Wednesday, October 31, 2001


We’re going trick-or-treating tonight, my children and I.

My son will be dressed as Shrek. My daughter will be a green skeleton, complete with bony gloves and spats. She won’t be wearing the mask, because she can’t see through the eye-holes and she’s had enough with visually impaired Halloweens (don’t talk to me about the ghost costume with the roving eyeholes), but she’ll be a sight nonetheless.

We’re going trick or treating, and normally there would be nothing remarkable about that. This year, of course, the conventional wisdom has decided against it. Many folks have told me that they’re not letting their kids go door to door, and we shouldn’t, either. My son’s teacher is letting her class trick-or-treat, sans costume, from one special-ed class to another so that they’ll get it out of their systems and won’t need to go at night. If we do let them get candy from strangers, she suggests we buy each piece back from them and turn it into a math lesson. Certainly, we’re not to let them eat it. Bad things might happen.

Bad things happening has always been a concern on Halloween, in the post-razor-blades-in-apples era. But now, in the post-Sept.-11 era, bad things happening are a major national obsession. Stories of people buying thousands of dollars worth of candy to poison it and sell it back to stores, and stories of bad things planned for malls, circulate wildly on the internet (although the urban legend folks call them hoaxes). My son’s teacher, after telling me we shouldn’t go out tonight, mentioned that many people are keeping their kids home from school this Oct. 31, because bad things might happen there, too. They want everybody home and together, morning, noon and night.

But once you start thinking that way, where on earth are you safe? My house is next to a gas line and a high school; if they blew up either of those, we’d be safer at school or work. If someone poisons the water, your kids would probably be safer at school than at home. If shadowy forces are putting poisoned candy in stores, then you can’t even buy sweets for those parties you’re planning to substitute for trick-or-treating. And who’s to say the other food in the store is safe? Shall we all just starve?

What’s really the bottom line for me, though, is: If you decide not to trick-or-treat, and not to “do” Halloween in the way you always have, what exactly do you tell your children? This is not a matter of a parent not being able to say no; or a circumstance in which a child should just take “no” for an answer. It’s a tradition that has always been okay, that has been followed in busy times and inclement weather and even when the child was too young to really appreciate it. Why, all of a sudden, are we not doing it now? The only explanation we can give is this: “Honey, there are bad people out there, and we’re afraid they’re going to try to kill you.” And I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to say that to my children. It may be true, but they don’t have to know it with quite that level of stark certainty now. I like for them to sleep sometimes.

So we’re going trick-or-treating tonight, my children and I. Shrek, a skeleton and a scaredy cat, venturing into the night in search of candy and the kindness of strangers. It’s a risk, but I take comfort in knowing this: This year, when I eat all their candy, I will be doing it as a self-sacrificing mother protecting her children from possible harm. Calories don’t count then, right?

Tuesday, October 30, 2001

Inclusion confusion

I had another one of those Child Study Team meetings yesterday where afterward, I thought of all the things I should have said and realized all the things that were wrong. How come that never happens when I can easily do something about it?

It wasn't even a combative meeting. No IEP to be decided, no services to be argued over. In fact, I had called the meeting to discuss a service we had and I wasn't sure I wanted: an individual instructional aide for my daughter. When I agreed to this aide, last year at IEP time, it was only for language arts, only to avoid resource room, and with the understanding that other kids in need of aide would be in the same class.

So of course, when the aide finally arrived, two months into the school year, she was assigned to the class for the entire day, and for no one but my girl. I am a firm believer that there is such a thing as too much help, and this is what it looks like.

She wasn't doing terrible with no help at all. But she wasn't doing great, either. I'm willing to admit there's room for improvement. There's that line, though -- the line between helping children succeed by improving their skills so they can, and helping children succeed by giving them the answers. I'm not sure this aide knows where that line is.

I'm not sure I know where that line is, either. Certainly I help her too much on her homework. It's ever so hard, as she flounders around with no hope of finding the answer, to say, "Here! Here it is! Right here! Copy this down." But I'm not an education professional. Surely there are better tactics than that.

Yet has anybody taught the aide what that might be? The problem with inclusion in our school district is that although it has been embraced quickly and thorougly, it has not been planned well. Nobody knows how to do it. They're learning as they go along, at the expense of the very students they're trying to serve. I have seen a great deal of blundering over the past few years, and it's inexplicable to me -- surely there are materials available to professionals on how to go about this. Why does no one seem to have them?

