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Saturday, April 23, 2011

Playtime Progress and Kindergarten Angst

There are several major picture posts that chronicle the past five months (!!!) of our kids' lives in preparation (as in:  I finally managed to download pics and videos to my computer and will at some point soon organize them).  But in the meantime, you will just have to put up with my random thoughts about current events/developments and our upcoming educational endeavors/stressors.

Hallie has made truly amazing progress over the past year, and especially over the past three months.  Here are a few of the great things that are happening for her developmentally:

1.  Pretend Play:  A year ago, Hallie's pretend play skills were at best rudimentary.   At most, she acted out scripted routines that were familiar (so she did things like re-enact fairy tales like the "Three Little Pigs" or "Goldilocks and the Three Bears").  While Hallie still enjoys a good fairy tale or classic story (in addition to the aforementioned, "Jack and the Beanstalk," "Peter Pan" and lots of lots of stories related to princesses are a big draw for her), Hallie has developed the skills she needs to develop her own stories, put on plays, etc.
And since dressing up is so much fun, the entire family has decided to get in on it.  Here's a picture from a Purim party that we attended at the home of Eran, who is one of the girls' school buddies and regular playdaters, and another cute one of "Peter Pan" smiling (since Lea was looking away or frowning in all of the group shots we took).

Back to Hallie:  She's not just doing pretend play with her body and a bunch of costumes but also with small figures (people, animals, etc).  In the old days, Hallie used to line up her toys or perhaps arrange them in some activity (so they might all be lining up to get on the school bus, or surrounding the TV watching a show, or something of that nature).

The configurations and arrangements were extremely precise and she was none too pleased if you disturbed them. 

These days, Hallie's play skills have moved so far beyond this stage.  She's now having the little figures talk, walk, interact with one another, and act out realistic scenarios.  From my eavesdropping in on her play, it's clear that she's playing out the scenarios that matter to her and her life in the process.  Her little figures are having trouble sharing their toys, but when one does decide to share with another, a third will chime in with praise.  If they don't share, the characters might have angry words with one another and they sometimes end up in time out (she has threatened her doll house baby, who may be named "Bunny" and the little girl who inhabits the same structure with banishment to the High Chair (the unfortunate location of her own time outs now that she no longer eats in one) for misbehaving or having accidents.   Her little people go to school, play in playgrounds, go swimming and have a nicely well rounded existence.  Just like Hallie's.

Hallie initiates a lot of this play and doesn't just follow along with others when they are playing in this way.  The other night, Hallie got out the pretend food, took orders from us, and she and Lea served up slices of cake ("gumdrops or strawberries?"), pizza (She had a few slices of plain but was happy to accommodate our request for pepperoni, mushroom, or spicy--which is how she thought of the pepper rings).  She was also very happy to make us triple-decker sandwiches if we were not in the mood for pizza.

Interestingly (and not at all surprising, really), our play space (which still remains cluttered despite repeated attempts at culling and organizing toys) is not nearly as much of a disaster zone anymore.  Less stuff comes out and that which is on the ground experiences more intense, robust play.  And both kids seem much more able and willing to help clean up when they are done.

What's nice is that Hallie is testing out all sorts of emotions in this play.  It used to be that there were no badly behaved or angry characters; the big bad wolf would quickly be recuperated into a positive figure by Little Red Riding Hood or the Three Pigs or whoever because any other alternative seemed too dangerous to Hallie to be tenable.   Now Hallie explores the dark side; there are fire-breathing dragons and scary monsters along with all the helpful snakes and friendly dinosaurs.   Characters can have trouble sharing or get into conflicts and Hallie can devise strategies to resolve problems.  All of this suggests that Hallie is filling in of some of the pieces that had been developmentally missing (or misplaced).  We credit Floortime/DIR with a lot of this progress.  Hallie and her therapist (and Sharon, who takes Hallie to Floortime) have been working with Hallie on exploring and figuring out how to handle uncomfortable, scary, and difficult emotions.  Hallie's progress has gotten even quicker now that she's been attending structured play dates with peers (her psychologist hosts these three times a month) in addition to her regular weekly Floortime session, we've seen amazing things happen vis-a-vis Hallie's play skills.

Hallie isn't just doing all of this stuff at home; she is also initiating play with her peers much more consistently at school.  Her conversations with peers are still more rudimentary than typical 4.5 year old kids but she has branched significantly beyond the social greeting stage.  And she's no longer just playing intensely physical games (lots of running, chasing, duck-duck-goosing sorts of things) with them; now there's more sophisticated, quieter, and smaller-scale play going on.

