Child Left Behind – My son fell apart in a stressful school environment

It was homework time in my house one evening last fall. I called my son into the living room. He stormed in demanding popcorn. I told him, “No, not until you do your homework.” Why did I say that? He began screaming that he hated me. He had started telling me he hated me every time things didn’t go his way.

For months, homework had been a daily conflict. This time, I lost it. I screamed, “I hate you too! You’re not my son! Why are you treating me so bad? Why do you hate me so much? Where is my good little boy that I remember?”

Now I was crying: “Please, Xavier, please just tell me what I’m doing so wrong. I clothe you, feed you, love you, play with you. Why don’t you love me? I’m your mom.”

He stared at me awkwardly. Then he screamed, “I DO love you but I HATE homework! And I hate when you say no.”

Honestly, I was still screaming, but I told him, “Xavier, hate is a big word. Let’s make it smaller.”

He screamed, “NO! We can’t make it smaller! My homework is too hard. And I want popcorn.”

Small, Powerless, Frustrated, Furious

Somehow, I calmed down. I sat down and started to do his homework. I put all the wrong answers in, tricking him. He looked at me, confused, like I was stupid. “Mom, you’re doing it wrong.”

Calmly and playfully now, I said, “No, I know how to do this homework” (still doing it wrong). So he snatched the paper and began showing me how to do it. I gave him popcorn as a reward.

That was an evening with a good ending. But many evenings we were just too frustrated and I wrote on his paper, “Xavier refused to do his homework.” Day after day, Xavier also was getting into trouble at school. He was running in the halls, hiding under desks. He was not allowed to go on field trips. He hated school and he was learning nothing. At home, he screamed at me and made me feel as small, powerless, frustrated and furious as he felt all day.

A Growing Problem

At age 4, Xavier entered special education because of a speech impairment. He stuttered and only I could understand him. Soon Xavier also developed a behavior problem. In kindergarten, he began to have extreme outbursts in class, yelling and screaming when he didn’t get what he wanted.

At home, I had trouble disciplining him. Xavier had been in foster care for three years, living with my grandmother. I was afraid that if a neighbor heard him screaming, he could end up in foster care again, so I gave him whatever he wanted.

For a while, Xavier was difficult in school but manageable at home. Things got worse when he entered second grade and he had homework every night. It was nearly impossible to get him to do his work. My mom, my little brother, or I would sit with him to do his homework.

Then his teacher wrote on his homework sheet: “Must do independently and parent can just check it.” That night, I sat him down at 5 p.m. and checked on him, but by 9:30 he had just scribbled random boxes and drawings. He kept saying, “I need your help, Mommy.” Sadly, I just told him, “You can do it, Xavier,” but he didn’t.

Furious with the School

The next day I was furious with Xavier’s teachers for insisting that he do his work with no help. At the very least, I felt he needed my support to refocus him. I went to a meeting at the school and they told me they were doing the best they could with Xavier. I told them I disagreed.

The teachers said, “You know Xavier has a behavior problem in class, right Ms. Footman? You do know that Xavier has a problem focusing and paying attention?”

Like a true mother I said, “You guys do know he’s in special ed, right? You do know that it’s your job to deal with children like this, or to let me know that you can’t so I can put him in another school, right?”

At that point, I suggested a smaller class setting. (Xavier’s class had 24 students with two teachers.) His assistant principal said, “Oh, I don’t think Xavier needs that. Don’t worry, we’ll use a new plan and he’ll come around.”

Looking for Help

The plan was that I would give Xavier only 30 minutes to do his homework, and if he didn’t I would just write that down. The school would reward Xavier with computer time or a chance to visit one of his old classrooms every time he had good behavior or completed work.

At first, the plan worked a tiny bit. But soon we were back to homework conflicts nearly every night. He also became more violent towards other students during the school day. I tried putting him in the corner and taking away things he liked, or even giving him what he wanted in exchange for good behavior. But Xavier’s behavior and my stress just escalated.

The school told me to get Xavier therapy. I found a therapist for him at a community clinic recommended by the school. She said Xavier had Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Oppositional Defiance Disorder. She told me that Xavier is incapable of thinking before he acts or speaks, but she didn’t seem to be able to help change that. The therapist said he might need a more experienced therapist or even a therapeutic school or hospitalization.

Back to Childhood

By this time, I was overwhelmed. When I was growing up, I lived with my grandmother—my mother’s mother—and she used to bash me constantly, telling me that she hated me, that I was the b-word, that I would grow up to be nothing. She made me feel worthless.

As an adult, I created a shield to protect me from her words. Even though I need her to babysit my son sometimes, I use coping skills like staying for away from her most of the time, keeping our interactions to a minimum, and ignoring her rude comments.

But when Xavier started saying those same terrible things to me—that he hated me and that I was a bad mom—his words kicked up old feelings. I began been feeling worthless.

I had worked so hard to get Xavier home from foster care, but his words even began making me wonder if someone else could raise him better than I could. I was getting depressed.

Learning My Son’s Rights

Luckily, around that time, I went to two workshops—one put on by the Board of Education and NYC Children’s Services (ACS), the city child welfare agency, and another by Advocates for Children, a legal organization focused on special education. I learned that I could request a “crisis management paraprofessional” for my son, and that there are extra classes for children with learning disabilities, called SETSS.

