Community Support: Kindergarten-style
One summer day when I was 38 weeks pregnant, I went outside to turn on the sprinklers. I reached down to flip on the pump, feeling for the switch. With my view obscured by my giant belly, I didn’t see that a panel had blown off the night before and exposed the wiring.
As soon as I recovered from the electric shock, I grasped my belly. I felt nothing. My son was born later that day after an emergency induction. And thankfully, he was okay. At least, he seemed okay.
That was about five years ago. Since then, I have often wondered if I actually did harm him. I wondered when he became old enough to start talking, but didn’t, and when he didn’t potty train, and when he didn’t reach so many of his other developmental milestones. At age three, he was declared developmentally delayed and qualified for half-day preschool instruction through the school district, which we supplemented with another half-day at a private preschool. As he grew closer to Kindergarten age, my husband, a professional speech therapist, left his job to work from home where he could have more time to act as our son’s personal trainer. The summer before our son began Kindergarten, we sent him to summer school at the same school where he would attend Kindergarten, instructed by the teacher who would be teaching his Kindergarten class. When Kindergarten began, she assigned him to the exact same chair and coat hook that he had during the summer, to ease his transition.
In spite of all of our preparation, Kindergarten got off to a rocky start. My usually sweet-tempered child manifested his academic frustration with frequent temper tantrums in the classroom. I felt guilty about the way he was disrupting the Kindergarten experience for all the other kids and nervous that they would shun him. He certainly wasn’t being likeable.
A few weeks into the school year, the teacher asked if we had any ideas for a reward system. Was there anything that had worked at home? We started sending her a supply of Kit Kats. A friend with a special needs child had recommended Kit Kats to us previously when we were struggling with potty training; that particular candy seemed to have unique, magical motivational powers. But I wondered how the teacher would sneak Kit Kats to my son without the other students noticing and getting angry because my kid was getting bribed just for behaving as well as they were expected to as a matter of course.
His Kindergarten class has an elaborate color-coded behavior grading system. Good behavior is noted with a blue dot on a daily log that comes home in his backpack. A few weeks into the start of Kindergarten, I had seen a rainbow of colors—very seldom blue—and way too many notes from the teacher.
One day, I came home from work and found my son waiting for me at the door.
“I on black!” he cried, the moment he saw me. “I scream at friends! I not clip down!”
He seemed aghast. Over the past few weeks, it had become apparent that he couldn’t control himself like other Kindergarteners, but this was the first time I realized how much he wanted to.
“I sorry!” he continued. “Tomorrow I be on blue!”
He jumped into my arms and hugged me, apparently relieved to have gotten that off his chest.
Shortly after that, my husband and I called a meeting with our son’s teacher. We were hoping we could arrange to get an aid assigned to him, someone who could take him aside when needed and prevent him from disrupting the class and alienating himself from the other kids.
I didn’t expect what she said. Instead of sneaking the Kit Kats to my child, the teacher had been announcing his winnings with big fanfare every time he earned one, so that all of his classmates could cheer for him. Parents were asking her about my son, not because they were upset about his disruptions, but because their kids kept telling them about how excited they were whenever he won a reward.
A classmate who was accustomed to mentoring younger siblings had been assigned by the teacher to be my son’s buddy, and she described how this more mature five-year-old would gently remind him to stay on task. The other kids knew he was struggling and they also wanted to help.
“I wouldn’t say that he is a project for them, but more of a friend. Everyone wants to be his friend,” the teacher told us.
A few days later, my husband arrived at school early for pick-up and saw my son at recess. He came out late and put his nose to the wall, pouting because he had just finished a time-out for one of his temper tantrums.
A little girl noticed him and called his name. “Come play with us!” she said. He turned toward her, smiled, and joined his classmates on the playground.
Today, more often than not, my child proudly tells me, “I on blue! I get Kitty Kat!” Now that the tantrums have mostly ceased, he is starting to learn, albeit at his own, slower pace.
He is a friend to everyone.