Saturday, August 29, 2009

First Week of Kindergarten Confessions

I admit that I was surprised when I picked my son up after his first day of school and he was upset. Really upset. I didn't know what it was about. I had been standing out by the letter "F", our designated pick-up point with the herd of other anxious Kindergarten parents, when I saw him come out of the front door of the school in a line of other adorable and tired looking 5 year-olds. Immediately, he ran to me. And just as quickly, the teacher reached down and tried to move him back toward the wall. I understand why they did it. They need to keep order in the midst of the afternoon chaos. They have to keep track of all of those kids! I would be upset if they lost him. So, I do understand that. Really, I do. But my 5 year old... well, let's just say that he didn't. It was the end of a very long day away from me and he was done. It was time to be with mom now and there was no logic that could change that.

As the teacher moved him away from me, he burst into tears. The first thing out of his mouth was, "I don't ever want to go here again. Ever." I held him and just listened to his feelings. Thoughts spun around in my head: was the whole day like this or was it just the last few minutes. He cried and I held him, refraining from launching into the series of questions that were heavy on my own mind. The next thing he said was, "I didn't even get a snack. I didn't want what was in my lunch." Oh, I thought. Was there more that happened during this first day of school than what I had observed? I held my judgment, knowing that he was upset and needed to just work through his own feelings before I tried to talk more about it.

As he began to settle down, we were able to walk to the car and start talking about what my two boys wanted to do to celebrate the completion of the first day of school. We decided upon a buffet. As everyone settled into their seats, my older son asked Josh if he wanted to go back to school tomorrow. I held my breath, wishing that he hadn't asked that question, knowing he really didn't have that choice, yet secretly glad that he asked it. He hesitated, then responded: "If you ask me if I'm going back, I will always say... YES!"


He had a good day. He stayed on a green light (not my green stoplight kind of green referring to a state of calm, but the school version of not being bad sort of green light, which of course is really about being able to stay calm and regulated anyway... it just isn't used that way- yet.) and he had enjoyed his first day.


I was relieved that it had been a good day for him. But secretly, I think I was hoping it would be cut and dried that it wouldn't work. That I wouldn't have to go through the days and weeks and months of trying to keep him motivated to go to public school when I believe there are better choices that are more in alignment with my own beliefs about what young children should be doing with their time.

Day 1, I thought. It is only the first day. 179 more to go.

Every day this week, I started to see signs of protest. Tuesday, he half-heartedly said, "I don't want to go," as he proceeded to get himself dressed and put on his shoes. His actions weren't congruent. It was almost like he thought he was supposed to complain.

Wednesday, he was a bit more insistent that he didn't want to go. He got himself dressed, but refused to put on his shoes. But he got willingly into the car. I put his shoes on him while I told him a story when we had arrived at the school. This was the first day I left him at the door to the outside of the school and his brother walked him to class. (Well, actually, Josh knew the way, so Zack followed him to make sure he found it OK.)

Thursday, he didn't want to get dressed. Or eat breakfast. He was playing. It took Zack magic to get him excited about going. Yes, today was PE day and he had looked forward to this after hearing his big brother talk about it all last year. He got dressed with my help and we made it to school. Thursday was the day at pick up that Josh was totally escalated into a red light brain state (survival- fight, flight, or freeze) when the teacher tried to physically put him back on the wall.

Friday, he point blank refused to go. "There are too many rules," he said at my prompting. "I can't even get out of my seat." My older son and I worked together and eventually got him dressed and into the car. When we reached the front door to the school, he refused to go in. The teacher at the door tried to help and suggested that there was an oatmeal cookie for breakfast today. It wasn't on his diet (he has some dental issues going on), but at that point I told him he could have it today. He may have no teeth left when this is all over, but he will have gone to public school Kindergarten. It all just seems wrong somehow. Why is getting him to go in more important than anything else right now?

Granted, he seems to have a good time once he is there. And I'm glad for this. Last year, he had a brief time in Pre-K and he didn't like it. I didn't see the point in forcing the issue, so I didn't and pulled him out again to be home with me. It was a very good decision for him. It was what he needed. This year, I think he has a much better teacher who is kind and respectful. He is making friends. He smiles when he talks about school, except for the drop off part. And being away from me, which is very hard for him.

I don't know what next week will bring, but probably more questions than answers as we feel our way through this huge transition. Whether you are homeschooling and starting school now or transitioning to a program away from home, school is a transition for everyone. How is everyone doing right now?

