Fire Pig Versus Kindergarten

They tell me Gavin’s prematurity was due to my preeclampsia, but frankly, I think he was simply impatient to get here and get moving.  He is, according to Chinese astrology, a Fire Pig, after all. I remember hearing NICU nurses argue playfully amongst themselves, each accusing the other of moving our two and a half pound son in the isolette; we were all shocked when we discovered, three days after he was born, he was flipping over by himself. Apparently, little man did not approve of being placed to sleep on his tummy,* so up would creep his tiny diaper-covered bottom, arching his body into downward-facing dog, then, alley-oop, he’d be on his back, so there. I knew then he’d be a force of nature.

In fewer than two weeks, Gavin starts kindergarten, and that has me thinking a lot about where we’ve been, and where we’re going, as a family.  From our anxiety-filled beginnings at Fort Bragg, where both Gavin and I teetered on the brink of not-quite-surviving the ordeal of birth, to our comparatively idyllic years here in Germany, it feels as if we’ve been together decades longer than we have. My husband’s frequent deployments to the Middle East have necessitated a highly structured, rhythmic daily routine for Gavin and me, because through routine, we create calm and order in what can be an unpredictable lifestyle. Little did we realize what a lifesaver such structure would be for us.

We came to Germany just under four years ago, right after Gavin turned two, and were immediately struck by how deeply and sincerely the German people love children. You cannot enter a local shop with a child in tow, without the shopkeeper offering gummies or a cookie. And as you stroll the stadtmitte, every Oma and Opa within eyesight will smile and wave at your little one, or stop and speak to him affectionately, gently tousling hair and pinching cheeks. With his cottony blonde hair and cornflower blue eyes, Gavin has received more than his fair share of attention and affection here. And we tell him that, when we return to the States, things will be very different, and he cannot accept candy from strangers there. But I can tell from the look on his face that he doesn’t believe us.

Gavin had been to daycare at Fort Bragg on occasion, but it was rare. The first school he remembers is his preschool here, an American school for military children, just two blocks from our back door, where he was instantly embraced by two amazing German teachers: Miss Gabi and Miss Claudia. We parents affectionately referred to them as “Good Cop, Bad Cop,” because of their perfectly complementary styles of teaching. Gabi and Claudia personified the German love for children. Preschool can be a lot like herding cats, but their classroom was always calm, always nurturing, always warm and inviting. Gabi later confided in me that Gavin looked exactly like her now-teenaged son when he was that age, so they were instantly thick as thieves. She had also been a neonatal nurse in the German healthcare system, so she was intimately familiar with the quirks and tweaks of former preemies. She seemed to have infinite reserves of patience, and Gavin absolutely adored her.  Because he thrived under Gabi and Claudia’s tutelage, we had bright hopes for him the following year in pre-kindergarten there.

But that fall, Gavin didn’t stay at that school. Instead, I returned briefly to work at a different Army Child Development Center, overseeing the infant and toddler classrooms, while Gavin attended a pre-Kindergarten program in the same building. Within the first week, I realized we weren’t quite out of the preemie woods yet. Gavin began showing signs of Sensory Processing Disorder, a neurological condition (common among children who were born prematurely, and even more common among gifted children) which causes the brain to misinterpret the intensity of stimuli it receives, resulting in either under reaction or overreaction to the environment surrounding the child.

I’d love to tell you that, as an educator, I was right on top of the latest research about SPD and recognized it instantly, but I’d be lying. Embarrassingly, I thought Gavin was misbehaving in reaction to my return to work. Maybe my long hours were too much for him, or maybe having to “share” Mom with all those babies was making him jealous. Bratty behavior I can fix. But when he bit a classmate, after never being a biter before, not even during his own toddler years, I knew something other than brattiness was going on. I began observing the classroom and realized that he was reacting inappropriately to the environment itself. In fact, the surrounding chaos was triggering a fight-or-flight response in my son, and he literally couldn’t control his reaction to the jarringly loud, disturbingly hectic environment around him. The day he bit his classmate, he had done all he could, all day long, to cope with the nerve-jangling zoo of a classroom, and then he lost it, literally moments before I walked into the room to take him home. My heart sank with guilt for having put him in what must have seemed like a torture chamber. I remembered some tidbit I’d read about preemies sometimes being hypersensitive, and I started to dig.

