Exactly one year ago, there was a lot of excitement in our house. The entire house was looking forward to big changes around here: in one month, the twins would be starting kindergarten. Mike and I were looking back and wondering how we had gotten here so quickly--seemed like we had gone from a goal of "controlled chaos" with a house often filled with wails to kindergarten in the blink of an eye. The littles couldn't wait to meet their new teachers, ride the bus with their big sister, eat lunch at school every day and fill their new backpacks. Bella was enjoying filling them in on EVERYTHING they might need to know about school! Mike and I were enjoying the thoughts of how we might fill in all of our newly discovered free-time. Mike's with our dog, Blue, the outdoors and a few fat pheasant roosters, mine with shiny things, friends and daytime leisurely dates with M. I even signed up to teach exercise classes again and to take a metal-smithing class.
The girls did go to kindergarten and Bella to first grade. Mike did get some hunting in, I did get some jewelry making time, managed to get back into shape, and did find a bit of time to hang with friends. However, the leisurely and relaxed pace we were looking forward to never materialized. You see, right from the start, the littles hit a bump in their elementary journey. Alli was showing some extreme behaviors at school, refusing to communicate and play, regressing--which included daily bathroom accidents and other behaviors that were disrupting to the classroom. She was unable to perform simple tasks and transistions and even had an incident where she yelled uncontrollably at a peer. She complained of constant stomach aches and was so convincing that she was sent to the nurses office quite often. That same week (the first week of school), I received a very surprising and disturbing call from Milana's teacher. It appears that Milana (our child who fights for justice for all and is so sensitive to others' feelings) happened upon a physical playground fight and joined in, physically beating the VICTIM--in front of the victim's mother. WHAT?!
I had already been researching twin separation anxiety--the girls had met every other transition in their lifetimes together. They spent most of their waking and all of their sleeping time together, since birth. In preschool, I had anticipated this coming transition to separate classrooms, and had each twin go on MWF and one went on Tuesday and the other, alone, on Thursday. Halfway through the year, this seemed to be such a non-issue for them that their teacher and I decided to just put them both in 5 days a week to increase their readiness for kindergarten. However, something was very wrong. Both girls had always been confident, easy-going, engaged in school and a great friend. After a week of kindergarten, Mike and I found ourselves in a meeting with both of their teachers. It seemed the school staff thought they were not mature enough for kindergarten. Later that week, in a meeting with the principal, my girls were given one month to acclimate in kindergarten before they were pulled and placed in 4K. I spent many a day and night worrying that I had made the wrong decision. I contacted their preschool teacher, whose input I greatly valued to get her take on the situation. She was just as confused as I was. In the beginning of their last preschool year, she thought maybe I should hold them, but by the end of the year was convinced they were ready for kindergarten. They were bright, often led the discussions, were good friends to others, appropriately behaved and great listeners. In class, they rarely chose to sit close to one another or to play together, preferring to be near their friends.
During those initial meetings at school, I brought up the twin separation factor, and Alli's behaviors possibly being related to anxiety. They agreed to put the girls together during team times and I began observing in Alli's classroom (while I 'volunteered' and worked on projects) as well as volunteering during team times. This seemed to help Alli a little bit and her regression behaviors started to lesson. However, at home and at school, she was still really struggling with learning. We would work on site words and then less than 30 seconds later, she couldn't recall the word. This would happen over and over again. Anyway, toward the end of the month, as Mike and I were hiking and discussing Alli's difficulties, it suddenly hit us that her difficulties were consistent with ADHD inattentive type. Our little Alli was so overwhelmed by everything at school and couldn't focus and attend to the tasks and transitions. She would appear to be uninterested, but in reality, she was not able to focus and had checked out. Then, she would notice that the whole class was transitioning and her anxiety levels would shoot through the roof because she had no idea of the instructions given. Her confidence levels were plummeting because she knew she wasn't fulfilling expectations in the classroom. She is such a pleaser and hates to disappoint.
I don't know why we didn't see it before, given both of our training (Mike is a doctor and am ABD for a doctorate in psychology, specializing in children)--perhaps because she is our child. Anyway, the relief I felt that morning was incredible. It suddenly all made sense--I think I skipped down the back side of the bluffs that morning at Devil's Lake! I couldn't wait to get home, do some research, run it by my good friend, Angela (who happened to actually finish her PhD in psychology), schedule an evaluation and tell the teacher! It wasn't that I wanted something to be wrong with my child--it was that I KNEW something was wrong and it was a relief to have a possible diagnosis and things to try to help her succeed despite her difficulties. I just wanted so desperately to find a way to get her back on an even playing field with her peers so that she could feel confident and happy. It was so incredibly frustrating to have a child who disliked school so much in kindergarten!! Especially when she had loved preschool so much! The school psychologist thought I was missing the boat, but Alli's teacher was willing to work with me and try some new ideas in the classroom.
By November, Alli was seen by her pediatrician and started on Adderall. We saw an improvement in focus right away and within another month, had the dosage figured out. As she was leaving for Christmas break, Alli was no longer having potty accidents (they stopped immediately with the proper dose since she could now focus on her body's messages), her other concerning behaviors were almost absent (unless she was faced with a task she perceived as too difficult and therefore experienced higher anxiety). She was still behind academically, and had learned some avoidant behaviors to get out of the hard stuff at school before she was medicated, so we were working on that.
