Comics say that Kindergarten was the most brutal time of their life, the joke continues, all 5 years of it. For a parent of a Kindergartener, watching your child go through the painful social dance of the classroom becomes the most brutal year(s) of your life. Somehow the pain is worse from an adult vantage point than as the four-year old fumbling their way through the school day.
My son is four years old. He has Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy and Sensory Processing Disorder. He also has anxiety. Mr. Sensitive presents as a happy-go-luck guy who loves playing with other children. He might hesitate for a second when approaching a group of kids on the playground, and might ask me to talk to the kids first, but he will join the pack within minutes. I bring this up because Kindergarten is a melting pot of social skills and complex social situations that I cannot anticipate.
Mr. Sensitive is a veteran of full-time daycare and our local Ontario Early Years Centres and readiness centres (free programs for parents and children that focus on playing together and social skills). Our province is starting full-day provincially funded Kindergarten programs. I thought he was ready for Kindergarten. Maybe Kindergarten is not ready for him.
On Mr. Sensitive’s first day of school he came home happy. I was an overjoyed, proud, Kindergarten parent. His school has a staggered start for Junior Kindergarten – the Senior children (5 year-old) start full time, then the Juniors (4 year-olds) gradually trickle into full time school. (In two weeks his class went from 15 to 28 students.) Mr. Sensitive started with the Seniors because of his Special Needs status. Then as other children started to attend full-time he became whinier at home, tantruming at the slightest provocation. He was stressed. Mr. Sensitive started to line up his toy cars in rigid rows, talking to himself, saying, “You poo-poo head,” or, “You’re stupid.” Then he started to talk about birthdays, saying, “You’re not invited to my birthday!” I was in anguish watching him try to process things that we had never prepared him for. How can you prepare a child for a litany of insults? He was taught to include everyone – how can he understand rejection?
As a teacher myself I completely empathise with the Kindergarten teacher and early childhood educator trying to corral 28 four and five-year-olds. Teaching Kindergarten is not for the faint of heart. As a parent, I know that an adult cannot supervise all children all the time. It is impossible.
We talked to the school staff. A teaching assistant was assigned to help Mr. Sensitive. Three adults in a room with 28 kids; sounds like a reasonable ratio. Mr. Sensitive was coming home with scrapes on his knees, arms, and face. During playtime other kids would push him. Mr. Sensitive would fall like his legs were swept out from under him. Because of his poor muscle control he could not get his hands up to protect his face before it hit the ground. The staff tried to talk to the other kids. He was coming home with a minor head injury at least twice a week. Once Mr. Sensitive fell out of his seat and cut open his head so badly we had to take him to the hospital emergency room, where his scalp was glued back together.
We saw signs of physical fatigue – Mr. Sensitive was falling asleep at the dinner table, his legs were cramping to debilitating levels. Instead of his legs cramping for less than an hour, his legs were going into spasm for 12 to 24 hours. He looked like a little peg-leg pirate hobbling about.
I started keeping him home from school. Mr. Sensitive needed the extra rest and a break from the sensory-overwhelming classroom. On our days off I would take him to our local readiness centre. There I could see how debilitating the sensory demands of the classroom are. At the centre it is quieter than a classroom because there are fewer children and more parents. The space is also larger, nearly 50 percent bigger than his classroom. During clean-up time Mr. Sensitive would hide under a climbing structure until all children were seated on the carpet. During dancing time he would flail widely and drop to the floor. During story time he would ask countless ‘why’ questions or interject with other, somewhat-related information. During outdoor playtime he would play with leaves, sticks and dirt. (His Kindergarten class played on a concrete slab.) At home we would construct volcano models and use oranges to replicate the molecular structure of solids, liquids and gases.
At this point I would say we ‘semi-homeschool.’ Mr. Sensitive is home from his public school Kindergarten class about two days a week. I see the benefit in him still attending part time. He is happy to see kids in his class and hugs them when they meet in the community. Privately I fear that kids that don’t attend do not get invited to birthday parties, but that’s a whole other topic. I kept him home yesterday and we had an exciting time taking the city bus to an Ontario Early Years Centre. He learned about traffic, street names, bus etiquette, and geography. He also had a blast playing with kids at the centre. I’m not sure if Kindergarten can offer the same.
By the time we were heading home it was raining. As we stood inside a bus shelter to wait for our return bus, I realised Mr. Sensitive was truly happy watching traffic and raindrops. I boarded the bus with my double stroller and Mr. Sensitive in tow. Rain spattered on the steamy bus windows and Mr. Sensitive leaned against me. He was exactly where he needed to be.