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. 

Tic Tic — Tourette Syndrome, Part 3

This is Part 3 in a series about Tourette Syndrome. You can read Parts 1 & 2, here and here

Though the genetics of Tourette Syndrome is not completely understood, medical professionals do agree that Tourette’s does have both genetic and environmental components. Often, Tourette Syndrome runs in families. We fall into that majority, with more than one ticcing family member.

When Rachel was seven and her little brother Silas was four, our family was preparing to join a missions organization as support staff missionaries. One Sunday morning, Patrick and I were speaking in a small church in West Virginia. As I stood before the congregation talking about tribal missions in remote places, I looked back and saw little Silas stretching his face and rolling his eyes. I assume my mouth kept talking about missions, but my brain and heart were thinking, “Oh, no!  Here we go again!”

SillySilasinhat

(Silas chose this photo for me to put with this post. He’s a nut!)

At first, we weren’t sure whether Silas was merely imitating his big sister or whether he was truly ticcing on his own. When he began ticcing in ways Rachel wasn’t ticcing, I figured he would eventually be diagnosed with Tourette’s as well. In addition to the facial stretching, Silas also began making this really cool noise with his mouth. It was sort of a clicking noise, but it wasn’t the usual tongue on the roof of the mouth clicking, this noise was different. None of the rest of us could make this particular noise. But Silas made it all the time. Seriously. All.The.Time!

For a few months, Silas’ tics came and went, fading in and out — lasting a day or two or maybe a week, then disappearing for a while before returning. Half-way through his kindergarten year, we moved to Florida to serve with the missions organization and enrolled Silas in a small, private school. The stress of leaving the only house and town and church he had ever known, living in an apartment, starting school in a classroom setting for the first time — you know, having his entire life go topsy-turvey — brought on the tics with full force.

Living in an apartment and trying to balance respecting our neighbors with allowing my children to be at home in our house was extremely stressful to me. I was constantly reminding them that people lived under us and across from us, that people could hear them screaming or stomping or wrestling. It was absolutely the worst time for Silas to develop a very loud screeching tic. But that is exactly what happened. And the more I tried to shush the children, the more he would screech.

Kindergarten was only half a day, letting out at noon each day. I would walk to the school and as I approached the classroom door to get him, he would run out, screeching loudly, shaking his head from side to side. Bless his heart, he would hold his tics in all morning; then when I showed up, they would all come out at once! Most every day, he would tic and tic and have a huge meltdown as soon as we got home. I would carry him to his bed and hold him and pray with him until his rigid body relaxed. Then he would take a nap. Many days, he didn’t even eat lunch until mid-afternoon. Being in the classroom for half a day wore him out.

Often, but not always, Tourette Syndrome is accompanied by some other neurological issues, like ADHD, poor impulse control, OCD, etc. Though Rachel has some OCD tendencies and occasional impulsivity, the co-morbid issues seem far more noticeable with Silas. Once he progressed to full days of school, we really began to notice the impact of Tourette Syndrome. He struggled in the classroom. If he held in his tics, he thought only of not ticcing. That meant he couldn’t think of math problems or comprehend anything he read because his entire brain was focused on not ticcing. If he let himself just tic, then he got in trouble for tapping a ruler on his desk or tapping his feet on the floor or making noises.

His teachers, most of whom were old-school classroom teachers and firm disciplinarians, did not understand Tourette’s and struggled to believe that he really wasn’t just being a naughty, squirmy boy. He regularly felt like he was in a no-win situation at school, so he began to shut down and give up. In math class, if he tapped his foot or bopped his pencil on his desk, his teacher gave him dirty looks or shushed him. But if he held in tics, he couldn’t get his math assignment completed. His teacher would see him sitting at his desk doing no work, assume he was defiantly refusing to attempt his assignment, and send him to the office to work beside the principal. His regular classroom teacher expected neat handwriting on every assignment – a ridiculous expectation for a child with tics. A child cannot write neatly while shaking his head, blinking his eyes, stretching his fingers and bringing his knees up to touch the underside of his desk – all as quietly as he can so as not to disrupt his classmates.