In January, we were finally able to get Alli in for a formal evaluation. She did, in fact, receive a diagnosis for ADHD, inattentive type. We also found out that Alli is incredibly bright, which gave us and her teacher the confidence to increase our expectations academically. We also began therapy for anxiety to help her learn to cope at school. By March, Alli was hitting her stride! I remember clearly the day I thought to myself that finally, we are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel! It was the same day that I later got a call from Milana's teacher. She was worried about Milana at school. Not academically, for Milana was performing just below mid-pack, but more that she was starting to "check out" and have attention difficulties. Here we go again! Now, Milana performing mid-pack should not have raised a flag for her teacher, however, for us, it did. You see, Milana had taught herself to identify letters, including their sounds before she was 2 years old. She would point to your shirt, say each letter and the sound that it made. She had mastered all 26, prior to Bella mastering it (who is 18 months older). She was fascinated with letters and her vocabulary has always been precocious.
So, in March, Milana also began Adderall. Because we had already been down this path, it was a bit easier this time. Milana was able to focus much better and started to learn to read. However, for both girls, they had a lot of catching up to do. They had missed learning and absorbing during the first 7 months of the 9 month academic year. We amped up on reading, math problems, etc. at home. By the end of the year, Alli was reading at the same level Bella had finished at one year earlier. Not that I spend a lot of time comparing our girls, but it was such a reason to celebrate since Bella has always been a strong student! Alli and Milana both cried the last day of school. Alli kept saying that she was going to miss Mrs. Gaines, her best friend. This from the child who disliked kindergarten most of the year! When Milana was formally diagnosed this summer, she was tested at a 1.7 grade level for reading while off medication. Woohoo! I have to say that both of their teachers' determination to reach these girls and help them find success and confidence was incredible. We were so blessed to share this journey with them!
At the end of the year, I again met with the principal to discuss placement of the twins. The school district has a strict policy that splits multiples up for classroom placement. My concern was that our girls, especially Alli, had lost a lot of confidence during the year. Milana, too, was getting frustrated with learning, giving up and showing a lost confidence in her ability to learn. I believe that prior to kindergarten, they got some of their confidence from knowing the other was right there. It was my thought that if they could enter 1st grade together, in the same classroom, they may be more have more confidence and less anxiety from day one. I also felt strongly that both of the girls would need a teacher who could work well with their special needs. I know that our school is filled with excellent teachers, but we all have gifts and deficits making us better at working with some than others. If there is in fact, one 1st grade teacher who is especially gifted at working with the challenges of ADHD, how should the principal choose which of our girls should have her--especially after they both struggled to reach their potential in kindergarten?! I filled her in on the difficult year, the drop in confidence and reminded her that without confidence, learning stops. I also admitted that I don't know what the right decision is. I don't know how the girls will do together after being apart for a year. I also see the value in them finding their own confidence. What I really wanted was to capitalize on the recent successes and hit the ground running next year. I wanted to see the girls continue to enjoy school and to continue to learn and grow their confidence. I also told her I was not looking to have them together after this coming year. To my surprise, our principal said she would consider placing the twins together for one year. She would have to think about it, talk to their teachers and get back to me.
On the last day of school, I drove the girls. We had some very special gifts to hand out to their teachers. I had made each of them a piece of jewelry. But more than that, I needed to hand deliver them with the girls. I needed these two remarkable women to know, to feel, my gratitude. I needed finish the year seeing my girls happy in their environment and witness their hesitance to leave kindergarten. I needed to experience the success of the girls, their teachers and myself for a few minutes. The looks exchanged carried more meaning than most. As I drove home that day, the tears fell and the sobs rang out. I thought to myself, anyone passing me in the neighborhood will think I am crying because my girls are done with kindergarten. The truth of the matter is that I was crying BECAUSE they were going into first grade. For much of the year, even after the decision to keep them in kindergarten, we weren't sure they were going to be promoted. We had made it, and their was no longer any question that 1st grade was where they belonged! I cried for every time I didn't as I watched my girls struggle and fail and struggle again. I cried for every time I didn't when I questioned my decision to put them in kindergarten rather than holding them back because their birthday fell in the summer months. I cried for every time I didn't when Mrs. Gaines would look at me and tell me we would find Alli's spirit again. I cried because we did! I cried because I knew that no matter how many times this diagnose would provide another challenge, we would and could find a way to succeed.
The girls were together in the same class for the summer. They had both been recommended to take part in the remedial learning program in summer school. This program was taught in the 1st grade classrooms and led by one of the 1st grade teachers. I got a call from the principal saying that she wanted to hold off deciding until she observed how they did together during summer school. Again, I was floored by her commitment to looking at the entire situation, collecting available data and making the best decision for our girls.
We just received word that they were great in school together during the summer and will be placed in the same class in the fall. They were not distracting to each other or peers, they are not dependent on each other, but do seem to do well knowing the other is there. They both continued to grow academically--in fact, their teacher wondered why they were in the program. They do both have a pretty big deficit in fine motor skills, probably due to the inability to focus on tasks that require them prior to medication. We will need to continue to put in extra time on this at home. I also keep working diligently on the math and reading, trying to get it in any way I can (I feel like I am homeschooling this summer!).
So, I find myself with the same feelings I felt last fall. Only this time, it isn't based on the simple expectation that things will go smoothly. This time, it is a bit more tentative, one built on hope. This time, it is so much more meaningful. This hope has grown from hard work, dumb persistence, teachers' belief in our girls, medications, expertise and a principal's willingness to go out on a limb and do what is best for two little girls. Even if this year doesn't turn out to be the one with a leisurely relaxed pace, I will forever be grateful for this feeling of hope that I am feeling and the excitement that goes along with a fresh new school year!