Taking Control

I’m sitting on the couch with my 5-year-old.

As I type, he’s watching a PBS special on the origins of the universe. This is on his insistence I change the channel from the cartoons previously enjoyed by his sister and I.

As I sit here and learn all about how the stars and galaxies were formed and my son asks me how the ‘proto-Sun’ was created, I have a hard time believing just last week I was sick to my stomach over his parent-teacher conference.

Rolls and plays with his pencil.
Doesn’t like coloring.
Doesn’t like worksheets.
Disrupts class with questions.
Recommend consult with pediatrician, possible ADHD.
Academically on track, same as rest of class.

Confused, dejected, and on the defensive I sought all the information I could find. I talked to friends. I talked to family. My husband, in the midst of his most grueling work week in a year, weighed in as much as possible.

I talked to our pediatrician. And I questioned the difference between the protective nature of my children, and criticism.

I also took a good, hard look at the a room full of 30 Kindergartners, one teacher, and one aide and admittedly ‘no time for individualized learning.’

I am a product of public schools. I got a great education, so did my brother. I believe our local public schools are fantastic, among the best in Los Angeles County. Our teachers work extremely hard to not only nurture our children, but also to meet and exceed the standards placed on them. They are heroes.

However this system is not ideal for every child. There is no room for imagination. There is no room for nonconformity. There is no room for a 5-year old who likes science experiments as opposed to worksheets. The overworked and underpaid teacher does not have the time nor the means to handle any boy who does not fit inside the very ridged guidelines the class must have in order to succeed.


Unless you have school district who recognizes it’s limitations and attempts to thwart the system.

Our district has opened it’s first charter school. And by the luck of the stars there was one spot, opened the night prior, in the kindergarten class. Upon hearing the news I threw on some clothes, hurriedly raced the 5 miles down the road (while throwing up in the car, wondering if I was doing the right thing) and enrolled my son.

I filled out the forms like a crazed lunatic, knowing the first mother or father to turn them in got the spot. I nearly parked myself on the school secretary’s desk until I was done.

Project-based learning. An emphasis on international relations, recognizing the students as citizens of the world. Small class rooms (no more than 20 students).

“Modeled after successful schools such as International School of Monterey, Guajome Park Academy, and Bill Gates’ High Tech High, we have a learner-centered approach using facilitators.”

My pencil-rolling guy (who tears apart my living room looking for ‘parts’ for all his inventions) will start after Thanksgiving break, his first day will be a field trip.


His sister is a legacy. And Mom is about to learn-first hand-about charter schools, the public school system, and taking a pro-active approach in managing how her children are ‘labeled’ and taught.


  1. Sounds awesome! I absolutely agree, it’s not a one size fits all solution. And drugging the kids into submission if they don’t fit into the round hole is far from the right answer. Huge props to you for seeing that and being proactive!

  2. Queen of Spain says:

    Thanks Summer. But I’m still wary on if this is a solution. I do feel like it’s a step in the right direction. We shall see.

  3. I’ll recommend to my mom to read this post. She’s a second grade teacher, and she’s expressed the difficulty of keeping order in an overcrowded room. As you point out, very little opportunity to provide individualized learning. I found in my limited experience as a substitute teacher that it was only when everyone was concentrating on a project that I had any time to go around and work time to time.
    Your story also reminds me of a young boy who was a constant disruption during an elementary art class I was substituting for several years ago. I couldn’t give directions to the class due to him going to “11”. The climax was when he knocked over and broke the glass vase holding flowers for his group table’s still life, spilling water everywhere. I’d had enough and ended the work assignment, switching instead to lights off and a game of “Seven Up” to calm the room down. After class was dismissed, I went to pick up the artwork – and was floored by what I saw. The boy who’d been the most disruptive had exquisitely captured the fine lines and colors of the small lilies. I realized that here was a boy who had an unrecognized and unnurtured talent. Sadly, I overheard a full-time teacher talking to others about his upcoming parent-teacher appointment regarding his low math and English scores. Teachers who were with him daily were oblivious to his abilities. He was already branded. Makes me cry even to talk and think of him now.

  4. Awesome, awesome, awesome.

    I love how much you value your kids and family, Erin. I think you are dead on about the need for our educational system to better understand and adapt to the different ways in which some children process information.

