Navigating the Ability Gap

When motor skills don’t match up with intellectual ability, what path do you take?

When Enzo was pushing five, he was excited about going to kindergarten. He wanted to learn to read, and was so ready to become “a big kid.” But when he took his kindergarten readiness test, I was shocked that his teacher, GG, recommended another year in preschool. She showed me his abstract skills test, consisting of some squares drawn stacked upon top of each other. “He’s way ahead,” she said. “He’s thinking conceptually like a six or seven-year-old.”
Preschool teacher with students
I was tremendously confused, weighing the mis-match between his intellect and his weak hands.
“So,” I offered, puzzled, “we should start him in second grade?”
Then she showed me Enzo’s “Half a Man” test, where the teacher draws one side of a stick figure and the child is asked to draw the other. He had completed the head, and the body, and the smile, but there were some missing face and body parts. “Look here,” she said, pointing to some scrawly marks where the pencil had barely touched the paper in some places. “His fine motor skills are those of a three-year-old.”
I was tremendously confused, weighing the mis-match between his intellect and his weak hands. “Can’t he just do more drawing over the summer?” I asked. “Motor skills build from the outside-in,” she said. “He’ll always be behind the other kids a little, it’s just who he is,” she said.
Now get this: I loved this woman. GG was the best teacher ever. She let the kids go flying down hills on big wheels. She would make poop jokes and let the kids run the CD player. She taught us how to see problems simply: “I want what you have. What should we do?” What should we do? Enzo was revving his engines; he wanted to go. “It’s a judgment call,” she said sensing my struggle. “He’ll be okay, but his handwriting will probably be terrible. Kids like this also tend to fall behind in about eighth grade.” I got angry. How dare she lay such a heavy prediction on our bright boy?
I had faith. I knew we’d figure it out. I knew we’d SHOW HER!
And we did, for the most part. We will forever be in debt to his second-grade teacher, who recognized that his hands could not keep up with his mind, and urged us to teach him to type. (Note: small and frequent squares of a chocolate-flavored energy bar can help a kid stick to the most difficult learning tasks.) After fifth grade (and more sweet rewards for trying cursive), his handwriting got much better. But when he hit eighth grade, GG’s prediction did come true.
Falling behind in 8th grade, however, is also a red flag for ADHD. We didn’t learn this until half way through 10th grade, of course. And even now, on the hard days, I find myself arguing with history: “If motor delays go hand-in-hand with ADD, why didn’t GG think to tell us that?” And, “What if we had taken her advice? Would things be easier now, or harder in different ways? Would he be bored instead of challenged, and acting out instead of stressed?” In hindsight, another year of preschool would have been heaven.
If I actually could rewrite history, I’d have myself and my husband get over the shock and the stigma and hire a learning specialist to give Enzo the occupational therapy he needed. (Oh, and to do that, I’d also rewrite the economy so my teacher-husband got raises in that decade rather than pay cuts.) But we were keeping most, if not all of the balls in the air, and chose to move forward. Enzo was mostly fine, and the truth is: Kindergarten was free. And in our public school, he didn’t stand out as a problem learner. On the contrary, his teachers all loved him. Maybe GG just wanted to keep him for herself...?

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