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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Education or Stress: What is school doing to my daughter?

I’m not a teacher and I don’t work for the school district or government or anything. I’m also not a psychiatrist.

I do, however, have multiple college degrees and studied behavioral science and Psychology in undergrad and grad programs. I am also a hypnotherapist. So…

Here’s the problem I’m having. My 8-year-old daughter, who is in 2nd grade, is having panic attacks.

Not just the normal “I don’t want to go to school, I’d rather play” moments. But full on shaking, pain, shortness of breath.

Panic attacks.

Ever since she switched from a Waldorf School (very nature focused, organic, peaceful curriculum with gnomes and fairies) to the standard California school system, she has been getting stomach aches. A LOT of stomach aches.

I’ve had her checked by doctors. There’s nothing medically wrong with her.  

She is stressed.

It has escalated into the full-fledged terror inducing anxiety attacks that leave her clinging to me like a scared kitten. She doesn’t want to go to school. Doesn’t want to sleep without me. Doesn’t even want to sit in the back seat of the car because she can’t touch me.

Part of it is the pressure of the public school system. All my kids test well above average for their age. But my oldest is a country girl at heart. She’s happiest with animals and nature. An environmentalist and artist. She doesn’t like to be rushed. And these days it’s all about the timed tests.

Hurry! Hurry! Hurry!

She feels like a failure when she doesn’t finish the math quizzes in time. She knows the answers, but half her page gets marked in red because she took too long.

This is just one example. With the push for “No Child Left Behind” and the move to force kids into certain levels on standardized testing, schools and teachers are under pressure to perform. And we all know which direction that pressure rolls…

I hate this. I wish I could still afford the private Waldorf schools. Or homeschool. I wish my little girl was happier and more at peace. I wish I knew what to do.

Now in fairness to the school system, there have been a lot of other stresses over the last few years. Moving to a new state, a divorce that has left her and her sisters with less time with their father and a few school changes.

I know none of this has been easy. It’s been hell for me too. So much stress. We had to sell most of what we owned to survive when my ex didn’t pay child support. We moved several times before I found work and a place I could afford. If I’m struggling with my own panic, certainly an 8-year-old with no control over her life would be in a panic too.

But we are stable now.
And we have been for a bit. I’ve got great work and am doing well financially and professionally. We have a nice home in a nice area. They go to a great school with great teachers.

And she is getting worse.

I’m meeting with her teacher, the principal and the school counselor today to figure out how best to support her. I know I can’t change the entire public school system. (Can I?) But I need to do something to help my little girl. I can’t stand to see her so miserable.

Does anyone have any thoughts on this?

6 comments:

  1. I'm having the same problem. My son has missed about a third of the school year due to a couple of colds, but mostly stress induced asthma and throwing up.

    During conference week, he finally made a statement that helped me put a name to his frustration and stress. (He internalized his panic attacks!) He said something to the effect of "I don't care if I lay an egg and become sicker than a monkey's uncle, I'm going to shcool this week because there's no reading!"

    He is 9 yo. His reading teacher had stressed him out so much about being at school he missed more. She then pulled him out of the challenge class (the place where creativity and higher thinking is most incouraged!) because he was not there to finish her projects.

    I started sending him to school even on the mornings he threw up because it was 3-5 times a week and no illness--just--stress.

    He has not thrown up since I told him his main teacher really liked him and would let her know how stressed he was in her class.

    I may luck out this year and have that be the worst for him. He's way above average, (the aforementioned reading teacher made him test again, thinking she'd be able to drop him to the lower tier because of missed school and he passed with flying colors. He let me know it was all my fault because I would be pissed if he failed on purpose. I did not even correct his cussing because he has been so stressed!) and with missing a third of school has managed to stay up in top 1% of school on test scores. When he goes everyday, he is so bored with the curriculum and stressed about his reading teacher that his asthma (and attitude!) gets way worst.

    I think continue to show her you care about her feelings, stay in touch with schools, and try to help her life be as stable as possible.

    The school system does not deal well with kids way above or way below average. It's putting out an average work force. At least the one here is. And in keeping with the no child left behind act, many states have actually hampered the school's ability to help students grow beyond the average.

    My heart goes out to you. It's hard for a mom when a child gets that insecure and you can't immediately fix the problem. As you well know.

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  2. Get her out of that school. A little girl acted this way in my second grade class, because the teacher was a very subtle emotional abuser. She terrorized the whole class. It was awful.

    Talk to your daughter. Ask her if anyone at the school is making her feel bad about herself, or making fun of her, or something worse. Tell her you are on her side no matter what, and that you won't be mad at her--abusive teachers threaten children with trouble from mommy and daddy. Tell her you want to stick up for her, because that's what mom's do. Remember, kids don't think like adults. They literally have different brains. So cool. I love kids.

    Anyway, talk to me on Twitter, if you want to hash this over more. Your daughter is very beautiful, and I'm sure she is very smart--like her momma. I'm very unhappy with this news. Maybe we should get the media involved. Reach out. I'll help in anyway I can. The poor baby. :'(

    --@CharlesBivona

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  3. Moving schools, if possible, may be the solution. Or changing teachers might be enough. having panic attacks because of school is not cool.

    You know what? I came home today with a threat to take me to court because of my 1st and 4th graders "truancies" despit the fact they know the kids have asthma. (There is one nurse to 3 grade schools! and they want me to send my asthmatic kid when he is audibly wheezing? No thank you. Even if I know he will be better by 10 or so.)

