Emma Stoker, a 35-year-old mom of 12-year-old son Dylan knows challenges only too well. For years she has fought against a system that isolated her son and disrupted her family life. In the following interview, she tells how she finally figured out a way to help Dylan not just survive, but thrive in education.
Emma and Dylan
“Dylan must have been about two and a half when I realized he was different. It wasn’t that he was missing those milestones, just that he approached them in a totally different way. He was a thoughtful boy, staring at me as I chatted away to him, hoping that he would respond. His serious little face made me think he was definitely taking it all but I wondered time and again what was going on inside his head. It didn’t come as a huge surprise that when he did finally speak, words just tumbled from his mouth. It was like he’d stored up all his thoughts at once and they just had to come out.
“Physically too he was the same. What started as a slow shuffle across the carpet suddenly accelerated into running everywhere, like he was running for his life. It was then I realized that the limits I thought he had, well he was smashing them again and again. I was going to have to re-write my internal rule book. This was a boy who was going to take me by surprise at every turn of his little life.”
His approach to learning just wasn’t what his teachers wanted. They knew he got it, but they couldn’t make him express himself the way the’d been told was necessary.
“All the while he wasn’t at school, life just seemed pretty normal to me but as soon as we stepped through those peeling paint school doors, we crashed headlong into problems almost immediately.
“If you don’t know Dylan you’d think he was sullen, rude almost. His face doesn’t give much away and his forehead is often wrinkled into a frown of concentration or exasperation, it’s hard to know the difference. But here’s the thing, he gets it, he really does. It’s just that how he absorbs learning and applies it is often outside the regular, normalized and highly prescriptive approach of the modern educational system. His approach to learning just wasn’t what his teachers wanted. They knew he got it but they couldn’t make him express himself the way they’d been told was necessary. So instead they’d let him just color in or play. It was extremely frustrating. I knew what he was capable of but there seemed to be no one to help him, help us, out.
“What I did see was the frustration that other parents face. Dylan has own way of learning but so did plenty of other kids, I always felt that children like Dylan and even those quite different to him were being kind of squeezed into a tube. The need to have everyone conform is like a pressure cooker.”
“At the age of 11, when Dylan was about to start middle school, it hit me that this pressure the system and me were putting on him was only going to get worse. He just needed to be accepted, praised and educated the same as every other kid. To assume that what works for one student will work for another is crazy. Every child is unique. I’m not saying I know how to fix this but I know that Dylan’s a regular kid with the same needs as any other. I suggested some ways to help him feel recognized and calm and for the most part they worked because, honestly, some of it was just common sense.
“He’s a messy guy, he finds it almost impossible to plan ahead. Like most kids he’ll remember he has sports the next day and spend half an hour going through his room pulling out unwashed kit. He has a small group of close friends. I’ll be honest, sometimes I feel like they’re speaking a different language. One filled with references to video games and inside jokes I don’t get. It can feel alienating sometimes. I feel like I have one job in my professional life and one job helping to pull Dylan through school. I’m not sure if he feels different or not but I know that at times it can take him a while to calm down after school. We sometimes just sit together on the floor, eating some crackers together and go over some of the experiences he’s had that have left him unsettled. When he gets that look in his eye that tells me he wants to go and play video games, I know I’ve helped him process and he’s good to go.”
“I wish I had realized that Dylan isn’t a ‘problem’ from a much younger age. Just because he experiences school and learns differently, that doesn’t mean it’s him that needs to change. We’re working in a system that’s rigged to not recognize the uniqueness in children in order to work. He’s a lovely young man and I’m proud of him every day. He works hard to stay focused, even when he finds it tough.
“A lot of it comes down to the teachers you have and the school’s approach. Not all schools are going to be willing or even capable of seeing the individual learning style in each child. I’m still fighting hard to make sure he is seen and not pushed out of this rigid system entirely.
“Schools should be bright, exciting places to learn for students of all backgrounds and personalities. Education shouldn’t be a straight jacket it should be customized for every unique child, like Dylan.”