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Reflections of a new Kindergarten Parent

Tomorrow my baby will be starting Kindergarten. I've known this day would come since he was an infant and his older brother went off to school for the first time. I suppose that is what comes to mind when I think of Kindergarten and the first day, since I don't really remember my own first day of Kindergarten. I was only 4 when I went away to school for the first time, since the state I lived in required children were 5 by the end of the year to start. But I was ready for the playing, the singing, the coloring, the stories... I remember my teacher, Ms. Hart. How could you go wrong with a Kindergarten teacher with that name?

Fast forward to when my older son went to school. I had been planning to homeschool him. After retiring as an elementary school teacher forever even before my oldest was thought of, I really didn't plan to send him. But my husband, who had staying in education, had different ideas. When my son Zack started asking to go to school, I felt I needed to give him the opportunity to try it out. We enrolled him and I chose his teacher because he had connected with her during the "testing" process to see what he already knew going into school. Before school even started, he had changed his mind and decided that he didn't want to go anymore. But we were committed now and it felt like there was no going back.

That first day was so hard... for ME! My husband went with me to drop him off, our 9 month old in tow in his sling. After our tearful goodbye at the door, my husband and I walked away hand in hand and cried some more before my husband went off to work and I went home to our quiet house with only my baby. I missed Zack terribly! We had been connected since the day he was born- before really- and we had never really been away from each other. Especially not for so many hours.

As the days and weeks passed and we went through many painful goodbyes at the door to his classroom, I began to wonder why I was doing this. I stayed true to my commitment to not throw him into the classroom crying as I had seen other parents do. I would stay until he was ready for me to leave. When he was ready, he would give me a nod and the baby and I would head home. Some days were easier than others. Some were painful from the moment his eyes opened. But his teacher was caring and always did her best to reach out to us, supporting us when she could.

So we stayed. He learned how to write and he was reading before the end of the year. His math was way ahead. But he wasn't really happy. Finally the year came to a close and summer arrived. It took a long time before he really relaxed into summer and back into the rhythm of our family's life. I started to really feel connected to him again as it drew nearer to the time that school was to begin again. That was when I felt it: a strong urge to keep him home with me. I brought it up, but it wasn't really an option. It was suggested that we just give it a try. He'll be fine.

School started again and with it came chaos. He was fine at school- a model student. But at home, it was a nightmare. He would have temper tantrums for 2-3 hours most nights. I couldn't figure it out, so I went in to observe. I was horrified to see only about 5 minutes of direct instruction during a 3 hour time block! Clearly I could do better myself.

I took my case back home to my husband and we explored our options. We finally decided that the best choice was to bring him home to homeschool, so that's what we did. Once he was home, he started to relax more and to begin to enjoy life again. But I found it curious that he was refusing to read and refusing to write. I knew it wasn't important and that eventually he would be willing to read and write again. And I was right- now he is writing very well and reading way above grade level. So what did his Kindergarten experience really do to him? He was "ready" to read and write according to the experts at the school, but was he really ready for all of that pressure? Was he ready to abandon his need to play and to be close to me or did we push him too hard, too fast? It took a lot of time and patience to undo the damage.

Now Zack willingly goes to school. Actually, he loves it. He couldn't wait to get back to it. Would he have felt that way without the break? I don't think so. He is ready for that sort of pressure now and actually enjoys it in a way that I don't think I ever really did. I'm just glad to see that he's happy after all that we went through.

So tomorrow, I start this school journey with my youngest son, Josh. I must admit, I am reluctant after my experience with his older brother. I am also very concerned about the lack of unstructured playtime in Kindergarten. After an exhaustive search, I've found the majority of schools near me are similar: early academics are the rule, rather than the exception. What happened to play? What happened to the play house and the dress up station? Painting and circle time? They seem to be casualties of this push to make our children do better on state testing.

But we're missing the point. We're missing the point that children's work is play and that there is no more powerful way to teach a child than to respect the way children learn best at the age of 5 and 6. Children who are pushed too hard, too fast, too early are more likely to diagnosed with learning problems that wouldn't exist if we simply gave them time to develop at their own pace. Teachers have also told me that they are seeing many more discipline problems than in the past, probably because Kindergarten children are facing 5 hours of academics per day with no time to play out the stress in unstructured playtime. Yes, that's right. Kindergarteners. Can you pay attention for 5 hours without a good long break to de-stress? I can't.

Teachers aren't to blame. They're all upset about it, too. When I spoke with another long-time Kindergarten teacher last year, she told me that she had finally decided to get rid of the play house in her classroom. She said with pain in her own eyes that it was just too difficult for them to look at it and not be able to play in it every day. Another Pre-K teacher said that Kindergarten teachers are giving away huge sets of very expensive wooden blocks because they don't have time to use them anymore. Something is wrong with this picture. Since when have children lost the need to play?

