Last year, when we moved my 10-year-old out of public school and into a private school that would help him with his learning issues, social skills, and anxiety, we knew it was the right move for him.
This year, he started school with no hesitation. He was happy to return to his routine and start fifth grade. The second week of school he got into my car clutching a “Code of Conduct” book they had given the students that day. As we pulled out of the parking lot, his voice started to quiver.
“We talked about this book today,” he said. “If I’m late to school three times or have more than 10 unexcused absences, I could have detention or Saturday school.”
He started to cry. Joey likes order and rules. He doesn’t like it when others don’t obey the rules. He likes to be on time. When he was younger he would get very emotional if things weren’t going according to his plan and even tantrum. We got really good at preparing him for changes in the routine. As he’s gotten older, he’s gotten much more flexible; however every once in a while, something like this comes out of nowhere and really sets him off.
“This is my biggest fear,” he said. “I don’t want to be late, and I don’t want to go to school when no one else is there.”
We talked about it on the way home. I assured him that we are never late to school. He reminded me of that one time last year when we hit traffic and he was five minutes late. I explained to him that he wouldn’t ever get detention for that. These things are out of his control, and his school is more than understanding.
He just couldn’t get over it. He started to get agitated, speaking louder and louder until he was yelling at me. His little hands were starting to shake. He was crying. His anxiety peaked as we pulled into the driveway.
We sat down with a snack at the kitchen table to look at the book more thoroughly.
“Joey,” I said, “this list of excused absences are all reasons that you would miss school. You’ll never have an unexcused absence. They only make these rules for kids whose parents want to take them on vacation in the middle of the school year.”
Knowing full well he has a photographic memory and has always been paranoid about missing school, I asked him, “From kindergarten through fourth grade, how many days have you missed?”
“Thirteen days,” he said.
“See—that was over five years, and all of those were for excused reasons. I promise, kiddo, you’ll never get in trouble for this.”
He told me he had a headache. We agreed he would go lay down and relax. While he rested, I emailed his school about the concerns.
I got a beautiful email back from the school’s director assuring me she would talk to him in the morning. The next day he went to school. While he was there I got the following email:
Hi Mrs. Taylor,
I met with Joey this morning. He shed a few tears regarding absences and tardies. I think I reassured him by telling him he is doing his job by getting up on time and getting ready for school. I said, “If you do your job, I promise that your parents will do their best to get you to school on time.” We talked about how sometimes things happen, such as a flat tire or hitting traffic, but we can’t control those things. I said you may be late a few times for those types of reasons, but the rule is in place for the kids who don’t get out of bed or who give their parents a hard time about going to school. All in all, Joey agreed with me that he is a rule follower, so it is unlikely that he will break any rules. We will continue to review the rules on Thursday during 4th Period, so I encouraged Joey to use his stay calm plan. He plans to use deep breathing and take a drink of water as needed. He is interested in using a stress ball as well. I told him I would help him ask his teachers to use a stress ball on Thursday. He appeared to like the idea. I also encouraged him to never go home sad or upset.
Instead, I suggested that he ask for help from a teacher or administrator.
If he talks to you about our discussion and he has any other concerns, feel free to let me know. I hope this is just a speed bump for him. However, I want to be proactive if he is having any other concerns about the school rules.
Yes, I cried when I read that, but really, who wouldn’t?
That afternoon when Joey got home we talked about it. He seemed not to want to discuss it very much. I asked him if he wanted to bring in a stress ball. He said yes. I went and found our green stress ball with a peace sign on it and gave it to him. He thanked me and went off to his room. About 10 minutes later he came back.
“Mom, question—” he said. “How exactly does this help me?”
Trying not to giggle, I explained how it might distract him from feeling anxious. Squeezing the stress ball might let him release some of the emotions he was feeling. He put it in his backpack for the next day.
Thursday after school I picked him up and asked how it went and what rules they discussed that day.
“We talked about dress code and other things,” he said.
“Did you use your stress ball?” I asked.
“I did,” he said. “I squeezed it a lot. I’m still not sure how it works, but I guess it sort of automatically helps. Can I keep it in my backpack?”
“Absolutely!” I said.
Although it doesn’t happen often, my heart breaks for him when his anxiety flares up. I never knew how to help assure him that everything will be OK. No matter what I used to say, it seemed that I couldn’t take that pressure away from him. But thanks to the kind staff at his school, I now know how to help him through it. And I might just go out and get myself one of those stress balls—you never know when it will come in handy.