Kindergarten: The New Frontier

 

This week, the day I’ve been dreading for years finally arrived: Sam’s first day of kindergarten.

This isn’t a day I would normally dread. It’s a milestone, right? Your sweet, self-assured little former-preschooler beginning his or her formal education. But I wondered, would it be different for Sam? Would I have to fight to get him placed in the correct kindergarten? Would he fit in? Would he be ready? Would they be ready for him?

Many of these questions are things most parents wonder about, but it’s a little more pronounced when your child has an intellectual disability. Because historically, the United States education system has not been very inclusive of children with intellectual disabilities. There were the institutionalization days of the pre-1980s (and in some cases, even partway through the 1980s). There were the segregated classroom years from the 1980s up through…well, now.

It is only very recently that inclusion has really started being a viable option for children with intellectual disabilities. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which guarantees children with disabilities the right to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE, which is generally presumed to be a general education classroom with appropriate supports), wasn’t even passed until 1990. And even after its passing, it was still common practice to educate students with intellectual disabilities in segregated classrooms, unless their parents pushed back and insisted that the school uphold the child’s legal right to an education in a general classroom.

Even two years ago, when Sam started preschool, I had to fight for this. And so, you can imagine that I was worried about kindergarten. I knew we wanted to pursue inclusive education in a general education setting for him, but I didn’t know whether we’d succeed—and to what extent.

I am happy to say that this first week has not only met with my expectations, but exceeded them! I am beyond pleased with the efforts our school and district are making to include Sam in a general education kindergarten classroom!

The long story made short? I asked, and we received. I asked that he be included with his typically developing peers in a general education classroom, and they agreed. I asked that an aide be assigned to help him with a couple of areas where he would not be successful on his own. They agreed. I asked for push-in services for speech and occupational therapy, so he wouldn’t be removed from the classroom and segregated. They agreed. And the district representative commented that they are trying to move toward a more inclusive model of education, which made me really happy—but I admit that I was skeptical. Historically, our district has not been very inclusive, so you can see why I might be doubtful.

But actually, they exceeded my expectations. I’ve heard a lot of stories of high turnover of aides or families waiting to get an aide in place for weeks after the first day of school. But we showed up the first day and promptly met the aide, who has been hired to work with three students out of ten in the afternoon kindergarten class—Sam and two others who require a bit of extra assistance. She’s been with the school district for years and in fact used to work in special education, so I kind of feel like he’s getting the best of both worlds—access to the general curriculum, but with assistance from someone who is used to working with unique learners and nonverbal children. (Her own daughter is nonverbal, apparently, so she isn’t the least bit flustered by Sam’s delayed speech.)

I could not be more pleased with the teacher, who came up and greeted Sam the first day with, “Hi! I’m Mrs. S. Can I shake your hand?” No talking down to him as if he can’t understand—just reaching out to him as she would any other child in the class. And when the parents sat down during the first-day orientation, instead of introducing the aide as “here to help three of our children,” the teacher just commented, “We’re lucky to have an aide assigned to our afternoon class! Miss A will be here every day helping out.” No singling out the kids who the aide is actually hired to be there for—I like it!

The second day, the inclusion specialist came and introduced herself to me. She then called me the next day and said, “You know, since you work for Down Syndrome Connection, I wonder if you can connect me with the education coordinator there.” She went on to say that she is really invested in getting the classrooms in our district to work more inclusively, and she wants to talk to the education coordinator about the research behind inclusion and terminology she can use to introduce the staff and teachers to the benefits of inclusive education.

Sam obviously can’t tell me how school is going, but here’s what I’ve gathered:

  • Sam goes to school cheerfully and is smiling when I pick him up, so he must be enjoying it—or at least not disliking it!
  • The district seems to really be open to working toward a more inclusive model, which thrills me.
  • The teacher and aide seem a perfect match for Sam, at least based on the first week.
  • Everyone at the school knows Sam. Like, everyone. People I don’t even know are calling out, “Hi Sam!” when I walk by with him. Clearly the little imp is making an impression.

So here we are at the end of the first week, and I am both relieved and thrilled. Here’s hoping the year continues to progress as well as the first week has begun!

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