Normally we receive a questionnaire from the school around this time of year, asking us to give them our personal insights into Jonas, to help the new teacher get to know him better and help her understand the classroom accommodations we’re looking for. A big transition like back to school throws many things out of whack and it’s back to the drawing board in some respects. We haven't got one yet and we have a meeting with her next week, so I wrote a letter to the teacher last night, introducing her to the world of Jonas. For the benefit of any reader who’s new the world of ADHD or speech disfluency, I thought I’d share some of the highlights here. It might also help those of who know and love Jonas to better understand his world and his challenges. We’re pretty new to all this as well, and we're still trying to find our way.
Jonas was diagnosed with speech disfluencies at the end of Kindergarten. He was then diagnosed with ADHD in November 2010. He has had the signs and symptoms of both since he started Kindergarten, and they began to impact his school experience beginning in Grade One. We've worked closely with his teachers to try to find ways to manage these conditions more effectively so that he can learn better, fit in better socially, and not be a disruption to the other students.
Jonas’s speech disfluencies can be a tough social challenge for him, especially as he gets older. He has participated in speech therapy through the School Board, as well as privately, and we are hopeful that he will have another block of speech therapy though the Board this year. There are also several strategies that we use at home and at school to continue improving his speech. The other kids seem to get a little less compassionate as they get older. He's starting to get picked on a little more and becoming increasingly self-conscious about how he speaks.
Jonas’s ADHD symptoms include hyperactivity, inattentiveness and impulsiveness. His fine motor skills are delayed, his handwriting needs a lot of work, and he can also be overly emotional and argumentative. As you can appreciate, these can have a big impact on his learning. For example: He isn’t organized, his non-stop movement and chattering can be a distraction to the other students, he misses important instructions, word problems can be hard for him to follow, and homework time is very often spent in emotional turmoil.
Jonas knows that he has different challenges than a lot of the other kids and it does impact his self esteem, particularly as he gets older. We have worked hard to figure out strategies to manage his speech and ADHD better and to help him fit in with the other kids. There are a million ideas out there and we’re always on the hunt for better ones.
Our Strategies So Far
Medication: Jonas has been on stimulant medication since Christmas break 2011. We find that this medication makes a big improvement in his behaviour, but do have some concerns with it so monitor it with his pediatrician. (We’re committed to keeping the school in the loop if anything changes.) We’re also aware that it is not a magical pill. He’s still an eight year old boy with a lot of academic, social and emotional development in front of him. We explain the medication to him by saying that it helps him be able to stop, think and make smart decisions, but it doesn’t do the stopping, thinking or decision-making for him. That’s up to Jonas, but we’re all here to help him learn how to do that.
Sleep: Thankfully, we are in the minority of ADHD families that do not have sleep issues. That may change as we adjust his medication going forward but for now, we'll take it!
Diet: One of the side effects of Jonas’s medication is that it has decreased his appetite. He also forgets to drink throughout the day. (These may account for some of his emotional responses.) We pack him a healthy lunch, snacks and water every day for school but he often arrives home after school with a full water bottle and a lunch bag that has barely been touched. His teachers have always agreed to let him keep his water bottle on his desk, for example, but I don’t think he ever remembered to do it. We've also asked for his teacher's support in reminding him to eat at snack and lunch time.
Stress Ball: Another thing that helps him control his emotional responses is a stress ball. When he gets emotional at home, we encourage him to squeeze it while taking slow deep breaths. We include one in his school pencil case, and hope that he’d be able to use it at school again this year. (He knows it isn’t a toy and will be taken away if used as one.) He’s still learning how to use it and benefits greatly from reminders when he’s really upset.
Managing Transitions: Jonas doesn’t do well with transitions. Whether it’s back to school, moving from math class to gym, or the end of the lunch period, he manages best with a clear schedule and reminders that transitions are coming. Letting him start something that he obviously won’t be able to finish in the time he has can be tough and last minute changes like a new teacher or postponing an event or reward can cause upset. We have a daily schedule posted on a the fridge at home. His daily schedule at school is also posted in the classroom.
