By Anja Rosenke
The countdown is on – my son turns 5 in a couple of months and is due to enter Kindergarten in September. Officially, early intervention ends at this point and I am already preparing for the distinct shift that will occur as he transitions into his next phase of life, that of the school-aged child.
I can’t help but feel a mix of both apprehension and excitement about this – knowing full well how fortunate we have been over the past 3 and a half years to have received both comprehensive services for our son’s needs and an incredible level of individualized support as a family. Like many of you, we have also developed close friendships with other families within our early intervention agency – people who understand us simply because they are going through the same thing. Come September, many of these children will move on to a school within their local school district or an independent school of their parents’ choosing.
So what awaits us out there in the “post-five” world? The Big Unknown! A new school, new teachers, new professionals, new schedules and new protocols. Daunting, right? It might feel like starting from scratch again, learning to navigate this new educational system. But with a bit of research and preparation, the move into the mainstream doesn’t have to seem foreign or intimidating for very long.
In anticipation of the Big Move, I’ve attended several Kindergarten entry meetings and parent panel presentations over the past few months. From these, I’ve gleaned a few ideas that might make the move “into the mainstream” a bit smoother for you and your child. These tips are by no means written in stone, nor are they exhaustive. You will notice that I have not included information on IEP meetings or timelines or the types of services available, as these will vary depending on your school of choice and your child’s needs. Whether your child is joining his or her hearing peers in Kindergarten or at a different age, the following will hopefully provide you with some starting points for creating a successful transition for your child.
Tip #1 TRUST IN YOURSELF You know your child best! Always keep this in the back of your mind as you meet new professionals and teachers. While each of them is probably very experienced at what they do, they will just be getting to know your child. So as parents, be confident in your experience and your knowledge base. Your contribution is significant and will be vital to the successful transition of your child into this new environment.
Tip #2 DO YOUR HOMEWORK You have options as to school choice. Make a list of priorities for your child’s school environment – what are your goals for your child? Some considerations might include location, class size, the school’s attitude towards communication access for your child and the school approach to social responsibility and bullying. If socializing ranks high for you, you might choose your local neighbourhood school for ease of building friendships with the neighbourhood kids. Research different schools that interest you, online or by asking other parents. Most principals will welcome your phone call and your visit and this is a great opportunity for you to ask questions and also to guage the school’s climate.
Tip #3 PREPARE YOUR CHILD Most schools hold a Kindergarten orientation event around May for the children entering in the fall. However, if your child is older, it might be beneficial to request a tour in May or June. Be sure to bring your child and bring your camera so you can take pictures of the gym, library, office and classroom for their grade. During the summer break, you and your child can look through the photos. Often the school-based team will provide a little booklet about the school, including names and pictures of the principal, secretaries and teachers, details of daily routine and special events. In late August, you could bring your child back to the school for a refresher and walk through the school again. Many teachers will already be in their classrooms prepping for the start of school. If you have the opportunity, you might look to connect with some of the other parents whose children will be entering school with your child in the fall. This could give your child a sense of familiarity and comfort once September rolls around.
Tip #4 SEPTEMBER HAS ARRIVED! Kindergarten is now a full-day program throughout BC and shifting from a part-day preschool program to a full-day, full-week one regimen might be a big adjustment for your child. Many schools set up a 1- or 2-week gradual entry program, building up to a full-day of school and also incorporate daily quiet time in the afternoons. In addition to this, you can also help shape your child’s gradual entry into the classroom if you think your child needs it. Reach out to other parents and invite children from your child’s class over to play at your house. Even staying after school on sunny days to play on the playground with the other kids will give your child more opportunities to forge friendships and a sense of belonging to his or her new school. Though Kindergarten is a busy year, full of many firsts, keep in contact with families from your early intervention centre if you can, as these friendships are easy, well-established and comfortable for your child.
Tip #5 TOOLS FOR GOOD COMMUNICATION These days, many classrooms are equipped with a computer and more and more teachers are available via email on their iPhones or iPads. Others teachers still prefer the more traditional method of correspondence: writing comments in a communication book and discussing your child’s progress during parent/ teacher conferences each term. The amount of actual face time you get with your child’s classroom teacher will vary from teacher to teacher, year to year. The reality is that teachers often have little time to chat at 3pm and parents often work and can’t be present at the school every day. The home/school communication book can be a valuable tool. It will have space for the classroom teacher, the hearing resource teacher and educational assistant (if one is assigned to your child) to provide feedback on your child’s day. There will also be space for you to convey comments or ask questions. A great idea is to set up the communication book in a way that your child can be involved with daily entries as well. For example, the sheets in the daily communication book could be in picture format – where the child can circle the activities they did that day, circle their favorite, least favorite and also rate their day (smiley face/ neutral/ unhappy face). In addition, some teachers are very open about their lesson plans and the themes or topics they will be covering each term. This type of information can be immensely helpful for introducing topics at home, reinforcing concepts or simply keeping track of what your child is learning.
Tip #6 BE PRESENT, BE INVOLVED If you are able, get involved at your child’s school. There will be many opportunities to do so. Attend PAC meetings, volunteer in the classroom, supervise on field trips. It’s the closest thing to being a fly on the wall! For working parents, this may understandably prove difficult and if that kind of involvement is just not possible for you, be sure to attend concerts and any special events when you are able. This way, the school administration sees your commitment to and interest in the school and you can get the inside scoop on the school culture, the other parents and your child’s peers.
Tip #7 THE TEAM APPROACH As parents, you are key players on your child’s support team and taking a positive, collaborative approach will lay the groundwork for building good relationships with the various teachers and professionals who will be part of your child’s school life. Continuity from your preschool/ early intervention program can be helpful for a successful transition to the new school. Your early intervention team is a great resource, as these professionals and teachers have come to know your child very well and can provide reports and assessments and possibly be present at IEP and transition meetings. Often the new school will send a group to the preschool to observe your child in that environment but apparently this is not guaranteed. A possible alternative suggested by some parents is to make a video of your child’s “can’s” and “can’ts” in preparation for the transition meeting with the school (usually held in May or June). It is important to present a realistic image of your child’s mode and level of communication and functioning. The principal can afterwards share the video with other staff to gain a better understanding of your child.
Tip #8 WHAT IF? Despite the best laid plans, sometimes things don’t play out as you expected. Should a concern arise, you will need to communicate this with the school, starting with your child’s classroom teacher. For many parents, putting on the “advocate’s hat” may be new and seem uncomfortable but keep in mind that you are your child’s representative and only speak for his or her best interests. Hopefully with a good communication system in place and a good working relationship with your child’s school-based team, any issues can be ironed out. There is always room for adjustment along the way and you can change what’s not working. For advice, you can always turn to your fellow parents, early interventionists and parent-led organizations like BC Hands & Voices, CHHA Parents’ Branch and Family Network for Deaf Children (FNDC). So as my son’s final year of preschool enters its final term, I somehow feel like the student leaving to attend a new school! Yes, in some ways it is a daunting time with another big learning curve involved, but it’s also an exciting time filled with opportunity. But I draw strength thinking about all that I’ve learned over the past few years. There are loads of resources available to help parents like us as we prepare for this next stage of schooling for our children. So get connected and get excited! The future awaits!