So Serena is having a blissful start to her public school career, going to the progressive neighborhood school several of her friends attend. It’s a little over a mile from our house, and we’ve been biking there which all the kids love.
We decided on this school over the charter school because of the social piece of having this circle of friends in one school together, and because we liked the welcoming vibe of the school. We see some of our best friends every morning at drop off and each afternoon at pickup. It’s pretty magical.
For everyone except Rio.
Rio is having an incredibly difficult transition into this new school. She’s totally overwhelmed and unhappy.
While Serena has the benefit of a literal walled garden separating the kindergarten from the rest of the school, Rio has to run the gauntlet of middle schoolers to get to her class each morning. Once she gets there, everything is wrong.
Rio is the only new kid in her class, and is having a hard time connecting to her classmates – she feels they’re all great kids but as a group they’re loud and unruly and hard to relate to.
Her teacher is brand-new, and he’s enthusiastic, kind and flexible, but he’s never had to do this before and doesn’t have a lot of strategies to offer Rio that could make things easier.
The biggest problem, though, seems to be how overwhelmed she is by the noise and size of the school. She spent her first morning of school crying in the principal’s office because the cafeteria was just too much. The second day I had to pick her up in tears at lunchtime because she was too upset to stay.
Since then she’s reliably made it through the day, but she’s tearful and clingy on both ends of the schoolday. It hasn’t gotten worse, but it’s not getting better either. The situation seems to be stabilizing at something she can tolerate and cope with but finds painful. That’s not how I want my kid to spend most of her waking hours.
It’s not what she wants either.
What she wants is to homeschool. She’s been saying so very clearly for nearly two weeks now, every chance she gets to anyone who will listen.
I’ve always told her that she can homeschool if she wants to, but she’s never shown any real interest in it. We talked about it some last spring, when we were choosing a new school for her, but she’s such a social learner it seemed clear we should default to a school environment for her.
This is different. Just like when she rejected homeschooling and asked to go to kindergarten, I feel like I’m speaking with the Adult Inside when we talk about this.
When I ask her what she thinks homeschooling will be like, she has a pretty good idea. At least as good an idea as I have. We’ve done some brainstorming about what a homeschooling day would look like for us, and she was great at coming up with ways for us to structure our time and stay on track with learning. She has a good sense of what she needs to be learning, and is excited about academic work in any setting.
She’s clear that it’s not a magic bullet: she knows she likes structure and to spend most of the day with her peers, and that she would get less of those things as a homeschooler. We’ve talked about other options, like sending her to a different public school. We’ve talked about what could happen to make this school more awesome (not a lot, from her perspective).
For now, I’m contracting with her to keep going to school for short periods. We’ve agreed that she’ll go the rest of this week. I’m hoping, actually, that she will finish out the month. When I started this process, I thought that if she just gave it a chance, the school would sell itself: she’d start to make friends, and develop a sense of place, and become less overwhelmed. That hasn’t so much happened.
So now I’m working as hard as I can in two directions at once: I’m supporting her ability to thrive in her new school, and I’m preparing to homeschool her. I’m hoping that in a week or two it will be clear which of those paths we should continue down.
To support her at school, I’m biking to school with her as often as possible (she loves biking, and this gets her day off to a great start!). I’m doing homework with her in the evenings, and making that a fun bonding time for us. I reached out to some parents at the school, and they put me in touch with a mom from her class who offered to have Rio over for a playdate so she could start building a closer friendship with at least one of her classmates; we did that over the weekend and it was great. I met with her teacher early on to let him know how knew this environment is to her, and I’ll probably meet with him again this week to talk more about how she’s doing from his perspective.
To prepare to homeschool I’m reading up on how to get started homeschooling, talking to other families who homeschool or have in the past, and starting to put together a plan for what it would look like for us: what math curriculum would we use? what classes or social events could we join? I’m especially excited about Parts & Crafts Center for Semi-Conducted Learning, which seems a lot like the vision I had four years ago for a homeschooling collective. I’ve arranged to go visit them later this week.
I don’t know what the right thing for Rio is at this stage. I feel like this is one of the rare moments in my parenting where a single decision actually carries a lot of weight. Most of the time, if I screw something up, I have another chance to do it different/better/again a few hours or days later.
This one counts. The choices we make as a family in the next few weeks will determine where and how Rio learns, at least for the next year. They’ll shape my relationship with her in important ways, too. Right now, she’s unhappy at school, but she’s not acting out at school or at home. She completely trusts me and her dad to listen to her, respond to her and respect her. She’s in a rough situation, but she doesn’t feel trapped. She knows we’ll help her deal with it.
I want to be worthy of that trust, but I don’t know how best to guide her. Help her adapt to the rigors of a public school environment, and teach her to expand her windows of tolerance for stimulation & experience? Support her agency in knowing that this isn’t the right environment for her and help her create a homeschooling year that will work for both of us?
Right now, I’m chasing both of those butterflies. I don’t see homeschooling as a last resort or leaving school as a failure, but I don’t want to pull her out of school in a crisis. I’d like to make a calm reasoned decision about this.
Which is hard when my baby is in pain, especially when her pain echoes my own childhood wounds. I know from painful experience that sometimes having a bad time at school is not a useful growth experience. Sometimes it’s just bad for you, and leaves scars you’ll still be talking about in therapy 20 years later.
On the other hand, I know transitions can be hard, and I’m still holding out hope that with the right kind of support, Rio will adapt and thrive in this new environment. I want to give that a chance to happen, but I don’t want to stretch it out too long if it’s really not the right place for her. Sometimes the right thing to do with a challenging environment is to learn new skills and find your place in it. Sometimes the right thing is to get yourself out. I want to help her learn to identify which is which and make good decisions about these things.
Ultimately, I don’t care if she goes to school or not. I just want her to be happy, healthy and learning the things she needs to know in a way that works for her.
So that’s third grade so far. With the possible exception of her sister’s birth and our move, this has been the has been the hardest week of this kid’s life. She’s managed it with more grace and maturity than I could have expected, but it’s been draining for all of us.
Send hugs. Also possibly a pony. A magic pony who teaches 3rd grade.