A few months ago I attended a talk about PDA by Dr Hilary Dyer (an educational psychologist who specialises in PDA).
During her talk the question of education cropped up, how to help children with PDA cope with school. Alongside her advice and suggestions of strategies to use, she spoke about home education, and how this may be the best way to educate our children.
At the time I remember sitting feeling a cold sweat of horror. No way. Absolutely no way could I willingly keep PDA boy at home all the time. I know I don't exactly come across as Caring Mother #1 here, but this is how I felt. PDA boy is very lively. If he has an idea, he has to do it now, right now, no waiting and careful planning for him! Having to wait brings about frustration and certain meltdown. To say he keeps us on our toes is an understatement. We are very different in character.
I don't have an impulsive bone in my body. I like to have things planned, spontenaiety is scary. I also tend towards very low energy levels. This has brought about high levels of guilt on my part. If I had more energy, if I could be more spontaneous, I could take him out of school which, even back then, my gut was telling me would be the best thing for him.
We limped on through school, he had a promising start at secondary, although in hindsight he was doing exactly what we predicted he would do; mask perfectly for a few weeks, the cracks would then start to show, then he'd crumble. If he'd received adequate support from the start he may have lasted longer, but as it is, lack of support meant the cracks started to show by the end of the first term, earlier than we predicted, the crumbling started halfway through Christmas term. Once cracked, it's very difficult to piece things together again in the same setting, where he is reluctant to do anything that marks him out as different and anxiety levels are too high for him to see any way to improve the situation.
The decision to home educate was initially a slow burning one. There hasn't really been a desire to remove PDA boy from school, but at the same time there's been an unshakable feeling that this would be the best thing for him.
PDA boy is the sort of boy who could be academic, but only if he is self-motivated to do so. His motivations do not lie in maths, or IT, or art. He is a born bushcraft boy, obsessed with survival and all things grim. This did not stand him in good stead at school. He had no interest in the subjects taughht and could not cope with the constant stream of demands, and because he masks and appears fine, expectations for him were high. When he struggled I still got the impression that teachers felt he wasn't trying hard enough, when the effort it took for him to be there in the first place was immense.
The last few months, since late October, have been difficult with no let up, he has been stressed and angry which means meltdowns, lots of them. It has meant less time for our other children, who also have needs to be met, less time for our animals, the dogs have had cursory attention and minimal walks. My husband and I take it in turns to be on duty, one of us tries (and invariably fails) to be positive and parent the PDA way, whilst the other has a temporary collapse, trying desperately to decompress until it's time to be in charge again. How PDA boy must have been feeling in this time is beyond me, the poor boy must have been feeling dreadful. Suicidal behaviour has been on the rise, he swears non-stop, he needs a lot of effort to keep him occupied and we need to stay off the subject of school, because a mere mention means meltdown or sobbing.
None of us can sustain this. Every single one of us in the family is exhausted.
The catalyst to make the decision happened very quickly. In the scheme of things PDA boy has not been school refusing for long, but in this time we have noted a couple of things:
1. He can't cope with the pressure of knowing he has to go back to school at some point. This means he cannot wind down at all.
2. There are no strategies that we can think of that will be suitable. All strategies rely on some compliance, but due to high anxiety, compliance with strategies that may mark him out as different are impossible for him to do.
In short, we could not find any way to get him back to school and to stay there.
The best plan seemed to be to accept that he was to be at home and put a plan in place so we can all cope, rather than winging it and hoping that he would return at some point.
We are expecting mixed reactions from people we know. Over the last few years we have learnt that for someone whose only contact with PDA is a boy who masks expertly, it is difficult to grasp how severe things can be. We have tried to explain, but it is beyond the understanding of those whose children largely respond to normal parenting techniques, and their responses always go down the route of us not trying hard enough, being too soft, and whilst this can be hurtful, I do get how difficult it is to fathom something you have no comprehension of.
My parents are being very supportive and have offered to have PDA boy once a week, which is fantastic and will allow me some time to be silent, peaceful and still.
Our hopes in deregistering PDA are that he will finally be able to relax a bit. We are hopeful that the constant need to be active will calm, and that anxiety levels will fall. This should mean that life for everyone in the family is easier. We will be focusing on reintroducing the incredible 5 point scale, something that dropped off when things became so difficult we were constantly firefighting. We will be introducing sensory play, and helping PDA boy learn strategies to help himself regulate his moods better. We will be joining local groups, and we will be doing bushcraft, lots and lots of bushcraft. In fact, as I write, he is up at the field with his dad and brother, building a fire to cook a whole trout which he gutted earlier. I can foresee many Al fresco meals in our near future!
We know this isn't going to be easy. Easy would be to have him spending his days at school and coming home to relax, have his tea and have some family time, but as apparently this is not an option that works for him, we have to do things differently in a way that will hopefully work for him. I am concerned about how this will work out, but home schooling is a far more inviting prospect than continuing to push him in a way that is making him angry, anxious and suicidal.