Sunday, 7 December 2014

Supposing He's Been Barked At By His School

What's worrying me is the sheer number of children being diagnosed with various forms of autism (and ADHD too, but I'm looking at autism here). While I'm not for a moment suggesting that these conditions don't exist, I am left wondering how many children are 'diagnosed' when actually their behaviour might simply be down to them being barked at by the school.

If a 4-year-old child is barked at by a big dog, the child is likely to be afraid of dogs and we, as parents, will tell people 'oh, a big dog barked at him/her and now he/she is afraid of dogs.' Whoever we tell this to will accept this as being the reason the child doesn't want to pet their dog. No problem.

This child has experienced some level of trauma because of what happened and this will probably mean that the child is wary of this dog and possibly most other dogs they meet and the child's behaviour when confronted by a dog might involve crying, running away, hiding behind a parent etc. as they try to protect themselves from the dog.

All quite natural and easily explained.

We might even try to calm the child and will likely demonstrate that this dog won't hurt anyone by reaching out to the dog and allowing it to sniff us. Perhaps we'll even give the child some tips on dealing with dogs (bend down to them so they don't jump - hold out the hand you don't write with etc.) and maybe we'll explain why they get so excited and barky (they're pleased to see us and just want to say hello).

If we're ready to accept that a child can be afraid of dogs because of a single bad experience with one dog, why do we have so much trouble understanding that a child starting a new school might be frightened by it and that this fear might cause a child to behave differently?

My son started school aged 4 years and 3 months. He went from a quiet, gentle home consisting of me and him (plus our non-barky dog) to a room full of noisy children that he didn't know, where he had to compete for the attention of the teaching staff as well as competing academically against all the other children.

Why are we surprised that he didn't cope well with this?

Hasn't the school just barked at him? In fact, over the period of four years when he was at school, I suspect it barked, growled and jumped up at him every single day.

It seems to me that schools are very quick to blame the child for any usual behaviour. It must be a problem with the child - never a problem with the behaviour of the institution or the people within the institution. And yet our schools are getting bigger and perhaps scarier. The amount of space they occupy isn't necessarily changing, but the numbers of classrooms and children are increasing dramatically. When I was a kid, our school playground had just the juniors in - four classes of around 30 children. So that's 120 children. My son's junior school had 360 children. The infant school when I was a child had just 90 children in it. Thomas's one has 270 in the playground at lunchtime.

In short, we have busier, noisier, scarier playgrounds than ever before. Might this be one reason why we have so many children struggling?

It's Lord of the Flies out there. Very few dinner ladies out patrolling and absolutely nothing being done to help the children who are struggling to find someone to play with.

I think my son's been barked at. He was fine before he went to school. The little boy I removed from school was far from fine though and I don't think it really has anything to do with him. I think he was simply a very young child who was ill-equipped to deal with such an enormous change and his way of dealing with it was to shut down. Perhaps if he'd started school when he was 6 or 7, he'd have dealt with it differently. Perhaps, had the school been smaller and more gentle, he'd have survived the experience. Or perhaps he'd have managed the change better if the teaching staff recognised and effectively reacted to seeing a child in a lot of distress. Who knows. Thankfully, he's very much better now and I almost have the boy back that I had before school was in the picture.

He's not the only one to have been frightened by school. Now I've been barked at by schools too. I trusted them to look after my little boy. I trusted the system and the institutions and the professionals that operate within the system. But I don't any more and it'll be a long time before I get over the trauma I've experienced. If I feel like this, goodness knows how my son feels.

I wonder how many other people have experienced something similar. I wonder how many other perfectly normal (whatever that maybe) children have been labelled to protect the system and to explain away their suffering. Something's really wrong. I'm sure it wasn't like this back in the day.