With all the stress in our society today, children's need for play is greater than ever. Yet, there is less and less time for this critically important activity. School days are planned down to the minute of every day and then most children are involved in other outside structured activities once they leave school. Homework and dinner round out the evening, then bedtime before we do it all over again.

I'll keep writing on this topic and share how things unfold for us this time around, along with my own attempts to make some changes within the system. I'll also work to provide the time and space for that much needed playtime for my own children and share what works for me this time. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this topic as well.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Someone to listen... really listen

I have a lot on my plate and on my mind right now. School is starting soon and we have quite a bit of indecision going on about where our children are going to go. Well, I don't have indecision, but others in my life do. I reached a point today of being on a total red light. I was back in survival myself with my amygdala's fight, flight, or freeze response hijacking me. When I get this overwhelmed, I tend to go into a freeze mode. I've gotten much better at identifying that this is where I've gone now and working my way out of it. This is what I did.

I went outside by myself and watched the rain fall earlier this evening. I needed some time to quiet my mind and my nervous system and found the rain to be soothing. I was dozing as I sat on the patio, letting my incoherent thoughts swirl around in my brain. I focused on my breathing, taking in deep breaths- feeling my breath all the way down into my belly. I have no idea how long I was out there, but eventually my children came to find me.

When I had returned to a yellow light (emotional part of the brain, which was a step up for me from that red light), I connected with a friend I knew could really just listen to my feelings. I called her up and just let whatever needed to come out in whatever form and order it needed to come out to do just that. I'm sure it wasn't pretty, but I knew that she would be willing to do that for me. I knew that my feelings wouldn't be bothersome and that I would be safe expressing them to her.

After about 15 minutes of being on the phone with her, I started to feel better. I had been heard. I had been listened to and embraced. And I was now back on a green light (regulated and calm), ready to return to my life and to make the decisions I needed to make to move forward. As I looked back on my earlier thoughts, they were completely irrational. With the time and the connection with my friend, I had moved out of that irrational place and back into true connection with myself and my own inner guidance.

This is what our children need when they are upset. They need someone to listen to them... really listen to them. They can make it back to that regulated place when someone invests the time in them to listen to their feelings without trying to make it better or to explain to them why they shouldn't feel that way. Try it with your child and see how it goes. And let me know! And if you haven't had this experience, find a wise friend who can listen to your feelings. This is how healing happens for parents and for children!

Monday, August 10, 2009

I eat butter and other do other unconventional things

My 10 1/2 year old son walked into the kitchen tonight as I was putting the butter away and said, "You know mom, there are commercials that say that butter is bad for you." I stopped when he said it and listened. "They say that it is one of the deadly sins or something like that." I nodded. "That's strange. We put like two sticks of butter in our potatoes," he continued. We talked about how everyone needs to make their own decisions about such things with the information they have available to them. We choose to eat butter, but not everyone does. And that's OK.

And with that conversation, I began thinking about all the things I have been doing that most people don't. I know everyone will make their own decisions and each person needs to decide for themselves what they can live with. I don't want everyone to be exactly like me and to make all the same decisions I have made. My decisions are right for me, but not necessarily right for you. I've spent years researching some of my decisions and realized that most of the information I've found isn't what most people are hear, so some may scoff at my decisions. I've made it my goal to get information out to parents so that they can make their own decisions in a truly informed way. That's what the Consciously Parenting Project is really about.

It isn't easy to be different, but it is the road I am traveling during this lifetime. I know within my heart that I am true to myself and that's what really matters. I choose to respond to my child who is having a temper tantrum in the store, even if all eyes are on me waiting for me to reprimand him. I choose to homeschool or not according to the needs of my child at any given time. I chose to unschool my oldest child for a while, then I followed a Waldorf curriculum because it was what was right for him. I still co-sleep with my youngest child and I allowed him to wean himself from breastfeeding when he was ready (and it was years before he was ready). I choose to limit my children's exposure to television and to junk foods, even when their friends do those things. I don't punish my children when they "do something wrong," but rather connect with them and help them to calm themselves before we talk together about what happened and how we can make it better. I work from home so that I can be with my children when they need me (and feel grateful that I am able to do this). I buy our food directly from farmers as much as possible. And I eat butter.

Are you parenting differently? Are you making choices that are different than most people make? Do you feel like you're the only one who feels the way you do? Tell me about your decisions and how you feel. I know I'm not alone.