DSDN asked its member mom bloggers to tackle the subject of transitioning to Preschool the month of August. Every week you will see a blog post on our mom's thoughts and experiences with transitioning their child with Down syndrome to preschool. All opinions expressed are their own.
Leaving the comfort of Early Intervention can be overwhelming! Here are five things to know as you prepare for your child’s transition to the school system.
1. Know your rights
It is never too early to learn about the school system (both the one in your neighborhood and the larger entity). Education law is complex and can be overwhelming, which is why I recommend tackling it well prior to your child’s transition. Start by knowing that your child is legally guaranteed access to a free, appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE) through a landmark piece of legislation called IDEA. Two great places to start learning about these rights are http://sites.ed.gov/idea and www.wrightslaw.com.
In learning about our rights, I found a few pieces that were very helpful during the transition process. First, you can (and should) request a copy of any reports, evaluations, draft IEP documents, etc, prior to the IEP meeting. It gives you a chance to process what the school is proposing and to prepare any revisions prior to the meeting. Second, make sure all communication is done in writing! Email is sufficient. While I know we’ve often been told that picking up the phone is best, when it comes to education, a written record of communication is key. Follow up any verbal conversations with a written summary in an email. Finally, I learned that your child does not have to perform at any particular level to be considered for a typical classroom. Evaluations should point to what supports your child might need in a classroom and not a classroom placement. Special Education is a service, not a place.
2. Know what you want - now and long term
Thinking about life goals for your child may be daunting, but moms of older children and adults have taught me how important it is to envision the life that you want for your little one starting when she is headed off the preschool. You can dream big! In our family, we envision Tessa living independently and working in our community in a job of her choosing. As such, we will work with her school to provide her with the knowledge and skills she needs to do so. We are strong advocates for Tessa being educated with her typical peers because we know that she is one who learns best by watching those around her and copying their actions and behaviors. We know that she likes to run and is virtually fearless, so we knew she would need an one-to-one aide to keep her safe, but we also hope to remove that support from her IEP as she gets older.
3. Know the process
Just like knowing your rights, it is also never too early to learn the process of transitioning to preschool. While your Early Intervention team will likely start talking about Transition sometime between age two and two and a half, you can start to familiarize yourself with the process at any time. Start by asking your service coordinator to outline the timeline for you as soon as you feel comfortable. You can also reach out to local preschools in the area (those run by your public school system and private, if you are considering that route) to ask them what Transition looks like from their perspective. What happens prior to your IEP meeting? When will your child be brought in for evaluation? What will that evaluation look like? Who is included? Most schools will also invite you to come visit - take them up on that! If they don’t offer, ask. The more you know, the less scary the transition will be.
In our case, we started by meeting with our Early Intervention Team at her annual review, where we wrote a goal for preschool readiness. We asked our therapists to focus on things like completion of non-preferred tasks and sitting in a chair. At two and a half, we had an informal meeting with a school psychologist in our home. Two months prior to her third birthday, we went to the school for a play-based evaluation with all of the support teams (Speech, OT, PT, social work, etc). I requested and received their reports and our draft IEP a week prior to our meeting. We have a couple of friends who are Special Education teachers and strong advocates for inclusion, so we asked them to review her IEP. Everything looked great! We met for the IEP about two weeks before her third birthday and it was a very positive experience.
4. Know where you can find support
Facebook has become an invaluable resource for connecting with families who have walked a similar path to ours. Between DSDN’s support groups and other independent groups, there is no shortage of help and guidance. DSDN has an IFSP/IEP support group. Outside of DSDN, there are groups that focus on Inclusion, Behavior Strategies, Speech, and a myriad of other topics. I will admit that all of the posts can be overwhelming to me; I am often not mentally prepared to read about some of the topics that parents will ask about. Once I join a group, I sometimes choose to unfollow their posts and just navigate to their page when I am looking for ideas or information.
Local parent groups can also be invaluable in navigating your particular school system. If possible, find one that aligns with your family’s beliefs about education for your child, no matter what those may be. And remember, what one family deems as perfect may not be what you want for your own child. Follow your instincts!
5. Know that your child will rock this.
My daughter Tessa rides the bus to and from school every day. When she turned three, I could not possibly imagine my little peanut of a child on the bus! There were a couple of hiccups along the way - at first, she would cry when she had to board in the morning. There was an aide that totally freaked her out. But before a month had passed, she was a bus-riding fanatic. You may not believe it now, but your child will be able to sit with his peers during circle time. He will line up for recess and make friends in his classroom. He will come home exhausted, especially at first, but he will rock this… and so will you!
Maggie Lay is a teacher and mom of three girls living in the Chicago suburbs. Her middle daughter, Tessa, has been rockin’ her extra chromosome since 2013. She blogs about family life and Down syndrome at yosoylalay.com.