David’s Diary: Listening Despite the Silence
I have to go to a parent – teacher meeting today, for the last of my children still in primary school. Another of my children started senior school last year. He is bright, sensitive and kind and as far as I was concerned at least, he had made his way through primary school without too much difficulty. Parent teacher meetings for him generally were fine – test results sometimes not showing the best of him, sometimes distracted and sometimes distracting others, but overall getting through things without disaster! Any issues in my view were relatively small and would be grown out of.
Senior school started well. He was looking forward to the change and the number of new faces. But after a while things started to happen: small things mostly, isolated and often different. Notes home from school regarding poor classroom attention; new school books with ‘graffiti’ all over them or rips in their cover; homework not presented; uniform constantly looking ragged; late into class; avoiding PE through various excuses. As someone who had never even been noticed in school, the idea that one of my children could be drawing attention to himself for negative behaviours was troubling and often led to arguments – Why can’t you just behave yourself? It’s not rocket science – just do what you’re supposed to do! The response was to disappear with his phone, go down town with people we didn’t know – anything to avoid further discussion.
After a number of weeks, I had a call from his school. One teacher had noticed him using the pointed end of a compass to mark his hand. Some other teachers had said to his year head that they thought he was struggling. My wife had been thinking this too. Again, I just thought he was being a difficult teenager, but to make sure, we decided to get a professional opinion. After a couple of months, the reports came back – he exhibited the classical signs of both dyspraxia and dyslexia.
I knew nothing about Dyspraxia, but for many children who have it, there are difficulties with organisation, working memory, physical movement and spatial awareness, and handwriting speed. This was a revelation – when I learned about it, everything fell into place; all the behaviours that I had put down to just being difficult, could be explained by the fact that he was overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by the number of subjects, the mass of different books required for each class, the constant moving from one part of the school to another, the demands of competitive PE on someone whose physical capabilities were not as developed as for others.
He had been struggling – and his way of communicating this was to damage his books, to scribble heavily on his hand, to avoid homework, to be difficult in class. I’m certainly no psychologist, but it’s easy to see how he could have been thinking that if he was going to get in trouble for something it might as well be for his behaviour (which he had control over) rather than for the difficulties he was having with his work (which he had less control over).
My problem was that I had not been listening. If I had been, I would have understood that in his silence when I tried to raise any problems – and in his behaviours, he was trying to say something. He was saying that he was overwhelmed, unhappy and feeling lost. But I didn’t hear him – I didn’t hear anything. In conversations that matter, behaviour is communication. Listening isn’t always about hearing the words that are spoken, but can just as often be about finding the meaning in what is unsaid.
(By way of postscript, I am only able to write this because things have improved so much since last year. Because we and the school now understand the issues, multiple things have been done to make his experiences work for him. Possibly more importantly, he understands that the difficulties he was having had a root cause – he wasn’t stupid or incapable, he simply needed to do and learn things differently. The difference is incredible in him as a person and in his renewed interest in learning. Although he may never come to love Irish…)
All the best,
LIFT IRELAND’S THEME FOR NOVEMBER IS LISTENING.
If you haven’t already read it, why not check out David’s previous article on the theme of listening. Click the button below for more.