What kind of year has it been?

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A year of kindergarten special education in one photo

I’m in a reflective mood this evening. Tomorrow is my youngest’s last day of kindergarten, and my oldest’s of third grade. I’ll spare you the cliches about time passing, but know I’m thinking them.

I’m not really sure how to feel at the end of this year. I don’t know what lens to choose.

It’s been a hard one in many ways. Lina has struggled with waxing and waning behavior issues over the course of the year. (Hello, old friends “non-compliance” and “social aggression.”) We’ve had to work exceptionally hard – much harder than I expected, after our comparatively breezy preschool experience – to get the communication we needed from Lina’s special ed team. Math has been challenging for her. I’ve spent a lot of time worrying about things I have little control over.

Corin has had his struggles, too. He is a bright student who has spent this year learning about the increased accountability of letter grades and real homework assignments. We’ve worked hard to keep the responsibility of those things with him, rather than taking them on ourselves. That’s meant making peace with B grades for a kid who’s capable of straight As. He’s also still the kid who collapses when he gets home after the strain of meeting expectations all day long at school. He’s the kid who can’t function without 10-11 solid hours of sleep, and the kid who has trouble acknowledging difficult emotions and expresses them with outrageous emotional outbursts.

But… But, but, but. It’s also been a GOOD year. Lina was reading on a first-grade level by mid-way through kindergarten. She has made so many sweet friends in her class, and their families have gone to extra lengths to include her. The room mom this year was extraordinary, hosting more than one social event for all 20+ kids in her own back yard. Lina’s classroom teacher was a living example of the kindergarten teacher every kid deserves: so kind and encouraging, but gently prodding her students to grow and do their very best. Her love for those kids was evident in every interaction. Toward the end of the year, Lina triumphantly read the school’s mission statement (including the phrases  “balanced education” and “lifelong learners”) over the P.A. to the entire school during morning announcements. The staff in the room applauded when she was done.

Corin is currently reading Lord of the Rings (which, I here admit, I didn’t manage to finish until college)He has gradually pulled his grades up, entirely of his own accord. He has made new friends, explored new interests, and shown flashes of surprising maturity. His teacher had a tough class this year, with some challenging behaviors, but she handled it with tremendous skill and grace, never lowering her bar for the kindness and respect she required. She cared about her kids and was deeply committed to their learning, both in academics and in the skills they’ll need to become responsible adults. Corin has continued to develop his vivid imagination and his love of writing, and it’s clear he takes after his mama in his love of story and communication. He has built a wide circle of friends, and has bonded further with a couple very close ones.

So how do I summarize all that has come with this school year? I suppose, like so much of real life, it defies easy categorization. It was messy and hard and glorious and necessary. It was beautiful, in that the two children I love the very most successfully navigated another year of learning and growth.

I worked from home today, which meant I didn’t have to run out the door before the kids were awake. I lay beside Lina in her bed at 6 a.m. and read her stories. Corin came and snuggled in. I was tired and needing another hour of sleep. They clambered over and around me to poke and tease each other. It was silly, and chaotic, and exhausting, and beautiful.

Happy summer, friends.

New year, growing me

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I tend to be in the “a new year is just a date on the calendar and doesn’t represent an actual break with the previous 365 days” camp. I am more a trajectory kind of girl. It won’t surprise you, then, that I don’t write resolutions or set major new goals this time of year.

This is admittedly a good time to reflect, and there is nothing wrong with taking stock and marking the places we want to see change. It never hurts to focus on positive goals. I wonder, though, how often new year’s goals look like measuring ourselves against unrealistic standards, setting us up for inevitable failure. Are we really so dissatisfied with the current version of ourselves that we feel like we need to be a new person as the calendar rolls over?

Tomorrow is a new year, but here’s reality: I’ll be taking into it the same me, with all my accumulated experiences, triumphs and failures, strengths and flaws. And you know, I’m okay with that. I am thankful for the life I’ve been given and the days that have come before and that lie ahead.

I suppose when we talk about a “new me,” we’re really talking about growth. Goodness knows, I make a lot of mistakes, and there have been plenty of moments, big and small, that were painful and even regrettable. My walk with God is a process of constant grace and renewal. He gives me access to His power for transformation. I don’t have to rely on myself to make the future what I want it to be. This is where I find my peace.

