Shadrach had been enrolled at a previous school since preschool, so my husband and I were shocked and very disappointed when the school told us that it was no longer able to accommodate Shad’s needs. Shadrach is a “twice exceptional” kid, unusually intelligent as well as diagnosed with ADHD, Major Depressive Disorder, Sensory Processing Disorder, and more recently he has gotten a provisional diagnosis of Asperger’s.

We know this now. But Shadrach has lived through most of his early childhood without these diagnoses (and the therapeutic interventions that go with them). By the end of 4th grade, he was depressed, violent, anxious, an atheist, talked about suicide, and a playground bully. His classmates at his previous school were uncomfortable around him and avoided him. His teachers put a great deal of energy into developing individualized plans for him. My husband and I had tried all the tricks we could think of. Nothing was working.

My husband and I decided that after 10 happy years in Kenya, we probably needed to move back to the USA to get more support for Shadrach. But then someone suggested we try Woodland Star International School. We agreed, hoping that at the very least it would buy us a bit more time before we needed to relocate.

The first month at WSS was very bumpy. Shadrach was panicked about being at a new school. He insisted that I stay with him at school from the time I dropped him off in the morning to the time I picked him up in the afternoon. The WSS staff graciously allowed me to do this, but even with me there, some days were simply too overwhelming. There were so many tears. Some days he was so overwhelmed that he couldn’t bring himself to go to class. It was like his whole self just shut down. Together with his teachers, we agreed to have him only go for half days until the sense overwhelm reduced, and to minimalize the academic demands to a level that didn’t exacerbate his stress levels.

By the second month, I started noticing that Shad was less panicky when I left the school building for a meeting, phone call, or several hours at Muna Tree Café. It was enough for me to leave him a little note at my desk that said where I had gone and when I would come back. He started inviting Graham over for video game playdates, which helped him feel more at home in the social environment during school. His teachers developed a break system with him in which he could ask for one break per class period if he started to feel anxious. Though at first he made use of this privilege multiple times a day, we noticed that it eventually tapered off. The teachers learned how to “read” him well, how to avoid the things that traumatize him, and to include him in ways that make him shine. As his sense of safety with the adults at the school increased, he became less hyper-vigilant and more able to stay engaged in the classroom.

One morning in the third month when we arrived at school, Shad refused to get out of the car. This was not uncommon. We just sat in the car together and waited for him to relax. Finally he said, “You know what the problem is, Mom? You waited too long to move me to Woodland Star. This is a good school, but I’ve been in a bad school for so long that I associate school with trauma.”

By that time he was usually able to make it through half days, most of the time. We noticed that going to class was only a problem on days when he had math tests. He was terrified of math tests, terrified that he couldn’t do the work, that he would be embarrassed in front of his friends, and that Ms. Taylor would get angry at him. When I realized what was going on, I asked Ms. Taylor for permission to administer the test orally and coach him through the problems. She agreed, and Shad and I developed a very pleasant Math Test Ritual that involves a big slice of carrot cake from Muna Tree Café, and for the really hard tests we would have a drinking game (with Coke) that helps us make it all the way to the end of the test.

Timo and the teachers have been willing to work with our situation to an extent I would not have guessed possible. They agreed to allow academics to take a back seat, and reduction of Shad’s panic to be our organizing principle for his time at school. He has been slowly opening from a lockdown position. By the end of this term, he had developed a number of friends — the types of friendships that he did not experience with his classmates at his previous school. The WSS kids did not harass him for being an atheist, and he doesn’t stand out as The Class Problem. He has found just the topic to tease Ms. Taylor about that makes her blush. With the support of Ms. Jo, he wrote a creative short story about Fidel Castro for Ms. Casey’s class — his first ever.

All of this comes together to a very significant conclusion: this term at WSS has been a pivotal time of re-writing the narrative of who Shadrach is and how he inhabits his world. For these past four months, Shadrach has had the opportunity to be a fun kid who makes his teachers laugh, successfully completes his math tests, invites and gets invited to play dates, and knows a great deal about the CIA’s assassination attempts on Fidel Castro. This change of trajectory is a great blessing to his family and his future.

Debbi DiGennaro

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