdered drink mix to snort and a bookshelf to scale. Letters schmetters. Whatev.

Perhaps he will be motivated to learn at least the letters in his name. Every kid loves his own name. I was a teacher. I would teach this kid to write his name. In big block letters, I wrote C A L E B then I wrote it again over and over in dotted-line letters for him to trace. He half-heartedly traced a letter or two before covering the page in elaborate drawings. He would draw detailed pictures of a house with an underground tunnel connecting it to a neighboring house or of fire-breathing dragons chasing a blue-jean-wearing boy. When he would bring the pictures to show me, he would tell me these incredible stories depicted by his illustrations. But absolutely none of his pictures had an artist’s signature in the bottom corner because this boy had zero interest in learning to write his own name. No matter how many times I wrote his name in dotted-lined letters.

Then one day months later, he ran into the room where I was drying my hair. He tossed a Sunday School paper in front of me. In every bit of white space on that paper was scrawled C A L E B. “Who wrote this?” I shut off the hair dryer. “I did, Momma!” He beamed. “How did you know? Who helped you?” “Uhhh, you did. Lots of weeks ago. You showed me.” Duh. Of course I had. But he hadn’t practiced. He barely seemed to pay attention. But there it was in front of me — C A L E B. C A L E B. C A L E B.  All over the page. Every letter perfectly formed in little boy manuscript.

He learned his ABCs the same way. All that time of not caring, then one day – BAM! he knew them all. Counting to 20, days of the week, months of the year, short vowels, long vowels — Caleb learned all of it in the same maddening way. Weeks and months of disinterest and none of it sinking in, then BOOM! perfect mastery.

I homeschooled him in kindergarten and the first half of first grade. Because I knew his style, I didn’t push him to master reading and gain fluency. I figured I’d just consistently and repetitively teach him and read with him, then when it clicked he could move straight from those teensy Bob Books to Robinson Crusoe or something. And that plan may have worked if we hadn’t enrolled him in a small Christian school.

Four days into the second semester of first grade, Caleb’s first four days of traditional school in a classroom setting, a teacher told me Caleb was super sweet and a joy to teach, “but he’s really so far behind the other children in reading. We may want to move him back to kindergarten.” From that moment on, the phrases “you’re behind the others . . . you need to catch up” became the refrain of Caleb’s school day. His self-confidence balloon burst. Deflated and defeated, he began to say, “I can’t read. . . . I’m behind everyone else. . . . I’m just not made for school.” My momma heart ached. And the momma bear in me rose up. My husband and I went to the school to tutor him during reading class, and I practiced sight word lists and phonics with him at home. I countered every “I’m behind everyone else” and “I can’t read.” with “You are becoming a good reader.” Over and over and over, I repeated this truth to him, “You are becoming a good reader.” And I prayed for peace as we waited and worked during the Becoming

By the end of second grade, all of Caleb’s self-confidence was gone, replaced by a vicious anxiety. He cried easily, picked at his skin until it bled, hoarded food, had trouble sleeping and regularly complained that everyone was mean to him and nobody liked him. He often declared he would quit school and travel the world. Using an array of tests and assessments and some hours of observation, an educational psychologist evaluated Caleb and presented us with a 12-page booklet of results and recommendations. As it turned out, I had been right — my little boy was practically a genius, but the chasm between his IQ and his academic achievement in language skills was vast.

Between my ears and my brain something magical happens to break down a word into individual sounds. This helps me spell words, and it helps me read new words. Sound it out. That’s what teachers had told me when I was little, and it’s what Caleb’s teachers and I had been encouraging him to do. Except that magical thing wasn’t happening between Caleb’s ears and his brain. He could break words into syllables, but that’s it. He wasn’t hearing individual sounds within a word. Sound it out meant nothing to him. Nothing except frustration and piled on anxiety. So we had to change the way we were teaching Caleb to read. The Sound it out way would not work.

