Where the inside of my mind leaks onto the screen.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

An Alexland Theory

I remember being worried that the structure of school might cause Alex's imagination to fade as he learned to supply expected answers.  If the little boy I found talking to his hangers yesterday is any indication, Alex is well into first grade with Alexland still holding strong.  Actually, carrying out full conversations with inanimate objects (which of course talk back to Alex and to each other) is one of Al's strengths.  He frequently reminds us of Fred Randall, from what is quite possibly my favorite movie of all time:

If someone were to ask me to list Alex's strongest qualities, the list would look something like this:

  • Imagination
  • Charm
  • Charisma
People flock to Alex.  I hear Alex stories almost daily at work.  So I was quite surprised to experience a very different Alex story for myself.

Each Tuesday and Thursday I get to end my workday by teaching music to my own sons.  Alex's first grade class attends music from 1:10 to 1:30, followed by Adam's third grade class from 1:30 to 1:55.  Although I love teaching each of my 350 students, I am particularly partial to two particular Fife boys.  

Yesterday, I taught Alex's class an old African-American song called "John the Rabbit."  It's a fun little song about a rabbit with a particularly annoying habit of jumping in the garden.  We had discussed bad habits and their consequences, and I had taught the easy lyrics and repetitive medley.  Wanting to allow the students an opportunity to get out some wiggles in a creative way, I invited the students to stand and act out the story of the song, which includes the phrase "Yes, Sir," at the end of each two-measure phrase.  I encouraged the kids to choose an action to do each time they sang "Yes, Sir," and then fill in the rest of the story if they wanted.
I watched as 25 children wiggled and danced and giggled and sang and looked quite delighted to participate in a physical and creative way.  But as I scanned the classroom, I saw a very sad little boy who looked overwhelmed, confused and reluctant all at the same time.  My Alex was not moving a muscle!  

I scanned the room again; maybe he was not the only student who didn't find the activity fun.  When my eyes rested again on the sullen face of my typically vivacious son, I had confirmation that he truly was the only kid not participating.  I knelt near him and suggested a few "Yes, Sir" actions, each of which prompted only a negative shake of the head and brought Alex nearer to tears.

"I just can't think of something," he said, clearly frustrated.

Suddenly, I remembered an experience from Kindergarten.  His teacher had come to me with an example of Alex's incomplete journal.  Each day he had been asked to finish an open-ended prompt.  Yesterday, at lunch I _________________________________.  Something that makes me really excited is ___________________________________.  His teachers assumed his pretty constant lack of focus was prohibiting him from completing this independent work.  They had kept him in from recess to complete his prompts, and some days he had been late to art.  Nothing seemed to motivate Alex to finish this assignment during the allotted time.

After some investigation, I discovered it was neither obstinate behavior nor lack of focus that kept Alex from completing the sentences.  Rather, his huge imagination made the realm of possibilities so vast that he couldn't pick one.  While other students quickly settled on a finishing phrase, Alex sat, becoming more and more frustrated with his inability to settle on the perfect answer.

In Kindergarten, I fixed this by practicing with Alex in the car.  We would give him open ended statements and help him understand that it was even okay to make up an answer!  Soon he could confidently finish the prompts.

As I watched Alex's frustration grow, I remembered this experience.  He wasn't okay with just doing something, as I had suggested. He wanted something epic, and he just couldn't pick!  

I went back to the drawing board, ignoring the boring suggestions I'd given to clap his hands or salute.  Everyone else was already doing that.  Instead, I offered the sorts of solutions I figured Alex would eventually come up with: jumping twice (turning 180 degrees with each jump) and a large, silly, full body motion somewhat akin to a jumping jack.  Then I told him to pick one of those two options.  

He gave in, choosing the 360 turn.  Soon, the whole class was jumping, and that was okay with me.  Alex had joined the fun.  It didn't take long for him to stop thinking so hard about coming up with creative things to do and to just start doing them.  Instead of being the only kid not participating, he was the only kid lying on the ground at the suggestion of the cabbage being cut down.

How interesting that my intensely imaginative son has a really hard time being creative on demand.  How interesting that the seemingly simple request of a music teacher can send him into near tears.  How interesting that I witnessed, firsthand, how similar overwhelmed Alex looks to stubborn Alex.  It is no wonder last year's teachers thought he was just digging in his heels.

I am grateful for a life that allows me to observe my kids in a classroom setting and to discover the wonderful (and difficult) things their teachers already know about them.  I am grateful for Alex's first grade teacher who has helped him learn the behavioral and academic requirements of school without in any way damaging Alexland.  And I am excited to be entrusted with this very special child to help him learn how to stay himself in a world where no one else is quite like Alex.

**Side Note: 

A difficult side effect of Alexland is that Alex has a really hard time completing routine, independent tasks, like getting dressed each morning.  He regularly gets distracted somewhere between Step 1 (ie: picking up his underwear and lifting one leg) and Step 2 (ie: actually putting said leg through said underwear).  I require that he gets dressed with his door open, since my routine is designed to keep me nearby, putting on makeup in the nearby bathroom.  I can listen for the rustling sounds that indicate getting dressed verses the silence that often accompanies daydreaming.  However, my constant reminders have become as annoying to him as they are to me and resulted in daily fights just to get dressed.

I am proud to report that I recently came up with a genius solution, which has now worked for two consecutive weeks.  I share this not to brag but to offer an alternative if you find yourself sounding like a broken record, barking exhausted orders at a child who needs constant assistance staying on task.

He calls it "my video," which I noticed this morning he was reciting about 30 seconds ahead since he enjoys racing its descriptive reminders.  One particularly frustrated morning, I grabbed my cell phone, pointed its camera at a towel on the floor, and hit record.  I then patiently prompted Alex out loud through each step of getting dressed.  I got bored about 3 minutes in and started doing funny voices and singing made up songs.  My personal favorite is the "Belt Song"

Belt time, 
Belt time,
Alex is putting on his belt now.

I also enjoy the "Vest Rhyme"

Alex is the best,
Alex needs a vest,
Alex is the best, 
Alex needs a vest.

I think he's particular to the button up shirt section which references Alex the Contender, in my best announcer voice.  That's the part I heard him quoting this morning.

"Can he get a fourth button?  Why, yes he can! Alex has buttoned his fourth button, folks!"

The video is 8 1/2 minutes long and prompts Alex from drying himself off after his morning shower through pulling on each individual sock and shoe.  He has yet to finish after the video, and he prides himself on being able to finish ahead of the video at least a few days a week (since the first 3 minutes is literally me trying to get him to successfully put on his underwear, there's an easy way to get ahead).  

I feel calmer each morning knowing it will take Alex precisely 510 seconds or less to succeed in getting dressed.  I can stay focused on my own tasks (even venturing ALL THE WAY upstairs today while he got dressed) and know that at the end of the video, I'll have a clothed six year old.  We don't have to fight anymore, and each morning I get to praise him for getting dressed all by himself.

(Full disclosure: the fact that he wears a uniform to school makes this much easier; he wears literally the same items each day.  Also, he sets each item out the night before.  I can't even imagine how distracted he would get if he had to retrieve items from various areas of the room!)

If you have a kid who struggles staying focused in a room by himself, give my video idea a try.  For now, it's gold in our house!