We like to think, especially this time of year, that our lives are within our own control. If we set the right goals and make the right choices, if we do better, our lives will look like we want them to. My experiences have taught me that I have much less control over my life than I might wish. Stuff happens. We inevitably screw up, and even when we do the right things, life can still go wrong. If you’ve spent time with people who are truly struggling, if you know of the desperate places in the world, if you yourself have experienced heartbreak and loss, you know that sometimes, there are no good answers. We do not always have the power to fix things. My hope rests in a God who promises healing and hope, not because everything will always work out perfectly, but because He gives us what we need for today and will eventually make things right in a world where suffering is no longer part of the equation.

For today, I am deeply grateful that God promises that my life matters, and that He takes from my shoulders the weight of making that happen on my own. This is how I walk into the new year. My 40th birthday (what?!!) is just a few weeks away. There are changes ahead for our family. The biggest is that mama (that’s me) will be starting a full-time job after eight years away from the professional world. I’m going to be doing some pretty awesome stuff for an amazing organization, and I am stoked. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t also nervous about the huge adjustment this will be for all of us. But growth happens in change, and I walk forward with confidence because I trust the One who guides my steps.

Happy new year, friends. May you know how much you are loved, how much you matter, and that all your days are safe with Him.

PROGRESS

The Buddy Walk is this Saturday (yay!!), so we’re busy preparing for an awesome day with our Team Lina people. I also have beach vacation pictures to process and share from last week. But all of that can wait for a minute, because I want to talk about a word that’s on my mind this week: PROGRESS.

IMG_2859Lina’s kindergarten start had some bumps. Not surprisingly for her, they were mostly her pet behavior challenges of social aggression and noncompliance. These are the behaviors Lina falls back on when she feel overwhelmed or out of control. It seems to be her way of exerting control over her environment. As her classroom teacher pointed out recently, they are also pretty directly linked to her level of tiredness. These long days are a lot for any kindergartner, and she understandably runs out of juice for focused, structured activities as her energy drains. It’s easy to forget that even routine activities require extra effort for our girl.

Anyway, to make a long story short, I requested a formal process called a functional behavioral assessment (FBA). This is a process outlined in the 1997 reauthorization of the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), the federal law governing special education. This document provides great information for parents about FBAs.

Confession: I have spent more than a little time worrying about Lina’s behavior at school and how it will impact her ability to be successful there. How can she form real friendships if the kids are afraid of being pinched or kicked or having their hair pulled any time she comes near? How can she keep up academically if she won’t participate in school exercises and activities? Will her teachers be able to see past her behavior to understand how bright and capable she is? I realized over these past weeks that even while I believed and preached about our kids’ abilities to learn and succeed in inclusive classrooms, I had to wrestle the voice of doubt that threatened to shake my confidence in my own kid.

Fast forward to this Tuesday, when I met with Lina’s IEP team and the school’s behaviorIMG_3446 consultant to kick off the FBA process. As we talked about where Lina is and the behavior we’re needing to address with the FBA, I began to realize that the team was painting a picture of major progress over the past days and weeks. The social aggression has almost disappeared. Compliance is still a challenge, but Lina suddenly fully participated without hesitation in PE class this week, which has previously been a no-go.  She has begun engaging during the daily social skills group. Her gen ed classroom teacher said she’s formed friendships with her classmates and plays happily with them on the playground. A picture began to emerge of a kid who has found her footing.

As I reflected on her progress, I knew the lesson was one I may be relearning throughout Lina’s life: Have patience and confidence. She can and will succeed.

The challenges haven’t all evaporated. I am hopeful the FBA process will help identify the key drivers for times Lina resists participation and help redirect that resistance so she can get the most from school. Once the FBA is completed, every person who works with Lina – teachers, aides, therapists – will receive student-specific training on the behavior intervention plan. The focus is on prevention and positive reinforcement, helping Lina find better ways to maintain a sense of control and communicate her needs and desires.

But whatever challenges remain, watching Lina fall in love with her new school and new friends and find her footing in the wider world – that’s the point. This is her growing and learning. It takes more time, effort and resources. It may not look like a typical kid’s process. But she will get there, in her own time and in her own way.