We saw all of this come together at a play date at our house the other week.  One of the other little girls whom Hallie plays with a lot at school came over for a few hours on Wednesday (my day at home with both kids).  I did little to no hovering or structuring of play.  Rather, Hallie and B. ran upstairs, did some dress up stuff, came down and made puppets and put on a puppet show, and ate lunch (Hallie actually ate more, and more willingly than her friend did, amazingly enough).  At one point Hallie wanted to continue to horse around and chase B., but B. told Hallie that she wanted to do something else.  Instead of letting B. go off and play on her own or act out in some other way, Hallie turned to B. and said, "That's a GREAT idea!  Let's do "x"!" (whatever it was that B. chose to do).   I have to say that I was completely impressed with Hallie and was thrilled that it went so well.  I think that over time the sort of shock (good kind of shock, obviously) that I feel when things go so well will dissipate, but meanwhile, it's nice to have such pleasant surprises.  They also serve as good reminders to never underestimate Hallie.

2.  Social Skills. These overlap with and go hand-in-hand with Hallie's new found play skills.  Indeed, I am now a firm believer in why play is such important work for kids:  it's where they get to develop and act out the "stuff" that they need to interact with the human world around them.  Hallie is much more conscious of other people and other peoples' feelings and very quick to help if something is wrong, someone gets hurt, etc.  She also exchanges more language that is directed at 'social niceties' (she's long been a polite kid whose speech is peppered with 'pleases' and 'thank yous' but she has elaborated on this a lot and can hold basic social exchanges (things like--"How are you?" "I feel fine!" type of stuff that is the cement of daily life exchanges).  She also does more 'small talk' with peers and is initiating a lot of it.

Hallie still has some major issues with eye contact and responding when asked a question (even if she hears you, it looks like she is ignoring you).  Since people like to be acknowledged and it can be quite off-putting if the person whom they are addressing doesn't look up at them, says nothing in response to a question (let alone a statement) and sometimes just walks away when being spoken to, I am trying to work with Hallie on just looking up and acknowledging the person who is addressing her.  This is very much a work in progress but I am hoping that I manage to train her to do this by the time kindergarten rolls around.

3.  Academic skills.  These are Hallie's strong point.  I'm not an early childhood specialist by any stretch of the imagination, but it seems to me that Hallie's math skills are pretty age appropriate for a 4.5 year old:  she has long been able to count objects but is beginning to get the notion of addition when provided with a visual aid, knows what halves and wholes are and the like.  She's great at pattern recognition (remember, she was a champion sorter-by-color-and-shape before she was age 2).  I don't think she's a math whiz; she's just keeping up with her peers quite nicely.  And that's perfectly fine with me.

Where Hallie really blows us away is in terms of her ability to read.  We knew a year ago that she had a lot of sight words and could spell them as well as recognize them.  About six months ago we sensed that the words she recognized included many atypical ones (multi-syllabic, long words that are not hugely common).  What has become clear over the past two months is that she is reading fluidly at what I imagine is somewhere around the end of the first grade level.  When she encounters long words, she sounds them out phonically.  She makes educated guesses by filling in syllables in longer words quickly but in cases where she misreads the word, will happily stop and sound out the word and get it right the second time  (so, for example, the other day she encountered the word "character."  She initially read it as "creature" (which made sense from the context of the sentence); I stopped her and told her that this was a good guess but not the correct word.  She looked at the word, sounded it out (understanding intuitively the 'ch' blend) and read it correctly the second time.    Reading in this manner, Hallie has gotten through entire books at one sitting and is equally happy reading the unfamiliar as she is the familiar.

It's clear to us that Hallie understands what she's reading, too.  She does a good job of narrative retelling (even with her pragmatic language delay), happily answers questions about the content of her books (several years of speech therapy will really hone those skills!) and asks us for clarification when something isn't familiar.  She also responds emotionally to books (getting scared when something bad happens, happy when something good happens, etc).

We love it that Hallie will often come home, pick up a recent favorite book, and just start reading.  And apparently she is having a positive influence on Lea, too, who now does the same thing (including narrative retelling of the story based on the pictures she sees; to our knowledge Lea does not yet recognize letters and/or words).

Reading opens up the world and this is a great thing.  Apropos of this, here's a recent funny Hallie story:  For whatever reason, Hallie has always been fond of China.  We suspect a lot of this has to do with Hallie's love of panda bears, on the one hand, and her Nick, Jr. shows on the other (and most specifically Ni Hao, Kai Lan!, courtesy of which she has learned a couple dozen Chinese words as well as a smattering of cultural practices like dumpling eating on Chinese New Year; given that I will buy Hallie any kind of food she requests, she actually had me out purchasing New Years dumplings this year--which she refused to eat, of course.  So her "Chinese" food consumption is sadly still limited to fortune cookies.  Anyway, I digress.)

