and the boy’s ACCEPTED!

Matan_flowers4MaiAfter a long road of trying to convince the aftercare program in our neighborhood to accept Matan, we finally succeeded!

While aftercare programs must take children registered to their home pre-schools, they usually do not accept a child registered elsewhere, especially if he’s in special education. Last year, when I realized that Matan needed more social contact than the 8 children in his special education class, I contacted the program near us, but they kept putting me off. I got the sense that the fact that he was in special ed worried them. They told me that I would first need to get one of their pre-school teachers to agree to accept him. I did so, but then she was laid off and I was left with no where to turn. Fortunately, the fabulous people at Ponti’s, see earlier post, accepted him, and he’s spent a very productive year in an after care program with regular children where he eats lunch, and then spends the rest of the afternoon in various kindergarten-level activities. We were lucky to get a fantastic teacher who adores him and helped ease him into the class of children a year older than he is.

This year his special ed program is moving to yet another neighborhood with a longer drive, and I really wanted to get him into a local aftercare program so that he would remain friends with kids in the neighborhood, and because it makes it much easier on me since I don’t have to drive through rush hour traffic to pick him up. The preschool near us is a short walk through a quiet park, about a block total. Getting him accepted became my main mission for July.

Two years ago, when Karen was in kindergarten, one of the teachers told me she would love to have Matan in her class. But I had no personal relationship with her, nor did I have her personal number. I made several failed attempts to find her at pre-school, but apparently they had moved temporarily due to renovations and I couldn’t locate her.

Last week, I set out to find her, and this morning I finally managed to catch up with her in person. As soon as she remembered who I was, and both my children, she said she would be thrilled to have Matan. I started telling her how he had already been in regular aftercare, and how well that was going. She didn’t ask any questions, just sat down and signed a form I needed from her to get Matan in. Walking out I felt ready to break out in some sort of Sound of Music tune. This means that in addition to aftercare, he will also have a place to spend his days during the long breaks for Rosh HaShana (3 weeks off school) and Pesach (another 3 weeks). Plus once we get him approved for integration into a regular class twice a week, we’ll have a better chance of getting this same teacher, which would be amazing…and convenient!

Summer fun – massage, hydrotherapy and camp

SnakewrapA short plug for the company that runs summer camps for both Karen and Matan. Ponti’s is absolutely the best in terms of staff professionalism and fun for the kids. Even Karen, who wanted all kinds of specialty summer camps that were much more expensive, is very happy with her summer camp. For both children, continuity and being with excellent staff is more important than anything else. Not everyone “gets” Karen, and knowing she’s with staff who know her and understand how to deal with her occasional mood swings is more important to me than anything else. Their style especially suites her since they are flexible in terms of which activities the child can choose from at any given time. For example, instead of being in a single group and always doing the same activity as her group, she can select from several different activities and choose where she will spend her time. The freedom to choose which kids to be with and which activity is important to her.

Karen’s also shown initiative both at camp and on her own. In addition to selling stuff to children on the playground, today she began going to the playground with paint, glue and glitter, and setting up a table for younger children to come and paint. Today she had two children who sat and painted under her direction and both sets of parents paid Karen! She wasn’t even asking for payment, she just wanted to set up an activity for the younger kids. Matan even sat and painted for a few minutes. One small girl spent almost an hour with paint and glitter under Karen’s attention. Her mom fell in love with my daughter 🙂

At camp she’s also busy organizing activities of her own. This week she started giving massages to other kids and even to the counselors. The other day she took a small blanket with her in the morning. When I picked her up in the afternoon, she was giving a massage and there was a line of children waiting their turn. They were bummed that I was there to take her away before it was their turn. I promised them she would do it again. I felt a little like her promoter….

Matan’s also having a great time with summer camp. He spends his mornings in special ed summer camp, where he and 7 other boys splash around in a large portable pool, play in mud and sand, eat lots of watermelon and generally have fun. He’s enjoying it immensely. His afternoons continue with the same after school program he’s been in for most of the year. He loves socializing with the “regular” kids, and enjoys the activities that include zoology, where they bring a different animal to visit the group once a week. Today he got to hold a snake and wrapped it around him. Last week I think it was a large toad.