The school was not willing to accommodate a different learning style. I highlighted a few ideas in the educational psychologist’s booklet of recommendations that could be implemented at school and asked during one of our many conferences if they would consider making those few adjustments. None were implemented. Their solution was that Caleb should repeat second grade, even though he was mastering the math and social studies and science. But teaching him the same material a second time using the same technique that didn’t work with his brain did not seem like a logical solution to me. That would be like repeating the English sentence slowly and more loudly to a person who doesn’t understand a word of English. What’s that Albert Einstein quote? — “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” 

So we made plans to homeschool Caleb for third grade. I researched various learning styles. I read about learning differences and disabilities. I bought a book written by a man who had overcome his dyslexia to become a professor and author. After reading it cover to cover, I showed Caleb — “Look! Some day, you will be able not only to READ a book like this, you will be able to WRITE a book like this if you want! If this man could do it, so can you!” My teacher-friends shared creative teaching ideas with me. Friends and family members who parent children with learning differences brainstormed ideas with me and pointed me to excellent resources. After reading about and researching strengths-based education, I evaluated Caleb’s strengths and learning styles and developed a plan to teach specifically to his strengths.

I got this vision in my head. I believe God placed it there. I saw Caleb standing in a cap and gown, graduating from college, telling everyone, “All my teachers told me I was behind and couldn’t read. I was ready to quit. But my mom believed in me. She told me I was becoming a good reader. She gave me time to become a good reader in my own way. She believed in me when nobody at school did.” That vision motivated me to become Caleb’s biggest cheerleader. That vision fueled hope within me. We would overcome this little speed bump.

That next school year, Caleb and I worked hard. He did jumping jacks while spelling words and reciting phoneme sounds. We tossed a ball back and forth while breaking words into syllables and sounds. He formed words out of clay, then built pictures of the words with the clay. He formed letters and words with beans or beads. He spelled words out with letter tiles. He hopped across the room while drilling sight word flashcards. Out on the basketball court, we wrote words in sidewalk chalk. He began to read articles and books about things that really interested him — hammerhead sharks, creepy bugs, magic tricks. He discovered the genius that is spell-check and proclaimed it to be his life-long friend! We learned some basic spelling rules, like “every syllable must have a vowel,” then checked every written word against that rule until it became second-nature. Over and over, I told Caleb, “You are becoming a good reader now.” 

And he was becoming a good reader. Each week, we saw more evidence of the Becoming As his strengths were acknowledged and his reading skills blossomed, his anxiety began to shrink. We replaced lying thoughts, “I can’t read. . . . I’m not a good student. . . . Everyone is mean to me. . . . I am not as good as other people.” with truthful thoughts, “I can read. . . . I can do hard things. . . Everyone has challenges. . . . Sometimes people are mean, but sometimes they are kind. . . .” 

Education isn’t a competition. There is time for everyone to learn his own way. That year of homeschooling removed Caleb from the perception of a learning race, where children can be behind other children.

That same year, Caleb and I discovered parkour. Have you seen this? YouTube it. In parkour, people run up ramps and jump over railings and leap from building to building. They run up the sides of buildings and then do backflips. If there is an obstacle on a sidewalk or trail, these guys will jump on it or over it or use it to launch a flip of some sort. Caleb became obsessed with parkour, and every trip to the playground or park involved parkour practice. And -LIGHTBULB! – I realized that education can’t be a race because some people approach it like a marathon, straight ahead, steady paces, arms pumping at their side; but others approach it like parkour, leaping rocks, running up handrails, jumping from one platform to the next. And you just cannot compare marathon running with parkour. It’s apples and oranges, people.

Once we tapped into Caleb’s strengths and rebuilt his confidence, reading began to click with him. He asked for a big book of magic tricks for his birthday in the spring of third grade. The day after his birthday, he was performing magic tricks for us. He had read and understood the step-by-step instructions all on his own. He also asked for a biography of Ronald Reagan. Within a week, we were hearing all sorts of details about President Reagan’s life. Caleb was becoming a great reader.

At the beginning of this school year, Caleb’s middle school English teacher told me Caleb is always reading a book as soon as he finishes his work. “Has he always been an avid reader?” She wondered.

No, but he has always been becoming one. Even when it seemed everyone else was saying otherwise.

Report Cards & Perspective (Or How Not To Turn Into CRAZYMom When Looking At Parent Portal)

Last week was Report Card Day. The day when all of learning seems boiled down to a few letters of the alphabet and a lot of competition.

When I was in high school, I was all about the competition of grades. I wanted to do my best, and I wanted my best to be better than everyone else’s. Receiving my report card, seeing my gpa, checking in with the guidance counselor to learn my rank among the list of my classmates produced a rush of endorphins.