So I'll tell them what I want. They'll do what I say, whether it's the right thing or not. I will be in charge of this service, even though I am probably the least qualified to do so. I remember what it was like when I thought everybody who worked with my children knew what they were doing. It was so comforting and peaceful. My daughter didn't learn, but I never had to worry about hard homework or bad grades.

We won't have so many bad grades this year as we did before the aide came. I hope that will be because my girl is learning better. I fear it will be because the aide is spoon-feeding her answers. I wish I had told her to be less helpful with multiple-choice tests and math problems and more helpful with writing assignments, where my daughter truly has no clue how to proceed. I don't mind bad grades if they're a true reflection of my child's understanding. 75 percent may be a D in these parts, but learning three-quarters of anything is a terrific achievement for her. More than anything, I want her to learn tactics that will keep her from being clueless. The specific information being taught -- not so important.

I just wish I knew that the educators knew just exactly how to do that.

Monday, October 29, 2001

Hop to it

I'd like to announce with pride that my son, at age 8.5, has finally mastered a major gross-motor developmental milestone:

He can hop.

He can't do it gracefully. He flaps his arms and hunches his body over and generally looks like he's doing some variation on the Funky Chicken. But one foot's on the floor and one foot's in the air and there's a little loft, and I call that hopping.

He can only do it once or twice without having to hold on to something, but that's a major improvement over past performances. Previously, when his pediatric neurologist would ask him to hop, he would oh-so-casually reach out and touch something, in the hope that she wouldn't notice he needed a little concrete support. She always did. Maybe, by the time we visit her next year, he'll be able to do three or four without grabbing hold. Maybe five. The sky's the limit here. Can skipping be far behind?

We have to focus so much, as special-needs parents, on the milestones missed, the distance from the bottom of the chart, the lags and delays. But that only makes it so much sweeter when one of those long-empty boxes gets checked. Hopping means way more at 8 than it would have at a developmentally appropriate age.

It's nice, every now and then, to be reminded of that.

Tuesday, October 23, 2001

Attitude adjustment

We never went through the terrible twos with my daughter, since we adopted her when she was four-and-a-half. She was an eager-to-please sweetie through most of her childhood. But now we've hit the Painful Preteens, and at age 11, she's starting to enjoy eye-rolling, sarcasm, and sloth. Dislikes: Doing what Mama and Papa say, taking showers, making beds, brushing teeth. And speaking of teeth, getting her to do these simple tasks is like pulling them.

It doesn't help that, on top of all this, she can now lay claim to PMS. It also doesn't help that I know that none of this is going to get any better as she heads into her Terrible Teens. If she's delayed in cognitive ability, in language, in social and emotional development, why oh why can't she be delayed in attitude development, too?

Another thing that doesn't help in all this is our new paranoia about terrorism. It's added yet another "Do what I say and don't make me explain" level to my interactions with my daughter, and she's not taking it. She wants to know why she can't ride her bike in the high school parking lot like I promised; I don't want to tell her that there's a strange car parked in an odd spot and I'm afraid it might explode. I don't want her to have to think about exploding cars, or anthrax, or airplanes falling out of the sky. I just want her to do what I say. And that, of course, is anathema to your average Painful Preteen.

In the end, she still does do it. She's still, way down under there somewhere, my eager-to-please girl. I just wish she was a little quicker and quieter about it.

Thursday, October 18, 2001

Making progress

Progress reports came out for my kiddos yesterday, and all in all the school year is progressing about as I would have guessed.

My daughter's report indicates budding problems with math, reading and English, no surprises there. Her instructional aide, who was supposed to be in place on Day One, finally showed up this Monday, so maybe she can make the difference in those problem areas. In the comments section, the teacher wrote that my daughter "has been working very hard," which is boilerplate for this child, kind of like the way they always say a person who's not that attractive has a great personality. But the teacher's right: My girl does work hard. And her parents work hard. And now her aide is going to have to work hard, too.

My son's report indicates that he's doing passing work in academic subjects, and needs improvement only in behavior and work habits. Again -- no surprise. If his behavior and work habits were perfect, he wouldn't be in a self-contained special-ed class in the first place. Still, you gotta love the comments: the teacher wrote that my son "is impulsive and compulsive, but they continue to be overshadowed by his charm, wit and hard work. He is a delightful student who is making steady progress in all areas."

I knew I liked that teacher.

Friday, October 12, 2001

How far would you go?

How far would you go to help your special-needs child?