After about 10 sessions of one on one hydrotherapy, Matan is finally swimming! This was already more than we had hoped for. My initial goal was just to get him to a point where he didn’t lock up whenever we went into the big pool. He always wanted to go in, but once he started down the steps, he would lock up unless DH was there to hold him. Last year he didn’t even like spending much time in the baby pool. He was afraid of the water. Matan didn’t even trust me in the water. I think he could feel that I wasn’t as strong as DH. Now he just jumps into the big pool without even warning us. He’s still wearing inflatable arm bands, even in water he can stand in, but he’s begun swimming without them for short periods, so long as DH is within a hand reach. I’ve asked his therapist to stress safety, and he’s finally stopped running near the pool. That’s how he broke his arm last summer.

While the hydro therapist is helping him feel secure in the water, she’s also added counting and color games aimed at improving his cognitive abilities. This is why hydrotherapy is so much better than private swim lessons, the emphasis is on development, both in the water, and then using the enjoyment of playing in water to help overcome other blocks. Overall, very happy with the hydrotherapy. Best part, it’s covered by our health plan!

40 Kids in a class – acceptable in Tel Aviv schools

overcrowded classroomIn less than 2 months, Karen starts 3rd grade, and we are all feeling the stress. She’s been acting out aggressively, hitting girls at any perceived slight. Her usual over-sensitivity is magnified, and any teasing or frustration leads to extreme anger. Meanwhile, we are climbing the walls trying to figure out how to find an environment that will be supportive, allow her to learn and to actually enjoy school. I enjoyed school at her age. But then I didn’t have the daily nightmare of loud, unmanageable classes with teachers who have to constantly yell to make themselves heard and who spend more time trying to maintain order than actually teaching.

As parents we are very concerned about the school’s plan to only have three 3rd grade classes instead of 4. Each class will contain 35-40 students with one teacher – no assistants and no parent volunteers (not permitted). The school is planning to go from 4 second grade classes of ~30 students each, to only 3 classes of up to 40 in each for third grade. I don’t understand how any child can learn effectively in that environment. I once heard a statistic that approximately 60% of the students in our schools are on Ritalin or similar. I’ve experienced how the administration tends to push parents towards medication to deal with any acting out. It seems the only way a teacher can even begin to control a class of 40 rowdy Israeli students is to have half of them medicated.

The teachers here regularly go on strike about salary and benefits. I don’t understand how any teacher can feel good about “managing” a class of 40. Why don’t they strike about class size? Friends in the US tell me that their teachers’ union is very strong, and would never permit a teacher to have more than 25 children per teacher in elementary school. All the teachers I’ve spoken to admit that it isn’t possible to effectively teach 40 8-9 years olds. I guess having most of the kids on Ritalin makes it a bit easier…

Karen’s stress manifests as anger, but underneath it all, she’s scared. She’s afraid of losing some of the classmates she’s worked so hard to repair relations with, but she’s even more afraid knowing that she will lose her homeroom teacher who has been so supportive of her over the last two years.

The uncertainty of who will be her new teacher is also stressful, but at the moment, she is most unhappy knowing that she will lose a teacher who has given her so much during the past two, very difficult years. Her teacher is young, and Karen’s was her first homeroom class, ever. Under those circumstances, I was amazed at her ability to maintain priorities in a class where Karen wasn’t the only child with behavioral problems. She truly gave of herself, in both time and energy, to help Karen acclimate to the structured environment of school.

Karen’s teacher gave us, and Karen, a huge amount of support when we needed it most. She worked with us tirelessly, to help reduce Karen’s stress in class to a manageable level which eventually led to improved behavior. She never gave up on Karen, even when we hit rock bottom in first grade. With her help, Karen became dedicated to overcoming her anger fits, and changing from a girl who hits to a girl who has girlfriends who enjoy being with her. Karen receives a ton positive reinforcement and knows her teacher understands her and will always give her the benefit of the doubt. She’s learned to expect much less from other teachers. Her main fear is getting a teacher who won’t want, or be able to invest the time and energy it takes to understand Karen’s special needs and abilities.

