Any moment my Annie enters first grade, after attending two years of kindergarten. It’s been a journey, for sure. It’s hard to talk about Annie without posting a picture of her: she would pose — perhaps giving you the peace out sign — and she would have come up with her perfect pose as soon as she knew a camera was waiting. Looking at a picture of my daughter, you would immediately catch the creative spirit in her stance.
But you wouldn’t know the other half of our story.
It used to be difficult to write about her first year of kindergarten at a private Catholic school. We all have an idea about the kindergarten year, informed in part by our own early school experience. Kindergarten is supposed to be a time of learning, exploration, growth and success. Shoelace tying, numbers, reading.
But by partway into the year, I knew Annie wasn’t learning. The reason remained unknown. I hoped for a magic unfolding, but there was no fairy dust, no key for her special lock.
What there was, instead, was a very concerned teacher, a girl who shut down, and me — a mom left searching for any and all answers.
We were referred to the Seattle Public Schools system, filled out a lengthy packet of information, and Annie underwent three tests designed to help identify developmental delays in pre-reading and pre-math skills, fine and gross motor skills, and speech development.
The public system offers services to children (whether they are already in a public school or attend a private school but live in the district) who test in the bottom 10 percent on these tests.
It’s hard to hear your daughter qualifies for services in three areas.
But who can argue with four FREE tutoring sessions each and every week? Annie started getting reading and math help, occupational therapy to help with fine and gross motor skills, and speech therapy. (She had already been seeing a private speech therapist for two years.) The testing Annie underwent didn’t label her with any learning disabilities; at her young age the school district will only look for developmental delays, meaning a child significantly lags behind national average standards. I researched having her undergo private testing but ultimately decided against this route. For one, it’s hard to test a child who is 6. Secondly, these tests cost upward of $1500, and we decided the money was better spent on private tutoring for now. From all my learning over the last few years, it’s pretty clear to us Annie has some version of dyslexia, but we will find out the specifics later.
By the end of that first year, I was avoiding a conversation with my daughter’s teacher about repeating kindergarten. The talk came anyway, and it was panic-attack inducing (on my end, at least). I had no idea if we were right to sign on for a kindergarten redo. My husband and my older daughter resisted this reality as much as I did. Ironically, Annie was fine with having her beloved teacher again.
Of course, the first day of kindergarten, round two, was another story. Annie cried and cried. She was the only repeater and the only child crying in the entire room. Once she stopped, I ran out that door and took myself on one very long run.
But you know what? Kindergarten, v 2.0, was our miracle.
The assistant teacher said it best when she told me Annie was happier; she laughed with friends and participated in class. By mid-year, my girl had 6-10 tutoring sessions a week. We added in a private reading tutor specializing in dyslexic kids, and she began meeting with our private school’s math and reading tutors, on top of the four sessions she had started the year before at our local public school.
This probably sounds like a lot. Perhaps it is, but experts say the more one-on-one intervention and the earlier it is received, the better off the child will be down the road.
By her 7th birthday in late December, she told me she had five best friends. The gains in confidence and social skills are as important to us, and to her, as the black-and-white academic progress measured by assessments and charts.
In reality, there was no simple magic potion. There was hard work for my daughter, and more is ahead. Because learning is not the same for Annie as it is for many other kids, there are the constant adaptations and adjustments of expectation for us, her parents and supporters. It’s exhausting, anxiety-making, and exhilarating to parent a child who learns differently.
But we are lucky people with many resources in a large city. So many people who know my girl say she is a different creature as we approach first grade. They are both right and wrong. I always saw that bright yet introverted girl, the one who can sing in tune and learns the words to songs she loves so quickly. When she shut down, I always knew how to open her back up.
But she has changed. This summer she asked me for a new school backpack. By late July, she was putting all her school supplies into a gorgeous cat bag. When she introduced herself to a girl at camp one day, she said, “My name is Elizabeth Annie, but I go by Liz because it’s easier for me to write.”
Is my Annie where she needs to be academically as we approach first grade? Well, it depends who you ask. On a good day, she can read three-letter words with help. On a bad day, she refuses to try reading. We are at a school that aims to have all kids reading by the end of kindergarten. They run fast in first grade with reading and math and everything in between.
I worry that my girl will get lost. But I know, from talking to our school’s reading specialist, that we are doing all we can at the moment. Annie had two private tutoring sessions most of the summer, and I worked with her often, too. This fall, Annie will be back in tutoring land full-throttle, and I will be back in parenting mode, watching and accessing and seeing if everything we have in place is still working for her. So it goes, no matter how tiring it sounds. We are merely doing what so many families do to help their kids.
But Annie’s excited for school and her social circle works for her. And me, well, I don’t know what’s ahead, but I do know I am up for the ride, no matter what.
Writer, editor, and writing coach Nancy Schatz Alton co-authored The Healthy Back Book and The Healthy Knees Book. She currently writes for websites and magazines and is working on a memoir. She lives in Ballard with her husband and two daughters. Find her blog at www.withinthewords.com.