    Know also that the struggles that come with naturally approaching things differently are going to provide some of the most important life lessons for your kids – especially with such loving parents to help guide them through that process.

  5. Schools are not designed for everyone. Unfortunately, schools don’t want to admit this, nor change their own practices to fix it. My dissertation is going to go in this direction, I think. Both my husband and I have worked in “alternative” high schools, and by the time these kids get to the HS level, the system has failed them miserably. Schools typically view it the other way around.

  6. Good for you for being willing to support alternative education! Apart from a few years in a local church school, I was homeschooled almost the whole way, all the way until I finished high school. I was lucky enough to be in a school district with a program that supported homeschoolers with programming and funding. If there’s one thing our educational system needs, it’s diversity.

    So, thanks for being willing to give it a shot, and thanks for blogging about it. Good press is important too. (Especially with your demographic. I’d be thrilled if more liberals got interested in this sort of thing, so that people who go for alternative education don’t all look like scary fundamentalists. Now if I can just find some liberal homeschoolers . . .)

    (Incidentally, I like to think I’m a homeschool success story–I’ll graduate from college in the spring with an Honors degree in Classics, ready to take on the world.)

  7. How wonderful that you got your son in, Erin!
    Like you, I was committed to public education. I live in an urban district that formulated a host of alternative schools as a way to comply with school integration back in the ’70’s. (I think we may be the only public school system in the country that offers Montessori through high school.) My son went to a program called Paideia, which was centered around learning through discovery rather than rote (think Socratic method).

    Unfortunately, like so many large urban districts, the chase for funding eventually created a host of problems that dimmed the school’s early promise. Still, my son grew up feeling comfortable about questioning what he was told — a good thing, overall.

    One of the things I hope to write about soon is my experience with his dropping out of high school his senior year, and how that’s not always the kiss of death we parents feel. (Don’t worry — the story ends well; he’ll graduate from university with his BA next year!)

  8. When I “graduated” kindergarten, my report card said “disruptive, talkative, a complete pain in the ass (ok made that one up),” and the one that seems to have shaped my thinking to this day “doesnt live up to his potential.”

    The only thing I focus on nowadays is living up to that mythical potential. When I was in the 4th grade (I think) I went to a magnet school (which I think is the 1970s version of a charter school), and it was great. We were there longer, had less kids to teachers, etc. I learned a lot (stuff I still remember), but when I graduated, my report card said the same thing it did when I was in kindergarten.

    So, who failed? Me for not living up to my potential, or the school system for not finding my potential and inspiring me to achieve it?

    Our school system is based on the perconcieved notion that there is a basic framework of learning, and when someone operates outside that framework, they are fighting the system.

    Know you and Aaron the way I do, imagination, curiosity, and strong-will are not missing from your framework. I imagine that the same goes for your punk kids.

    I think the real gift any parent can give their child is the love of learning and the latitude to pursue that love. I hope this charter school helps in that endeavor.

  9. I went to a (sort of) country school for the first part of my grade-school experience. Two weeks into first grade, my teacher called a conference with my mom. She told my mom that because I wouldn’t color in the lines (not couldn’t, I just didn’t see the need in certain situations) that I had “severe ADHD and should be placed either back in kindergarten or at the very least in developmental first grade.” For those who are unaware, developmental first grade (or D-1 as we called it) was a class that was between kindergarten and first grade.
    My mother went ahead and pulled me from first grade and demoted me to D-1. Then, she decided to take me to a psychologist (not a pediatrician, but a full-fledged psychologist) to see how true the teachers diagnosis was. I had no problems whatsoever. No learning disabilities, merely a creative streak. My mom then went to the school to see if I could get put back in first grade (this was all within the same week.) The school said that since I had already been put in D-1, my mother would have to take me to the school board and pay to have me tested to see if I fit in to the first grade. The cost of the test at the time was nearly $200.
    Throughout the entirety of my schooling, I was either the oldest or second oldest by nearly six months in my grade. I got teased horrendously.
    I’m extremely wary of the school system in my town because of this, and I am NOT looking forward to putting my daughter through school here.
    I do hope the charter school works well for your son. It sounds like his teacher doesn’t have a clue.

  10. I take the libertarian view. The government has no place in education. All education should be in the private sector.

