This was really brought home to us by the differences we saw in Hallie's response to her school holiday party this year, relative to last. As I think I mentioned a few posts ago, last year we had to drag her kicking, screaming, and crying back to school on the evening of the party. Everything was a bit amiss that evening: Sharon picked her up from school instead of me; instead of getting out of the car at our house, I got into the car with Baby Lea (who was very much a baby at that stage) and a huge dish of macaroni and cheese and we headed back to school. We tried to explain to Hallie that there was a party at school and that we'd all be having dinner there (never much of a draw for Hallie) and that she'd see her friends and teachers and sing holiday songs. But Hallie was overwhelmed, in tears, and heard none of it. Once we got there, things were sort of okay but only just sort of: as expected, dinner was not much of a draw, and there was a lot of noise and general mayhem. Kids were racing around and playing with one another but Hallie couldn't make much sense of what was going on. She sat off to the side when the singing began (as she has done at pretty much every school performance up until just recently) and did not/could not engage with the other kids. We survived the evening but only just: our threshold for survival was low and basically entailed making it through without a major meltdown, Hallie vomiting, or Hallie running off through the church hall door when some unsuspecting parent opened it. It wasn't exactly a low-key, stress-free event and, needless to say, neither Sharon nor I networked or chatted with other parents (which is what parents do at such events). We kept an eye on Hallie, dealt with Lea who was a bit out of sorts in her own right, and were glad to just to escape unscathed.
Fast forward to this year: The YCCA had the good sense to break up the dinner/concert into two locations. The little kids would perform their songs first in the upstairs classroom and then eat. The older kids would perform an hour later in the big church hall in the middle of the pot-luck feast. There are only seven families (our own amongst them) who have kids both younger and older, and we were welcome to spend time at both events or either event as we wished.
We opted to head over to the little kid's concert first to hear Lea perform. Lea, like Hallie, enjoys music immensely and was the only kid in her group (which is the youngest) who participates regularly in sing-along activities. We knew she'd be psyched to be part of the group. Hallie also knows the younger kids (the YCCA is small--about 60 or 70 kids altogether--and while kids spend much of their time with their age cohort, they do mix it up with other age groups, especially when they have siblings at school, at various points during the day. This, plus the fact that Hallie is peer buddy to some of the younger kids in the inclusion program that she helps guide through activities, means that she is quite comfortable with a lot of the younger kids. So she was excited to partake in the little kids' performance, too.
The real surprise for us came when we went over to the main hall of the church for the big kids' party. In stark contrast to last year, Hallie ran in, saw all of her friends, and immediately ran off to join them.
She was an eager participant in the concert and sat right in the middle of all of the other kids:
And, while she wanted no part of eating dinner, she was far from alone in this respect. After all, it was much more fun to run around the table than to sit down at it:
I know that this video footage was a bit dark and noisy, but it did capture the atmosphere of the holiday party (in other words, mayhem) quite accurately.
So, unlike last year when the four of us were among the first to leave the shindig, this year we pretty much closed down the house. This suited Lea quite well: she spent much of the final half hour doing an impersonation of Cookie Monster (she went around grabbing cookies from all of the tables, and apparently eating most of them).
Towards the end of the evening, I stopped A., the preschool director, to let her know how grateful we were for everything. I explained that I meant more than just that the school's teachers and staff had organized such a lovely holiday gathering; rather, we were so thankful for the opportunity that she had given our family, and especially Hallie.
A. had allowed us to enroll Hallie outside of the usual waiting list back when we were having so many problems negotiating the agency that runs the preschool (3-5) program for Early Childhood Intervention in Philly. We were given such a huge runaround and no straight answers and the school in which the agency sought to place Hallie was so clearly inappropriate (and likely unsafe) for her. I blogged about all of this here and here. Anyway, even though she didn't really know us and she knew that she was taking on a fairly complicated little three year old who did not talk (Hallie was utterly silent at school for about the first four months), refused to eat, had trouble settling down to nap, was not toilet trained, and was about 30% behind an average kid her age (so closer to being just 2 than just 3), A. was happy to admit Hallie. It's not like the YCCA needed more kids to make the desired level of tuition receipts either; like most of the decent preschools in the area, the YCCA has a waiting list of children whose parents are eager to enroll them in the program. A. accepted Hallie because she is interested in providing opportunities for children who have special needs (A. has a Master's degree in Creative Arts Therapy and teaching degrees in Music and Special Education). Hallie certainly fit the bill.