Most of us, I suspect, feel that we would go very far indeed. We fight hard for our children’s rights. We battle recalcitrant child study teams, inflexible specialists, balky insurance companies, insensitive people. We demand research, treatment, accommodation, understanding. We try out new treatments and ideas. We are zealous, and we are unwavering. We may feel there is nothing we wouldn’t do to save our children.

But would you create a new child specifically to save the child you have?

A British couple is in the news now for trying to do just that. Their son has a rare blood disease and needs a bone marrow transplant. Neither the parents nor their other children is a match, and so they wish to use in vitro fertilization techniques to create a number of embryos, screen each until a match is found, and then bear that child. The new baby’s umbilical cord would provide the bone marrow his or her older brother so desperately needs.

I can understand why, emotionally, people would want to do this. I know such things have been done before. And I do think you can love a child conceived under such circumstances just as well and as individually as you would any other. But the idea of engineering a child as yet another form of medical treatment is nonetheless troubling to me. And, as one who believes that life begins at conception, the thought of destroying those embryos that do not match breaks my heart -- is it alright to start and end many lives in order to save one? I imagine that may be a hearbreaking choice for the parents who have to make it, too.

Monday, October 08, 2001

In need of aide?

My daughter brought home her first big packet of tests from fourth grade last week. Her teacher sends them home on Thursdays, and through a conspiracy of no-school Thursdays last month, we wound up with about three weeks of work at once.

The good news is that most of the grades were fine. Spelling tests were all As, quizzes in math and science and social studies were Bs. So most of the day, she's holding her own.

The bad news is that she failed both of the reading comprehension tests with big, fat Fs.

This is bad news for a couple of reasons.

For one, she's supposed to have an instructional aide in her mainstream classroom for reading. The special-ed folks were sure she'd struggle without it. They feel strongly about the importance of self-esteem, and not waiting for a child to fail before giving help. They feel strongly about this, but not strongly enough to actually get somebody hired in time for the start of the school year. More than a month in, now, I'm still having trouble getting my phone calls returned when I call just to ask about the status of this phantom aide -- will we have her next week? Next month? Next year? While we wait, she piles up Fs.

It's also bad news because, truth be told, I never wanted her to have the aide in the first place. It was a compromise to avoid long hours in resource room. I was humoring the child study team, thinking: But she can do this without help. Why don't we let her try first? And here, now, the absence of the aide gives us the perfect chance to do that. I was all ready to cancel that phantom aide request and insist that, despite all their best instincts, we do wait and see if this student is going to fail before we assume that she is.

But before I can even draw that line in the sand, she's already failing. Just can't wait.

Now, my one hope here is that she's not failing alone. Oh, happy day, if the whole class is doing lousy! How fervently I wish failure on her peers. The reading series is a new one for the kids, the teachers, the district. The tests are wildly different than they have been in years past. No one is quite sure yet what to do with them. So maybe this is the fallout period, and there are many Fs, and my girl's mean no more than the next kid's. I'm waiting to get confirmation on that from the teacher, but she's not returning my notes.

I don't know about reading, but I'm going to have to be giving some folks Fs on communication.

Thursday, October 04, 2001

Bedtime boon

Bedtime just got a half-hour earlier at our house, and I couldn’t be more excited.

I know, as the kids get older, bedtime should be getting later; but by a stroke of great good fortune, we’ve been able to go backward instead. The catalyst for the change was my daughter’s endless whining about taking a bath or shower at night, when she was sooooo tiiiiiiired, don’t you know. So we made a deal: She could get up half an hour earlier and bathe in the morning, but in return she’d have to go to bed a half an hour earlier at night. So eager is she to put off washing as long as possible that she readily agreed.

Tasting an extra half-hour of evening freedom, I told my son that because it was so hard to wake him up in the morning, he had to go to bed earlier, too. He whined a little, but not much, and voila! -- bedtime was 9 p.m.

It’s only a half-hour, but what a difference it makes. I can watch “The West Wing” now. I have time to read the paper or make lunches or surf the Web for a while before settling down for a 10 p.m. show. I can fall asleep on the couch so much earlier than usual. And we all get going a little earlier in the morning, too. If my daughter gets her shower done quickly, she can start practicing her trombone at just the time her brother should be getting his butt out of bed. Wakes him right up, you bet.

Of course, the earlier bedtime does mean that we have to get homework done before 9 p.m., which has often been a struggle in the past. It also means that we have to get dinner on the table well before 9 p.m., which has often been a struggle, too. But with the right incentive, anything is possible. And I’m what you’d call motivated.

Wednesday, October 03, 2001

Red alert

Yesterday, there was a fire drill at my kids' school.