School was torturous for Silas. My attempts to advocate for him were often viewed as causing trouble or stirring up dissension or complaining. It soon became clear that we needed an official, formal diagnosis in order to press for Silas’ educational needs to be met. An excellent pediatric neurologist quickly gave us the diagnosis we needed and recommended a medication he thought would be helpful to Silas with minimal side effects. At first, we resisted the medicine.

When Rachel was first diagnosed, we had tried a medicine for her, but the side effects were much, much worse than any of her tics. So we stopped medicine and decided the tics were a mild annoyance, not worth any of the side effects. We planned to follow that same tactic with Silas. However, it became apparent that tics are not the same in every person and a one-size-fits-all strategy would not be the wisest approach.

As Silas continued to struggle in school, accomplishing virtually NO work at school, spending up to or in excess of three hours doing homework each evening, we knew we had to change the course. He began taking Intuniv, the extended release form of guanfacine, a medication that has been shown to help with ADHD and reduce tics. His first week on the medication, Silas was a walking zombie. His eyes were stuck at half-open, half-shut that entire week. He fell asleep at school. His entire personality was dulled. It was tempting to quit the medicine. But we knew we had to allow time for him to adjust. After those first few days, we saw great improvement. We first noticed a difference on the basketball court. Whereas before, he would rapidly run around the court waving his arms wildly, sort of spazz-like, the week after he started Intuniv, Silas was focused and more calm and controlled on the court. He scored several baskets; he stole the ball from opponents; he dribbled with greater control. We also began to see improvement at school. Though he still struggled to work independently and stay on-task, he ticced less and did not fall as far behind in his work. Even with the medication, the teaching strategies and classroom structure at the small school were not ideal for Silas and his needs. That much was clear.

Through a long series of events, I homeschooled for one semester before our family moved to Virginia and we enrolled the children in public school. Silas adjusted very well to homeschooling, much better than I had expected. He excelled with one-on-one instruction and paced himself through his work each day. We gave him noise-cancelling headphones, and I created a private workspace for him with a trifold display board. He could tic as much as he wanted because he was in the safety of his own home, among family. To my surprise, he also adjusted extremely well to the public school classroom. His first public school teacher was a perfect fit for him. She would be the first to say that she has a bit of OCD, and her highly-structured and organized classroom was exactly what he needed. For the first time, Silas was enjoying school!

Fourth grade brought some growing pains, and we had to learn some new strategies. Let me just say – fourth grade is hard! Most likely, we will need to work with his teachers to develop a formal 504 plan next year in fifth grade. I want to ensure he will get the help and accommodations he needs in order to be successful in school.

In some ways, Rachel’s tics are more noticeable than Silas’, so it has been surprising that Silas’ tics have been more difficult to overcome in a classroom setting. Neurological disorders are tricky like that – they don’t manifest exactly the same in any two people. Having experienced TS with Rachel has not made me any more of an expert in handling TS with Silas. There are certainly some similarities, but there are many differences in the way TS has affected them.

My twelve-year-old son Caleb also has some tic-like behaviors, though he has never been officially diagnosed and his tics are not interrupting his daily life. My younger boys have had some mild tics come and go, though so far they have not demonstrated vocal and motor tics for a solid year, and their tics would probably not be noticed by someone without a heightened awareness of Tourette Syndrome. I do have a nephew who has been diagnosed with Tourette’s and who has some OCD tendencies as well. So if you know anyone doing a doctoral dissertation on genetics and Tourette’s, we are probably a case study waiting to happen. (I should say – if you know anyone PAYING participants in a study, we’re a case study waiting to happen. We’ve gotta pay for college for all these kids somehow!)

Up next in Part 4, Silas will tell you about his experience with Tourette Syndrome in his own words. 

Tic Tic — Tourette Syndrome, Part 2

This is Part 2 in a series of posts about Tourette Syndrome. If you missed Part 1, you can read it here

My daughter Rachel first started ticcing when she was only three years old. Throughout the years, some tics have come and then completely gone while others have consistently stuck around. Some tics have been just plain annoying, and some tics have been so absurd we’ve had to laugh.

From passing comments to long, tearful conversations, I’ve heard Rachel talk about Tourette’s many times over the past nine years. This week, I asked her to write a bit about it for you. So — in Rachel’s own words, this is what she thinks of Tourette Syndrome.

rachelumbrella

Tourette’s can be really annoying. The tics can make concentrating nearly impossible. When I’m working, my tics are like a person screaming noises at me. They get worse when I am tired, frustrated, excited or anxious. They also get worse when I think about them. If I just try to ignore the tics, they don’t bother me as much.

