“I made it to the county level at Science Fair. Look at the medal I got.” You and I embraced, beamed, laughed with delight. We glowed. Grandpa was proud, too. We’d all helped you clarify your questions, keep a notebook and collect data. You and Grandpa hiked the creek, took photos, assessed the substrate. We were all invested in your success, not our own, because on your own you had to shine in the interview with the biologist, know the research, tell what you learned and speak with understanding and knowledge. You did it and won. I felt we all did. We live vicariously through our children’s successes and struggles- as it should be. We resonate with what’s the same about us: interests, personality traits, likes, dislikes and temperaments. We also know our child. In this case, I know you and knew that you would benefit from a public success. You needed to be seen at school for what we know you to be, a naturalist, curious and intelligent. Capable. To be awarded along with a few peers for your work. We built scaffolds for your success, but you alone rose to meet the goals. You feel pride of accomplishment after hard work. Perfect ending. You win, go to the county level science fair.
You, among other wonderful characteristics are autistic with ADHD, struggle to remember why the pencil is pinched between your fingers, during a test. You stand staring blankly at me after I have asked you to wash up for school, then twenty minutes later pull on your jacket and run for the car, having forgotten to wash up. We adapt: keep a brush, wipes and a toothbrush in the car. Have a reward system for tasks completed, timers, calculators for math, and incentives at each completed phase of a writing assignment. With your good thinking, we have come up with cues to support, do not chastise you for delays, forgetting and your curt responses. We work hard at it.
So that during the science fair process, which lasted a couple of months, if you had bad days, but something was due, you had to keep up. That wasn’t often true in your other schoolwork. You wrote, calculated and hiked the creek when you were able, on the good days and put completed work in queues to turn them in as they were due. It all seemed good- You were going to finish a big project, to feel a sense of accomplishment. Then you put on the brakes. Something was going on inside. That happened a lot. You couldn’t do another thing. Wouldn’t.
It makes sense to let you feel the natural consequence of not finishing. Right? Parents can take a hard line. But you do not feel remorse in the same way I would have. You seem to not feel the consequence of your refusal. Maybe you removed your self from the task and it disappeared. But in this case it would come back to bite you, this was to be displayed, judged by local scientists, seen by the school and broader community. It was not a math page, a private moment between you and your teacher. You’d have to face the fact that you didn’t finish the project out in the open with your peers. Would you have felt embarrassed, remorseful? I thought so.
So, how much to help? A recurring question when we work with kids on schoolwork: Scaffolding, reframe, individualize the assignment and tell of our own journeys. I told you that your daddy had a science fair project go to the county fair. He studied dog tick remedies, made potions and was so proud to have his picture in the paper. I love science, am a naturalist, too, an observer, a wonderer and wanderer. I wanted you to finish your research paper, the layout and the full project. I wanted you to feel success. When a toddler does a puzzle and we twist one piece into position for her, we know we shouldn’t have done it. That’s what I did. I helped. I over-helped. You had read journals, online, reports of endangered fish, projects to save them, stream health and listed the references in your journal. I read them, too, clipped relevant information from them, citing the references and sent it to your computer. When you did nothing with them, I asked you to use the quotes in the passages to build your report. You didn’t do it, but turned in the report quoted, cited and compiled of the citations stacked in order, one after the other, the way I had clipped them out. That was your report. Cited, but not connected with words of your own. Damn. I let it go. At least you didn’t pretend the writing was yours. Could you possibly succeed?
This week, as you prepared his project for a bigger venue, competing with kids from the entire county, some in high school, I stepped back. On your own you made a diorama of a healthy and unhealthy stream model. You love making dioramas. You picked mosses on a hike to add to the healthy side, built a small man made barrier, a damn for the unhealthy side. This is an area of mastery, this is what you are good at, and this an important moment in your world. And you did it yourself, with our support.