Saturday, October 11, 2014

Getting Ready for School

Here in Australia, our school year runs with the calendar year, so the school year starts in Late January and runs through to December.
Children typically start preschool the year they turn 4, depending on where their birthday falls.  Here, the cut off date is the 30th June, so children born in the first half of the year can start preschool at the beginning of that year (at 3.5) and children whose birthdays fall later in the year, will start pre-school the following year.   (Some children will start as soon as they turn 4, and do 1.5 years of preschool)
Preschool typically is a program of half days, about 3 hours a day, or some schools do 3 full days (full days being normal school hours of about 8am to 2:30pm)  
With his May Birthday, Joshua would have been able to start preschool at the beginning of this year, but I had decided to hold off a year.   His Birthday is only about 6 weeks before the cut off date, so that would have made him one of the younger children in the class, and combined with his developmental delays, I felt it would be better to just wait another year, and give him a bit more time to work on some of the basic preschool skills that other children would already be doing.  In that time, we started doing some more private therapy in addition to Early Intervention to help him with his preschool readiness.  Joshua has attended day care for 2 days a week since he was 19 months old, and in April this year, that changed to 3 days a week as I began to work again outside of the home (at the daycare centre which he attends)  Daycare and preschool both operate under the same national curriculum, the Early Years Learning Framework, so technically speaking, Joshua has still been getting some "preschool" anyway.  

For a long time, I felt certain that I wanted Joshua to attend mainstream school.   And I felt a bit offended when asked by therapists etc, if he would attend the local special needs school.   Like, do they really think he is THAT bad?  Over time however, my thoughts changed, and I began to feel that perhaps the special needs school would be the best choice for Joshua.   I didn't want to make a decision too soon, because I felt that there was no way to know where Joshua would really be at when the time came, since he does continue to make progress at his own rate, and I've learned by now that it is entirely up to Joshua to show us what he can and can't do.  It does no good for me to try and guess these things, because there is a fine line between being disappointed when he doesn't achieve something you thought he might, and being surprised when he achieves something you thought he wouldn't.   So I try not to engage myself in such speculation!

Despite Joshua continuing to make wonderful progress at his own rate, over the years I have watched the gap between Joshua and his same age peers widen.   I am around Joshua and the other preschool children at work enough to know that they are years ahead of him, and that he needs a lot of support to try and participate in the same program as the other children do.  I also know that there have been challenges as to the inclusiveness of the program.  My own daughter Amelie, is 27 months old, and well ahead of him developmentally in pretty much every area.  Where I had once hoped that maybe Joshua could just "catch up", I know now that he has not, and will not.  It took a while to know for sure that Joshua has been cognitively affected by his brain injury.  At first, you aren't sure if they can't do things because their motor skills don't allow them to.  But Joshua's motor skills have progressed well, and while he definitely does have physically limitations, he moves well enough now that this doesn't explain any inability to perform a cognitive task.  Then you wonder, maybe it is because he has limited speech.  Maybe once his speech improves he will be able to show us all the things he knows.  But all along, I knew that children can still show their intelligence even without speech.   Joshua was capable of pointing at things.  I'd watch videos of children much more physically affected than Joshua being able to show they knew cognitive skills like colours for example, by pointing or gesturing in some other way to the correct colour when asked.  But Joshua could not.  It has been a process to get to this point, but now it is evident, and we have accepted that Joshua has an intellectual impairment in addition to a physical impairment.

This doesn't mean that he can't learn.  He can.  He knows lots of things and he is learning new things all the time.  It just takes him longer than most children, and the things he is learning right now, are the things that other 4 year olds learned a few years ago, and now I feel that being in a classroom full of children who are years ahead of him, wouldn't be the best learning environment for Joshua.

In July this year, we started the process of having Joshua's eligibility determined for Special Education.  Your child must meet the eligibility requirements in order to enrol at a special needs school.   The Education Department defines eligibility as follows:

1.3.4 General intellectual ability two or more standard deviations below mean on an individual test of intelligence or other evidence of significantly delayed intellectual development should the student’s disabilities prevent standardised assessment, and1.3.5 Score of two or more standard deviations below mean on a standardised assessment of adaptive behaviour for composite score or in at least two areas: communication skills, self-care, home living, social and or interpersonal skills, use of community resources, self-direction, leisure, health and safety.

So that was the first step obviously, in deciding where Joshua would go to school.  If he wasn't eligible for special education then obviously he would have to go to a mainstream school, but if he was, then that would be an option too.  Initially, he was visited by some people from School Support Services at the Education Department.  They went to Day Care and observed him there with the other children in the preschool environment, and spoke with his Educators.  That was like an initial visit to gauge whether or not it was necessary to proceed with further assessment.  They decided it was.  So in August we were visited at home, and they did an assessment using the Vinelands Adaptive Behaviour Scales.        

Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scales are a valid and reliable test to measure a person's adaptive level of functioning. Vineland-II forms aid in diagnosing and classifying mental retardation and other disorders, such as autismAsperger Syndrome, and developmental delays. 
It seems this assessment is commonly used, here in Australia at least, to determine eligibility for special education.   It has taken quite some time to get the results of the assessment, however I did find out the results a few weeks ago despite the formal report not yet being finalised.  This is the Bell Curve that I was provided with to show how the scores work.  Scoring between 90 and 110 is considered to be average.  80-90 is considered to be "Low Average" and 70-80 is considered "Borderline".  A Score below 70 is considered "Very Low" and means a child is eligible for special Education.  Joshua scored 56.  This places him in the "Very Low" category and means he is able to attend the special needs school.    