We are exploring educational options that may allow Karen to flourish, rather than just survive. I have serious doubts that her current public school can bring out the best in her. She is outstanding in many areas, and I want her in a place where the educational staff appreciates her strengths rather than putting band-aids on her perceived weaknesses.

Movin’ on up

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMatan’s made a HUGE improvement during this year in a special education pre-school. A year ago he spoke only a few words, and usually resorted to non-verbal communication to express his needs. Just a few months into the school year, there was already a huge leap in his verbal abilities. Today he expresses complex sentences and asks questions that indicate a deeper understanding. It’s hard to explain, but everyone who knows him sees a big difference.

Halfway through the year he began “integration” into an aftercare program for regular children and he’s been doing very well there. In the beginning he didn’t participate much in group sessions, but now the teacher sends me photos of his active participation in several of their regular activities like drama and animal visits.

Several months ago we met with his teacher and the assigned psychologist, and both felt he would be better off remaining in special education for at least another year. They did not recommend a full integration program for him, which would allow him to spend two days a week at a regular kindergarten and the other four days in the special ed program.

All that changed when we met with both of them this week. They both agreed that he’s ready for a formal integration program, not just in aftercare, but in a regular kindergarten, twice a week. Yay! This means he will be spending time with other children from our neighborhood so that he will be better socialized and more able to visit with friends. It also means he will have more incentive to measure up to the regular kids.

His swim therapy is also going well, and he’s finally willing to put his head under water to accomplish tasks in a game. He’s really beginning to enjoy going to the pool. In the past, he would spend most of his time playing with trucks outside the pool, with occasional dips in the baby pool to splash around. Now he enjoys showing me how he’s learned to kick, blow bubbles with his mouth and nose under water and even submerge his head. And summer’s only beginning!

Reality Check

bikeSometimes I’m not sure if it’s me, or the people around me who are unbalanced. Maybe both.

Matan’s in special education. His class friends are all special needs to some level. Today I got a message from a mother in his class asking if he’s free today to play with her son. To her credit, the mom gave me two options; 1) Come over to her area so the boys can play at her house; or 2) She’ll bring her son to my house and pick him up later, at the end of the play date.

This child has never been to our house, and has only once met Matan after school. That time we went to their home and the children played very nicely, but it was boring for Karen who had to come along since I didn’t want to leave her with a babysitter just so Matan could have a play date. Matan really adores this boy, but has grown apart from him a bit since he’s not one of the boys we meet on a regular basis for play dates. The friends he does meet with are always accompanied by at least one parent, and we usually spend most of our energy trying to keep track of them at the playground. It’s not always easy since Matan can take off with no notice, and completely disappear from my range of vision if I look away for more than 30 seconds.

I can’t imagine bringing Matan to a home he’s never visited, and leaving him with a parent he’s only met occasionally. I’ve actually never left him with another parent except for a 10 minute run to take Karen to a friend’s house, and then only when the other mom insisted that she’d be ok with him alone for a few minutes. Not that Matan would mind, he would be fine with me leaving him at a friend’s. I just would never put that amount of responsibility on another mom, especially not one who also has her special needs child to watch over.

Sure, I’d love it if there was a mom who absolutely adored kids and wanted nothing more than the opportunity to babysit my child while I’m off doing something else. But I can’t imagine asking anyone to do this, especially someone I don’t even know very well.

I wasn’t robbed at gunpoint today

But I was scared shitless for about 10 minutes, which is an exceptionally LONG time when you don’t know if the man asking to be buzzed in is a threat, or a handyman.

