My seven year-old son has been attending a mainstream school for about three months. He spent the first two years of his schooling at a Special School. When his academic and social skills had advanced to a point where that environment was no longer in his best interests, it was decided by his principal, teacher, and myself, that it was time to try mainstreaming. In consultation with his new mainstream school, it was decided that it would be best to hold him back a year – begin him in Year Two instead of Year Three – to give everyone a chance to assess his skills and competencies in an environment that wouldn’t challenge him too much from the get-go. As it turns out, that was a good decision.
It was decided that we’d give him at least a term (about three months) to settle in before deciding whether he’s ready to be shifted into Year Three. Apparently it was clear from early on that academically he was ready (which is an extremely positive reflection on the fantastic teaching team he had at his Special School, don’t let anyone tell you those schools aren’t about meeting academic needs as well as special needs). The problems that have become more obvious to the teaching team as the months have gone by, are his social challenges. Initially his new teacher had been full of glowing praise for his all-round abilities and saw little area for extra work and support, I tried to warn her and others that the real challenges hadn’t had a chance to expose themselves yet. Sure enough, they came to see and understand what I’d feared from early on.
My son struggles to make friends and understand friendships. He does not grasp the subtleties of relationships and of everyday interactions, in ways that his peers already do. The admirable and inspiring thing about my son though, is his willingness and ability to extend himself. Everyday we have conversations about social skills and knowledge: What’s the line between a stranger and a friend; what’s the difference between polite and friendly; how do you join in an activity that’s already underway; what do you do when a friend wants to do something you don’t want to do. I support these discussions with examples, role-playing, and books that show suggested scripts with pictures to support his visual learning style. Sometimes we go to his school playground in weekends to practice what to say to the other children and how to handle it when others want to do something that scares him; he really enjoys these outings and they help build his confidence.
For all this though, he still hates playtime at school. He loves the learning, and doesn’t like to leave the classroom environment. He tells me that at playtime he’s started wandering the grounds by himself, sometimes watching friends. I asked him if that made him sad, he says no, but he also told me that he’d join his friends if they weren’t doing things that scared him. I and his teachers and his support staff practice his social skills with his friends too, but it’s obvious this is hard for him and it’s going to take time.
And it’s these issues – with his social skills – that are ultimately why he’s going to have to remain in Year Two instead of Year Three, at least for another term, and possibly the rest of the year. How can that be, you might wonder. Why do social skills matter more, it seems, than his academic skills and capabilities, since those are at Year Three level? The answer touches on the general complex importance of social skills that I didn’t used to understand at all, and am still getting my head around, though I am reading and talking my way to a better understanding every single day; this is my journey alongside his.
The reasons these social skills matter so much to his education, are many, and some I know I don’t truly appreciate or fully comprehend yet. His challenges socializing with children his own age, make group work difficult, and requires lots of scaffolding to make sure he gets turns and learns from group activities, which are inevitable at school. Basic social skills are also required for him to get the most from the chance to communicate with the other children in and out of class time: One of the key reasons we decided he needed mainstreaming was because he couldn’t get the daily and frequent verbal interactions he needed from his special classmates anymore, so we want to make the most of that opportunity within a mainstream school.
His social skills also of course impact on him getting the most from the teachers too. He needs to know how to do what he’s instructed without responding to requests in a way that takes up class time (by, for example, always requiring an in-depth explanation of why he must do what he’s told: Respecting authority figures and doing what they ask of you is important at home, school, and the work place; it’s not appropriate to question every direction, particularly in time-poor scenarios). He needs to learn to stop and listen rather than walking away mid-way through someone’s sentence. He needs to learn how to ask and answer questions that will get him what he needs to further his own learning. He has the basics of these skills, but they need a lot of work yet, and it requires a team effort from his teachers at school and me at home.
The lovely thing is that, for all this, he does have at least one close friend at school. That one close friendship gives him a feeling of belonging and acceptance and someone to practice social and communication skills with. If we were to advance him to Year Three, he would lose that close daily friendship, and the other friendships we have been working on. He would have to re-establish a relationship of understanding with a new teacher too (his current teacher really cares about and tries hard to understand him and his challenges, she’s just lovely). I’ve been warned from many quarters that in Year Three, social relationships with peers becomes more dependent on emotions and communication, rather than a shared classroom and shared interests, that currently at least give him a shot at making progress.
So all up, it could do his confidence a blow if we advanced him. His ability to take part in group activities, and feel included and accepted would potentially be damaged by going up a year. Academic performance at school is not a wholly separate issue from social relationships and skills, and school is not just about academic performance.
Thankfully, his teacher is mindful of giving my son advanced studies, to help stretch his academic abilities anyway, so he is not being “held back” as such, though no doubt this increases her work load as she has to accommodate not just his special needs, but his academic successes.
A week or two from now I will be having his next Individual Education Plan meeting, where all this will be discussed in more detail, and I can figure out how to support him further at home to match their efforts at school. As is I am in almost daily contact with his teacher, and have the chance to talk to his old teacher once a week when she comes in to help support his social skills in the classroom. Still, I am looking forward to the chance to get into a more in-depth discussion about where we see him going, and how to get there as a team.
I share all this not just because I find it interesting and I hope others will too, and not just because it’s the sort of thing I wish I’d known and read about a year or so ago. I share it because I know some of you reading this have already had this journey, and will have insights and experiences that may help me and my son. I want to know what worked for you, what didn’t, why, what you wished you’d done differently if you’d known then what you know now. Help me, so I can help my son. He is an amazing kid, but we both need all the help we can get.