I vividly remember standing in the little alcove of my dorm hallway in college, holding the beige phone in my hand, its long spiral cord hanging loosely beside me. I had called to ask a professor – Had she graded my exam yet? Did she have my final grade figured?  It was an 88%, a B+. My first B since my first quarter of my freshman year of high school. Two points away from an A. I walked back to my dorm room and cried. 

Perspective – Mine was a bit skewed. Pressure – I put way too much on myself to be perfect.

Now I’m a mom, and I’ve been a teacher, and I’ve learned a lot about learning styles and multiple intelligences and a variety of strengths. Now I know that report cards are not the be-all and end-all of education. Learning is not always summed up in a letter grade or gpa. And class rank is not a measure of intelligence or value.

There have been times I’ve fallen back into those old ideas, the old pressures. Last year, when my oldest was a freshman in high school, I logged in often to check her grades on the parent portal. She was struggling in one particular class that the school had decided would be taught online in a virtual classroom. That method was not matching her learning style at all, and her grade was reflecting that. I may or may not have freaked out every other day – Do you realize this affects your gpa?! Every grade in high school counts! It was weird; each time I checked parent portal, my voice rose an octave. Finally, Lauren said – Of course I realize every grade affects my gpa. You remind me almost every day. And ummm Mom, maybe you shouldn’t check parent portal so much. It seems to upset you. 

And she was right. So I stopped checking parent portal. Because I cannot seem to use that tool responsibly and sanely. I become CrazyMom when I log into that thing. I regress, forgetting all the wisdom I have gained and the values I really hold.

In the past several years, my children’s report cards have varied widely. Sometimes, I’ve had to assure a child – I know that grade does not reflect how much you really know, how smart you are. This grade just shows that this teaching system doesn’t match your learning style. This grade shows that the system is failing you, and I’m going to figure out how to help you. Other times, we’ve celebrated achievements and improvements.

Usually I struggle to find the balance of how to praise the straight-A student without making another child feel inferior. So I’ve settled on praising the action or attitude behind the grade – Good job for working so hard! . . . I’m so proud of you for setting a goal and meeting it! . . . I can tell you are doing your best! Great work!  This way, the focus isn’t on the actual grade, but on the child’s heart and work. Because that’s what I really value. I want my children to do their best, to work hard, to improve, to learn. And that isn’t always reflected by an A on a report card.

I have actually applauded for a C on a report card – You did your very best & you earned that C with hard work! Yay!  Last week, when two of my boys brought home report cards with mostly A’s and a or two, I cheered (with tears in my eyes) – Look at this! These grades represent how far you’ve come, how hard you’ve worked! I am so proud of you! 

Of course, there have been the C’s that represented an incomplete assignment or two (or three), a Zero or two thrown into the grade mix. That’s not OK with me. Not because it results in a lower letter grade, but because it means my kid didn’t try, didn’t do his or her best. So again, I try to keep my comments focused on the attitude and action behind the grade – This isn’t really OK because it shows you didn’t do your best. It’s not OK to just not do your work. 

Report cards are just one tool to help measure how a student is learning. I try not to give report cards a higher place of relevance in our lives than they deserve (which is why I don’t pay my children for A’s). I know the system; I know the gpa matters when we’re thinking about getting into college. But I also know the gpa isn’t a measure of my child’s value or intelligence, and I don’t want to emphasize it enough to enable my children to believe that lie. I know the truth – if my children are doing their best and if they are meant to go to college, it will all work out. Life isn’t a contest about who can earn the best grades and be ranked highest and go to the most prestigious college.

I don’t want one of my children sobbing hot tears into her pillow because she made a B in general psychology the second semester of her freshman year in college. And I don’t want my daughter to take an easy class to earn an easy A and not learn a daggone thing instead of taking a challenging class, learning a boatload of new things, and earning a or C. And I certainly don’t want any of my children to feel less than or dumber than because of a letter of the alphabet on a piece of paper.

How about you? How do you help your children keep perspective when it comes to grades and report cards and gpa’s and class rank?

 

 

 

Tic Tic — Tourette Syndrome, Part 5

This is Part 5 in a series about Tourette Syndrome. If you haven’t read the prior four posts, you can catch up on them HERE

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(Road Trips with tics can be especially challenging. A sweet, quiet moment of rest on a Road Trip in 2011)

As I began writing this series about Tourette Syndrome and my family’s experiences with this neurological condition, I was very intentional about consulting my children and enlisting their help. I especially wanted you to hear directly from them. To tell you the truth, I had a couple motives for this. First, I think it’s important for you to read the first-person account of what it’s like to live with Tourette’s in order to better understand what TS is all about. So your education and information was one of my motives. But just as importantly, I asked Rachel and Silas to participate in this conversation because it is important for them to practice articulating what Tourette Syndrome is, because they are learning to be their own advocates.