Here I am, just sitting at my computer in the middle of the day, not expecting anyone. Suddenly the intercom buzzes and I answer, figuring it’s someone who pressed the wrong keys. I see a man who says he’s from the gas company and asks me to let him in. I reply that I have no knowledge of any expected visits and that I’ll need to call my husband to confirm. DH is usually really good about coordinating with me, but I think he expected to be home when the guy arrived, so perhaps forgot…giving him the benefit here. DH doesn’t answer my repeated calls, because as luck would have it, he was finally granted an audience with the bone specialist for Matan whom we’ve been waiting months to see. I call and call again, figuring he’ll understand it’s urgent if he sees repeated attempts. Nothing.

I decided to call the gas company to see if they have a scheduled appointment for my address. They ask if I’m sure it’s their company, since there are several that sound similar. In fact, after I let him in, it turned out he was from a different company. Yes, DH finally replied to my SMS and told me to let him in.

I’m glad I got the drill right, even if it was a bit embarrassing to seem so paranoid to the gas guy. I’ll tell the kids about it so it can be a lesson about not opening the door for strangers, even when it does turn out to be something innocent.

Vindication!

After two years of hearing nothing but shit from Karen’s old therapist, it’s so great to have her again meeting with our original adoption social worker, and getting fantastic feedback that indicates that all our hard work has helped Karen become super self aware and very mature in her thinking.

A few months ago, the psychologist at Matan’s special education pre-school suggested he would benefit from working with someone on emotional issues that may be holding him back. We’ve always sensed that he enjoys being a baby, probably because he never got to enjoy a real baby-hood. After trying to work something out with the school resources, we finally decided to invest in having him see Ruti, our adoption social worker, the woman who helped us so much when we first brought Karen home, 5.5 years ago.

Matan took to her immediately. She’s a gentle, grandmotherly-like woman, who speaks slowly, clearly, and always knows how to talk to children at their level, whatever their level may be. He’s never been able to sit for more than 10 minutes on any craft project. His attention is usually diverted within minutes. She managed to sit with him first 20 minutes, and now 30 minutes. She works with him on a lot of tactile crafts that “feel good” in his hands. She has him wear old clothes so he can roll around in the finger paint if he wants to.

Karen accompanied him to a few meetings and enjoyed seeing Ruti again. She worked with Ruti during one year of pre-school, before we felt the need to up the ante, and move to a more intense clinical therapist. That may have been a mistake. In any case, Karen’s now in good place to really talk to Ruti, not just play. When we discovered that girls in her class were teasing her about being adopted, we mentioned to Ruti that if she felt Karen was interested in meeting with her to talk about it, we thought it would be good for her.

Karen was eager when we first mentioned it, and today had her first full meeting with Ruti. Wow. The feedback has been amazing. Ruti said that Karen often seems older than 8 in the way she expresses herself, and said she doesn’t remember working with another adopted child of Karen’s age who is so aware of her own fears, strengths and capabilities. Karen told her that she sometimes does mean things to others. She said she doesn’t want to be this way, and that she knows she can stop if she works hard enough at it. She said, she can achieve any goal if she puts enough effort into it! That’s a message almost directly out of my mouth.

Mean girls

Self portraitWe’re her parents, and we would have hoped that if something was really bothering our child, she’d tell us. But in some cases, maybe she’s embarrassed or ashamed. Imagine finding out your child has been teased and talked about by her “friends” for more than a year, and you only find out by accident.

Karen has always known she was adopted. It’s no secret, in fact, it’s something I’ve always been proud of. I always think of how far she’s come since those early days when she went into shock over her new environment, and stopped eating, lay down on the floor and wouldn’t get up. That passed after several days.

Sure, we’ve had our share of setbacks, but her overall ability to cope has only improved over time. Today she appears to be a fairly well adjusted girl with friends and lots of activities. She recently began tennis with several other girls from her class. One girl, in particular, invited her to join them, and loving sports and the opportunity to socialize, she immediately took her up on it. The class isn’t very challenging, since Karen’s already spent a lot of time practicing tennis in more advanced groups, but the social aspect seemed a bonus, and the coach is an absolute diamond.