Learning Breaks and Distractions: Chunking work into sections and allowing him a break between them works better for Jonas that trying to force him to focus on something for a long time. Jonas is now taking a doodle pad to school, to use when he’s completed his work and ready for a break or for when others are not yet finished. It will help keep him from distracting the rest of the class when he’s done. (Caution needed here: Racing through his work is a problem and isn’t something we want to encourage.) He has a hard time staying on task but an even harder time when he has no defined task. Using the creative side of his brain is also a good break for him while doing more analytical work.
Daily Agenda: Another tool we love is the daily agenda. It helps him to organize what needs to be done, take ownership of his responsibilities and it helps us understand what is required of him so that we can help him with reminders. (The pocket in the front is also a great way for us to send paperwork back and forth!) Sometimes he needs just a little more detail in the notes he writes in there though. For example, this week there has been a note every day about a book for independent reading but it wasn’t clear to us or him what that meant. By the time he got home, he forgot what it was he was supposed to do. Was he supposed to bring a book home from school to read at night, read any book at home at night, or bring a book from home to read at school during the day? He couldn’t remember. We know that the teacher won’t always have time to write individual notes but if there is any way she could help him put more detail in his notes, we’d be eternally grateful.
Individual Education Plan: One of the things that worked very well for Jonas last year was an IEP, or individual education plan. Although we don't want to change the curriculum, we need to recognize that the format of teaching and testing doesn't always work for his learning. Two of the biggest factors were changing his testing format and combining homework.
Changing his testing format from written to oral in non-writing subjects like math was a huge help. Before we made the switch, he was falling behind in subjects not because of the concepts but because of his handwriting. We do a similar thing with homework sometimes, allowing him to type things out on the computer when he's already had a big day of writing. We don't want to avoid handwriting, just not overwhelm him with it and allow it to hold him back.
Combing his homework has also been very successful. Last year, his reading homework, for example, was always related to his other subjects. He read about the human body, for instance, to reinforce his learning in Science class. We also do extra work at home every day on his fine motor skills. Practicing his weekly spelling lists or doing cut and paste for art class are great ways to do this so we can skip the other FMS work on the days when he’s got that kind of homework for school instead of increasing the time he spends at the homework table. This one-thing-with-multiple-results really helped to reduce the workload last year and that REALLY helped us at home.
Homework: We think it's important that the teacher know that homework is an on-going struggle for us. He does independent reading every morning and we read to him every night. This usually goes very well and is one of our favourite parts of the day. Homework time, on the other hand, is definitely our least favourite part of the day. He loves doing creative and scientific projects, but anything written is often a battle right from the mention of it. A 10 word spelling list can become an hour long saga some nights, for example. We’ve tried many strategies and have yet to find one that works consistently. We’re not giving up though. Any suggestions she might have are welcome!
Extra Homework: We don’t want Jonas falling behind in school. We understand that if he doesn’t complete something during the day it may need to be sent home. One of his big challenges is long word problems in math and reading comprehension. He simply loses the plot if he can’t stop and reinforce each step of the way. There isn’t time for this in school so we end up doing extra work at home. We hope that the teacher will understand that it may not be a simple task to work in the additional homework. We will do our best, though we’re praying that he’ll be able to complete most of his work in class this year.
One-on-One Help at School: We also love this school's Home Reading Program! It was a great help to Jonas last year. Any extra one-on-one attention he can get to improve his academics is very much appreciated! If an opportunity ever comes up for a tutoring program, we’d be very interested in that as well.
Goals and Rewards: Jonas responds well to having clear goals with rewards at the end. 15 minutes of solid homework time is rewarded with an equal amount of play time, for example. A good week at school means he can have some video game time on the weekend. Doing well on a spelling test can earn a different type of reward. There’s got to be something in it for him that he appreciates or he’s simply not going to be motivated. He’s just starting to understand the bigger picture rewards of doing well in school but he doesn’t have enough appreciation for it yet for us to leverage it.
Physical Activity: The more physically active he is during the day, the more manageable Jonas’s symptoms are. One of his previous teachers took away his recess time as punishment for poor behaviour in the class and it backfired. Instead of learning from the consequences, he became more restless and unfocused. Last year, his teachers started using verbal cues to keep him on-task, and also added regular movement breaks throughout the day. This seemed to have much better success keeping him focused in class.
We know that a teacher's job isn't easy. Managing a classroom full of kids, each with their own personalities, must be very challenging. We think of our family and the school as a team! We hope that we can continue to work together this year to make it a great year for everyone involved!