At school, a couple of months ago the kids were doing a unit on the world and on travel.  One of Hallie's teachers asked the members of the pre-K class where they had been.  Hallie said that she had been to China.  Hallie's teacher and aide checked with us, and we replied that she had not, in fact, been to China.  (Sadly, Hallie is not well traveled; she has been to New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Maryland and Washington, D.C.).

Apparently this was not just a random comment.  Hallie really wants to travel to China.  She is convinced that this is the only place that she can see panda bears (I hate to break it to her but my suggestion of the zoo will probably yield more in the way of panda bear watching than hanging out in Beijing will).  So Hallie was very very thrilled to read the bottom of one of her rubber ducks (we own a vast collection of these) the other day:  Hallie excitedly pointed to the raised letters and said, "Mama!  I got this in CHINA!"  I wasn't quite sure how to break it to her that most of the stuff we own at this point is likely made in China, but I thought that her comment was awfully cute.

Hallie is also doing a much better job in terms of writing and drawing than she used to.  She still has exceedingly weak fingers and this makes grasping a writing implement with a proper tripod grasp very hard work for her.  When she gets tired she'll revert back to bad grasps.  But her tripod is firmer than it used to be and she is drawing letters pretty appropriately (both in terms of how she produces them and in terms of drawing ones that are smaller and more uniform in size).  She loves to write words and has pretty good spelling for a not-quite-five-year-old.  I suspect she'd be writing even more if it weren't such hard work though.

Hallie does have some difficulty copying out images, though.  We need to keep an eye on this.  This first came up at her last Developmental Pediatrics appointment where she was administered the Beery-Buktenica Developmental Test of Visual/Motor Integration. Hallie was able to copy lines and crosses and circles pretty accurately but had much more difficulty copying more complicated shapes and configurations of lines.  She would often get the number of lines correct but not their spatial placement.  This is curious given how strong of a visual learner she is and how acute her visual memory seems to be.   The big question that Sharon and I had was whether this was related to a VMI deficit or her fine motor skill delay.  But it's definitely something we should monitor and address therapeutically if it turns out to be a real issue.

The other concern that we still have in terms of academics is Hallie's issues with attention.  We raised these at our last Developmental Pediatrics visit (which was about a month ago) and right now we are in a wait-and-see mode.  Given how much progress we've seen this year in terms of Hallie's behavior and learning and gap-closing, it seems to make sense to give her time to mature a bit more.  Great social maturity might even out some of the problems we are seeing with attention.  If not, we can take the next step.  Our first recourse would not be medication; not only would this exacerbate her eating issues but it also might make her focus too much on some of the stuff that detracts from her social skills/communication.  There are plenty of strategies for enhancing her attention that we can try before we get to meds (things like providing her with her own copy of a book when teachers are reading out loud to seating her close to the teacher to minimizing classroom distractions etc).

The attention issue is a big one since it really ties into some of our concerns about school.  In the best of all worlds, we would be able to place Hallie in a school that has small class sizes (12-14 would be ideal), a rigorous academic curriculum, and the potential for supports should she need them.  The only problem is that the first two characteristics are ones that you can more or less find at good quality private schools and the last is one that you can find in the public school system (because of the IDEA, which is the law that covers disabled students).  So there's an obvious disconnect here that will be difficult to bridge.

A year ago (or even six months ago), we probably would never have even considered the private school option for Hallie.  Her support needs seemed so great (we were thinking that she'd need intensive speech, OT, possibly PT, definitely a one-on-one aide).  So the only real option seemed to be moving out to one of the better suburbs on the Mainline that has a school system that supports higher functioning kids on the spectrum (or at least support them right now, since these things change and not always for the better).  Both of us are a bit uncomfortable with the notion of leaving the city; there are plenty of negative things about raising kids in an urban environment (no big back yards for swing sets and lack of space more generally, which is probably evident in every picture we take, is the obvious drawback), but there are lots of really good things about raising kids in a big city:  they become more savvy, world-wise, and edgy (in lots of positive ways), are more open to diversity and appreciating difference.  The cultural opportunities in a city are vast (not just formal stuff, like being able to easily and quickly get to the Franklin Institute or Philadelphia Museum of Art, but also informal ones that allow me to 'teach on the street' and use the neighborhood as a classroom).  And even though the suburb we would choose were we to choose a suburb is close to the city (about twenty minutes by commuter train or car from Center City), the honest truth is that we would probably rarely make it in to Philly. 

