My baby is starting school. For a long time that sentence really stressed me out. To say, to hear, to type. When you have a child with a disability like Down syndrome, sometimes embarking on things like school can bring about more challenges than just the separation between you and your child. Although that is definitely A THING!!! So on top of the emotional aspect, there were other things that were important to consider when preparing for my little one to start school.
After countless meetings and conversations, I am now 100% confident sending Hazel to school because I am 100% confident in the team of teachers that have opened their hearts up to us so freely. They have accepted Hazel, acknowledged her potential, gone above and beyond to ensure our comfort and they genuinely care about the future education of my daughter. They treat her with respect, and consider her worthy. Not only am I not nervous about sending her to school, I'm excited!!! (I am going to miss her though - sooooooo much - so there's that).
Since I am feeling so confident I figured something must have happened to help foster that confidence. I thought I would share 5 things that a teacher can do to help ease the transition to school for the parents and the child with a disability.
There's nothing more important in any relationship than communication. For the parent sending their child with a disability to school, we want to know that we can speak to the teachers and the educational assistant on a regular basis. It's important that everyone's expectations are clearly stated, plans laid out and progress reports given. Ask the parents what you can do to help them feel more confident in the process of transitioning to school. Follow their lead. Maybe this parent wants to educate the rest of the class about the disability, maybe they don't want to center out their child. Maybe they have specific goals they are working on. They may even want to be involved in the program and curriculum goals set out for their child. Maybe they just want everyone to know that their child is worthy and capable. Everyone is different and chooses to handle things the way they feel is best. Talking together and having regular communication will keep everyone on the same page. Consistency across the board means everyone wins!!!
2. Be The Model
Students watch every single move their teacher makes, even if they don't seem like it. Children are observers, they watch everything and they learn even the most untoward of behaviours. I'm sure we've all been embarrassed a time or two by the things our children choose to imitate. Yelling into the telephone, growling and shaking their heads, pointing a finger. We've all been there - TELL ME WE'VE ALL BEEN THERE??!! The teacher has a very important task of modeling how to accept and include a child with a disability. If the teacher is dismissive and impatient with a child that takes a little longer to explain their thoughts or react in a social interaction, then the students will be too. The teacher must show the rest of the class HOW to be patient by BEING patient themselves. It's helpful to model positive peer interactions, highlight all children's strengths and foster equal treatment of all students (and equal does not necessarily mean the same).
3. Set The Tone
Encourage an inclusive environment that accommodates all learning types. A child with a disability is capable of being a classroom leader just as anyone else would be. Promote an environment where all the children play together and all the activities are accessible to everyone. Discuss how everyone is different and that being different is just that, "different." It's not good or bad. Nothing is "wrong," just different. Different is what makes the world a beautiful place.
4. Previous Meetings
Take some time to meet the child and parents before the first day of school. Not just in the transition meetings but a more casual meeting in the classroom. Allow the child and parents an opportunity to get to know you, the teacher, a little bit before the school year starts. It's likely that the child will feel more confident and relaxed if the teacher and the parents have a good rapport. Also, if at all possible, visit the child at the preschool they attend. The child is likely very comfortable there and you will be able to see them in their own element. The preschool teachers will be a wonderful resource and have wealth of information about your child in a classroom setting.
5. Have Expectations
Children with disabilities are capable, worthy and able to accomplish goals on all skill levels. Be a facilitator and a tool that can help the child reach their full potential. Maybe you recognize that a child needs a quiet space to work, more frequent rest time, is a more visual learner or just needs that little extra support to feel confident. No matter what the challenge, our children are warriors. They work hard to master skills and do not back down from a challenge (resist a challenge, sure, but who doesn't?). If the teacher has expectations of the student, the other children/students will have expectations as well. Exceptions are what takes our child from doing well to being able to reach their full potential.
***and here's one more little bonus secret I'm going to let you in on...
6. Prepare for Pure Joy
Recognize that you are about to experience joy, pride and respect for a child that you may not have ever felt for any other child. Our children work so hard for the things they accomplish -- and they DO ACCOMPLISH -- that your heart will just about explode out of your chest when the skill is mastered. You will likely have spent lots of time, energy and effort on teaching certain skills and when they get it - well - that's a feeling that only the most privileged of people get to experience. As a mother, I feel honoured to have been given that opportunity everyday.
Disclaimer: Of course, all children are different and work at their own pace regardless of the disability they have. I am not suggesting that this will work for every child or every parent. Nor, am I attempting to speak on behalf of all parents of all kids of all disabilities. These five points are my own opinion. I have been lucky enough to find a team of teachers that do all of these things. Good luck!!! If you have any other points you'd like to share please feel free to leave a comment below.