As the school bus whisks your child away to kindergarten for the first time, it can be a bit overwhelming to know the lack of control you now have over their interactions with others, their happiness, safety, and success in making it through whatever their day may throw at them. This is infinitely more difficult to do when your child has a developmental delay or disability, particularly one that others can’t physically see.
Long before time for kindergarten, parents of these kids with “invisible disabilities” have never had the luxury of just happily dropping their child off anywhere – preschool, VBS, practices, camps, playdates – with the presumption that it will all go fine. The moment they drive off, a familiar feeling of dread falls over them, because they know how difficult environments like that can be for their child. They walk away not with relief that they have a few moments to themselves, but with a burdened heart for what their less-equipped child is up against. And because it’s not possible for them to preface every interaction their child ever has with every coach, playground friend, or teacher with a full detailed description of the diagnosis and how it impacts the child’s life, parents are left holding their breath every time they trust their child to anyone else’s care.
Invisible disabilities like Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), Anxiety, ADHD, etc tremendously effect the child’s ability to interact successfully with their environment. Their brain chemistry prevents them from perceiving and responding to social situations the way they should. But often they are judged, yelled at, or negatively labeled when they fail at tasks expected of them, particularly when every other typically developing children achieve these tasks with relative ease. (This is comparable to angrily snapping at a child with a physical disability for not being able to complete a task that comes easily to other kids.) Further complicating this is if the disability is not yet diagnosed, (without an official name, it’s not seen as real or valid), or if a disability is diagnosed but has little to no society awareness. All merge to become a perfect storm.
So for my not-yet diagnosed rising kindergartener, his perfect storm was already brewing. He had been rejected time and time again by peers and adults alike, and sending him to kindergarten felt like throwing him to the wolves, not yet capable of adequately verbalizing his struggle and need for adult help with interactions, or defending himself. As I armed myself for this next battle by attempting to somehow summarize 2 years worth of agonizing difficulties in a quick 10 minute conversation with his teacher, I was admittedly at my breaking point. But after the first few weeks of school, something entirely unexpected began to unfold. My child was completely adored by his teacher.
I first witnessed this amazing teachers’ wisdom in action when a troubled little girl with a terribly messed up home life was being disruptive (again) her in class. The teacher’s response was quite surprising to me, “Poor baby”, she sighed, shaking her head sadly, “She has such a difficult road ahead of her.” She then gently guided the child by the hand to another area of the classroom. Impressive. Despite how difficult this child continuously made it for her, her response was not blame, exasperation, or frustration. There was not a trace of judgment or condemnation in her voice. Instead, her first thought was that of sympathy, love, and a genuine ache in her heart for the heavy burden this small girl had to carry. Wow. How often do I respond to people who make my life difficult in this loving type of way? How often is someone unkind or hateful to me and my response is to feel genuine sadness for the misery they must be living with? How often do I see past the behavior or attitude on the surface to the pain underneath it? Not often. Mostly when someone is hateful to me, I’m thinking more of the unfairness and hardship it puts on ME, rather than a genuine ache and empathy for the (much heavier) hardship that must be on THEM.
But the thing that most impressed me was that the teacher didn’t yet know what exactly my son was facing. But it didn’t matter. She didn’t understand the brain chemistry behind his struggles, but she didn’t need to – it was irrelevant. She could love him anyway. I began to realize I didn’t have to fight so hard to prove that despite his struggles, he is an amazing kid. She already knew. She already saw his compassion for others, his selflessness, his caring nature, and his kind and generous-to-a-fault heart. As relief washed over me and I slowly began to realize I could put down my armor and my defenses, a new little seedling of hope began to sprout within me. And it hadn’t come the way I expected. It didn’t come in understanding SPD, it came in an ongoing gift of grace.
Isn’t this the way we too would hoped to be treated? Certainly. When we are sick, we expect to be given a little more grace when our attitude or productivity aren’t up to par. And when our non-sick coworker performs a task successfully with ease, we would hope that our illness would be taken into account when we aren’t equally successful at that same task. We would be flustered if those around us expected more than we were able to give. But yet we do this to kids all the time. As adults we have the verbal skills and the knowledge about how illness affects our performance. But kids don’t. They don’t understand what’s happening to them or why. They just have to hope the adults they encounter will treat them with love and fairness. And lucky for us, the teacher my son encountered did just that.
Yes, everything I need to know I learned from my son’s kindergarten teacher. It shouldn’t be a prerequisite that we be pulled aside and given a full detailed description of a person’s history, symptoms, and diagnosis before we will hand out love. There is enough for all. We don’t have to ration our love or give it based solely on our level of understanding. (Because honestly, if showing love depends entirely on our own capacity for comprehension, there won’t be very many people we show love to at all.) What we are able to comprehend about a situation is completely irrelevant to our show of love, empathy, and support, especially to those who are already clearly struggling. When people are faced with a situation they don’t understand, they tend to default to judgment, But it doesn’t have to be that way. We don’t have to understand to be understanding. Lots of quotes come to mind that take on a new meaning for me now; “Seek to understand, not to be understood,” etc. But my favorite:
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not unto your own understanding. Think about Him in all your ways, and He will guide you on the right paths.”