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I’m Sierra. I live in the Boston area with my family.

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The 3rd Grade Situation

by Sierra on September 17, 2012 · 13 comments

in Uncategorized

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.

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  • Meagan

    I think you’re wise to let her have a say in where she ends up. I was a bit older when school tanked for me, and I’m sure my parents agonized over their eventual decision of forcing me to stick it out. I understand their choice, as an adult I can even possibly agree with it, but it turned into 10 years of depression for me, and I never let them know. I felt so entirely powerless over my own life. I’m sure theres no magic solution for Rio, but I’ll bet just having a say in her path will make a huge huge difference, whichever direction she goes.


    Sierra Reply:

    Thank you for this perspective. I worry a lot over how much agency to give her in big decisions. I hope I’m getting the balance right.


  • http://www.mutantsupermodel.com/ Mutant Supermodel

    My gut, for whatever it’s worth, says to leave her for the school year. I think that the benefits of getting through this transition can be huge. You know, big changes are really really scary but they are inevitable in life. You are never too young, or too old, to learn to cope with them gracefully. It’s still really really really early. Kids take a long time to acclimate to new school environments. My kids’ school attracts a lot of new, foreign students. At the beginning of the year, I hardly hear about them but towards the middle, end of the year, they are part of the pack. Besides, it will help the family come together. She will survive this decision and I don’t think will be traumatized by it because you’re there with her all the way. It’d be a whole different thing if it was more like you were abandoning her to deal with it alone.
    As for her say vs your say in education? Well considering that I was COMPLETELY against the all girls high school my parents wanted me to go to and it turned out to be the best thing i could have done educationally, I lean more towards letting the parents have most if not all the say. 


    Sierra Reply:

    Thanks for your perspective!


  • None

    This child can learn skills to help her adapt to the new social environment she’s in.  I hope you’ll consider therapy for her that could help her learn these skills.  Perhaps a child’s version of cognitive behavioral therapy.


    Sierra Reply:

    Thanks for this perspective. I’ll certainly consider therapy for her if this becomes an ongoing issue.


  • Anastasia Tircuit

    I don’t have kids, and it’s hard for me to imagine what I would do if I were in your situation. What I do know is exactly what it feels like to be miserable in school. I’ve been there. Right around Rio’s age. And my parents didn’t listen. I think toughing it out taught me some useful life skills, but I also believe that I could have learned those skills without being miserable.

    Whatever resolution you come to about school, I hope it is one Rio feels good about! 


  • Sandra

    My heart goes out to you guys.  Transitions suck, you can grow, but you don’t want to be scarred.  I remember Kaia saying that EPCS was “not real school”.  I guess it was fun and a really safe place, not like her school now, and not like Rio’s.  
    Rio is really lucky to have a family like yours, who is flexible enough to even listen and consider the other options.  That support is invaluable, but it doesn’t make it any easier to know which way to go.  I hope things are sorting themselves out and you can see which direction is best to go.  A skype date???!!! 
    Remember, Rio is a flexible and social girl.  It is just overwhelming.  Good luck.


    Sierra Reply:

    Thank you so much for this note. We’d love to have a Skype date with you guys.
    Rio is making this transition; I need to post an update about how things are going. It remains complicated, but she’s clearly up to the challenge, whichever way we decide to go with it.


  • Rosie

    Hey looks like my comment didn’t go through. You should get in touch with my  friend Kiwi (Kelly Taylor) at P&C. -Rosie


    Sierra Reply:

    Hi Rosie, Thanks for the tip. I’ve talked with her and we’re going to see P&C later this week.
    FWIW, I moderate comments and don’t always get to them quickly; sorry yours fell through the cracks.


    Rosie Reply:

    Ah, sorry I thought it was a browser problem. Didn’t mean to spam ya! Have fun at P&C. I think you’ll really like talking with Kiwi.


    Sierra Reply:


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