"My little kid got suspended?"
A no-win situation
A reader wrote in:
My 6 year old son who may have ADHD impulsively punched a girl in his class during an outburst.
He felt bad, we are horrified, he’s in a lot of trouble and he has apologized.
The principal suspended him one day for fighting and I just cant get my head around how I was supposed to make that a meaningful consequence for him.
Just thought I’d share in case that was a topic you would like to explore with the Witches. WTF!
Also I am not the “not my precious son” kinda mom and all those disclaimers etc.
I’ve addressed talking discipline with the school a bit in the past, but to cover the issue more specifically, I spoke with two witches I know whose kids were asked to stay home from school, as well as the letter writer herself, about what happened, how they handled it with their kid and with the school, and what advice they’d give other witches in the same position.
I certainly don’t have any solutions for what schools should do with disruptive kids, but at the same time, harsh suspension policies in schools have been scientifically linked to bigger personal and social problems, which means it is a community issue even if your kid never gets in trouble at school.
From witch in eastern New York state:
After my 6-year-old was suspended FOR THE SECOND TIME from after school in KINDERGARTEN, I felt like, “Okay, this is so harsh; I don’t see what this punishment is about other than them just not wanting to deal with him. He was sad he didn’t get to hang out with his friends, and it just made him feel ousted and Bad. I remember as a kid feeling that way, too. I was very smart assed as a child, and talked back, thinking, “I’m too smart for this,” making jokes. Punishments did not help me be less of a disruption!
When he got suspended, he was yelling “penis” loudly in front of the room and holding a pen in front of his pants and she was like, “That’s not funny,” and he was like, “It is funny.” They told us, “He’s suspended for one afternoon. That’s our rule. He can’t come tomorrow.” I have to pick him up after school and go pick my daughter up two hours later.
Because it was his second suspension, they told us it would be three days. This was right before Christmas break, so it would be two more days that he will stay home from after care. The first time he got suspended, he was really upset. His two best friends are not in the same class, and the time he gets to see them is after school. He was crying like a little cartoon. Obviously, he felt like he did something wrong. But this time was a three-day (afternoon) suspension that stretched from before Christmas break until two days after New Year’s when he definitely couldn’t even remember doing something wrong. When we went back after the break, I’ll have to pick him up again. It’s a pain in the ass for my day. He knows, “I know mom needs to work so I’m going to watch TV and it’s a treat.” Lesson learned.
I had no idea about aftercare’s policies. The first infraction was like he poked another kid, and they chased each other. They were playing some stupid game. It’s like, is this something I need to worry about? You have very little context.
At one point, I had that moment of panic where I thought, “Is there something actually wrong with him?” So I took him to the pediatrician. The pediatrician was worse than useless - he addressed me only, talking about my son in the third person while my son awkwardly climbed around the room. He didn’t ask my son any questions whatsoever to get a read on his personality or possible issues. Finally, he just handed us a list of therapists in the area with the disclaimer that some might have a year-long waiting list, but he wasn’t really sure. I’m all for therapy if that can help, but what we had here was just a lack of control in the after-school hours and a self-fulfilling cycle of teachers being like, “You’re bad, out you go,” which made him act worse.
The lessons I took from this are that it’s normal to not perfectly control your behavior, and also, other kids at school really like to push buttons - I think socially it’s pretty complex to navigate kindergarten! I asked his teacher to share the kinds of scripts she uses with him - stuff like “Do you think that was a good choice? What would a better choice have been?” - and I just did a lot more connecting with him at home.
Also, I volunteered for some pumpkin patch or some shit for his class because I wanted to see for myself what it was like. When you can see the whole class, you can see a lot. Watching him, he was unremarkable.
I think it’s good when we are in tune with our kid’s needs. Boys need a crap ton of hugs and such - I love Maggie Dent's Raising Boys for this stuff.
Side note: when he was in daycare, a little girl kept biting him - like teeth marks! - and they wound up best friends. Hope for us all!
From a witch in New York City:
I grew up in this very authoritarian Asian household where you just do what you’re told. I resolved when I had children to not parent them in the same way. I don’t know if that’s the thing that caused this backfiring, but it was not in the realm of possibility in my mind that they would ever even, like, talk back.
My son had some difficulties identified in pre-K. They chalked it up to him being a summer kid, being immature for his age. In New York City, in particular, they really hold their summer boys back. You go to the kindergarten interviews, and the kids are a whole year older.
