(This is a subject that does have a tendency to make me a little ranty, so I apologise in advance if this post becomes a garbled mess of me alternating between raging against the system and falling into a chasm of ‘I’m a rubbish mother’ despair.)
This is Fin. Often referred to as ‘The Child Made Entirely of Cute’. All too often referred to as ‘Hellboy’. Fin will be four in November; he started nursery in January and is due to start primary school in August 2013.
Some background on this gorgeous looking chap. He has never been a particularly ‘easy’ (how I loathe that word!) child. Even before he was born, he was giving me grey hairs. At my 14 week scan, he caused concern with the nuchal translucency scan and we were advised that there was a high chance that he had some kind of genetic abnormality – probably Downs Syndrome, but possibly Edwards or Patau Syndrome. We were caught between a rock and a hard place, whether or not to have an amniocentesis and risk miscarrying a much wanted baby. Had the risk only been Downs, then we would have progressed with the pregnancy as normal. However, with the outcomes for babies with Edwards or Patau Syndrome being so very bleak, we decided that we should know in order to prepare ourselves (and Ellis, who was two at the time) for our special little baby.
Several agonising, sleepless weeks of waiting for the amnio and feotal heart scans, and then the results. They came back clear. Fin was fine.
After he was born, because I had been on aspirin and heparin throughout my pregnancy for my thrombophilia, Fin had a brain scan to ensure that – due to his relatively fast entry into the world – he had not suffered any bleeding on the brain; as these drugs can pass through the placenta. Again, he was fine. The scan was weird, I don’t know what I was expecting as I looked at this great, black, screen of nothingness. Baby bottles? Dummies? Teddy bears floating past? The screen was black, and that was good.
As a newborn, he was a handful. I spent the first three months sleeping in the living room with our teeny ball of fury so Richard and Ellis could sleep upstairs in peace. Then Fin was diagnosed with Brachycephaly – that’s ‘flat head’ to you and I. Usually caused by babies being left in their prams, on their backs, for too long, though we have evidence from scans that Fin’s head was flat in the womb. We swapped to a sling, and held him as often as we could, did the ‘tummy time’, anything to reduce the pressure on the back of his head. Then colic. Then Swine Flu when he was seven months old. I kicked a hole in the shed door, and could often be found crying in the corner of the kitchen.
Suddenly, we turned a corner. He became (almost) a dream child. He ate well (we did Baby Led Weaning), he slept well. He hit all his milestones. He was sociable, and smart, and became his big brother’s little shadow. There were tantrums, of course there were. Show me a child who has never had a tantrum, and I’ll show you a mother who is a pathological liar.
The only area that was a concern for me was his speech. His speech was slow, very slow. Ellis had been a slow talker, but had suddenly, at the age of around two and a half, come out with full paragraphs; and we expected Fin to do the same. As the time grew closer for his starting nursery, I started to become more concerned that Fin was still only stringing a couple of words together.
Fin was very excited to start nursery. He was young, yes – he had only turned three in the November. We had chosen to put him in the afternoon session, rather than the morning, as the afternoon session is much calmer due to having less children. He ran in without a backwards glance for his teary mum that first day. It was a good day.
His first Parents’ Evening was a joy. He was ‘a delight’. He was extremely good, for his age, at shapes and numbers. He was making friends, and interacting well. He enjoyed painting, brushing his teeth, and snack-time. I ‘shouldn’t worry’ about his speech, it would develop fine with time and increased confidence, they had seen it all before.
A couple of months ago, a bolt from the blue. ‘That’ sit-down meeting with the teacher, regarding his behaviour and his development.
The ‘delight’ appeared to have turned into a wild, destructive, tantrum-throwing, uncooperative beast. Were there any problems at home? Anything that might be upsetting him? (once I had removed my eyebrows from my hair, I answered in the negative). His speech was ‘holding him back’; he was unable to express himself clearly, offer any of his own thoughts or experiences to circle time discussions, and he was becoming ostracised by his peers who could not understand him. He understood, but refused to obey instructions. The nursery very much doubted he would be able to cope with appearing on the stage in the end of term performance without causing a scene; and had their reservations about letting him participate in the Sports Day as he spent the practices wandering off rather than waiting in line for his turn.