With that new information, I went to his school and asked the assistant principal if she could help me get a crisis management para and place my son in SETSS. She said she didn’t know about that kind of para, and didn’t think my son qualified for SETSS because his IEP only documented his speech disability. It dawned on me then that she might not have a clue about all the supports available for my child. I would have to do most of the footwork myself.

I was upset to know that someone who had said to me “Ms. Footman, we are doing everything in our power to make sure Xavier gets the best help available” didn’t even know what services might be available. But I also felt energized. I asked in writing for a new IEP.

At the IEP meeting, the psychologists told me that he didn’t think Xavier needed a paraprofessional. But he added SETSS to his IEP, along with counseling and speech therapy, and changed his disability from “speech only” to a learning disability.

A ‘Very Disrespectful’ Mother

At the meeting, I asked the assistant principal, “Why didn’t anyone realize that my son needed these services? If I never pushed the issue he would never have gotten the help he needs.” I was pissed.

They said to me, “Oh, Ms. Footman, just be happy that he’s receiving the services now.” Boy was I frustrated. In a very stern tone I said to the assistant principal, “You are extremely incompetent and have no clue what your job is about.”

Later that night I sent the assistant principal an email telling him that I wanted a weekly update on how my son was doing with his SETSS classes. The next day I was CC’d on an email to the principal where the assistant principal wrote: “This mother was very disrespectful and verbally abusive in the IEP meeting and I no longer want to deal with her, and all at the meeting will agree.”

Out of Control

Despite all of my efforts and the new services, Xavier only became more disrespectful in school and at home that spring. The school was calling to say that Xavier had hit a 4th grader, spit in a kid’s face, hit students and was defiant to teachers. I was upset and scared for Xavier, but when the school called I just laughed bitterly and said, “Didn’t I ask for a crisis para to prevent these things?”

At home, Xavier was staying up all night and getting into serious trouble—stopping up the toilet and sink, ripping the screens out of the window, peeing in the closet, and telling his little sister to do the same wrong things he was doing. Even his therapist did not know what to do.

Finally, A Change

Finally, in the fall, I was able to get my son transferred to another public school—the school where my daughter was in pre-K. It’s been six months now. The difference in Xavier’s behavior at school and at home has been unbelievable. I’ve been able to see how a child can thrive with the right support.

On the first day Xavier was shy and a little standoffish but that quickly changed when we met the special education director. Her heels clicked, clicked down the hall and her smile lit up the hallway as she walked right up to Xavier, hugged him and said, “You’re so handsome! Nice to meet you.” He smiled but didn’t speak. She read over his IEP while still holding Xavier’s hand, and she asked me my concerns and opinion. I told her, and she decided to place him that very day in a class with 11 kids, a teacher and a para.

Also perfect was that he had a young male teacher who was way down to earth. The teacher asked me about my concerns and wanted me to tell him all about Xavier’s past school experience so he would know how to approach Xavier.

The para was an older black woman that reminded me of my grandmother’s no nonsense attitude but with more love, concern and compassion. Every day at pick up time the para would hug Xavier. He started looking forward to the hugs.

Loving Staff

At pickup, the teacher and the para would say good things about Xavier out loud so he could hear it and he would blush. Also, if Xavier had trouble focusing that day, the teacher would whisper it to me so Xavier couldn’t hear every word and feel like crap. Even so, the very worst thing he did in that class was lose focus. The school made it nearly impossible for him to get frustrated, so he wasn’t acting out.

Then Xavier started extra math tutoring every morning. It was one-on-one. He was extremely happy. He really liked being alone with the teacher and being the center of attention. The tutor gave Xavier prizes when he completed his work, and when I dropped him off in the morning she made sure she told me about his progress. I saw math improvement by about the third session.

Impossible to Be Frustrated

As Xavier began to learn more easily, he became more confident. He became proud of what he was doing and wanted to his teachers and me to see that he could do it.

As time passed, he started bringing his positive energy home, too. When I’d picked him up at the school bus from his old school, he would get off with a frown, looking defeated. Now he was running to me.

At home, Xavier and I are having fewer conflicts. He is less frustrated by his homework so I no longer have to beg and bribe him to do it. He is calmer with his little sister and me. He’s started helping out with things, like taking out the trash or cleaning up his room, or just fixing the collar on his little sister’s shirt. If I’d asked him to do these little things before, it would’ve driven him crazy.

On the Honor Roll

Xavier needed to be treated like Xavier in order to survive and thrive at school. He couldn’t just be treated like another cookie cutout in a classroom full of kids. He needed love and understanding from the school staff. I only wish I’d known this right from kindergarten. Then I could have fixed the problem sooner.

Still, seeing that I did the footwork to get my son where he belongs has made me feel worth something, hopeful and confident, too. I’m being a good mother by not standing by and letting my son suffer.

Last week Xavier made it on the honor roll. When the teacher invited me to the honor ceremony, I thought, “I wonder if Xavier’s going to be on the honor roll for fastest runner in gym or great painter.” When the teacher called his name and said, “You’re on the honor roll for math,” I just cried. I really overreacted. I was overwhelmed with happiness. I feel like I’m getting my son back.