Sunday, January 5, 2014

Third Grade Grades...and Tests

So, here's the short story.  E is mainstreamed in school, and is doing well (I think, anyway).  Jason and I were most worried about her social integration and psychological well-being.  Her academics seemed to be coming along fine.  Once her language emerged (age 2.5 years, before that she was essentially mute and we used sign language) things started to fall into place--she could talk to her peers, reading came easily, as well as counting and simple number play.

Surprisingly--and to our great relief--the staff and students at school have been very welcoming, and as far as Jason and I can tell, Elena's social development is going very well.  When I visit school, she is smiling, playing with her classmates, and running and keeping up as best she can at recess.  It makes me want to cry, it makes me so happy.

Her grades (if you can call them grades, right now they are numbers) are good.  It is obvious she has some difficulties in math.  We have a private tutor that she loves.

Third grade has more standardized tests than any other grade in public school (I think this is right; I may need to check).  Part of it is beta-testing for future students, part of it is getting kids used to tests, part of it is the government issued mandate.  Personally, I do not have a problem with standardized tests--I understand that there needs to be a way for teachers to evaluate and report what their students know.  Most teachers I know do not like standardized tests--but what is the alternative?  Teachers are expected to do so much already, how can society expect them to find a test that "works" on an individual basis?  And with what "spare" time?

That being said, Elena had her first mid year tests.  She bombed them. 

The first problem was...well, she had a complete, full-on meltdown at the beginning of the first test.  Crying, moaning, disrupting every other student, inconsolable.  I don't know why, either.  I know it isn't pressure from Jason and I, because neither of us were aware that the test was even happening (we probably should have) and any other test she's done well or okay on, and we get the results late anyway.   I wasn't there, but I know how it goes--we had this during our nighttime issues.  I got a call from the teacher--and the principal.

My guess is that is her reaction when she is overwhelmed, and doesn't have a coping mechanism to calm down.  At home, we have completely tamed this beast at night (and almost any other time) but our go-to is disengagement (Ferber method) over time--and we rarely have to do that any more.  Regardless, that simply won't work in school, and won't work for tests in general.

As for that test on the first day, she started it late, and was allowed to do it on paper (it was a math test) instead of the computer.  (I understand that the computer element can increase the difficulty for a lot of kids).  The second day (language arts), she had another meltdown (maybe not as bad?) but they had her in a room by herself and one teacher.  That teacher is on her IEP team, and got a little information out of her (see later in the post).

I'm not upset about the tests.  I am super upset about her emotional state of mind and her disruption of other students.  The principal, her teacher, and others on her team and I have spoken about what to do next.  The first thing that came to mind was special accommodations--which I am not immediately a fan of, since I feel this is more of a lifelong skill of emotional management, or the hope that more exposure to tests will lesson her extreme response.  I am not against accommodations (written vs. computer, extra time, individual or smaller group testing sessions, etc.) in general--but I only want them if Elena actually needs them.  To quote the principal, no one wants to "over-accommodate her" but all of us want her (and the rest of the students) to be in the right environment to do their best.

So we start the process to figure out exactly what that means.

For some reason, one which I have never seen myself or even heard about until the teacher/principal phonecalls, Elena is panicked about tests.  We've talked about it at home, but I don't have a clue why she's so worried about it.  I feel like if she could find a way to calm down, have confidence in herself, and cut herself a break, she would do fine.  Is she that worried about disappointing us?  I certainly hope not!

So, here is what I learned (in no particular order):

1.  She knows she didn't do well on the two tests.  She also knows we're not mad at the grades (we are upset at her behavior).  She knows she needs to change her behavior and that we are willing to help/support her (as are her educators).

2.  She knows she'll probably have after-school help (tutors) to figure out how to improve her performance.  This is actually a huge bonus, b/c they will also help/guide with homework, which means she'll have MORE free time at home b/c she drags her feet doing it until the last minute.  She does not seem upset about this.

3.  She also knows I'm not going to shove tutors in her face at every opportunity.  Elena needs outlets that are just fun.

4.  The goal of initiative comes into play here--not speed, but the idea of starting on time.  Finding less distraction, and a focus on the start (maybe we'll need focus in the middle and end, but the start is what I'm looking for here).  Elena is getting the idea that she is accountable for this.

5.  Elena needs to advocate for herself.  She was prompted with "are you uncomfortable?" and she answered "my legs hurt if I sit too long" WHICH IS THE FIRST TIME I HAVE EVER HEARD THIS IN HER ENTIRE LIFE, except right after surgery.  I was shocked to the core--mostly b/c IF this is true, it needs to be changed immediately, and if she was just using it as an excuse, completely unacceptable.  She is learning, especially in a testing environment (but in school in general) that if she needs something to be more successful, she may (or she should) ask about it--because other people can't read her mind.

6.  If I was still working, I would have not responded to this as quickly.  I think Elena needs me.  I want to be that positive force for her, to support her when she needs it.


Meadow said...

Ugh, initiative/avoidance is SUCH a huge problem for us. We can spend so much time on homework every evening, and so often it seems like Peyton spends so much time distracted or delaying that it would only take minutes if she could just get right down to work.

