Education Canada Magazine

Diversity, School Community

A Different Kind of School Re-Entry

“It’s a pleasure having your son in my class; he is a positive influence in the classroom.”

The high school teacher who sent this email probably had no idea what a relief it was to read these few kind words.

Before landing in that teacher’s classroom, my son had been on a learning journey that was as unique as he is. With his twice-exceptional profile (he is gifted and has Asperger’s Syndrome and ADHD), Calum has never been a typical student. His first four years of public school were challenging, ending in a tough decision to try an online learning program, hoping that it would be flexible enough to meet the needs of my quirky son.

I questioned my decision constantly during the first three years of online learning – during which he flatly refused to do almost any schoolwork.

At some point in Grade 7, though, something changed. Calum’s interest in learning was ignited, and he discovered a passion and talent for math and science. With the help of tutors, Calum moved up three grade levels in math, then in science. But alongside his clear academic strengths, he struggled with many things a typical student might do without a second thought. Calum needed help to break down large projects into manageable tasks, or he would find himself unable to get started. He refused to watch the videos for his online pre-calculus course, citing frustration with the slow pace of the material, but would then struggle to complete assignments because he didn’t know how else to learn the concepts. He seemed incapable of keeping track of textbooks or the schedules he and his study skills tutor created to track what he should work on each day. If he didn’t understand the expectations for an assignment, he had a tendency not to ask for help, and to fall further and further behind. I wasn’t sure whether he knew what resources were available to help with his assignments, or how to make use of them. And yet when he could overcome these obstacles and get his work done, he got excellent grades.

No, Calum was not your typical student, but with university clearly in his future, it was time to develop some non-academic skills that he would need. If he was going to get used to the routines and expectations of a classroom, better that he do so in high school than struggle with these demands during his first year at university.

By Grade 10, Calum felt ready to try school “in a building” again – I just wasn’t sure that I was ready for the stress of making that transition! How would my outside-the-box learner, with his uneven set of learning skills, taking courses at three different grade levels, fit back into a school system that is designed for more typical learners?

My hands were shaking as I picked up the phone to call the local high school and ask if we could visit. But the secretary who answered couldn’t have been kinder. In fact, from the day of our first visit to the school, every person we talked to helped to make the transition smoother, from the secretary who kindly answered my first hesitant questions, to the vice-principal, resource teacher and counsellor who made time in their busy schedules to meet with us when we came to tour the school, to the classroom teachers who took a couple of minutes to check in with my son and ensure he was settling in well after classes started. Every single person in that building communicated that my son was welcome there and that they were genuinely pleased to have my quirky teen as part of their school community. Our distance learning teacher was equally kind and supportive – she made it clear that Calum would be welcome to come back if our school experiment didn’t work out, and even called a few weeks into his first semester at his new high school to find out if things were going well.

Educators are busy people, with many students to support. But the willingness of this school’s staff to make time for me and my son made his transition smoother; it made us feel cared for. The time they took to reach out, ask what we needed, and give us reassurance made all the difference for one teenager and his anxious mom.

We want to know what you think. Join the conversation @EdCanPub #EdCan!


Photo: Kati York

First published in Education Canada, December 2017


Meet the Expert(s)

Vicki Parnell Education Canada Magazine

Vicki Parnell

Autism consultant

Vicki Parnell is an autism consultant who lives on a tiny island off the coast of British Columbia. Her son, Calum, made the principal...

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