    In other words, if you want a school, build your own..

  11. I feel for you and your son. I was that kid once. I eventually learned the “game” well enough to finish a college degree, but really did better when I was through with the structure and could just learn. I just heard about project based education at a conference of engineers last August. It sounds great, and I’d like to investigate further. Please send a note if you think about it about how well it works out. All the best.

  12. Sounds like your boy is bright, curious, science oriented and has a healthy sense of questioning conformity. In other words, he’s going to grow up to be a multi-millionaire tech company CEO and set you and your husband up in a fancy condo on a golf course in the Bahamas for your retirement!

    English schools in the Sixties were all about strict conformity. All the kids who got slapped down for “Thinking Different” ended up in the Bay Area founding Silicon Valley. Seriously! Every one of my husband’s mentors is British and has the same story.

    So give that little genius kid a big pat on the back from me.

  13. I am going through the exact same thing right now, just in 3rd grade, with no charter school. God, I hope it helps you. It’s really the most frustrating thing I’ve ever been through.

  14. I have to comment on the teacher’s report, because it makes me incredibly angry.

    I’m the mom of an ADHD kid. I knew he was ADHD before he ever went to school. In fact, I went through all the referrals and ended up in the office of the best ADHD child psychiatrist in this area when he was four. Yep, that’s right, I had already had the evaluation before he ever went to school.

    A parent knows these things. Not liking to color doesn’t indicate diddly-squat except that your kid doesn’t like to color. Doesn’t like worksheets is just as likely to indicate giftedness (that thing schools don’t pay any attention to anymore) as it is ADHD. Or boredom. Or both.

    Disrupting the class with questions is indicative of a curious mind, not an ADHD mind.

    And just for good measure, there is a healthy amount of boy bias in schools.

    I hope the charter school works for him and you. It might or not. But it is SO frustrating for me to see teachers take kids and put them in an ADHD box before exploring the possibility of giftedness or boredom. Boys don’t learn the same way girls do. If they get it, they don’t need worksheets to reinforce it. They like using their hands, they tend to be hands-on learners.

    I realize I’m generalizing about gender, but there usually are some basic differences just as there are social differences between boys and girls. To automatically refer for ADHD is just…lazy.

    Sorry, but it is. Good for you for not accepting it.

  15. Good for you! There are great schools that are bad fits. And then of course there are just bad schools.

    When my sister & I were in 3rd and 4th grade, my Mom knew something was up as the weekly notes about my sister’s behavior were not arriving (they had been since pre-school). Neither of us had homework. I complained that it didn’t matter if you did the assignment or not, I had seen my teacher mark everyone with an “A”.

    My single-parent working mother showed up one afternoon to check in on things. She watched from the window of the door at my sister’s classroom as kids ran around the room, nothing resembled school work on the chalkboard, and the teacher was at her desk eating a donut. She walked in, and told my sister to get her things and came to my classroom and got me. I was sure someone had died.

    She went to the office and informed the woman there that she was removing both of her daughters from this “school” effectively immediately. The woman was stunned and came chasing after us as we hurried to the parking lot. She told my mother she couldn’t do it. Of course my mother replied with, “watch me”.

    There was no plan. This is not what she had intended to do. Amazingly my Mom found a small Catholic school in the neighborhood and plead our case to the Sister who ran it. Sister Emma took us both in at reduced tuition, found us uniforms, and had the church send us a basket at Christmas.

  16. This is so great! I know that he will thrive and he will love this charter school so much!

  17. THIRTY? THIRTY kindergartners in a class? Whoa. I’ll be the first to admit that Texas is not perfect in education, but I thank my lucky stars that more than 22 kids in an elementary classroom is illegal in my state. As a former K teacher, I’ll have to tell you that 20-22 is pushing it in terms of a teacher’s ability to offer individualized and appropriated educational experiences for 5-6-year-olds, even with an aide.

    Kudos to you for taking charge of your son’s education. I think you’ll be happy with the decision, and more importantly, your son will flourish in a much more learner-friendly environment.