Tics are always with me — when I’m awake or asleep. *[Most information I have read insists that people with TS do not tic when sleeping, but we have seen Rachel ticcing in her sleep.]

Some tics are worse than others. Some are just little noises, but others can be painful! I used to gag myself. I still chew on the inside of my mouth when I am tired. Some tics can be funny. I make the Spanish “r” sound sometimes, rolling my tongue. And I sing.

But no matter how annoying, painful or frustrating my Tourette’s is, it teaches me not to let anything get in the way of what I love. If Tourette Syndrome doesn’t stop me from doing what I love, then nothing can.

I believe that my Tourette’s is just as much a part of me as my arms, legs or my brain is. Tourette’s is what makes me ME, special.

In Part 3, we’ll talk about the tendency for Tourette’s to run in families and when I first started seeing symptoms in my son, Silas. 

Tic Tic — Tourette Syndrome, Part 1

This is Part One in a series of posts about Tourette Syndrome

Because people know that some of my kids have Tourette Syndrome, I get a lot of email and Facebook messages that start something like this — My son has started doing this weird thing with his head. Or In the past few weeks, my son has been making this noise with his throat and blinking his eyes a lot. Or This girl in my class sometimes nods her head in a strange way and flaps her arms at odd times. 

The messages generally end the same way, asking how I knew my children had Tourette’s, what the first signs were, how the diagnosis was made. I think most people are looking for some reassurance – either that their children’s symptoms and behaviors don’t match up (Whew, it’s not THAT!) or that they do match up and answers may finally (Finally!!) be on the horizon.

Since I’m asked these questions so often, I thought a blog post (or two or three) may be helpful. I am not a healthcare professional. I’m just a mom who has lived with some ticcing kids day in and day out for more than 9 years. The things I write are not meant to be taken as medical advice or as some sweeping commentary about Tourette Syndrome in general. I’m just telling you our stories with the hopes that our stories can encourage or educate someone else.

rachelgradWhen Rachel was three, she started stuttering. At first it was mild, coming and going depending on how tired she was. Then it went away altogether. But after she turned four, the stuttering started up again. Soon, it was very severe. Trying to get out a word became a full-body experience. She would bend at the waist, slap her thigh, stomp her foot, bob her head. Still, she would often have a total block, unable to make a sound come out of her little mouth. Though I did not associate the behaviors, she had also started twirling in circles when she was excited or nervous.

The summer before she turned five and we would begin doing kindergarten work in homeschool, I met with the man at the local school board office who oversaw homeschoolers in our town. He helped me create a 504-plan that would enroll Rachel in speech therapy once a week at the nearby public elementary school. We hoped the speech and language pathologist would help Rachel overcome the debilitating stuttering that often left her in tears. Much like me, Rachel is a communicator (A fancy way of saying we both talk A LOT!), and stuttering was especially frustrating for someone with so much to say!

The speech therapist was just about the nicest lady in the world! We LOVED her! She taught Rachel this strategy of turtle-talking — slowing down, drawing out her words, taking her time and relaxing. It was like magic. We even had a hand signal the teacher and I could use to silently remind Rachel to turtle-talk. Around the time the school year began and speech therapy started, Rachel showed some allergy symptoms — blinking, sniffing, and this cute this little throat-clearing noise. After seeing the doctor, we started her on Zyrtec. I figured the speech therapist and Zyrtec would have my little girl back to “normal” in no time. Little did I know, the definition of “normal” would forever be changed for us.

After a month on Zyrtec, the allergies were not improving and the cute little throat-clearing noise was sounding more like a wheeze. One Wednesday evening, the AWANA leaders at church were worried Rachel was about to have an asthma attack during game-time, so they made her sit on the sidelines. The wheeze was that noticeable! Finally, one day the speech therapist met me at the door to ask if Rachel had allergies. I explained that she had been on Zyrtec for a month, but the symptoms were worse, not better. The speech therapist encouraged me to call Rachel’s doctor right away and explain every symptom we’d been noticing. “I don’t think it’s allergies. Tell him EVERY symptom,” she encouraged.

