Yesterday R walked with his sped teacher from the school lobby, down the first hallway, and around the corner to the hall where his classroom is located. This is huge. His school ST and OT were there, and everyone in the front office- the principal, the school secretary, and the school nurse- came out to watch and congratulate him and us. R does not even start school for another 6 weeks. Let me explain.
R has extreme anxiety in unfamiliar places, and I use the word unfamiliar loosely here. We generally have to visit a place several times per week for several weeks in order to acclimate him to it and put it on the “familiar” list of places that he tolerates. During those first weeks, he will scream and cry, melting down the entire time. He does not calm down after a certain amount of time passes. Having favorite foods, toys, or activities at the unfamiliar location does nothing to reduce the difficulty. He will still need weeks of regular practice exposing himself to the environment, no matter how many of his favorite things are there. If we go less than twice per week he never adjusts at all. Often, places that started out with weeks or months of meltdowns go on to become favorite destinations once he has adjusted. We knew that school would be no exception, in fact, school would be harder because it is such a large place. He has to adjust individually to each part of the school, both outside and inside, and each hallway or room he needs to be able to enter. So when school started for my older two children in September, I opted to drop them off and pick them up each day so that I could take R along and give him regular exposure to, at the very least, the outside area of the school grounds. This was still 5 months before he would start school himself.
At first he would burst into tears as soon as we parked. He would not walk, so I would carry him, as he cried, from the car to the drop off point, or, after school, from the car to the pick up point. As weeks passed, the crying lessened and he began walking on his own while holding my hand. At this point one of his therapists suggested I request permission to begin walking him into the school, and, ideally, work on walking him down the hall toward the preschool classrooms. I asked the special education liaison, who told me I had to ask the school principal. The principal agreed, but said that legally I could only go as far as the entry lobby unescorted, so she asked that we work on that for now, and see what we can do once he has mastered that area. I agreed readily, because that alone would take a month or more. So every day we walked to the drop off point at the bottom of the school steps, I said goodbye to my older children, and then walked up the steps, into the school, and worked on taking steps closer to the hallway he would eventually need to travel down. At first he screamed. I was embarrassed because I didn’t know if the principal had explained what we were doing to the front office staff– the front office adjoins the lobby to the right of the school entrance. But I pushed the embarrassment aside and focused on R, because if we could do this it would have a huge payoff once it was time for him to start school. I would open the door, take just one step in with him screaming, then I would immediately praise him, turn around and take him right out. The screaming faded to fussing, and I gradually added 2 steps, then 3, then 4. Soon he was no longer fussing until the moment we stepped just a little too far out of his established comfort zone.
His IEP meeting was scheduled for 2 months before his 3rd birthday. Two weeks before that, the school conducted his evaluations. At that point he was comfortable in the school lobby, which we had been practicing, and the cafeteria, which was where we went every afternoon for parent-pick-up to get my older two kids. The evaluations required us to visit one of the preschool classrooms however, and that was way beyond R’s comfort zone. I had warned the team ahead of time, but I don’t think they understood how bad it would be. After an hour of screaming and crying they agreed to conduct the evaluations at my home instead. When the day of our IEP meeting arrived, we candidly discussed how crucial it would be to accommodate R’s transition needs. They had all seen first hand what it is like when he has to enter an unfamiliar environment. The team offered that the special education teacher (for the self-contained classroom he will be placed in) could begin meeting us at the lobby and work on taking him down the halls and to his classroom over the next two months. Other team members chimed in that once he was accustomed to the sped teacher, they would like to begin joining him as well so that he can get to know them before his official start date. We were very excited and grateful for their willingness to do this. The sped teacher met us the very next morning.
For the last 4 weeks we have met each morning. The teacher made R a book with large pictures of each part of the school he will travel, in chronological order, pictures of his classroom, and pictures of herself and his school therapists. She opens the door for us, greeting R warmly, crouching down at his level, and works on helping him take a few more steps each week. We decided to introduce a treat to make it more positive and enticing. R loves chocolate chip cookies, so I baked dozens of mini, bite-sized cookies and put them in a container for his teacher to keep at school. After he takes his steps, a little further each time, he gets his cookie, as well as plenty of praise and encouragement. This last week he has really begun to gain some comfort and confidence walking down that first hallway. Realizing that he can walk again and get another cookie if he likes, he has started walking down the hallway with his teacher 2 or 3 times each morning before we say goodbye and head home. We have gone from spending about 3 minutes there each morning, to spending a solid 15 minutes. Last week his school OT and ST began joining us as well. He has had a few weeks to get to know the sped teacher, and they felt it was a good time to introduce some new faces.
And that brings us to yesterday, the first day that he completed the entire length of that first hallway, an enormous grin on his face and a bounce in his step. I thought he would stop there, but to everyone’s delighted astonishment, when his teacher scooted around the corner a few steps he took the plunge and followed her around that corner, and out of sight of me, the lobby, and the exit (which he normally makes a point of checking visually for security). There were misty eyes all around, and at that point we had gathered a crowd. The school nurse squeezed my arm and said “it’s like he’s a totally different child than we used to see!” And I was just so happy that they were all getting to see the child I see every day. The sweet, happy, cheerful little boy with huge dimples and an infectious laugh.
This was huge. Yesterday was huge. I am so proud of R. He is so brave, and I love watching him meet these challenges and defeat them. There aren’t really words for how proud I am of R. But you know what else is huge? This school. This group of people going above and beyond to support a child that is not even their responsibility for another month+. The special ed teacher and therapists are investing over an hour per week now working with R. They have taken time outside of that to make him a picture book, to email me and consult with some of our other therapists to better prepare his program for when he starts. We owe the principal great thanks for allowing us to do this at all. We are also thankful to the front office staff for their kindness, tolerance, and support, instead of thinking of us as an annoyance. Every way you look at it, this is huge. And we are just so grateful.