Sunday, September 9, 2012

Education For The Learning

I'm easily shocked at times. I open the newspaper, I read articles about child abuse, the mentally ill, the shortcomings in our education system, and I feel things along the lines of torment and anguish. But it doesn't stop there. It actually goes on, manifesting itself in a dozen minor ways. Maybe in a dozen major ways, if you're one who believes in the magnitude of advocacy, of standing up to make sure that your voice can be heard over all the loud chatter and backtalk.
For years, I've been investigating the atrocities that are taking place in our schools each and every day. I've been sending letters to our Presidents, our Senators, and our Congressman, pleading for them to be the change they so vehemently declare they are. But words are useless. We need Action. For what can mere words really do, when so many mentally-challenged students are struggling to keep up in an education system that is unapologetically incongruent to their ways of thinking and learning?
For the past 50 years, ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) has been increasing among our schoolchildren. In fact, 12 percent of today's school-aged children are affected by it, which is up from 3-5 percent in 1998. That can only mean that we are lacking in solutions to this problem. Or perhaps it means that we are not taking the time to implement these solutions.
When a child with ADHD is confined to a regular classroom, with no special guidance or attention, it's unbelievably troubling. Not only is it difficult for them to keep up, but the amount of mental frustration they experience is immeasurable. So many teachers are not equipped to handle these children. They don't understand the disorder, nor do they have the desire to. With this lack of empathy, they cause even more destruction in the children's lives, punishing them for falling asleep or not paying attention, when the children have no control over these things whatsoever.
To be punished as the result of a painful handicap is blatantly unfair to and disconcerting for the child. So many of us wonder why the drop-out rate is so high. We wonder why our kids are turning to drugs. Stealing. Killing. We think, in many cases, "kids will be kids," then we turn our backs and look the other way. We yell at them to do better, to make us proud one of these days, to stop playing so many video games. As if tossing out the old X-Box will focus their attention on the classroom.
In some cases, there are children who do lean too heavily on television and video games, pushing aside their homework with a shrug of their shoulders. This is something that parents have the ability to keep an eye on and control. However, students spend the majority of their time at school, and the classroom not only has a huge impact on their day-to-day lives, but also on the ways in which they will eventually function as adults in the so-called "real world." And if education cannot equip each and every one of them with something as basic as functionality, what is school really doing for our children?
You may wonder why this hits such a personal nerve with me. This is why: I have been blessed with eleven beautiful grandchildren. Two of them have been diagnosed with ADHD, two others with panic disorder and agoraphobia. The battle that they have to endure during each day of class breaks my heart. When they return from school, I see the relief on their faces, the gratitude of finally coming home and ducking away from the judgments of their teachers, and in some cases, even their fellow students. I also see the depression in their eyes. I ask them how their day was, and they reply that it was "okay," but I know that the matter goes much deeper - painfully deeper - than that.
Back in 2001, one of my grandsons suffered a mental breakdown in his middle school classroom. I took him to see a psychiatrist at the Child Guidance Center. We discovered that he was suffering from severe Depression and Phobic Anxiety. He was very unhappy in his new Mainstream Literature class and couldn't face the ongoing judgments and name-calling that his classmates were dishing out. He would come home from school despondent, refusing to eat. He would just crawl into bed and sleep until the next day. He started to wear a blanket over his head, refusing to take it off, fearful that he was ugly to everybody. (All the name-calling in school had lead him to this conclusion.) He even started having nightmares about being at school. And then there were the voices in his head; voices that spoke in loud, sharp tones, criticizing him and debilitating his sense of self. It was eating away at him. And me, as well.
I was determined to get him the help that he needed. I pleaded with the Individualized Education Program (I.E.P.) at school, telling them that the Mainstream Literature class was ruining my grandson's life. They heeded my words and removed him right away. This actually relieved a lot of his torment, but then all the Phobic Anxiety and Depression seeped right back into his life again, as forcefully as it had before.
Trips to the Psychiatrist became frequent.
Resperial and Paxil were prescribed to bring some sense of balance into my grandson's life. He ultimately had to be pulled out of school. I promised him that he would be home-schooled until he was successfully treated, which I assured him would be soon.
The most disheartening thing about this situation, aside from my grandson's mental condition, was the obvious lack of attention shown by the teachers and I.E.P. Team. When he transferred back to high school in California, the school was given all the proper materials to fully prepare themselves for my grandson's condition. I made sure to give them access to all his medical reports, which clearly noted his learning disabilities. I even made sure to enclose a letter from his previous teacher, who wrote of his difficulty in regular classes and his need for special attention. All of this obviously went "in one ear and out the other." Perhaps they didn't even bother to look at a single piece of documentation?
