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Malina Saval Headshot

Going Places

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A typical drop-off scenario at my five-year-old son Boaz's pre-school goes something like this: We arrive fifteen minutes late and Bo refuses to get out of the car. He's screaming that he wants to go home and watch "Ben 10 Alien Force" YouTube videos. I have to prop Ayla, Bo's three-year-old sister, up on my hip and loop my other arm through their two mini-backpacks so I can undo Bo's car seat strap and fish around the floor for the sneakers he's kicked off, furious that I'm making him go to school.

When I finally get Bo out of the car and ferry him and Ayla across the parking lot, the preschool principal is waiting for us on the other side of the school's entrance, making sure Bo doesn't make a mad dash for the exit gate with its plastic child-safety device that's he's been attempting to crack open for months. But honestly, a Border patrolman in Tijuana would have an easier time detaining a drug mule than catching my kid.

And he's off. Running, running (cue theme from Rocky), running...

But what exactly is Boaz running from?

For the past three years, expert after expert has tried to put a label (or two, or three) on Boaz's behavior: the volcanic fits of frustration, the anxiety-driven freak-outs, the running away from situations where he doesn't feel safe in his own skin. He's been diagnosed with issues ranging from sensory integration dysfunction (a neurological disorder where one's brain has trouble regulating sensory information) to auditory-language processing dysfunction (trouble processing verbal information); he flirted briefly with an "autism spectrum" diagnosis after a 45-minute session with one developmental specialist who expressed concern over the amount of time he spent examining the wheels of a toy truck.

And while I'm not suggesting these diagnoses aren't grounded in some form of legitimate medical science, or even that they don't (at least partially) apply, on a certain level they all become meaningless, a jumble of hollow words, an ink stamp of disapproval that brands a kid an outcast because he's not acting the way we think he should. Going from developmental specialist to developmental specialist, picking up a slew of new diagnoses along the way, has become one long, infuriating social experiment.

But then somewhere in the midst of this alphabet soup of abbreviations and acronyms, I came across another term through a therapist friend of mine -- less label, more insight -- that actually seemed to make sense in describing Boaz: Kinesthetic learner.

There are four basic types of learners: auditory (learns by hearing), visual (by seeing), tactile (by touching) and kinesthetic. Kinesthetic learners need to move their bodies to absorb information most effectively. They crave constant physiological stimulation. For a kinesthetic learner, being told to sit in a semi-circle on a shag rug for story time without being able to get up and move about the room can be an incredibly stressful experience. They prefer learning activities that are hands-on, like getting down on their hands and knees and clawing through dirt to study insects, or bouncing on a therapy ball while drawing letters in shaving cream, or doing jumping jacks while reciting the alphabet. They are fearless explorers, swashbuckling adventurers, dauntless spelunkers excavating underground caves. Kinesthetic learners are the Vasco da Gamas and Ferdinand Megellans of pre-K.

But the reality is that most classrooms are not designed for kinesthetic learners, which is problematic if you've got a kid who is one. Picking a kindergarten for Bo to attend next fall is proving a Herculean task, the school-search equivalent of a black diamond ski trail. Cognitively, he's right where he's supposed to be for his age -- imaginative, clever, he does a spot-on nasally imitation of Ernie and Bert -- but behaviorally... well, while the rest of the class is gathered around the table making macaroni art, he's off in another corner upending plastic picnic tables pretending to be a giant snow monster or rolled up in a ball trying to calm himself, sulking inconsolably.

So where's the school for a kid like that?

So much has been written about how our education system is failing students (boys mostly) who don't fit the proverbial norm -- I even wrote a book that addressed the topic -- but no amount of research could have prepared me for dealing with it in my own child. (The irony here is that I sold the book before Bo was born, writing it during his first year of life before any sign of trouble). What I do know is that expecting Boaz to thrive in a traditional school setting where students are instructed to sit silently in their seats, hands clasped atop their desks, waiting patiently to be called upon, makes about as much sense as sticking a blue whale in a bathtub and demanding it to swim.

Boaz's dream school would look something like this: individualized attention; no seats (except for bean bags and giant cushions on the floor); no pencils (students could write their names in the air using their magical magic marker fingers); padded room with a zip-line, jungle gym, slides and rock climbing equipment; shoes optional; and a gymnastics foam pit filled to the hilt. And storybooks and a petting zoo and pirate swords and a fleet of bicycles to go with it. Maybe a goldfish tank where students can study different species of marine life. You might call it theater arts camp with a twist of Outward Bound and a dollop of super hero reenactment.

But this type of school doesn't exist, at least not where we live. And if it does exist out there in the educational ether, it's likely a private school and out of financial reach. And because I work full-time to make money to afford food and clothing and the little Jewish preschool with its nurturing staff of dedicated teachers that Boaz threatens to run away from each morning -- if this were any other school, I'm almost certain we'd be kicked out by now -- homeschooling is out of the question.

So now what?

Well, there's a long list of appointments and evaluations and assessments, Individualized Education Program meetings with the special education department of our local school district; sessions with his new psychiatrist. And hopefully by the end of it all we'll find a place for Bo that isn't going to do more damage than good, a place where he gets the attention that he needs and doesn't get penalized if he darts from his desk when the teacher starts explaining simple math. A school where he doesn't get reprimanded for stomping on top of chairs while sounding a dramatic lion-like roar. A school where Boaz is running toward the classroom -- not away from it.