    According to letter, state law says when 10 unexcused absences/tardies. I call and talk to them and they still mark no contact. They say call OR write, yet they are upset there is no letter.

    They had ten absences in Sept (yet are managing to stay up with class standards.) It is after I tell them their record keeping sucks and complain about a teacher that I get the sudden "home visit" with the Mandatory scheduled meeting that I cannot make.

    I am going in tomorrow instead. I've had a run in with the new attendance clerk (there did not used to be one) before. She disrespected me in front of my (older) son to his school counselor--without me present.

    We shall see what happens...

    It got me to thinking that maybe you need to make a stink. You have the education to say the right words. (I'm still searching for them.) Maybe you can utilize a difference for all the kids in her class.

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  4. I think you have to be really careful here Kimberly, before you really land on the school, as much as I'm all for landing on schools and their meat grinder approaches to educating human beings.

    You're not going to believe this, but my two youngest daughters went to a Waldorf preschool, the only one in central Ohio at the time. There were only twenty spots in the school, and it was by far the greatest preschool I've ever seen or heard of. There was no k-12 Waldorf school in the area, but we really considered moving to Cincinnati just because they had one down there.

    For a variety of reasons, that didn't turn out to be feasible. But I do recall the isolation that they felt even transitioning to kindergarten, moving from the incredibly warm, loving, nurturing environment of the Waldorf model into public school.

    The reason to be careful is, however much of the problem lies with the school, you're stuck with the school. Moving the kids around and blaming it openly on the school, in my experience, reinforces in the child's mind that the problem with the transition is the school's responsibility, something the school is failing at. That's of course very true.

    In reality, however, both the school and the child need to work on the transition, and if the child gets to believe that he/she is a passive victim of a bad school, then there is no reason or motivation for the child to put forth the effort.

    In fact, the child gets rewarded for pulling back. The child gets attention for pulling back. A child who, having just come from a Waldorf school in a public one, is starving for attention. So the normally sharp and academic daughter is suddenly flunking quizzes - if that's resulting in the teachers' abilities getting called into question, well again all those factors can motivate a kid's perceptions.

    Seems to me - again, anecdotally, as dad of three girls - that when my girls are dishonest, they really aren't being dishonest at all. They've just convinced themselves of something very convenient.

    This is a perspective also that I remember clearly as a child, too. I'm sure that it's clear to you that you are now stable and safe, and I'm sure you've told your daughter that and I'm sure she believes you.

    The problem is, she believed it before. Her whole rock-solid, stable reality, the first one, the one she knew her whole life, it just imploded. It's gone, and so now what is she to make of this new rock solid reality, the one she's known for maybe a year? When I was a kid, it took me about eight or nine years to redevelop faith in that kind of stability.

    I'll bet she's not nearly as sure as you are that you're stable now. I'll bet she's scared of losing you, her world, herself, and I'll bet that's the root of the panic attacks.

    With my girls, several concepts almost always apply when there's a problem. First - It's Normal. The first thing I always try to tell me girls is that It's Normal, what you're going through. I haven't yet found a stressful situation in which that didn't help. Recent divorce, changing cities, switching out of Waldorf to a public school - absolutely it's normal to have these exact problems.

    The other thing I do is Name it. Figuring out the problem and then talking about it every day. The quiz problem is probably where everyone's focusing but the quizzes aren't the problem, they're a symptom of the larger problems: the school transition, and the fear of losing everything (almost everything) again.

    (Con't)

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  5. (Con't)

    So I say, forget about the quiz grades for three months. Worst thing that can happen is she flunks math - eight years old, that's not exactly going to follow her around or anything. Just decide, hell with it, I'm not even going to sweat the quiz grades for three months. I doubt that happens, though - I'll bet the math grades go back up as she gets more comfortable in the school and as she gains more confidence in the stability of her world.

    Then work on Math, work on it plenty, while you've vocally not worried about the actual quiz grades. But every day talk about this stability. Keep pointing out every day how the stability is still stable, repeat like a mantra. Try to establish a routine if you can, in the morning, trying to spend even ten minutes reassuring, helping her frame expectations for the day.

    And yes, a three ring circus for the first quiz grade that's even a passing grade.

    I hope I'm not sounding nuts, it's late. Originally I was saying be careful, because I've been in the position where I have to work with a school I wasn't crazy about, and it's almost always better, more efficient to work with them than against them. Sometimes, that hurts.

    Also, I'm still very good friends with my daughters' Waldorf preschool teacher from eight years ago - I'll message her and see if she'll come over here and give you some strategies or
    hints or whatever, about helping kids transition from Waldorf to public schools.

    I'm re-reading that and I can see I'm making a few assumptions, so I might be grafting my own experiences onto yours. Please don't take offense if I've overstepped or anything. This is one of those topics I think about a LOT.

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  6. Leona: I'm SOOOO Sorry you're going through that! And I understand the stress of the law. I am dealing with a similar issue, though the school is being very kind. If I can be of any assistance with "my words" in the form of a letter or anything, please let me know. I'm happy to help you express yourself.

    Charles, Thanks for all your support. I'm weighing all my options right now.

    Tom, Not overstepping at all. I appreciate all your comments and am taking them into consideration as I write a follow up post with news from my meeting with the school and some thoughts for the future. It will be posted today.

    Thank you all! I also had a lot of wonderful comments and shared stories via private DM, @ and email.

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