I wonder, of course, whether my grandson's condition wouldn't have worsened so rapidly if the teachers had given him the attention that he needed. Unfortunately, the disorders would still be there, but if they weren't exacerbated by all the neglect, it is likely that he would've been able to function at a higher capacity.
There are a handful of things that can be done so that children and their parents (and don't forget their grandparents) don't have to live with this gnawing frustration. The most obvious one is to create special classes for students with learning disabilities. These classes would be run by specially-trained teachers who would give them all the care and guidance that they need. Also, the classes would be smaller. The pace would be slower. The punishments would be a thing of the past. Children would actually have an opportunity to learn, and finally feel a sense of self-worth, a sense that somebody was giving them the time that they so desperately need.
To be sure, a huge budget is required to implement a plan of this nature. It's no small task. So let's talk baby-steps. Let's make sure that teachers don't receive their credentials unless they're armed with training that prepares them to teach learning-disabled children. Every time a student with A.D.H.D. comes into a classroom, let's see to it that the teachers are alerted to the special situation at hand. Maybe that way, kids like my grandson, who had a mental breakdown and was diagnosed with schizophrenia, won't feel ashamed and angry at themselves for not being able to learn in school.
Patience and understanding are important factors on the road to making these children feel centered. Teachers, principals, school boards - they all need to put one foot forward and make the choice to care and look out for each and every student that we entrust them with. And this does not simply apply to children with learning disabilities.
I remember reading a news article a while ago about a 13-year-old student, in Southern California, who ended up collapsing and dying on campus one day. Somebody called 911, and within five minutes, the paramedics were on the scene. Disturbingly enough, when they got there, they noticed dozens of students and school officials, standing around, not doing a single thing to help the girl. In fact, she was still facedown on the ground when they found her. Nobody made an effort to turn her over and revive her. Upon assessing the student, the two paramedics found that she had no pulse and was not breathing.
Now, I would like to believe that the entire student body's lack of participation in this unfortunate circumstance had to do with the fact that they were not acquainted with any life-saving techniques, which left them feeling unequipped to help her. Even if this is true, though, it alarms me that not one person stepped in to try and revive this girl, even without the proper knowledge. Sometimes care, concern, and fortitude can take the place of technique. Something as simple as human compassion can often yield major results.
I recall reading about another tragedy. This one happened back in 1999. After overexerting herself during a high school physical education class, a 14-year-old girl died from an asthma attack. The substitute teacher in charge denied her request for permission to stop running, even after her breathing became labored. The girl's friends noticed that her lips were turning purple. But the student did as she was told, and kept on running. A little while later, during her next class, she became so ill that she passed out, only to die after 20 minutes.
Apparently, the girl's family had provided the school with all the pertinent medical forms, which fully explained her breathing problems. They did everything right, yet still, their daughter was forced to run much longer than her lungs could possibly endure.
Her normal physical education teacher was aware of her problem and gave her the special attention that she needed, excusing her from class whenever she had any difficulty breathing. So why did the school not make the substitute aware of her condition?
On top of all this, even after the girl passed out, nobody in the classroom tried any CPR or life-saving techniques while awaiting the paramedics. CPR is a basic skill that our school officials should really emphasize. Shouldn't we feel confident and secure when we send our children off to school? Shouldn't we be allowed to go about our days, comforted by the fact that they are in good hands?
I also have three daughters with learning disabilities. Neglected in the classroom, they developed severe panic disorder. One was even diagnosed with agoraphobia. As a result of this, two of them were left unable to work or drive.
It's hard to put your child onto that bus every morning and have to worry about the potential negative encounters they will have to deal with throughout the day. In the beginning, when I didn't understand their disorders as much, I practiced politeness and passivity. I gently asked questions, trying to encourage the teachers and my children to meet each other halfway, not wanting to upset anybody in the process.
As I got more involved and came to learn more about their learning disabilities, I hit the ground running and never looked back. I attended all the school meetings and made certain that my voice was heard, loud and clear. I sent out letters every week, passionate letters, written to inspire immediacy and resourcefulness. I made time for my children and my grandchildren, always giving them the attention that they needed, knowing how important it was for them to feel wanted and safe. If they weren't feeling those things at school, I would see to it that they felt them at home. My late husband and I always made sure that they had everything they needed, and that they could express what was inside them and not have to worry about judgment.