I got a call yesterday on my cell phone... a little after 2 in the afternoon. It was Anna's special ed teacher, Mrs. M, who has been working with Anna for the last three years. When I heard her voice, I steeled myself anticipating bad news... I expected to hear that Anna was having a meltdown or something and they had to report it due to the severity. Imagine my surprise when she said that Anna was actually having a good day.
I had gotten a notice in Anna's backpack the day before for a scheduled ARD for October 12th. I looked it over to see why we were having a meeting and it said something about her schedule of services so I signed it and returned it saying that I could attend. I figured they needed to tweak the minutes which happens sometimes and even though it's just a formality for a signature, they have to call the team together for an ARD to make it official.
"Well, you know Anna has been struggling this year."
Yes, I say.
"Even though her behavior is a little better this week, she is still so disengaged in inclusion. She just won't participate. We're concerned about if it's the best place for her. Have these thoughts occurred to you?"
Oh yes, I respond. Curtis and I have talked about it. Ideally, Anna would do best in a small classroom setting with a handful of typical students. But no such class exists.
"We've been thinking about why things are so different this year. There is a big difference between second grade and third grade... in third grade, the academics really take off."
I concur and told her how the psychiatrist was wondering if some of Anna's behavior issues were because she was becoming aware of those differences. We really don't know her level of self-awareness and are hoping the behavioral therapist will help us figure that out.
"Because she is so disengaged and because the material is getting harder in inclusion, we are wondering if we should look at her placement. The academic gap between Anna and her peers has just gotten too large. That is why we called the ARD for the 12th. We want to discuss placement in the FAC classroom."
I immediately feel tears prick my eyes. FAC? (What used to be termed FLS for Functional Life Skills, has now been changed to Functional Academic Class, FAC.) I murmur something and Mrs. M continues.
"Anna would be with Mrs. M_ in the FAC room for grades 3-5. I would still pull her out for Reading since that is one of her strengths and she would continue to join her inclusion class for lunch, recess, and specials. But we feel that Anna's needs are not being met in the inclusion setting and that she would get more support in FAC."
Having had a minute to absorb what she was saying, I felt a great amount of sadness that inclusion was dwindling as a viable option for my sweet girl. I expressed my greatest concern about this placement. Anna's biggest fear at school are some of the other children with special needs. (She has an inappropriate reaction to children in wheelchairs and who are nonverbal... anything from asking multiple questions about their abilities and wanting to baby them to covering her ears, having a meltdown, and shutting down.) She was in FAC part-time in kindergarten, and her fear of Caroline, in a wheelchair and nonverbal, was a daily presence in Anna's life all the way through first grade. Seeing Caroline again in second grade led to the great wheelchair obsession in the fall of 2009... which led to three weeks of interrupted sleep, constant perseveration, pestering her teachers, parents, friends, neighbors, and doctors to give her a wheelchair, finally culminating in an attempt to leave campus while at school and actually finding Daddy's car keys, leaving the house, and starting his car (!) in an attempt to drive to the doctor's office to get a wheelchair.
We are not talking about ordinary anxiety here.
Mrs. M agreed that this is a big issue. She has a student currently in FAC that she picks up after getting Anna in the morning. For the first few weeks, Anna would not even approach the FAC classroom door but now she is coming just inside the room to wait. I suppose we could propose a graduated program of 45 minutes in the room daily for a few days, then an hour and a half, and so on. But then my heart wrenches more. Are we giving up on her? Just writing that makes the tears flow. She was doing pretty well last year in inclusion. She had the material modified for her, she was making slow progress on her IEP goals... well, except in math.
All I can picture now is my little girl, a full year older than her peers since she repeated kindergarten, towering over her friends because of her dangerously rapid growth last year and subsequent hormonal imbalances due to the Risperdal, sitting at her desk completely disengaged from the class as they work on projects. She can't do what they can academically. I've read the reports day after day of her acting out in class, pulling hair, turning the lights off and on, hitting her teacher, announcing that she'd peed her pants so she could go to the nurse, crying. She is not feeling good about school at all. She is desperately crying out for help. I'm heartsick that we only have these two options at our campus because neither is good for her. District-wide I think there is only one additional option and that is an autism cluster class; I think that would provoke even more anxiety for her if there were any kids stimming or making guttural noises.
It can't hurt to ask, so I'll see if there are any other options in the school setting. Maybe she can stay with Mrs. M for part of the day. Maybe she could only go to school part-time. Maybe we should look at other schools, at private schools, at charter schools. Maybe I should homeschool her. Academically homeschooling would be most beneficial. But how much can we expect that she would learn and retain and how much would that help her in the real world? Socially speaking she has potential to continue to grow... with repetition and scripts, she is beginning to expand her conversational skills with the neighborhood girls though she is still painfully delayed from where they are and what they discuss. Ughhhhh. More tears. (There was an interaction with the three girls up the street last week that was really poignant... but that story is for another time.)
When I told Curtis about this conversation with Mrs. M (who recommended we visit the FAC room and meet Mrs. M_ before the ARD), I suddenly flashed on Anna as an adult. Never before I have felt such a clear picture. She will need us. Even her academic and medical team have not been able to tell me what to expect in her future... maybe I've been living in denial or maybe you can call it hope, I don't know, but some part of me felt that she would be independent. Sure, she'd need help, but she would do it her own way.
Maybe she still will.
But somehow, starting with the Rispderal failing last fall, I've felt like we are losing her. The aggression over the summer gave me a pit of dread about this school year. As Curtis and I continue to discuss the ramifications of her academic placement, the bigger philosophical questions come up. What is best for Anna? Is this move somehow an admission that we are giving up on her, just a little bit? Are we overthinking? Perhaps she will thrive and flourish in this other environment, especially if we can manage her anxiety. I don't want to limit what she can do and accomplish. How do we best serve her needs now to ensure the brightest possible outcome for her as an adult? Is it more important that Anna know how to multiply numbers or that she knows how to respect personal space and have appropriate interactions? Academic and social skills are tough to balance and even harder to teach; we know she is capable of learning both given the right environment and circumstances. How do we find that?
Another thing that is crossing my mind is our future, all of us... my own health, and Curtis's too, and the role that Jenny and Dominic will play in Anna's life when we are gone. I feel so protective of her and so deeply connected to her too that it's been hard to make her understand why it's important for her to be separate from me. I want to always be by her side, I want to be the hand she reaches for when she's scared and overwhelmed. I don't want her out in the real world potentially getting taken advantage of. But I have to let go some. I've always felt that we should live an action-oriented life with the goal of an independent adult existence for her but also prepare for the possibility that she will need assistance. We really haven't been doing the latter so much. Reality checks are gut-wrenching.
And if you've made it this far, God bless you. Writing is my way of wrestling with the big issues and I so appreciate the support I've gotten by sharing myself here. I guess our next step is meeting with the FAC teacher and visiting her classroom, then we'll talk about options prior to the ARD. I am glad, in a manner of speaking, for the unexpected call yesterday... this would've been much harder to hear the first time in the ARD meeting. I don't even know what our rights are in questioning Anna's placement. There is much to be done and many questions that need answered. Having the behavioral specialist come on board now is good timing and I hope she can give us some insight on how to help my little girl. I'm a little lost.