Imagine my surprise when I received a very concerned phone call from the coach. Apparently during an argument with a friend of hers, she became very upset and there was a brief shouting match between the two. The coach wasn’t concerned about Karen’s behavior, in fact, she said that Karen was clearly doing her utmost to control herself. But she was shocked at the reaction of some of the other girls. At the first sign of irritation from Karen, they ran to the coach and loudly “explained” to her that Karen “always acts that way because she’s adopted”.

The coach went on to tell me that the way in which it was framed, she got the impression that Karen hears this a lot, and suggested I speak to her to find out the extent of the bullying.

I took Karen out to lunch at McDonalds (her favorite) and asked her about it. Turns out, it’s been going on since last year, but appears to have gotten worse lately. Perhaps because Karen doesn’t hit anymore, so girls aren’t as afraid of her. In any case, after tears from her, and my realization that she never told us because she was ashamed, I decided to discuss with DH. He was horrified, and when he later questioned her and discovered which of the “good” girls regularly insult her by telling she’s adopted and whispering about adoption when she’s nearby in an attempt to hurt her feelings, he was ready call each parent and ask them to speak with their daughters. I dissuaded him because it sounds like the ringleaders are the same girls who’s parents made the loudest complaints to have Karen thrown out of the class last year when she was having such a hard time.

After talking to her teacher at school, who was apparently aware of the issue, but not of the severity, we decided to let the teacher try to deal with it first.

Karen has always been very open about being adopted. In fact, in kindergarten, when we spent 45 days in the middle of the school year together with her in Ukraine to adopt Matan, she returned to a hero’s welcome, and had the opportunity, with the support of a very caring teacher, to tell her class about adoption and what it meant to her. While she has mixed feelings about not being our bio child, she’s never been ashamed or felt bad when people use the term “adoption”. These girls have turned it into a dirty word to her. I hope her teacher is able to make a difference, but I’m not optimistic. DH wanted to write an open letter all the parents in the class, but I talked him out of it. Still unsure the best course of action, if any, apart from our unconditional love and support for Karen.

Time for a summer favorite

Scarlet Begonias – Studio version

Sales junkie at age eight?

Karen has a new hobby. She sells things. While she’s been kicking around the idea of selling lemonade since last summer, she began in earnest when she heard that a friend of hers had laid out some old toys in the garden of her building, and sold some of them. Since then, she spends most of her free time making up signs, price tags, and sifting through old clothes, books and games to see what she can sell. Today was a Hamseen, a hot desert wind that dries the air and sucks the breath out of you if you spend too much time outdoors. So she set up to sell homemade Slurpees. Crushed ice with some fruit flavored syrup dribbled on top. Considering the heat, they were almost melted by the time she got down to her perch and began setting up, but she still managed to sell one of the four she brought with her.

We’re letting her do it because she feels such a strong compulsion to get out there and sell stuff. She’s also made up signs offering to wash people’s cars. We give her allowance, and buy her everything she needs and most of what she wants, but she still wants to earn money. I’m wondering if it’s normal for a child her age, 8, to be so focused on making money. I think it’s just a symptom of her ever-present deep desire to be independent, and not to have to ask us for anything.

On the one hand, if she enjoys it, the whole planning and execution, not just the money, then I want to encourage her to do it since she is learning so much in the process. She gives change, sets prices, and chooses locations where she thinks she will find people willing to buy. Today she went out and bought a box of Popsicles (ice on a stick, “artik”), put them in a small icebox and carried it to the playground. She sold 4 in about 20 minutes, making up her investment. At which point, she headed home. She’d been at it for about two hours, in horrible heat.

She’s not in any danger, since we can see her from our apartment most of the time, and she’s really into it. Do we let her continue until she gets bored with it, or will that only encourage her further? At first, DH and I were a little embarrassed that people we know would see her selling stuff on the sidewalk like a tramp, but she is so focused, we feel it would be unfair to deny her. She’s done some selling with other girls, but lately, seems perfectly happy to go it alone if no one is interested.

Parents reading this, what would you do? Allow it? Encourage it? Say “No”?