A year ago we shed a tear as our boy stood before us, dressed for the first time in his school uniform. Barely four years old (had he been born two weeks later, he’d have been starting this week) and we were sending him off to school. He was not ready, and neither were we. Specialist education had not been an option, as his statement had only just been approved. We knew that mainstream education, even if it was the right choice, would bring its share of trials and tribulations. We were right.
One year on, and B is about to start Year One. It ought to be easier and we ought to be getting used to the start of term. After all, B’s brother is now in Year 3. He can’t wait to get back, see his friends and start Key Stage 2 (but mostly he’s excited because this year sees him move up to ‘big playground’). We’ve been here enough times to be familiar and comfortable with the back to school routine. But of course, we’re not.
In fact, we’re quietly dreading it. This week we’ve escaped off on another little holiday, and it’s been the perfect way to clear our minds of those start of term concerns. But as we’ve got nearer to the eve of going back, those concerns have been increasingly difficult to ignore.
I think we have plenty to be concerned about. For all the successes enjoyed by B last year (and yes, mainstream was the right place for him), there were still several problems that loomed large. Not least was the problem of getting him there in the first place. To say B was reluctant to go is an understatement. Many mornings were hell, before we’d even got him out of the house. My wife deserves a medal for managing the school run each day. Towards the end of term I arranged to go into work a little later and did the school run myself one day. Jesus, what a nightmare. I’m still recovering. Did he always manage to do a runner like that? We’re those stares from the other parents what usually happened?
Picking him up was no better. I’ve written before about the dread that my wife feels before she asks, ‘How’s he been?’ or even worse, the awful feeling that precedes the teacher’s words of ‘Can I just have a little word?’ I still shudder at the thought of the day my phone rang at 3.30 and, looking down, I saw the name of his school on my caller display (thankfully it was nothing more than an assault on his Teaching Assistant, more of which later). I’m sure his Nan never quite got over the day he took his clothes off on the walk home either.
A lot of our fears stem from knowing the demands that are placed on children in Year One. No longer the ‘babies’, there are greater expectations of behaviour and concentration, less free-play, more ‘desk’ work. Whilst I don’t think he’ll struggle academically, it is all the attendant skills such as concentration, communication and emotional maturity that will be the problem. If my eldest son’s experience is in any way typical, then Year 1 is an important year for social development. Deeper friendships are formed and the unwritten rules of social engagement learnt. The awareness of being part of a group, forging your own identity and learning to ‘read’ others are all part and parcel of being aged five to six. These are the things my son will struggle the most with. What if my son starts to get left behind? It doesn’t matter in Reception that he is more like a three year old. As he progresses through this year and beyond, I worry that his differences will become more pronounced. Will his peers be as accepting of him this year?
And of course, he has a new teacher. Bet she can’t wait for the start of term. Poor cow. I would love to have been a fly on the wall as the classes and teachers for this year were decided. Is it conceited of me to imagine that my son dictated the choices made about who went where and with whom? Probably, but I’m sure careful thought was given to whose class he would be best in. His new teacher certainly has her work cut out. It wasn’t for nothing that his reception teacher wrote that he was “exhausting” in his end of year report! How well will his new teacher cope with his meltdowns? With the disruption he brings to the class? With his fight or flight approach to dealing with difficulties? Will she see the funny side when he says, “You’re really hairy!” or tries to do ‘booby-raspberry’ on her?
To be fair to my son (and his reception teacher) his end of year report also called him “a delight.” In retrospect, she did a good job with him. More than ever, I am coming to realise the importance of the primary teacher in a child’s life. It’s certainly reminded me that I need to pull my socks up at work and start giving it my very best. But unlike secondary education, you’re stuck with each other all day, every day. There needs to be a good relationship and I think his previous teacher worked hard at creating this. I pray that his new teacher is as good at embracing my son’s needs and bringing out the best in him. I hope she is also good at dealing with pain-in-the-arse pushy parents, because that’s what she’s getting!
I asked my wife to help me write this blog post, by telling me of her concerns and hopes for the coming year. What follows is as close to what she said as I could manage to type while she was talking:
“I want his teacher to ‘get’ him, to understand not just autism but B’s autism. I want her to go the extra mile. I want him to not be just 1 in 30. I want him to enjoy school. To be happy. I want easier mornings when I don’t have to drag him in, when he doesn’t do a runner and I don’t drive to work in tears. I want him to develop the friendships he’s started to make. I want them to befriend him, include him. I don’t want to watch him run around on his own in the playground; the only child on his own. I don’t want my heart to be broken like that. I want him to be seen as a normal kid at school, to fit in. I want the impossible.”
It’s difficult to know what to say to that.
And is my little boy himself ready and prepared to go back? A year ago, as much as we tried to explain school, he didn’t really get it. A year later he gets it. And he doesn’t like it. He was almost in tears yesterday as we talked about it. He’d rather stay on holiday. In fact, he’s declared that he wants to live in our holiday cottage by the coast. Mind you, he says that about every place he doesn’t want to leave. The other day, he wanted to live at the swimming pool. Oh boy, is he going to have a shock to his system when he goes back.
One thing we do not have to worry about is the one to one support B gets. I will happily admit that I was wrong about his Teaching Assistant. Not about the woman herself, but the circumstances in which she was employed. Without getting into it too deeply again, I felt her appointment was one of convenience and was concerned that there would not be enough experience or training in place. But she has been brilliant. Not only has she tolerated a year of being smacked in the face, argued with and wiping shitty backsides, but she’s proven to be compassionate and understanding. She has embraced him and nurtured him. She has taken pride in his achievements, has been a fundamental part of his development and, importantly, B loves her. What’s more, she will be with him next year too. This means more to us than she’ll probably ever know, but in a turbulent time, she is a solid foundation on which we can rely.
It must be strange that she follows B into Year 1 knowing his needs and characteristics better than his new class teacher. How will his new teacher feel about the fact that she knows him better, and probably knows what works for him better? In Reception, I got the impression that teacher and TA worked very well together. I hope this continues to be the case.
It’s been a brilliant summer. I was concerned that it would not live up to my hopes and expectations. After all, we spend all year waiting for the summer hols, don’t we? But it’s been great- all of it. Well, maybe not the day he forgot to wipe his arse then played hide and seek around the house (big clean up, that). Or that day he almost hospitalised himself when he fell over and sliced his knee open. Or the many times he has pointed and shouted “BALD!” at passing men with no hair. But, apart from these moments, it’s been a summer to cherish.
But now it’s time to get back to reality for all of us. I think a lot of parents breathe a sigh of relief come September and the start of the new term. For us, it’s a deep intake of breath. I guess it’s going to feel like this every year from now on.
Still, let’s look on the bright side: there’s only about twelve years of compulsory education left for him. If the last year has been anything to go by, it’ll fly by.