After finding out several weeks ago that Joshua WAS eligible for special education, I asked some questions about what would happen if we decided to enrol him in a mainstream school.  What sort of support would he get?  The answers didn't fill me with much confidence.  I was told that at best, a child with high needs is funded for a support person for 3 hours a day (half the school day).  At worst, a child with low needs might get an hour a week.  And there is no guarantees that the support person would have any sort of special training for the role.  This is what is funded by the government.  Individual schools can (and some do) choose to supplement the support out of their own funds, to provide support above and beyond these amounts, but it is at the schools discretion and you would need to obviously shop around schools and find one that was willing to do that for your child.  I was also told their there is a limited amount of funding available and it is the same amount all the time, and it gets divided up between all of the children who need it, whether there is 50 children or 200 children, so the level of support a child can get can very term to term or year to year depending on how many other children there are that also need support.  I also talked to other parents to find out what a private school would be like instead of relying on the public school system and I was told that going private was without a doubt worse, and that many private schools are not interested in helping a child with special needs at all.  Of course, this is a generalisation and there will always be exceptions, but for the most part, it doesn't sound like a valid alternative.   It blows my mind that Joshua currently gets support for a full day at day care (5 hours being funded by the government, but with the centre choosing to provide support for a full day) and then he could go to a mainstream school and get very little in the way of support.  It just doesn't cut it to me.  I cannot see how Joshua could possibly function in a mainstream setting without a support person for an entire day.

So, we went and toured the special needs school (there is only one here to choose from) and started the process of enrolling him.  The school has small class sizes of only about 6 children per class, with one teacher and one teaching assistant, and depending on the needs of the children in the class, there can be more adult assistants.  The school itself has been purpose built and opened at that location in 2012 after they outgrew their previous location, so its very modern and has nice facilities, and we hope that it is going to offer Joshua a good start to schooling.  We learned that the preschool class (which is what I was originally planning for Joshua) was already full for next year, but that there was places in the Transition class.  Transition is the first year of full time schooling here, and Joshua is old enough for that class, since age wise, he should have been in preschool this year already.   At the special needs school, they work to the child's individual needs and rather than focus just on an academic curriculum, they encompass all of the skills children need to become independent.  Life skills, not just academic skills.   So because they will be meeting Joshua where he is at, and working from there, I don't need to worry about Transition being "too hard" for him.  There is no way I would have enrolled him in Transition at a mainstream school, considering even the preschool children would be well ahead of him, but in the context of the special needs school, I decided it would be ok to enrol him in the year level that corresponds with his age.  School isn't compulsory here though until a child turns 6, and they told us that we could negotiate a staggered start if we felt 5 days of school was too much to begin with.  I think he will probably be fine though.
The school also has what they call satellite schools too, which are classrooms within other mainstream schools, that are taught by teachers from the special needs school, but integrated in a mainstream setting.  So this would also be an option for Joshua in the future.  We plan to just see how he goes, and seek feedback from his teachers too.  If they feel he is doing really well and that he would be better off being in one of the satellite schools, then we would do that.  Its all just a wait and see (as usual!).  So it is very exciting (and scary!) that our boy is off to "big school" next year.  We can only hope that it is going to be an amazing thing for him that helps him to grow and develop even more.

The graph below shows his actual results from the assessment in each of the areas.  He scored on the 1st percentile for socialisation, and below the first percentile for everything else.  (I'm surprised that they found socialisation to be his best area, I would have guessed motor skills, which did come a close second!)  They also described his "maladaptive behaviours" to be elevated for his age.

The following strengths and needs were also identified:

Strengths: Joshua is able to perform the following tasks: 

 Follows instructions with one action and one object 
 Points to common objects in book as they are named 
 Says at least 50 recognisable words 

Daily Living Skills 
 Feed self with spoon without spilling 
 Sometimes clears breakable items from own place at table 
 Demonstrates the function of telephone 
 Wipes or blows nose using tissue or handkerchief. 

 Shows interest in children the same age 
 Imitates simple movements 
 Chooses to play with other children 
 Ends conversations appropriately 

Motor Skills 
 Hops on one foot at least once without falling; may hold on to something for balance 
 Climbs on and off high objects 
 Completes simple puzzle with at least two pieces or shapes 

Needs: These have been listed as a prompt to the provision of learning opportunity through the Educational Adjustment Plan, and are to be introduced progressively when seen to be appropriate to Joshua’s capability and readiness. These items will in most cases, need to be introduced initially with prompts from an adult, with the long term goal that eventually he will be able to perform the task as an independent action. The actions listed below indicate the next sequential level of development for him. 

 Follow instructions if-then form 
 State own first name 
 Identify one or more alphabet letter as letters and distinguishes them from numbers 

Daily Living Skills 
 Let someone know when he has wet or soiled nappy or pants 
 Pulls up clothing with elastic waistbands 
 Careful around hot objects 
 Helps with simple household chores such as pick up toys, own cloths 

 Imitates or tries to imitate parent’s facial expressions 
 Demonstrates friendship-seeking behaviour with others the same age eg says “Do you want to play?” or takes another child by the hand. 
 Play cooperatively with one or more children for up to 5 minutes 
 Shares toys or possessions without being asked. 

Motor Skills 
 Unwrap small objects 

 Turn book or magazine pages one by one 

So there we have it.  Exciting times ahead for us all.  

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