He was on the deferral ‘watch list’, on the grounds that the nursery staff felt he would not be mature enough to start school with his peers in August 2013.
Was I seeing this behaviour at home? No. Of course, there were strops, and tantrums, and bloody-mindedness. He’s three. That’s what three year olds do; they push buttons and boundaries; but nowhere near the extent of the problems they were apparently seeing.
It was decided, between the staff and I, to involve Audiology, Speech and Language Therapy and the Community Paediatrician. I would rather be proactive in looking for any issues than sitting on the fence and waiting for it to ‘sort itself out’. I decided to spend our mornings together whilst Ellis was at school working with Fin on a one-to-one basis to encourage him to maybe speak more, be more expressive. Sometimes it would be painting, or plasticine, or storybooks. Sometimes it would be a bus ride or a nature walk. I found that he thrived on individual attention, he became chattier and animated and interested in what we were doing.
Here is the trouble with Fin. Fin does not suit the nursery environment, and the nursery environment doesn’t suit Fin. I suspect the same is true of many boys who are currently being labelled as ‘problematic’.
Early Years Provision in Scotland is, arguably, the best in the UK. There are clear benefits to children spending two and a half years in a pre-school setting, and learning through play before starting school at five. However, even at this young age, I feel that the education system is trying to force children – and boys in particular – into a specific box.
What nursery wants is an obedient, eager to learn, chatty, enthusiastic four year old girl. Four year old girls, as shown in several studies, are happier to sit and listen to stories, sing songs, sit quietly and become absorbed in painting, clay modelling, etc. They are keener participants in roleplay where the goal is to express emotions and ideas.
Boys, particularly three year old boys, still wish to run around. They want to smash up the megablok towers, ‘fight’ with their friends. They are too busy to sit down and listen to a story – there are adventures out there! Boys are about expression through movement and sound, rather than words. It goes back to our ancient forefathers in their loincloths finding their place in the tribe, and I hope to elaborate more about that in future posts.
Find a topic or pastime that interests a boy and, with no distractions, you will have him hooked. Unfortunately, the education system currently does not have the resources to provide much needed one-on-one support for each and every boy who finds it impossible to fit into the rather structured nursery environment. Nor would I really expect them to, after all, these children are not going to be lavished with attention once they start primary school in a class of twenty-plus other children; and it seems unfair to offer such a degree of attention during the early years only to withdraw it suddenly once a child is five.
There is no doubt that the child I have at home has his own strengths. He is funny, and musical, and has excellent hand-eye co-ordination. He is a bright child, there is no doubt about that. He doesn’t fit in with what nursery expect, and he’s not the only one. He is, however, caught up in an education system that has failed our boys for years, and continues to do so.
The Speech and Language therapist, at our initial appointment, indicated that his speech is – for the most part – completely normal for his age; though he does fall a little short in expressive and descriptive language. I am delighted that she is planning to go into nursery to assess Fin whilst in that environment. Her thoughts are that we, as a family, are doing all the ‘right’ things to help his speech development; and she is interested to see how nursery interact with him and whether he is happily sitting back whilst the more eloquent members of his group answer questions on his behalf, and whether the ‘tantrums’ are caused by frustration at not being heard or understood.
So what are the answers? Do we defer him? Do I concentrate on one-to-one work with him at home, knowing that he will not enjoy such luxuries once he goes to primary school? Can a parent do ‘too much’ to help, and actually make things more difficult for a child in the long run?
I honestly do not think I am capable of home-schooling, but it is becoming an increasingly attractive option. All I want is for Fin to thrive, and enjoy learning. Whether he learns in the traditional educational sense, or whether we have to set out on our own path – I shall be mulling these, and many other questions, over. More grey hairs for me, then.
As an aside, here are some photos of the ‘uncooperative, unruly and disobedient’ Fin on sports day. Doing as he was told.