From the very beginning when Rachel was diagnosed at age five, Patrick and I clearly explained Tourette Syndrome to her. She knew something was going on with her body. She is the one who had tearfully told me she had to blink the beat to music. She knew she was twirling around in circles when she was excited or nervous, not because she wanted to, but because she felt compelled to. She knew she was sitting in a neurologist’s office for a reason. I had typed up a list of all the quirky behaviors so he could read them rather than detailing this laundry list of weird behaviors right in front of Rachel, but she still knew something was up. And because Rachel had to endure an EEG and an MRI and I know that sometimes children’s imaginations can be far worse than reality, we wanted to reassure her with the facts. We were eager to explain Tourette Syndrome to her, and she seemed relieved to know that all of her spinning and stuttering and blinking and sniffing had a name, that she wasn’t the only person ever to do this.

Right away, we equipped Rachel with facts. Believing that prejudice or teasing or bullying stems from ignorance, we aimed to arm her with information in a way she could easily articulate to others. Within weeks of being diagnosed, Rachel was asked by one adult if she needed a tissue, if she had a cold. “No,” five-year-old Rachel replied, “I have Tourette Syndrome and sniffing is one of my tics. I can’t really control it.” 

On another occasion, I heard her explaining to someone, “You know how when you need to sneeze, you just sneeze. You can’t really help it. That’s what tics are like. My body just moves on its own. I can’t really stop it.” 

When she was in first grade, a classmate was annoyed with this little grunty noise Rachel made. The little girl insisted Rachel had to stop. But Rachel just shrugged and said, “I can’t help it. I’m sorry it annoys you, but I can’t stop. It’s a tic.” Her extremely understanding and Tourette’s-educated teacher quickly stepped in to explain the concept of tics to Rachel’s classmates.

On her first or second day in public middle school, Rachel encountered teasing or bullying for the first time. A classmate Rachel had never met came up to her, pointed to a group of students and said, “You make weird noises and faces. We’re all over there making fun of you.” Then she proceeded to re-enact their mocking of Rachel’s tics. Rachel thought it was incredibly stupid both to make fun of a stranger and to straight up tell the stranger you’re making fun of her. Because she’s a lot like me, Rachel’s facial expression probably revealed these feelings. As she has done since she was five, Rachel looked at this would-be bully and said matter-of-factly, “I have Tourette Syndrome. These are my tics. I can’t help it.” And she walked away.

Those kids never made fun of Rachel again. That would-be bully was in her art class and actually went out of her way a week or so later to stop by Rachel’s table to tell her, “Hey, you’re a good artist. I think you’re the second-best artist in the class.” As she recounted this at home after school, Rachel laughed about the “second-best” compliment and chose to view the odd comment as a sort of apology from the girl.

This past school year, Silas feared his tics were disturbing his classmates, so he was holding them in. As I explained, if he holds in tics, he can only think about not ticcing. So Silas was not getting much work accomplished at school. I offered to go to the school and help Silas explain Tourette’s to his classmates so he could stop worrying about ticcing at school. To be honest, part of my motive was purely selfish — I did not want to spend hours each evening helping him with work he should have completed at school.

Rachel asked if I would check her out of school early so she could come along. Silas was very excited to have his big sister come with us to talk to his class. That afternoon, the three of us explained Tourette Syndrome to both Silas’ class and the neighboring buddy classroom. Silas and Rachel handled the Question and Answer segment like professionals!

When I met with Silas’ teacher to discuss accommodations (like chunking tests, allowing him to walk to the restroom or water fountain to release tics, permitting him to keep a stress ball in his desk, etc.), Silas came along and participated in the conversation. I encouraged him to tell his teacher what would help him and what would not. You see, my job as a mother is to work myself out of a job, so I am teaching him to be his own advocate, to understand his needs and express them clearly.