  18. Oh, and another thing–If ANY school representative (teacher, administrator, nurse) suggests that your child has a learning disability or medical condition (i.e. ADD/ADHD), then they may be legally responsible for paying for his psychological and medical evaluations necessary to secure a diagnosis. I’m pretty sure that is a federal, not state-by-state, guideline. I don’t think your son needs an evaluation for you to know that he is just smart and curious and not interested in coloring or doing worksheets (which, by the way, are monumental wastes of instructional time).

  19. Good for you Erin for taking charge. It sounds to me like you made a good decision. I think the tummy-roiling aspect was more because you didn’t have time to think things through first; fear of the unknown. But the known was unacceptable. This will work out.

    I’m wondering if Son may benefit from skipping a grade. Not K (good for social interaction; spouse deeply regrets being skipped from K to 1st) but perhaps a little later. Sometimes a child is just ahead of his or her age group.


  20. You did the right thing. As a kid-therapist (currently in quasi-retirement from clinical practice as I gestate my first two, who will both be boys) I am driven totally crazy when teachers say nonsense like this to parents. They are usually betraying their own weaknesses in the classroom, as has been shown countless times when a simple change of teachers suddenly cures the kid’s ADHD.

    As Karoli said above, if your kid has ADHD odds are you are going to realize something is off before you get them to school in the first place. Five year old boys who have a hard time sitting still in a boring classroom are usually on the smarter end of “normal” for five – not pathological, as too many a stressed out or novice teacher casually suggest.

    I have seen way too many kids put on meds and started down a road of mental health treatment when they were so little due to teachers being overwhelmed in the classroom. I am really glad you followed your gut and are giving the Charter School a chance. Best of luck with it.

  21. That’s great! I just finished Sandra Tsing Loh’s book, Mother on Fire, The True Story about M@therf#%&ing Parenting (or something like that…). It details a lot of empowering yourself to navigate the beauracracy (OMG, can’t spell right now, on pain meds from surgery… this MORNING, it’s a wonder I can type) of both public and private schools. Sounds like you found a truly wonderful solution for your son.

  22. My sister’s children have had a terrific experience in the traditional charter school out of Appleton W. They are bright self motivated kids who are grades ahead in maths and science and almost totally bilingual. Good luck your son is anything like mine you’ll need it!

  23. Full disclosure, I was homeschooled. It was great and is a great solution for people who can do it.

    But that said, it’s not for everyone.

    What -is- best for all kids is being able to learn the way they learn. It’s documented that all of us learn differently and classrooms that have the time, the ability and the energy to hit all of the different styles have the highest results.

    The kids that suffer the most in big classes seem to be kinesthetic learners – who need to have a physical activity associated with their learning. We had one girl in church who HAD to jump up and down while reciting her memory verses. If she could jump she could say the verse, if she couldn’t jump she couldn’t recite. But that’s distracting to other kids and the one on one would be perfect for those kind of kids, but it’s almost impossible to do.

    All this to say – you made a great choice given the circumstances. And not liking coloring isn’t the end of the world… just like not liking filling out spreadsheets isn’t the end of an adult’s world either 😉

  24. You cannot know how thrilled I am to have found you and this post! You have nearly described my own son who will start kindergarten in the fall. February 14th is the day of the lottery in which he is either chosen or not. I’m on pins and needles. My son too is a “scientist” and can name all the planets (I can’t) and drives his father and I nuts because we won’t give him any batteries (he takes things apart–is that bad?). Anyway, as I sit and wait to see if he will be accepted I am happy to have found you. I’m glad your son got in! He sounds wonderful! PS—my son had that same pj last year. Maybe it’s a sign 😉

  25. I’m glad to hear it Cathy. Good luck!

  26. Jessica Pederson says:

    Hi, just wondering how his Charter School experience has gone?! I’m totally jealous…very afraid the kindergarten program my youngest will enter next fall is all about worksheets and colors… far from challenging or engaging for my son as well. My daughter had an excellent 4K and kindergarten experience in a different town.. which we now live far from…home schooling is always in the back of our minds.

  27. Hi Jessica,

    He’s in 1st grade there now and it’s going very well. A WORLD of difference. When he rolls his pencil he isn’t in trouble. He’s allowed to stand and jump while doing his math worksheets. He’s encouraged to touch, play, and ask questions. It’s like he’s gone from potentially being one of the ‘bad kids’ to being ‘one of their favorites, so bright and creative.’ Its all in the attitude.

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