Thursday, January 05, 2006

dodging the tripwires

One of those days.

DS1 freaked out at school again today. The phone rang at about 10:45. Mrs. J, his writing teacher, called with the situation report (battlefield terminology is appropriate here.) He was refusing to do his work and when pressed, he started shouting at her, and so he was sent out into the hall to cool down. Where, of course, he refused to cool down and was holding out in Fort Grumpy: he was not going to re-do the work he had already done!

I knew immediately exactly why this had come to pass. In the nearly 9 years I've been living with my son, I've learned a lot about his psychology and his physiology, and in all honesty, if you had told me "He has writing practice today," I could've predicted the meltdown. Let me lay out the scene:

1. For two days in row, he had gone to school on nothing but a couple of pieces of toast and a few ounces of milk. While he has never been formally diagnosed as hypoglycemic, I have observed hundreds of occasions where low blood sugar has impaired his ability to control himself -- sometimes completely.

A nearly-all-carbohydrate breakfast is the last thing he needs in the morning if he's going to be stressed, because he gets the insulin surge followed by blood-sugar crash, and That's All She Wrote: tantrums follow if he's asked to do something he don' wanna do. (We had one at Disneyland at exactly this same time; he'd had a bagel for breakfast, and we asked him to go on the Matterhorn. Nope, couldn't do it, no matter that it's one of the smaller coaster-type rides at the park. and he really loves all the other ones. Couldn't, wouldn't, tears, the whole irrational deal -- completely unreachable until post-snack. After that, we skipped the hotel's continental breakfast and went to McD's and got him Egg McMuffins instead.)

Usually, on school mornings, he has a whey protein shake with his toast, and that's more than enough to smooth out the spikes and dips in blood sugar for the day. But he didn't have his shake this morning. We're not back in the school-morning groove yet. We just forgot. Oops.

2. So he doesn't have a good (for him) breakfast. It shouldn't be that big a deal, because they have a snack at about 10AM. I send something in with him that he likes, like oyster crackers from Trader Joe's, or something else to hold him over until lunch. Today? No snack, he told me -- I don't need it. It was "pizza day" at lunch, and since he was buying his lunch I guess he didn't feel like bringing the snack.

I, being the idiot that I am, said OK and let him go without his snack. I'd bet if he had eaten something at 10, none of this would have happened, but maybe it would've, anyway, because now we're getting to the heart of the matter:

3. Mrs. J asked him to re-do some of his work because his writing was sloppy. The "neatness counts" concept is not new, having been introduced several weeks ago and stressed again when school started after vacation. It wasn't a surprise. But DS1 doesn't like writing: he has to really work at it, and it's frustrating for him. His small motor skills are not the greatest, so it really is work for him to practice writing. It's fair to say this is his most-resisted subject. So we're already starting off at a low point with the initial assignment, but having to re-do a paper that was already done with "the right answers"? Fireworks:

4. "It's not fair! I already did it, why do I have to do it again?" DS1 had a fundamental misunderstanding of the assignment. The point of it was not to see if he knew the answers to the questions, the point of it was to provide writing practice. When the boy feels as if he is being attacked or unfairly singled out in any way, he becomes very defensive even if he's not running on very low blood sugar.

I could see it all unravelling in my mind's eye. I mixed up a shake for DS1 and popped over to the school and made him drink it -- it's a blessing we live only 3 minutes away. Within 5 minutes of drinking the shake, the dark clouds lifted. He became progressively more rational as I sat and talked the situation through with him, with Mrs. J chiming in for support. We were both careful not to gang up on him, and I was happy for his sake that he never got so upset that he cried -- he was angry and defiant, but didn't reach the point of frustration where his only outlet was tears. That's a bit of progress, anyway.

We talked about a lot of things.

He admitted that being hungry caused only about half of his problem today, the other half was his own stubbornness. He apologized with the most minimal prompting.

We explained that not all learning he does in school is "head learning", some of it is "body learning", too -- and writing is something that takes practice, just like swimming. The muscles must be trained. It's particularly frustrating for him (and I sympathize) because his writing hand can't keep up with his brain (my typing can't keep up with my thinking, and I'm a fast, if inaccurate, typist.) But if he doesn't practice, it won't get any better.

We've discussed many times how important it is for him to be able to write well, because he will be tested on just about everything, and 99% of those tests will require writing in one form or another. If the teacher can't read his answers, or if he writes so slowly he can't finish the test, the teacher won't get an accurate impression of what he really knows. So it is really, really important to learn how to write well, no matter how much he'll rely on computers later. For kids who don't have problems with writing, you probably don't need to hammer this issue so much. For kids like DS1 who are brilliant but disinclined to care about something as seemingly trivial as penmanship, we have to come down hard.

Result: He finished off the day with flying colors, including completing the offending assignment neatly, and had his "best ever" swim practice after school. His coach was really impressed. I'm left wondering how much of that effort comes from the fear that he'll be forced to give it up, because that is the biggest lever we have these days. If he can't keep his head screwed on straight in school, there will have to be consequences. I can't really see us ever forcing him to quit swimming since it is without question the best thing he's ever done for himself, but if school is suffering he may need to miss a practice here or there to make the point: keep it together or else...

The thing is, even when he screws up and forgets to hand in a paper, or he has a bad day, he's still pulling straight A's, mostly high A's at that. We're nearly through with the quarter now, and he'd have to flunk just about everything left to seriously affect his grades. He's brilliant, and his teachers love him and love how much he contributes to his classes... if we could just avoid these freakouts, everything would be perfect.

Hey, if I can't make rabbit ears on my little sister, who can I do it to?

The most frustrating thing is that I know how all of these events -- wrong breakfast, no snack, unpleasant task, misunderstood assignment -- are going to set my son off. I can't prevent these things from happening, and I don't think I would even if I could. Now is the time for DS1 to learn how to deal with the world, and that includes having to deal with 'adversity' when he's not feeling his best, aka hungry and grumpy. I can't - won't - protect him against unpleasant events; he has to be responsible for his own actions, no matter what.

I know this, and he knows it, too. He's not even 9 yet, and he has made a lot of progress in the flying-off-the-handle area. But we were kind of hoping he'd be completely over this by now. My biggest fear, and this is something I told him, is that the school will get involved and demand "tests" and "evaluations" and before you know it, he'll be slapped with some label or they'll be wanting to medicate the contrariness out of him.

There is nothing wrong with my boy. Nothing that requires psychoanalysis or medication, anyway.

He's a brilliant boy who sometimes doesn't deal very well with stuff he doesn't want to do. He's learning, and we're doing our best to guide him through the process. I just hope he can keep it together enough to avoid calling the attention of the "we must medicate the boys into submission" types. That prospect really does scare me; if we were pushed down that path with DS1, I'd home-school rather than subject him to drugs or a ridiculous monitoring regime.

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