At the same time, we have been straightforward with Rachel and Silas from the very beginning that Tourette Syndrome is never an excuse. I told them each right away, “I will be your greatest ally, your best supporter, your advocate. I will go to bat for you. So you must be honest with me. Never say something is a tic if it isn’t because I can’t help you if you aren’t honest with me.” And they certainly aren’t perfect and I’m sure there are times they have not been completely honest with me about some things, but I believe they are honest with me about this one thing because they know how important it is. So when they are making annoying noises in the van and I say, “Is that a tic?” they tell me the truth. And if they say yesthen I suck it up and endure. And if they say no, then I tell them to knock it off because they’re driving me batty.

During especially hard times in school, I have told Silas that he will just have to work harder than his classmates to pay attention and focus and get work done. That’s just the way life is. We do not view school accommodations as a way to make things easier or to get him out of work. We view accommodations as strategies to help him be successful in school. My job is to help him figure out those strategies to equip him to succeed, and his job is to work hard and not let Tourette’s be an excuse for failure. So far, we’re both holding up our end of the bargain.

When Rachel was first diagnosed with Tourette’s, I grieved and sobbed. My greatest fears were that she would be different, that she would be made fun of. We have learned that confidence and straightforward information most often dissuade teasing or mocking. As for being different — Tourette’s has made Rachel and Silas different. They have learned a strength of character and self-confidence and self-awareness that they may not otherwise have known. They are both empathetic toward others with differences. Tourette’s has made our entire family different in some ways. The clicking and grunting and singing and howling and repeating, the snapping and tapping and stomping are teaching us all patience and tolerance and grace.

Not everyone has tics annoying her or distracting him, but everyone has something to overcome. Everyone has something he must work harder for. Everyone has something she needs the patience and understanding and grace from others for. Tourette’s is just our family’s daily reminder to give that patience and understanding and grace to ourselves and others.

Tic Tic — Tourette Syndrome, Part 4

This is Part 4 in a series of posts about Tourette Syndrome. If you want to catch up, you can read Part One, Part Two, and Part Three.  

My son Silas is ten years old. He has been ticcing since he was four. This is what he has to say about Tourette Syndrome, as dictated to me.

soccersiTics are kind of an annoying thing to have. Especially when you get in trouble at school for making weird noises or stomping your feet too loudly.

When I don’t take my medicine, it feels like I can’t control my body. I get mad easily, and I don’t have a lot of self-control. My body feels energetic or hyper, constantly moving. I feel like I wouldn’t be able to really be around people because I feel like I’m going crazy. My body moves without me controlling it.

I can’t really remember a time before tics.

Sometimes when something isn’t that big a deal to other people, Tourette’s makes me feel like it is a big deal to me. Like if my brother accidentally bumps into me or accidentally kills me on a video game, then it is a big deal to me and I feel almost out of control of my anger. My medicine helps me have more self-control.

Some of my tics are clicking with my mouth, stomping my feet, shaking my head, flapping my arms, drumming with my fingers, bending my knees. If I’m walking and one foot goes left a little bit, then I have to go left with the other foot and then go straight.

At school, tics sometimes distract me. I might put the wrong answer down. Or I get stressed out about how long a test is and I just kind of freeze up. I need my teacher to break up a big long test into small parts.

Before, I’ve had to check math work over and over and see if it’s the right answer. I would be afraid I didn’t do it right, so I’d check it again and again and again. Or sometimes if I’m pressured and have only a certain amount of time, it stalls me up and I can’t do as good a job as if I have as much time as I think I need.

Sometimes I try to hold in noises I have to make or tapping my feet or something, because I don’t want to disrupt my classmates. That distracts me from doing my work.

Tourette Syndrome is a very difficult thing to have. It distracts you from doing things you’re focusing on. Sometimes when you lose self-control, you regret what you do or how you act. I need patience and encouragement from other people so I can do the things I need to do. I need teachers to chunk my tests or help me stay focused so I can do my work.

Nobody has ever made fun of me or tried to act weird to make me feel bad. Only once or twice in school someone said, “Can you stop?” so I tried to stop ticcing.

Tourette’s isn’t all I’m about. I have other abilities. I don’t have to keep thinking about Tourette’s all the time. I’m a normal kid. I do what everybody else does. I play sports during recess just like everyone else. I play video games. I play soccer. I’m going to be on a traveling soccer team in the fall. So Tourette’s doesn’t get in the way of things I do in life.

homeworkSilas

Tomorrow, in the final post, Part 5, I will share how I’m equipping Rachel and Silas to be successful in school, advocate for themselves and educate others about Tourette’s.