Two weeks ago I was invited to do a short presentation to a hall full of educators about my experience as a parent moving from a special needs school, the Carel du Toit Centre, to a mainstream school.
This got me thinking of just how anxious changing schools can be. But what overwhelmed me even more was the fact that entering the mainstream school meant that I would have to go over the same things every year as we move to the next grade and a new teacher and new classroom dynamics!
We’ve been very fortunate in our school choice. I approached my son’s current school in 2012 even though my son only joined the school in 2014. Our experience with the school has been very encouraging. His teachers always approachable. His Grade 1 teacher attended the Carel du Toit teacher workshop last year, and this year his grade 2 teacher and a grade 3 teacher attended the workshop. Also in attendance at this year’s workshop was the principle of Fish Hoek Pre-Primary, the school my son attended when his challenges were diagnosed in 2012.
How absolutely fortunate are we to have such an inspiring group of educators in the Deep South?!
So, I thought, after my presentation, to write this blog for referral, for any teachers who may be welcoming a child with a special need into their classroom. This letter is specific to my experience and with it being our second year in mainstream, I can assure you that I felt as anxious and overwhelmed this year as I did the first year Kai joined the mainstream school!
Dear Mainstream Teacher,
I left this cocoon where all our needs were coordinated. A cocoon where I was trained in the complex art of developing parental skills to help my child thrive.
A class of 6 to 8 children, Speech, OT and Audiology. An observation room where I could sit, watch, and learn more about my son as he participated in classroom discussions and interacted with his peers. An observation room where I could learn from the manner in which his teacher helped him develop his auditory and language skills.
Carel du Toit, a parent centred space, where I had round table discussions about my son’s progress, challenges and goals with all role players. His teacher, speech, OT, audiology, social worker / psychologist (if necessary), parent guidance and the Principle. Together we supported holistic growth.
Weekly learner plan and goals we received every Friday. Giving us time, over the weekend, to familiarise ourselves with the lesson sketch for the week ahead.
Then the news: my child is ready for mainstream school!
Imagine the anxiety of boldly stepping out into the big wide world! The uncertainty of whether my child would cope in a classroom of 30, the acoustics, accommodations and additional support. How inclusive IS inclusive?
My role, suddenly changed, from being the “Student” to becoming the “Team Leader”
Like a bat, I blindly try and facilitate a smooth and exciting transition. Uncertain of the social and emotional challenges that he and I may face!
- Where do I begin?
- How do I duplicate this team approach outside of this special needs school?
- Will you, his teacher, be approachable?
- Is his FM system going to be a welcoming tool during classroom instruction?
- Will you be prepared to check that the hearing aids are working?
- How will the school acoustics impact on the listening environment?
- Will my child be made to feel “DIFFERENT”?
- How do I maintain a balance between homework, ongoing OT and Speech sessions, and weekly language goals?
- How do I incorporate it all?
- How do I help my child to develop self-advocacy skills without drawing unnecessary attention to him?
- Can I cope without overwhelming myself or my son?
- Most importantly, HOW DO I ENCOURAGE A TEAM APPROACH?
- Will the new Therapists understand our situation, our goals and be on board to work as an interdependent team?
- How do I facilitate a smooth transition?
- How do I minimise listening fatigue and people overload?
Feeling overwhelmed would be an epic understatement!
Suddenly I need to lead and coordinate MY OWN TEAM. A team of professionals, each based at their own private practices outside the school environment. How do I even begin to put the necessary structures in place to allow for continues development AND integration! Needing to keep track of all appointments AND deal with technology malfunctions!
Likened to climbing Mount Everest without a guide! I find my way and hope and pray that you will be prepared to hold our hands and travel this new journey with us. A journey with many detours along the way as we re-evaluate what works and what doesn’t.
Leaving this cocoon, I am anxious and fragile when we enter the mainstream school. Not only do I need to develop and maintain relationships with you, but I also need to maintain and develop relationships with new team members (Speech/OT/Audiology) AND keep everyone informed!
Then just as we become accustomed to it all, another year has gone by and the process of adapting starts all over again when we introduced to our new teacher for the new school year…where I now have to explain everything all over again and it takes at least a term to adjust…
Occasionally we may struggle with the language of math, sometimes we may fall behind/be ahead in homework. Our work at home will always be based on his capacity, tolerance and levels of frustration. On a bad day we may not do any homework, BUT on a good day we may fly through 3 days math and reading work. I may from time to time request that we keep books over the weekend in order for us to catch up and work when he is not so overwhelmed and tired.
I do not expect of you to be my son’s only educator. Our home should be an extension of your classroom, please provide me with weekly objectives and goals.
While you may be worried about his reading level, I’ve been spending the past 6 months helping him to remember the phonetics of the alphabet. Learning what each letter sounds like, and mastering the ch, th and sh sounds.
While you may be worried about his inability to count in 3s and 4s, I’ve spent the last 4 months, focussing on teaching him the meaning of difference and equal in the language of math…All this with the help of our speech and language therapist.
While you may be concerned about the fact that he may be trying too hard in class. Know that it takes effort to listen, process, retain and do…All this while the space around him may be annoying him. Know that I have my hands full with afterschool meltdowns and overload.
Mainstream Teacher, I thought I’d share this letter with you, because there is so much more that goes into educating and developing my child than the 5 hours that he spends with you at school.
Then there’s my worry about the social cues that he misinterprets or completely misses. Like the other day when I realised that when he holds his hand up, commonly recognised as a sign to STOP, using it as a hello and thank you sign. Not picking up on the very slight change in meaning when adding an ever so slight movement, the well known “hello or thank you wave”.
I only noticed this during a conversation about why he keeps showing drivers to stop when they’ve already stopped at the traffic lights. “No, mom, I’m saying thank you” and then later as our discussion evolved, I learned that this is also how he greets his friends. Putting up his hand, showing STOP! Missing and misinterpreting social cues…and body language…
Imagine his peers running over to him to play, he gets excited and lifts up his hand and “waves”. All the friend sees is a hand signal to “STOP”. The friend stops, turns around, and runs back to the other kids…leaving him rejected, not knowing why his good friend turned his back on his “hello wave”.
These are but a few of the things I share with you today. I want you to know that I do not expect of you to facilitate a one-on-one teaching approach. I appreciate that the other 29 students are equally entitled to as much support as my child.
All I ask is that you understand his special needs in the classroom and be open to his communication tools. From time to time I may request a meeting with you to provide some feedback or to discuss his progress or challenges in the classroom or at home.
I ask for your compassion and support. Please understand that YOU are my mainstream guide, my PERSON ON THE INSIDE!
Most importantly, DO NOT LOWER YOUR EXPECTATIONS for my child. He is very capable. DO NOT see his hearing impairment and sensory processing challenges as a limitation on his ability. See it as an opportunity to embrace difference, an opportunity to learn something new, an opportunity to develop a diversely different approach to educating a child, an approach, that in the end, will benefit the other 29 peers in his class.
Dearest mainstream teacher, welcome to OUR team! Together we learn, together we grow.
PS – hearing aids are not like spectacles, it will never give the person “20/20” hearing in every situation and amplifies ALL sounds.