The summer vacation ended not too long ago and the new school year is already near the end of its second week. For our daughter, her first day signified a big change because she has just started a new school.
In the Netherlands, different systems of education are available to children without having to resort to placing children in often expensive private schools. A specific type of school is often chosen according to the type of personality parents have seen their children develop and/or the values and goals parents have in place for their children. However, as children get older and make their way through the first years of primary school, their learning style becomes apparent and it may turn out that the initial choice of school was not the right one.
Our daughter started her “scholastic career” in a school that aims to teach children who are brighter than your average bear. It seemed like a good fit for our daughter at first, not because we claim that she is some sort of rocket scientist but because the school’s approach was to teach all children at the same level, then offer the ones that needed some more instruction additional help, and offer the ones that were at the higher end of the intellectual spectrum a more intense treatment of the curriculum to hone their already impressive skills. It sounds wonderful in theory. It turned out differently in practice for our daughter.
Our little miss has a number of qualities that made it more and more obvious to us that the school in which we had initially enrolled her was not right for her, and so we have spent the last year and half first trying to see how we could offer additional support at home, then butting heads with school staff at various levels, while at home our daughter became more and more withdrawn and angry and sad.
So which qualities are we talking about that made her unfit for her old school? First, our daughter is a social animal: she loves helping out younger kids, working on projects together with others, and including as many children as possible at all times. Second, when she is bored or uninterested, she will not concentrate on the task at hand and become easily distracted. This is not surprising, after all: don’t we do the same (see many a set of doodle-infested meeting notes at work)? Third, she has a lot of energy, and needs to move regularly in order to expend some of it. Sitting still is not her strong suit. When she feels uncomfortable, she’ll fidget. She spent a lot of last year fidgeting. And fourth, she perceives and processes information differently from the way many schools teach: her learning style is visual/spatial, also known as visual learning, as opposed to verbal thinking, which is what the curriculum in regular schools is based on. (The term “visual thinking” was unknown to me until two of my friends enlightened me and a whole world opened up for me.)
All these traits together resulted in her becoming more and more miserable at her old school, because she had trouble grasping the material, focusing on her tasks and connecting to her classmates. She would often come home in tears, feeling like she was the only child in class who didn’t understand anything that was being taught. Her teachers and advisor, in turn, blamed this on her attitude. Perhaps we should have her tested, they suggested, probably angling for a diagnosis along the lines of ADHD, a “condition” that is not so much a condition as a collection of symptoms for which the underlying cause could be any number of things, among which, it would seem, forcing material into a child’s mind using a teaching style that does not match that child’s learning style.
We had, at this point, already made several attempts to explain our daughter’s learning style, but a parent’s observation, it seems, is not enough, primarily because it does not result in additional funding, which in turn is required to create the space for an adapted approach. And that’s perfectly acceptable, just as it should be perfectly acceptable that we will not place an arbitrary psychological label on a perfectly healthy child in order to facilitate a school that is simply not a good fit for our child, something that an educator should be in a position to assess. We ourselves even tried to find various root causes, even going so far as to have her eyes checked when she complained about what turned out to be stress headaches.
During one meeting, we asked her teachers point blank: do you honestly believe that this is the right school for our girl? Well, they said, other schools aren’t much different, so really, it was fine. (In retrospect, apparently those involved feel this new school will be a much better fit for her.)
Well, it was not fine, and after a year of watching my daughter break herself in half to fit an impossible mould, we knew it was time to make a change because she was stressed beyond belief, miserable and bleeding self-confidence with every day she attended. By now, it had become abundantly clear to us that it made no sense to force a child with such a strongly visually oriented mind into the standard educational system with its straightforward, result-oriented, verbal teaching methods: set tasks to be performed over a continuous period of time, very little opportunities for creative expression, and sadly often large and noisy classrooms.
At this point, I should stress that these are good, hard-working, well-intentioned, dedicated teachers, and the type of education they offer works very well for many children. The disillusionment on my part comes from what I now perceive as either unwillingness or inability to acknowledge that the school was unable to offer what was needed.
Fortunately, as I mentioned earlier, there were options, and in our search for a better alternative we found ourselves at a Montessori school in our district for a hastily arranged introductory visit, because time was running out as the school year was quickly drawing to a close and finding a different school had now become crucial for our daughter’s emotional wellbeing. We sat in the principal’s office and explained to her how our girl thinks and which methods of explanation work best for her – we had spent a lot of time at home offering her alternative approaches to the material she was grappling with at her old school and found that simply showing how things work her using tangible materials worked very well for her; in doing so, we found that once she understood the material she learned very quickly indeed. The principal heard us out, smiled and nodded, and told us that such visual methods are precisely the methods they apply in their school. Other features: one-on-one explanation of the materials, which should ensure a much greater chance of ascertaining true comprehension on the part of the student; the ability to complete elements of the curriculum at your own pace (no more endless repetition of things you already know just because that’s what the set curriculum dictates at that time, or speeding past what you don’t yet fully understand, causing gaps in comprehension); working together with other classmates on tasks, such as language comprehension (social-educational engagement and being able to work together).
That meeting with the principal left me almost in tears of gratitude. Here, it seemed, was a place where our daughter could be herself and thrive under the guidance of a team of educators who approached children as children, stimulating their natural curiosity and eagerness to explore to cultivate an intrinsic motivation to learn. And we were not crazy, none of us: not our daughter, who had gotten lost in a system that was simply all wrong for her, and not us, for feeling that there must be a better way to learn.
Now, there is no more dragging our child out the door kicking and screaming because she doesn’t want to go, no more school-induced stomach aches. Our miss has loved her first week at her new school. First impressions of her teachers are that she is diligent, concentrated and enthusiastic, an outgoing child who connects well with her classmates.
It’s early days yet, but it feels like a very good start. It seems we’ve made the right decision.