Felix is a 10 year old 5th grade Native American male student. Felix has a physical disability that causes him to miss school for medical appointments. He is an empathic student. Sensitive about his own disability, he recognizes suffering in others more easily. Felix has few friends, but is close to them as well as his four or five cousins. Felix is quiet, but responds to questions after careful thought. Felix possesses excellent problem solving skills and came up with solutions after I gave him the invitation. Felix is a lover of animals and recognizes the reciprocal power of the human-animal bond. Felix is highly intelligent, articulate and could potentially be a “Gifted and Talented” student, but poor attendance has precluded this official identification. Felix relies on his mother to organize his things before school, to see him off to bed and to wake him up in the morning, but this year, family stressors have taken mom away from home significantly more, particularly on Sundays and Wednesdays.
Attendance has been a concern for school officials since Felix’s Kindergarten year. The person who held my job before was not a social worker and practiced “Plan A” approaches like threatening social services and court involvement to no avail if a student’s attendance remained poor. Historically, school attendance and western time-keeping/promptness for Felix’s family have not been of great cultural value.
The past power struggles between school officials and Felix’s mom have left her reluctant to deal with the school. Mom missed two appointments we had set up and would not respond to messages I left on her phone. With patience and persistence, and nearly a month after starting to reach out to her, I was able to meet with her. I found a neutral territory to meet as the principal’s office seemed to put mom off.
We met for nearly two hours. Instead of threatening mom or starting off the conversation with the school’s concerns, I listened to what was going on in her and her family’s life. Recent deaths and health problems had put a lot of stress on the family.
Mom told me that since this last summer she needed to be away from Felix a few days out of the week and late into the night, whereas before she was with him most of the day outside of school and was always at home at night to put Felix to bed. This separation was taking some getting used to. Felix has had to take up more responsibility and has been struggling to go to bed at night. Mom would get home sometimes around midnight on Sundays and Wednesdays and find Felix still up and not having any of his stuff ready for school the next day. Mom would manage to get Felix to bed, but often would be too tired to help him get his stuff prepared for school and would not fight him the next morning when Felix kept hitting snooze or sleeping through his alarm.
I easily empathized with mom because I myself have been adjusting to getting my own son ready for Head Start, as his mom is starting a new job; change is draining, and as it turns out, neither mom, nor Felix or I are rise and shine types. We would rather stay in bed on these chilly fall mornings.
Felix’s mom had found herself in “Plan A” attendance conversations before, and was quite familiar with the school’s attendance policies and consequences for missing. I think this was why she had dodged me for so long. Fortunately, in the time I was waiting to meet her, I had gathered enough information about Felix so that my stated concerns were less about legal consequences and more about some specific academic and social impacts of Felix’s poor attendance. His teachers are impressed with how Felix manages to keep up his grades despite his absences; they think he is very bright and probably a student who would test as “gifted and talented” if he didn’t miss so much.
I also told mom that I saw Felix coming into class one morning looking very tired and was unresponsive to his teacher’s questions about math facts that she was sure he knew. His teacher said this was becoming more common and that they noticed Felix looked embarrassed when she or others, including students, asked about how his mornings were going. Felix simply shrugged his shoulders when I had asked him how his morning was going when I observed him in class that day. I told mom what I had observed and relayed the teacher’s concerns, including how Felix’s tardiness was becoming a distraction to her and others in the classroom.
Mom appreciated the concerns I mentioned. No one had told her before that Felix could possibly get the official designation of being “gifted and talented,” but this was not shocking either; she knows how bright he is. His mom expressed how she would like Felix to get ahead in school and not play catch up. She also apologized for the distractions Felix’s tardiness may be causing.
When I asked mom if she had any ideas on how we could solve this problem, she thought for a while and said maybe it would be a good idea if Felix stayed with his cousins and Auntie on Sundays and Wednesdays. Felix’s Auntie is sterner and has her own kids in bed by 8 and to school on time the next day. I checked on the cousin’s attendance and they had only missed a couple of days and were never late. Mom’s idea seemed pretty solid and I told her I would still like to meet with Felix and hear some of his concerns and ideas too. Mom said she didn’t have time to meet with Felix and me, but would love it if I would talk to him alone. I said the next day would be great and asked if she would give him a heads up and summarize for him what she and I had discussed. She happily agreed and we parted ways.
The next day I met with Felix and it was probably the easiest Plan B I had with a student so far this year. He had talked to his mom the night before and was thrilled at the prospect of staying with his cousins regularly. I asked him what was up with his attendance and he told me how hard it had been with his mom being away so much more these days. Felix plays Xbox late into the night, instead of getting homework done and preparing himself for school the next day. Felix likes to hit the snooze button many times and sometimes his alarm stops. Mom tries waking him up every morning, but does not fight him when he tells her to come back later and let him sleep. When Felix does wake up, he likes to spend some time with his cat before leaving his house and does not like eating breakfast until he has been awake for a couple of hours.
I told Felix I too have a hard time getting up in the morning, but that it helps me get out of bed when I think of how embarrassed I would feel if I showed up late. I mentioned the morning I had observed him coming in late and asked him if he felt embarrassed that day and if he thought that might be distracting to other students and his teacher. Felix said it was pretty upsetting to come to school late, but that it was still too hard to get up in the morning on his own. He said his Auntie would make sure he gets to school. I said that was a great idea and asked him if he had thought of any other ideas, since he wasn’t going to be staying with his Auntie on Mondays, Tuesdays or Thursdays. We agreed that his attendance was a problem on any given day of the week.
What happened next was surprising for a couple of reasons. Firstly, when I have offered the invitation to most students, they do a lot of shoulder shrugs. Like Lost at School suggests, students are more used to having adults assert their will and not consider the student’s unresolved problems, concerns or possible solutions. Because power struggles are more common, many of us do not have ample opportunities to develop some of our cognitive abilities.
Felix, however, has some pretty solid skills, and he demonstrated these when he said, “Maybe my cat can help.” We had talked earlier about our mutual love for animals and Felix had recalled that discussion and was now suggesting that his mom’s struggles to get him out of bed in the morning would be made easier if she just sent the cat into the room early in the morning to claw at Felix’s chest. The cat would jump on Felix sleeping sometimes, and her purring and clawing would always get him out of bed. Felix had not shared this with his mom before. I instantly fell in love with the idea and I hope I didn’t scare Felix with my excitement. This Plan B stuff had become rather fun.
The second reason what happened surprised me is that it actually appears to be working! I guess dealing with attendance for the last year has left me apathetic. It’s been over a month now and Felix has only been absent two days due to a documented medical reason. And he hasn’t been late at all!
The relationship piece I believe has been crucial to Plan B’s success. Normally, I like to give positive phone calls to parents when I see any kind of improvement, but with Felix’s mom, I have been on the receiving end of the calls. She called me the day after we met to say how awesome her and Felix’s plan was working. I was excited too, but knew it was only the first day. But then, she sent me a text that read, “Yeah! We made it a whole week!” This was followed by similar messages in the coming weeks, and the last one read, “Yeah! A whole month!”
Of course, I told Felix personally how happy and pleased I was with his efforts, and I implored him, “Please thank your cat, too!