I was at GiGi’s Playhouse yesterday morning for the Busy Bodies group I co-lead. It’s a group for the very littlest ones with Down syndrome and their families. A mama with a IMG_3420darling baby girl was talking to us about her little one’s milestones, and I found myself sharing with her something someone told me when Lina was still very little: In the big picture, the fact that it took our kiddos longer to learn and meet their milestones won’t matter. Lina is six, and it’s irrelevant now that she didn’t walk until she was more than two-and-a-half. As an adult, it won’t matter a bit that she didn’t talk until she was at least three and took longer to potty train or do any of the other tasks she will be learning in the years ahead.

As parents of any child, we’re too often comparing our kids. How does my child stack up on smarts, athleticism, fine motor skills, reading ability, social skills? But that’s rarely constructive, and it’s especially hard on parents of kids with a learning difference or disability. That stuff isn’t going to matter all that much in the end.  It’s a lot harder to measure and compare the skills that actually build long-term success. The key is that our kids are growing and learning and making steady PROGRESS. They are becoming, in their own ways and at their own pace. Remembering that requires patience, grace and faith, for ourselves and for our kids.

Today, as we’re nearing Thanksgiving season, I am thankful for progress – my kids’, and mine.

A day at the farm

One of the favorite parts of kindergarten (at least for me!) is the fall field trip to Gentry’s Farm. This place is pretty amazing, and they are pros at moving school groups through. They’re able to accommodate huge crowds, so it’s a favorite trip for parents to join. Lina had a blast, and it was so much fun to see her interacting with friends in her class, who were especially pleased to show me they had taught her to dab. (Why didn’t I get a picture of that?!)

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Lina’s Bakery & Sweet Shoppe

We celebrated Lina’s 6th birthday on Sunday. The theme came naturally for a girl who never met a sweet she didn’t like. In fact, when I asked her what she wanted to eat at her party, she rattled off “cake and pie and ice cream…” So, we threw dietary caution to the wind and fulfilled her wish.

This was the first year I could see her really anticipating the party and presents. She knew what was coming, and the day of the party, she was ready. She was thrilled to see her family and friends, dug into the cake (literally, on a mission to excavate every morsel of frosting), tore into the packages and loved her gifts. She had a blast, and so did we.

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Now We Are Six

When I was One,
I had just begun.
When I was Two,
I was nearly new.
When I was Three,
I was hardly me.
When I was Four,
I was not much more.
When I was Five, I was just alive.
But now I am Six, I’m as clever as clever,
So I think I’ll be six now for ever and ever.

-A. A. Milne

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She is six today.

The poem is from A. A. Milne’s Now We Are Six. It made me cry. A lot of things make me cry lately.

There are times when I wish I could grab Lina, take her home and never leave again. Here in the safety of our cocoon, I can delight in my affectionate, smart, funny, sassy girl. She can be fully herself, and we can ignore the pressures of the world outside our door.

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Last night as a five-year-old

I cried over that poem, because for a moment, I wanted it to be possible and knew it wasn’t. My girl is growing. She is six today, but even if we both wished, she would not stay six for ever and ever. She will grow, and I cannot keep her here with me.

And I am glad. Through my little bit of heartbreak, I am glad she is growing. The dreams we have for her are much bigger than our cocoon. Soon, she will dream bigger dreams for herself. She will own more and more of this precious life she has been given. She is a kindergartner now, and that larger sphere can feel pretty scary. But an ever expanding world is where she belongs. She is making her place there. Of course there are bumps and challenges, and yes, there is hard work every step of this journey, for all of us. But we are not alone.

Every morning, God gives me courage and wisdom for the day. Every morning, He walks with both my children as they enter those big elementary school doors. He has provided us with a village of epic proportions. The teachers and aides guiding Lina, the parents and advocates paving the way, the friends listening to my fears and talking me back to reason, the extended family walking with us… They make it all possible, one step at a time.

Lina is six today. She is a gift, to me and to the wider world that awaits her. There are big things ahead. Maybe that’s A. A. Milne’s point. Six is more than five, and five more than four. Every year, she is bigger, more clever, more herself.

 

Happy birthday, Eline Katherine. Six is just a start. Go, make the world your own. We’ll be here, a little tearful, but so very proud.