Our preschool director advised us to hold our kid back and to enroll him in pre-K that goes through 8th grade or 12th grade. My kid was an early reader who was really into math. He taught himself the multiplication tables at 4 and taught himself to read and was really into music and demanded we get him into music lessons.
We found a school for him that was basically kind of a conservatory. They were a cool school in the woods. We told them he had a learning disability, and they were ready for it. They were a transitional school, and they were very traditionally-minded. They were making Play-Doh snakes. My kid was bored and wanted to read. He’d ask for a pen and paper, and they wouldn’t let him have it. He would act out and yell and say things were stupid and run out of the room, and within the first month of school, they called us and said, “This is a bad fit, and your kid can’t come back here.”
It was so devastating. It was the worst day of my life. It was just so mortifying on so many levels. As someone whose whole identity was achievement at school, what does this mean that our kid is being told that he can’t come to this school that doesn’t seem like a pressure cooker?
It felt like our failure—did we misread the school? Did we misread the kid? Is there something wrong with how we’re parenting him? All these questions come to the fore in the situation. We just felt so terrible with the whole thing. We had to reckon with our kid being a little bit out of the box and let go of some of our expectations and our own biases.
When we had to tell him he couldn’t go back to school, that was heartbreaking. They were like, “Please come pick up our child.” They had us in a meeting. “Honey, we’re not coming back here again.” He was so crushed. He really internalized that. “Oh I’m bad inside. I’m a bad kid.” We had to talk with him, “You’ree not a bad kid, but it sounds like you have some impulses to work on, like when you run away or don’t have a safe body or use words that are unkind.”
Kids with these kinds of challenges need 360° support and understanding of what they’re trying to communicate. Otherwise, they feel misunderstood, and if they say the mean thing, they get taken out of the situation. Them being out of the situation means them being kicked out of school.
There were two or three weeks in between the first school and the second I had my aunt fly out here, who is a little indulgent of him. I was like, “He needs to be loved up.” I found an ADHD camp for him. It helped rehabilitate his self-esteem a lot.
We went through the IEP process, and they did all this testing: “Your kid is fine.” If we were in public kindergarten, he’d be in a class of 25 kids at the public kindergarten. I said, “We’re zoned for a pretty good school,” and they told me he will not survive. “He needs a small setting. 12 kids, 15 kids, a small class.
Eventually, we said, “Fuck it, let’s just put him a kindergarten.” We ended up in another parochial school where they claimed to be friendly to IEPs, but there was turnover, and they got one of these old school teachers who doesn’t believe in learning disabilities, and she removed all the paraprofessionals from the room. She put one kid in the closet. She punished a kid for having anaphylactic shock and put him out in the hall.
Eventually, we found a school that’s great for him, for children who are twice exceptional. He has a very high IQ, some speech difficulties, and some stuff that is adjacent to autism. The school has kids who are a little quirky. It really took us searching and giving up expecting him to go to any of these good schools. We’d interview, and I was like, “I would do great here. But it’s not about me; it’s about him.”
It’s humbling. It’s so humbling. It’s a huge narcissistic injury. But then, I’m looking at it wrong. How can I get him to engage, to learn, and not hate himself? If has any chance of making it in life, we’ve got to figure out how he learns best and advocate for himself.
People are like, “You should mainstream him.” My husband has patients like this, parents whose kids have a learning disability, and they’re paying so much, and the kids are failing horribly there. They feel constantly like they’re out of sorts, they can’t fit in, and they can’t be successful because you put them in this pressure cooker environment.
My husband and I have cultivated an attitude with the school where “We’re partners with you.” We meet every year, and we’re really grateful. We want to make this a success, and if there’s anything they recommend or see or want to address at home, we want to reinforce what they’re learning at school. If we’re switching his meds, we’ll let them know. We try to not be defensive. We try to hear everything with an open mind. They’re not perfect, and sometimes we get it wrong. I think when see they we’re collaborating with them, they’re more generous with us and vice versa. Everyone wants the same thing.
We’re very privileged; we almost put ourselves in financial ruin dealing with this. I can’t tell you how much we’ve spent on his stuff.
My advice to other moms in this situation is: Surrender. This is the situation. It’s not optimal. It’s not where I thought my family would be. But it’s not where you start, it’s where you end up. If there’s expertise, if there are people that you trust, just surrender. Just say, “I’m here to learn. This is going to help my kid and help me.”
I wish I had surrendered sooner. I think I was fighting it. At times I probably shamed my kid by yelling at him.
