8 months ago to the day, I sat at our kitchen table in a state of despair. Schoolbooks, pencils, colours and copies piled all around me. Their intended user was in the playroom with her sister concerning herself with everything but the items she was supposed to be using. I was trying to rev myself up for the umpteenth time but my mental reserve was running dry. Not for the first time, I contemplated doing the homework myself and wondered how we would get through this first mainstream school year. It had all seemed so easy the previous year when Mini had skipped off to pre-school. Now I was wondering would mainstream big school be a step too far.
Similarly challenging was Mini’s reluctance to sit still in the classroom. It was a cause of concern for her teacher and resource teacher. We worked hard at formulating strategies to help her to cope with this. Her SNA brought her out of the classroom at regular intervals in an effort to calm her need for sensory stimulation. The disruption remained.
Then as with all things related to my eldest, it began to get a little easier. She gradually started to remain seated and there were less attempts to climb out the window/on top of her teacher’s desk. We spoke to her teacher who was only too happy to modify the homework. Gone were the painstakingly awkward letters to trace-something that is incredibly difficult to master with low muscle tone. In their place, there was more colouring to do. Mini-Mini jumped at the chance to do the colouring. Mini’s teacher, bless her, popped an extra sheet of paper into her homework folder. This was a great visual cue for Mini. To see her sister sitting up at the table ready to colour, made a real impact on her and slowly but surely the homework conundrum began to solve itself.
And now here we are, a full academic year later, on the last day of Junior Infants for Mini. She loves going to school every day-loves the camaderie in the class. She has even surprised us with her love of Irish. Her resource teacher was using the time spent on teaching Irish to take her out of the classroom for some one on one work. Mini objected to missing Irish time, however, so now she stays in the classroom learning her ‘haon, dó, trí’s with the rest of the class. The reading and writing that most of her classmates now excel in, remains a challenge for her, but she’s getting there, as her first school report testifies to:
What has worked for us during that first mainstream school year:
- Modifying the homework was a complete game changer. I was so caught up in wanting my girl to fit in as well as she could, I was blind to this easy solution. Once we had spoken to Mini’s teacher and resource teacher, it was easy to put a new plan in place. Similarly for next year in Senior Infants, we have held off on buying new books for her. We’ll continue to work on the present ones until she is ready to start the new curriculum.
- It’s important to remember that kids with Down syndrome are visual learners. Whilst it takes time for them to learn their alphabet, they are actually quite adept at recognising and remembering full words. There was lots of photocopying and cutting of full words sent home in Mini’s folders. While she doesn’t fully understand the meaning of every word, she can now read most of the basic ones. She has started reading me her favourite books and while her pronunciation is still a little off, it’s still music to my ears to hear her read out loud.
- Sitting aids helped somewhat-these were inflatable cushions in a wide range of shapes with different sensory features. They helped to ensure Mini’s bum remained on the seat for longer than a few minutes. A writing slope and pencils with special grips also helped Mini with her school work. Hayley from Down’s Side Up has a fabulous post on tips for helping kids with Down syndrome to read and write.
What I’ve Learned During That First Mainstream School Year:
Playing to the strengths of visual learners was key. Once Mini saw what everyone else was doing, she eventually followed suit. Sitting down for longer stretches, lining up to go to the hall/yard-all these things improved with time. Children with special needs need time to figure out a new environment, and it’s important to remember this, especially during their first mainstream school year.
Above all, I’ve learned that my child is an absolute rock star. It’s safe to say she is one of the most popular kids at school. She is adored by her classmates and this popularity extends into other classes. Every morning she arrives to a chorus of ‘Hi Róisín’, requests for high fives and hugs which she is always more than happy to dispense. She’s been invited to birthday parties and playdates and she is a very happy little girl. She is visible in her community, which she loves being a part of. Nine months on, I can say that hand on heart, we have made the best decision for her by sending her to a mainstream school. As parents, that’s as close to a gold star as you can get!