Anyway, we are not taking a move to the suburbs off the table, but we are beginning to explore other options.  The director of Hallie's kindergarten (who knows Hallie very well and has observed how much she has changed over the two years she has been at the YCCA) thinks that Hallie would be a very good fit for one of the private Quaker schools in Philly and so we will be exploring that option quite seriously.  Other than the staggering cost (we would need financial aid were we to go this route, unless we chose the one Friends school where tuition is accessible to the middle and lower classes), both Sharon and I very much like this idea.  The class sizes are small, the academics are rigorous and highly structured, and Hallie will probably be among other kids whose parents value education and where hopefully she will blend in with other academically advanced but socially awkward kids.  As a professor, I am more than slightly concerned with the ridiculously standardized testing-oriented environment that now prevails in public schools and would like to avoid this if at all humanly possible (not to go too far off on a tangent, but this form of education seems to train children to be seek 'right' answers rather than real problem-solving skills; teaches the creativity and curiosity out of them and replaces it with an emphasis on rote responses; devalues critical reading, thinking and writing; and is a big part of what is wrong with our education system.  Since so much rests on the results of these tests, teachers are no longer able to teach and instead train students to take tests.  See this interesting article for more about what is wrong about the Pennsylvania system).  Private school students are not subject to the same volume of standardized tests as their public school (or charter school) peers and this is a good thing.

So we will check out the private school option for kindergarten.  Since Hallie already reads fluently and is doing age-appropriate math, even if it turns out that she cannot handle a small environment with few supports, we'll learn this early on and at a point where the experiment will not pose a major impediment to her future academic goals.

We will also explore the public school and charter school options in the area.  I have interviews and open house dates set up at several and intend to set up one-on-one meetings with the principals at the schools that seem like good fits for Hallie.  Should we decide that the Friends schools are not for her, or should she not get into one of them, or should we not be able to afford the tuition, we obviously need alternatives.  And it would be nice for her to be able to go to school with some of her friends from preschool (most of the kids with whom she goes to school now live in our neighborhood and will be attending one of the public or charter schools in Center City or Queen Village/Bella Vista.  Alas, we will not send her to the school for which we are zoned for all sorts of reasons so we will have to get an out-of-catchment transfer, which is not an easy thing to do, or win the lottery for a much-coveted slot in a charter school, which is even harder to do).

And, finally, we will be touring the schools in the close-in suburb that I referenced above and interviewing their principals.

Nothing is off the table.  And the one thing that is always on the table around here is the concept of 'paying it forward.'  Sharon and I are quite nervous about the idea (and reality) of private school tuition (and what it will mean in real terms not only for the household budget but also for college savings).  But if there is one thing we've learned in raising Hallie is that it is essential to pay it forward.  The fact that we've been doing an enormous amount of work with her now -- all of the therapies, all of the over-scheduling, etc -- has really paid off.   Floortime emphasizes a developmental approach; the whole principle behind it is that one must build a strong foundation before moving on to higher intellectual and academic skills.  (Here is a very eloquent formulation of the Floortime/DIR philosophy).

I think these ideas could be generalized quite nicely to the K-12 setting; building a solid academic foundation (paying it forward in school) will enable Hallie to learn anywhere (well, almost anywhere).  It will instill in our kids a life-long love of learning, foster their intellectual curiosity, and give them the critical skills that will enable them to take charge of their education (something that is sadly missing among many of the college students whom I encounter; this is very disturbing to me.  When I started teaching 15 years ago, many more of my students possessed much more in the way of intellectual curiosity than my current students.  And it's not that my students today are worse, in objective terms--whatever those may be--than the ones I had back in the day.  If anything, their test scores are often higher than those of their predecessors.  It's just that they don't appear to be learning as much in high school as they used to.)

Anyway, even if we have an idea of what we want, whether we will find it for Hallie (and Lea, down the road) remains a huge question mark.  And this keeps me up at night a lot right now.  And if this is how I feel about kindergarten, how bad is it going to be when our kids are ready to apply to college?  I can't even think about that right now!


Sarah M. said...

Glad to hear she's making so much progress!!

I totally and completely understand the kindergarten angst. We have been really going back and forth through all our options this past year. This week we finally made a decision and enrolled Sydney in a "young 5's" program at a Methodist church around the corner from us, for next fall. Not quite preschool, not quite kindergarten, not *too* religious. It felt perfect when I toured it. So it takes care of the problem for next year. No idea what we're doing the year after that though...

I don't even want to think about college!

Addey said...

Our son is not special needs in any way, and not quite 3 and we're already thinking the same thoughts. We (I) are very interested and excited about the Friends school where we live. We went on a tour there and I fell in love with it and our son seemed very comfortable. I love their "why" approach to learning as that's what I was lucky enough to have in early elementary at a charter type school in Kansas.

I totally agree that even if we can only afford to send him to private school for a few years, the foundation he will get there will make it more than worth it and help him wherever he goes the rest of his life.