One size fits all? One teacher. One way of teaching. 25 children, all with different personalities and needs. Of course it doesn’t work.
By Anna Lagerhed
Our daughter, Neva, was born in 2009. It was a normal pregnancy and she was happy and healthy in the early years. She has always been sensitive and emotional, but hey – many of us are. She started school at age 6, as we do in Sweden. It was a large school, 800 pupils, but it was the closest school to home and her older sibling already went there so we didn’t think much about it.
The first year was pretty good. Her class had two very competent, caring and warm teachers and she made new friends. She was very well behaved and never got in any trouble.
The second year was OK. She had a new teacher who had a completely different personality. I found her a bit passive and cold, but hey – you can’t choose your child’s teacher, right?
The school did the things you would expect: regular classes, outings, physical education (which includes being naked and showering in front of your peers), a large and noisy canteen, a big school yard with children yelling and running around, break guards chatting with each other and supposedly watching the children play. Normal school, right?
The third year, Neva was getting bullied by some of her classmates. As soon as we found out, we contacted the school. We though they did a good job – they talked to the children and the parents of the children who had bullied her. They got her appointments to the school psychologist to see what kind of help she needed. In those sessions, we realized that she was more sensitive than we had realized. She explained that she was stressed about other children misbehaving at school and felt that it was her responsibility to correct and protect them. The school psychologist gave her some useful tools and we tried to support her in that as parents as well.
Things got better. We thought.
Her fourth year she started to get stomachaches and headaches. Not that often, just enough to get us as parents thinking. In the performance appraisals (which are held between teacher, pupil and parents), she asked the teacher for accommodations to sit behind a screen to protect her from some of the noise in the classroom, or to sit in a separate room sometimes. Unlike what you might expect (if your autism reference is the film Rainman), Neva is very verbal and was able to express what she needed. The teacher promised to do it. Later, Neva started complaining at home that her teacher didn’t call us when she wasn’t feeling well, but just told her to have a rest and it would pass. We talked with the teacher but didn’t see a big problem.
I don’t have to tell any other parent about the horrific feelings of guilt we have about that.
After that semester, her stomachaches got a lot more frequent and she started to miss more and more school. We realized we need to do something and decided to start with a physical exam. We didn’t think any child psychiatrist would see her without ruling out celiaki, lactose intolerance or any other physical reason for the stomachaches.
This was February 2019. She was perfectly healthy. Physically.
By then, she had started to ask about changing schools. Since she has always been sensitive to change, we were skeptical. But in March 2019, she got to visit another school and loved it from the first moment. We were able to change schools immediately.
She was so happy in the new school and loved everything about it. For a few days.
Then the school called us. Neva had had horrible anxiety attacks and suicide thoughts in school. We were shocked. I was going abroad on a business trip but turned back home at the airport. My husband started calling every child psychologist he could find to get an appointment. I stopped working and went with her to school. She could not be more than a couple of decimeters away from me in school.
We made changes at home to give her more comfort– cancelling trips, meetings, seeing friends, shopping for everything online, giving her our undivided attention. But her anxiety was crippling and she was soon unable to even try to go to school. After a few weeks of trying to get her to school (you have to go to school, right?), we agreed with the school and the child psychologist (who we were lucky enough to find quickly), that she needs to stay home for the rest of the semester. This was the best decision we could have made at this point.
Trying to get her to school was putting her through double-torture: the horrible, crippling anxiety of trying to go to school, and the destructive feeling of failure when she couldn’t.
Summer came. Summer was mostly about surviving. Trying to do everything we could think of to make our 9 year old want to live. I can image few things worse than that. This was our life for a long time. And still is quite often.
A neuropsychological examination was initiated.
When the fall semester was about to start, we had a meeting with the new teacher. Neva was at the meeting so that she could explain herself what kind of adaptations she needed. The teacher was wonderful, very understanding and flexible, so Neva felt pretty positive and excited to start school again.
It didn’t work.
The first lesson she had to leave after a couple of minutes and after that, she did not really go back to school.
In September, she was diagnosed with Autism, Level 1, previously called ASD or Asperger’s, and also known as highly functioning autism. The anxiety attacks were pretty much ignored, even though those are a bigger problem than the autism.
But that’s a story for another article.
The school reacted admirably. We got support from the pupil health team, special teachers and principal to get her into a special program. The teachers really went above and beyond to help her, which I know is heartbreakingly rare. For more than a year, we as parents along with the school tried everything. Nothing worked. We sent applications to special schools for autists. The waiting period is years and there’s no guarantee that it will work for your child.
Then finally, more than a year after she broke down and stopped going to school, we got an offer from the municipality.
It turned out that another “regular” school in our municipality has dedicated resources to children with special needs. Each class consist of 3-4 students and 2 teachers. They have their own kitchen so the children won’t be forced to eat in the canteen (a nightmare for many children with special needs). They have specially trained dogs to support with both learning and mental health (and no, there has never been an issue with allergies as they have great routines.)
Absolutely everything is adapted to the child’s individual needs.
Do you need to sit under a blanket to be able to study? Of course. You can’t eat the food from the canteen? You can bring food from home. You are about to have an anxiety attack? Just tell the teacher the code word and the teacher will help and protect you in the way that works for you. Bullying? Doesn’t exist. Having a bad day? Let’s take a walk with one of the dogs or just have a cuddle until it feels better. Scared of writing? Let’s use a computer.
Can I apply to this school? No.
The principal of your current school, and the municipality, have to decide if you are offered a seat.
Before this school, Neva went to a school with 400 pupils. 20 of them had the same issues with long-term absence from school. This is 5% of pupils. Two of the 20 pupils were offered a seat in this special program. Two.
That’s 5% who risk not having a proper education in a rich, well-organized country. Children who will grow into adults who might not get jobs, who are in a high risk of having abuse problems, getting involved in crime, or hurting or killing themselves. Not to mention that about 40% of parents to children with NPF are burnt out and cannot work.
These children grow up to be teens and adults that will need psychiatric help for many years.
What does that cost society – and the individual – compared to having schools that are actually adapted to different children’s needs?
Neva loves her new school. She cried out of happiness when we told her about it and she has now had more school attendance than she has had in 18 months. She is still nervous before going there, but as soon as she gets there she relaxes and is always happy when we pick her up. It’s almost hard to believe, but it is happening.
Schools that are adapted to the individual are possible.
What is the cost of smaller classes, diverse educational techniques, more and smaller schools, continuous training for all school staff and so on, compared to thousands of individuals not being a part of a working society? This will lead to an immense cost for society and to the individual. Sweden is a small country, but we are talking about approximately 10,000 children and youth suffering from the fact that the “inclusive model” is actually not that inclusive at all.
A school for everyone? One size fits all might work for stretchy pants. Not for people.
Anna Lagerhed is from Tyresö south of Stockholm, Sweden. She is the mother of two children and has a BA in English/Linguistics/German. She now works with software robotics in a global steel company. Her interests are family, my job, cooking and nature.