As an education minor in college, I had taken a class on The Exceptional Child. Plus, I knew how to Google. I already suspected Tourette Syndrome; and I knew in my gut that the speech-language pathologist was also suspecting TS,  though she couldn’t really come right out and say so. That evening, without mentioning Tourette Syndrome, I told my church ladies’ group about Rachel’s stuttering and allergy-symptoms and the speech therapist’s suggestion to call our doctor, asking them to pray. Immediately, a seasoned teacher in the group spoke up, That sounds like it could be Tourette Syndrome. You should call your doctor. 

I knew. I can’t explain it any other way. I just knew. That night, I made a list of all the things I’d noticed in recent months — extreme sensitivity to textures, scratching and picking at skin, blinking, sniffing, nose scrunching, throat clearing, wheezing, twirling, stuttering, head bobbing, body bending, foot stomping, an overwhelming impulse to bop her brothers on the head, the day she impulsively bit me on the shoulder and seemed shocked at what she’d done. As I finished my list, I included Rachel’s latest complaint as we drove through town in our big, black Surburban, “Please turn off the music, Momma! When I hear the music, I have to blink the beat and my eyes are tired.” 

Looking at the list, I was shocked. I hadn’t put it all together in one concise train of thought until that moment. Of course this was more than just a stuttering phase or seasonal allergies!

The next day I spoke with our family doctor on the phone. He did not even want us to come into his office. “This is definitely outside the realm of my speciality. I will refer you to the pediatric neurologist and set up an appointment.” 

And so began our education of Tourette Syndrome. By the time we saw the neurologist, the list of quirky behaviors had grown in length. He explained that to receive an official diagnosis of Tourette’s, a person must demonstrate some vocal tics AND motor tics for at least a solid year. These don’t have to be the exact same tics for a year, but some sort of vocal and motor tics must be present for a year. So after a sleep-deprived EEG ruled out seizures and an MRI ruled out any sort of brain tumor, Rachel’s initial diagnosis was Unspecified Tic Disorder. We would have to wait several months for the magic one-year mark in order to get the diagnosis of Tourette Syndrome.

We quickly learned what sorts of things tend to make tics worse — exhaustion, sickness, anxiety, bringing attention to the tics. We learned that impulsivity can go hand-in-hand with TS, so Rachel carried a stuffed animal or doll around for when she had that overwhelming urge to bop or poke something. This kept her little brother’s heads and tummies safe from random bops and pokes.

We learned that little hands cannot create papers of perfect penmanship while the body is ticcing; and that, this truth combined with OCD tendencies, meant handwriting and schoolwork could quickly become sources of major emotional meltdowns. So I learned to strategize for that in our homeschool days.

I searched for socks without seams or figured out ways to forego socks altogether. I learned that letting Rachel wear fancy white gloves to church prevented her from picking her white tights to shreds on the short drive to and from church. We learned that falling asleep could be especially difficult as one tic after another would startle Rachel from near-sleep, only to start the entire falling asleep process over again each time. So we became MUCH more patient at bedtime. Or at least, on our good days, we did.

And I quickly realized that, though Rachel’s tics sure could annoy the ever-living daylights out of me, I could walk away, step onto the porch, close my bedroom door, lock myself in the bathroom, whatever — but she could never, ever get away from the tics. So during the most frustrating moments of hearing her whisper the word perfect over and over again or snapping her fingers or grunting non-stop, I would remind myself that it was far more frustrating for her. I still sometimes have to remind myself of that now, 9 years later, when she is singing for hours on-end or making some other noise with her throat or mouth.

We chose early on to be up-front and straightforward with people about Tourette Syndrome. I figured if I made it out to be some secret, Rachel would infer TS is something to be ashamed of. It’s not. Tourette’s is simply a fact of life for our family, just as my husband’s Type 1 Diabetes is also a simple fact of life. Her brain releases dopamine irregularly; Dad’s pancreas doesn’t release insulin at all. Sometimes some people’s bodies just function a little abnormally, so we deal with it. We accommodate when and how we need to; we educate ourselves and others as best we can; and we go on with life, choosing to view Tourette’s (like Diabetes) as one aspect of life, not as the defining, final say.

Coming up in Part 2: In her own words, Rachel describes what it’s like to have Tourette Syndrome.
Follow up with Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.