Gavin has always had eyes that looked older than the rest of him, as if he is looking beyond your surface and into you, as if he’s known you before. When we brought him home from the NICU, he (and we) suffered from eight months of what we believed to be colic, though no change in diet alleviated the three-hour meltdowns, which came like clockwork every day at four, and lasted until he fell asleep at seven. I was aware of techniques to calm hyperactive students, like “impoverishing” the classroom, and I modified these to make our home less jarring for Gavin. We kept lighting soft and filtered, using natural light whenever possible, rather than harsh overheads. We limited ambient noise to one source at a time, running the dishwasher only when the stereo or television was off, and playing those at only a moderate volume. And I learned to announce transitions, even before he could truly understand what I was saying, announcing cracks in the sidewalk with, “bumpity bump, ready?” before pushing his stroller over them. Around the house, I wore him in a rebozo-style sling, and the closeness seemed to reduce stress for all of us.

Gavin was off the charts in terms of development, laughing, smiling and talking very early, to the point that officials sometimes doubted us when we reported his progress, until they witnessed for themselves how precocious this little rod of plutonium truly was. But he would not roll over. He loathed “tummy time” with a passion, and he acted as if the baby swing were his mortal enemy. Fortunately for us all, our EFMP nurse, who had been visiting us weekly ever since Gavin came home from the NICU, called a colleague in to consult, and we found he had proprioceptive disorder. Proprioceptive disorder affects the central nervous system and robs premature infants of the ability to tell where they are positioned in space. No wonder he didn’t want to turn over; he couldn’t tell if he was going to roll an inch or a mile! And the swing must have felt like being flung into space with each movement. A physical therapist was called in, we did some simple exercises with Gavin to help desensitize him to the unpleasant sensations he was experiencing, and kaboom!  He was over the hump like a flash.

Or so we thought.

Images: Dreamstime

One weekend, I stumbled across some Google links about former preemies and proprioceptive disorder, and it all clicked. We had naively thought it had gone away, but no, it doesn’t work that way. I found an online assessment battery for Sensory Processing Disorder. My husband and I each took it for ourselves, then filled one out independently of one another for Gavin. When we compared notes, the answer was obvious. Gavin had SPD. So, it turns out, did we, though it manifests slightly differently in all three of us. My husband and I gained some insight into what we’d always considered our “eccentricities,” and relief from worry over our crasher-and-banger, daredevil son. There were tangible strategies and tools for use with SPD kids, which could easily be incorporated into our family life. And with a little luck, we’d find supportive teachers who were aware of the condition and willing to work with us to give Gavin the best opportunity to succeed possible.

We spent the rest of that school year back home, repairing the damage done by our blind foray into the classroom.  I homeschooled him throughout fall, winter, spring and summer, incorporating the techniques I learned from SPD support groups online and from other SPD parents. I see clearly that not every child fits into the same shoebox — and, back in the U.S., the GOP-endorsed idea of  a one-size-fits-all ‘McEducation‘ could never accommodate my son.

We enrolled him in tumbling, soccer and gymnastics to give him the movement and physical exertion his body craves. We’ve practiced self-calming and focusing strategies, and he’s doing well. Transitions are still dodgy, and he still gets really wound up whenever he is surrounded by new kids, but at least now, we know what’s going on, and he is able to articulate the sensations he’s experiencing and communicate his needs to us.  This week, his new kindergarten teacher called, and we’ll be meeting her Tuesday. My intuition says she’s on board, and that kindergarten’s going to be a great start for Gavin. I sure hope so.

*Author’s Note: though the Back to Sleep movement wisely advocates placing infants on their backs to sleep, NICU infants are usually connected to myriad wires, tubes and monitors, so they are often placed to sleep on their tummies.  Unless they’re Gavin, in which case, smart nurses give up. 


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