Now, straightaway, I'll say that I'm not nuts about fire drills. I want my kids to be safe, sure, and to know what to do in a crisis. But I also know that the mere sound of a fire drill creates a crisis right then and there for my sensory-integration-disordered boy. He doesn't have sensory defensiveness issues about much anymore, he can be near a working vacuum without melting down, he can go to a mall without being overwhelmed, he can be held without panicking -- but fire alarms and car alarms and ambulance sirens still put him on full hysteria alert. He covers his ears, his face screws up into pre-tear position, and he begs to get out of there.

Of course, at school, what follows a fire alarm is indeed getting out of there, but that hasty leaving of the classroom, standing outside for an indefinite period of time, then going back in and being expected to pick up right where you left off is also not tops in his emotional repertoire. In past years, a fire drill has been enough to launch him into disruptive behavior for the rest of the day. These days, I know his behavior's in better control, but this sort of thing still raises his stress level to the point of affecting his ability to focus and function.

Still, I suppose fire drills are a necessary evil, and as long as his teachers know to expect some repercussions, there's probably no major harm done.

But yesterday's fire drill was different.

For one thing, it involved every school in our city and the neighboring one -- elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, private and public schools alike.

For another thing, it lasted an hour and a half.

Driving past one of our middle schools while this was going on, I noticed K-9 Unit trucks from a neighboring county, and an officer with a dog heading toward the building. I immediately jumped to conclusions, and sure enough, the note that came home from the principal at the end of the day confirmed that there had been a bomb threat. Students had had to wait outside, further from the building than usual, while each building was checked and cleared. An individual had been apprehended for making the threats. I hope someone makes him just sit around and be bored for a long, long time.

I didn't get a chance to talk to my son's teacher yesterday to see how he weathered the most disruptive fire drill ever. He was a little jangled when he got home, but he's been worse. Maybe he is getting mature enough, or is in a special-ed class secure enough, that he can weather these storms without losing his way.

However, if they have many more emergency drills like this, I'm going to be in full hysteria alert.

Tuesday, October 02, 2001

Asthma inducers

Just in case we parents aren't feeling guilty enough, researchers have found something new to blame us for.

According to a new study from the National Jewish Medical and Research Center, as reported in October's Pediatrics, poor parenting skills in early infancy can lead to asthma as the child gets older.

Now, of course, the child has to be susceptible to asthma in the first place. But apprently the stress of being poorly parented is enough to tip the scales for many kids. The study followed 150 children who were at risk for asthma and found that those whose parents weren't coping well when they were three weeks old were more than twice as likely to develop asthma six or eight years later than babies whose parents parented perfectly.

Poor parenting was described as "inability to offer proper emotional care to children, due to inadequate support from a spouse, depression or other problems." Not to mention the pressure of a researcher looking over your shoulder and going, "Hmmm," and writing disapproving things on a notepad.

Personally, I think babies whose parents have it flawlessly together after only three weeks are at risk of being micromanaged throughout their childhood to such a painful degree that they will be glassy-eyed overachieving type-A Stepford Children by the time they're six or eight. But they'll be breathing freely.

At least the researchers have given us mothers a lifeline in all this. Gotta love that "inadequate support from a spouse." Forget blaming the parents: Clearly, it's all dad's fault.

Monday, October 01, 2001

What is war?

We were reading my daughter's story-of-the-week for school the other night, when the subject of war came up. The story made a fairly veiled reference to World War II, and my daughter wanted to know what a war was, and why it was, and were we going to have one now.

It was so much easier when she didn't actually pay attention to what she read.

It would have been nice if she had focused instead on the resonance the story had with her own personal life -- it was about a man who left his homeland of Japan and settled in the United States, just as she left her homeland of Russia -- but no, what she wanted to talk about was war. And so, like parents everywhere these days, I tried to answer her questions as honestly but as soothingly as possible, without transmitting my own doubt and fear and worry.

She didn't think that countries fighting each other was such a great idea, and didn't want something bad to happen now. I told her that our country tried to keep from fighting, but that the recent attacks were so bad that we had to do something. I told her the smartest people in our country were hard at work trying to figure out what to do. I hoped that was true.

I also told her that worrying didn't do much good; it couldn't change what would happen, and could only make us unhappy. Besides, worrying is my job. I don't know if that put her mind at ease. But I expect the immediate worries of fourth-grade life are a much more ever-present anxiety provoker than the very abstract concepts of war or terrorism.

I hope so, anyway. Fourth grade is scary enough.