Anyway, we were (and are) exceedingly grateful that A. decided to open the doors to the program to Hallie and I just wanted to let her know this.
What A. said in response to me really touched me deeply. She said, "If I were ever to have the opportunity to make a documentary about the school, I'd want to feature Hallie in it. I've never encountered a child who underwent such a big change in such a short period of time."
She went on to say that the entire system was ranged against Hallie and that the folks who were responsible for evaluating and placing her were quite happy to write her off as a child who would be forever excluded from regular general education. Everything they were pushing for suggested that they thought she'd be in a self-contained Special Education system for the balance of her school career. We were fighting this (and still are) but the reality was that we needed somewhere to place Hallie that did provide an inclusive environment and one where children with special needs were not just accepted or tolerated but actively included. We needed a school where the staff was trained to work with special needs children, where they taught other children to be buddies with kids who have special needs, and where the curriculum was eclectic enough to be individualized for kids (and not just kids with special needs, either; I think that everyone, special needs or otherwise, learns differently. A good teacher will be aware of the different ways children learn and a good curriculum will be flexible enough to be adapted to visual learners, auditory learners, etc).
That's where the YCCA came into things; Hallie has thrived there. She has gone from a silent, marginal child who watched from the sidelines even when she knew enough to participate to an active, engaged, child who initiates conversations and play with her peers and who is demonstrating real academic strengths that place her at the top of her class (her reading, spelling, counting, and analogizing skills are very obvious to everyone around her, especially her teachers).
A. believes that Hallie will be fine in a general education setting and that we no longer have nothing to worry about.
Of course we hope she is correct. Some days it seems to us that this is the direction in which Hallie is headed: she is eager to read and follows along with words (moving her fingers across the words and sounding things out) almost all of the time. She wants to know how to spell words she likes to use and, apparently, once she can identify a word, she never forgets what it looks like. She can pick out which shows she'd like to watch this way and even distinguish between various episodes of these. (Sadly, this means that she was able to catch me in my fib that our television does not receive Max and Ruby, which is a show that we have refused to let her watch too often because of her capacity to mimic Max's behavior and verbal patterns. The last time I tried this line, she helpfully pointed out that our Comcast On Demand list did, indeed, contain Max and Ruby). Hallie loves to learn stuff and I think this will take her quite far.
Still, we have concerns: her verbal/conversational skills lag far behind those of her peers. I am not a speech therapist (or any kind of therapist), but I'd guess that she's still dealing with about a 30% delay in this area (making her closer to an early 3 year old than a later 4 year old). Her interpersonal skills often seem less well developed than Lea's: Lea is quicker to empathize and comfort; more interested in taking care of others and meeting their needs, be it by ministering to her babies or bringing Hallie her slippers and toys; and Lea watches for your responses and tailors her own relative to these. Hallie does none of these things and still has pretty horrible eye contact most of the time. Lea also surpasses Hallie in terms of capacity for imaginative play. Lea stages elaborate scenarios with her babies (she dresses them, takes them to the playground, plays hide-and-seek with them, feeds them, gets them ready for bed, brings them toys and engages in play with them etc). Hallie sets up scenes: she often poses her plastic figures (she pairs off Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Tianna and other princesses with stand-ins for their respective Princes, for example) or she might line up all of her figures in front of the television (real or imagined) or stage for a puppet show, but she doesn't actually stage the show or have them do anything beyond this. Finally, lately, Hallie has been having a really hard time with being flexible. Things have to be played with a particular way. If they are not, Hallie tries to step in to right the wrong. Lea, her most frequent playmate, has her own ideas but Hallie seems not to realize this. Rather, she gets frustrated when Lea tries to do things in her own way and makes this very broadly known to us. While some of this is just run of the mill preschooler bossiness, my sense is that this is exacerbated by a deficit in Theory of Mind.
All of this points to a continued problem that Hallie is having in terms of social skills. But this will also get in the way of higher order learning down the road.
None of this is to say that the transformation that Hallie has undergone over the past year is anything but huge. A vast chasm separates where she was when she began school and where she is now. She has grown cognitively by leaps and bounds and she has given us no indication that she about to stop doing this. Still, we cannot help but worry what awaits us down the road, and more importantly, plan for how to take on Hallie's residual issues proactively so that we at least smooth them out even if we cannot make them go away entirely.