When you say you will have afterschool tutors, do you mean you are doing that privately? Peyton qualified for extended school year (ESY) last year (between Kindergarten and 1st grade), but at 2.5 hours 3 days per week for 3 weeks, it seemed like it was more of a waste of time than anything else. We hired a private tutor who helped SO much, but it was a significant chunk of change for us. I have heard through the grapevine that the school wants us to tutor her again this summer, and I'm wondering if I have any standing to ask them to help us with any of the cost/materials or anything, at least the portion that she would spend in ESY. I'm not sure how to find out more about this.

Anonymous said...

Is the test timed? That could be the problem. Deadlines freaked me out. I have spastic CP like Elena and the sitting and stress during testing made my spasticity go through the roof and it can hurt badly. I would work on stress management with her. Maybe she doesn't want to disappoint her teacher? Or is afraid kids will make fun of her if she fails?? Computers were easier for me for tests. Elena is young and maybe she just realized her legs hurt when she sits. I am in my 20s and it still takes me a while to understand what activates the CP symptoms and how to fix/improve said symptom. Teach her how to make connections with her body.

Anonymous said...

What you're calling a "meltdown" sounds a lot like a panic attack to me, having experienced them over various things for many years. If that's the case--and I'm aware I'm just some random voice on the Internet, and it could very well be a lot of other things--it may not be a particularly rational set of concerns going on with her. She may not be able to articulate what, exactly, about tests scares her, no matter how hard she tries--not because she's young, but because there's nothing concrete about them that she can identify as a problem. Obviously if there IS a concrete fear or problem you should address it in some way (even if it's as simple as a "that isn't going to happen and you don't need to be afraid of that" and leaving it there). I just want to put out there that it may not be the case.

Anxiety will cause a lot of physical symptoms, too. Those physical symptoms help feed panic attacks--you don't understand what's happening to you, it hurts, you can't breathe, it's scary in itself on top of whatever else you're afraid of! In addition, just the tendency for anxiety to tense up your muscles in combination with the CP is probably pretty unpleasant for her.

If it's panic attacks, then once you hit a particular point, you just kind of have to ride it out--though I did learn to do that in a private and quiet way--and the goal is to realize what's happening to you and take steps to make it not happen. There's a point where the fear stops being "about" something and it's just a cycle of terror that has to burn itself out. What you want to do, ideally, is not hit that point.

The key for me was understanding what was happening to me--I'm getting anxious, if there are physical symptoms, that's what's causing them, and I need to do something to ground myself and resist the urge to feed the fear. What helps me is to sort of shift into observing myself physically and focus on that instead of the swirling mass of fear in my head. That kind of focus on the body is something you've been teaching Elena to do anyway, so I bet she'll be better at it than I was starting out!

For tests specifically, since real life isn't going to wait for you to sort out everything else, Elena may not know what to expect physically out of a lengthy standardized test, in terms of what she will have to do with her body and for how long, and how that will make her feel. Doing a dry run with timings as similar as you can make them will help her get a feel for that. Maybe she can color instead of taking a fake test to make it more appealing.

Anyway, this comment has dragged on way too long for a random voice on the Internet who doesn't actually know your child, so I'll stop.

Anonymous said...

In response to thé last comment some people with issues like CP are more prone to anxiety and panic attacks and emotional outbursts which may or may not be linked to the brain damage itself. If she was able to work through her bedtime outbursts she will likely learn to deal with this. btw I remember you saying in a really old post that Elena would choose to sit on the floor rather than a desk when her class had the ability to choose where to sit. That could have been a sign of her sitting discomfort. Sitting in AFOs can also be uncomfortable for some people for long periods.

EmilyBright1979 said...

I've never commented before, but as an adult with mild/moderate CP that sounds very similar to E, I was always given extra time on tests, and often my own testing space. In my day, all tests were on paper, but writing was not efficient for me, and the goal was (and still is) to conserve as much energy as possible. In middle school, I even took my tests verbally one on one with my teacher. I wish I had known then what I have learned about energy conservation as an adult.

Danielle said...

I experienced the same kind of test anxiety as Elena, at exactly her age. it was just the unfamiliarity of a testing situation, coupled with MY OWN fear of performing poorly, and compounded by CP: I knew I was slow because I was ALWAYS the last one finished written work.

But I got used to it, and grade four did not melt anymore. It was partly getting used to what a test situation is all about, and partly that in grade four they introduced the idea of studying. That was huge.

I did indeed need extra time for the reading / writing involved, but once I knew what material would be covered, and felt a deeoer sense of agency, my emotional coping steadily improved.

This is not a huge crisis. Only a matter of time and practice. I am confident in that, because despite being much less mobile and having poor vision than Elena, I have survived an Honors Psychology degree (complete with beastly stats exams), and the Law School Admission Test.

The LSAT is particulary scary, and high stakes exam (obviously) even though I was granted 50% less time than I actually need (1.5X instead of 2X), and had to guess tons, I still scored 154 of 180.

I think it's useful to think of this as a starting point in her educational journey, and know that she will move beyond it, as she has in every other challenging situation.

Anonymous said...

I am back in night school now and my usual spasticity during school has returned right on cue. Sitting in a metal chair makes my legs VERY hypertonic(this could be what causes Elena's pain in her legs. It feels disgusting) and it really hurts my back but when I switched to a patted seat the spasticity wasn't bad at all. Getting a nice comfortable cushioned chair will likely help Elena score higher because she will be more relaxed like I am in the new chair.