All kids come out of the womb wanting to be loved for who they are, and they all really do want to make us happy and for us to love them, so when they can’t do it, it’s not because they are complete assholes (even if it feels like it sometimes) but because they CAN’T. I found that the less in touch I was with this, the less empathetically I would feel towards my kid when I got a call from the teacher or a note home and the more I’d resort to lecturing or shaming him, and it was totally NOT HELPFUL. They are probably getting enough of that at school, so I don’t want him to just lump me in with every other disappointed adult in his life.
Kids who are getting into trouble are trying to communicate something in their (mis)behavior, and it really helps to remember that. As much as the thwarted tiger parent in me wants to cry when I think about some of the shit my kid has done at school, I realize that at the end of the day, my kid feels even worse about it.
Finally, I followed up with the original letter writer about what happened after her kid’s suspension:
My husband met with the superintendent, not in an “I need to talk to your boss” way, but “I just am looking to you to help me find a way to communicate better and express my needs better.”
The day it happened, I got a call from school, and I was nearby. It was near the end of the school day. “Can you come get him?” I was like, “Yep. You don’t need to explain.” It’s never a good thing.
He’s in the principal’s office, and he had punched a little girl, and the girl was in the nurse’s office, and she was upset, and I’m mortified by that. The teacher was like, “He can't come to school tomorrow.” She told me that in front of him. The next day was one of their fakakta spirit days, like National Candy and Ice Cream day. It was something he wanted to do. So he had a whole other new behavior acting out on top of that.
She shouldn’t have told me in front of him. She shouldn’t have told me on the way out the door with him. It took me by surprise.
My husband circled back and said “We didn’t like the way that went down,” although he and I were checking each other’s emails to the school for tone along the way just to make sure we sounded polite.
We asked, “Can you tell us why the suspension?” She said, “Because it’s within my power.”
I was wavering between extremely sarcastic and earnestly wanting to know, “How do you feel like this is an effective consequence for my first grader?” His attention span is short. I’ve learned you have to administer consequences immediately. Am I supposed to keep him in his bed all day? At first, he was upset because he lost whatever that special day was, and I was like, “Okay, good.” But then my husband worked from home full time, and I am doing some Zoom classes, and he had some time reading quietly on his beanbag chair. That looks great! How fun for him.
We wanted him to be contrite, and he was. But by the time I was done with what I needed to do, we started cleaning the bathrooms, and that was almost an accidental reward. As I was taking the garbage out, I was like, “This is actually really nice. I never time home from him apart from his sister.” I didn’t yell at him. Earnest question: am I allowed to like this time with him? Is he allowed to enjoy reading a book?
His counselor is concerned about shame and self-esteem. I said when you punched that little girl did you cry? And he started crying, and I felt bad.
My husband is an administrator, and he runs teams. He’s arranging the org chart and bringing people on board, and hugging people who need hugs. He has that expectation for the school. I used to be an occupational therapist, and when I ran a team we’d be transparent with the families and flex and move ahead. It’s clear to us that neither of our backgrounds are helping us. There’s only one way to do it, and it’s the school's way.
Our son’s IEP will be ready April 8 [ed: we spoke on March 7]. My advice is if you think you need an IEP evaluation for your kid, stick with that because you can always shut it down later. If you postpone it, you have to wait 30 school days for it to be approved. He needs a paraprofessional to keep him from making impulsive decisions.
This is Claire again. I just wanted to close this out with something I heard in a course I’m taking from parenting coach Katie Malinski on raising kids with ADHD. She said something in yesterday’s class I wish I had heard earlier in my life as a mom. She said that we all have a loud voice in our heads telling us that school success is critical to adult life success. Sometimes that voice can make us feel guilty or ashamed. “But I argue with that voice,” she said, before adding:
Having a healthy and loving relationship with your caregiver is critical to adult life success. School success is helpful, but it is very secondary to the parent-child relationship. Our relationship with our kids is more important than their school success. Period.
Thanks for reading Evil Witches, a newsletter for people who happen to be mothers. Feel free forward this issue to someone who could maybe use this. If you haven’t yet, I hope you consider becoming a paid subscriber which gets you bonus content and threads that have people saying things like:
Many years of searchable archives live here. If you want something a little lighter and funnier than today’s issue here is one on owning bearded dragons, the definitive guide to birth orders, and when we gladly realized we were too old for something.
One witchy thing
From a friend who just returned from Disneyworld: