I wanted to write this post because I have come across a few parents recently both in real life and on the internet who are in the process of deciding on a school for their special kids. I see fear in their eyes and hear it in their voices, and I know, I really know because I was there too, no so long ago. In a place where you have to make a decision with so very many unknowns, and such huge potential consequences.
There is so little known in the wider community about what special school are like on the inside, and I keep seeing that for those who don’t have children in special-Ed there seems to be a fear of these schools, at best that these school will hold our kids back or at worst an impression that they are like 19th century institutions.
Choosing the right school for any child is a tough decision, there are so many variables and unknowns, and every school and every child is different and has different needs. I admit that the idea of not sending Charlie to the same school as his sister was extremely painful for me. Last spring during a very well managed ‘transition’ we went to look at Charlie’s current school 5 times on the first 3 occasions I cried.
This wasn’t what I imagined our lives would look like, it wasn’t the dream I had of my kids being in the same school, with their wonderful little cousins, growing up together sharing experiences and teachers.
This wasn’t at all how I imagined things would turn out.
But, at some point I had to get beyond myself and my dreams and see that what was best for my kids, might not look like my dream.
There is a strong push to keep our special kids in mainstream education for as long as possible. Some children really are better off in mainstream education, in large classes, and busy lunch rooms, with lots of opportunities for interactions with lots of different people. And some schools can make inclusion work really well, others can’t and the kids suffer as a result. I’m often asked, couldn’t he cope in mainstream? I’m sure he could ‘cope’ but who wants to cope? school isn’t about coping its about living and learning and making friends and having fun.
For us, even though Charlie had enjoyed his time in mainstream nursery, I had to think long and hard about how much energy I had left in me to fight for help for him in school. How much energy did I have to be the one supporting the school and helping them to understand his needs. And so as painful as it was we took a leap into the unknown and accepted the place we had been offered in an assessment unit of a special school.
Charlie’s term dates are longer than Lillie’s, she is a little star, and on his first day, even though she wouldn’t be going back to school for a whole week, in a show of solidarity and to help him understand what was happening she got up and put her own school uniform on. We all took him and dropped him off for his first day at his new school.
Charlie had only been there a few days when the head called, to tell me that she was “interested in Charlie’s sensory processing disorder” and that she had organised for a local specialist OT to come into the school to train the whole staff on sensory processing! I cannot even put into words how different this felt. For years we had been in a place where even the special needs coordinator would tell me that because Charlie was well behaved and compliant had no difficulties. She once said ” you will never get a diagnosis” and would tell me that sensory processing disorder is not a recognised condition, that there were no funds for additional support even for children with a diagnosis of ASD or that other children needed it more.
This school is as different as night is from day, they have taken his sensory diet and are using it enthusiastically. They bought him a mini trampoline, out of school funds, to use in the classroom. They have agreed to give him protected lunch times where they will only offer his his safe foods, and one to one support with exploring new foods at other times.
Charlie has been in the assessment unit for 6 months now, it is managed by a special school and run just like one. The have small class sizes, and helpful friendly staff. I have to say that although hard accepting a place there was one of the best decisions we have ever made. Charlie is making great progress, both academically and socially he loves the school and he has lots of friends.
A few weeks ago I was struggling with something else, and to get out of myself I decided to write to Charlie’s school to thank them for everything that they have done to help and support I am sharing this letter, because I wanted to help anyone who is considering special ed to be a little less fearful about what the future may hold.
I just wanted to take a minute to write and say thank you so much for everything that you are doing to help and support our son. To let you know how happy he is at your school, and how this is having such a positive impact on our family.
Before we came to this school we had become accustomed to having to fight tooth and nail for every little tiny accommodation, we were given no extra support, and even the people who were supposed to be on our side would let us down failing to turn up for important meetings, not keeping to written agreements they had made with us and not returning phone calls. We often felt that nobody listened to our concerns or took them seriously. I know many many other parents who are still in having these kinds of problems and I have to say that the staff at this school make a very refreshing change to this situation.
Each member of staff that we have met has always treated us fairly, they have done their very best to listen to our concerns and help us. The staff are relaxed and competent, friendly and helpful. They always have time to stop and talk with the kids and parents. They never come across as defensive, too busy or uncaring. The children in the school reflect this positive attitude, and our son has made great progress in many areas of his development since joining you. He has become much more confident and his ability to communicate has improved significantly. It is a joy to hear him talk about “all his friends”. He loves going into school and I know that he feels safe and happy in there and he is learning lots of new things everyday.
We are grateful for the fact that the teachers and staff treat all of the children as individuals, and that even though there are children in the school with far greater needs than our son they never dismiss my concern’s or his needs as being insignificant. This is especially important to us because his disability is kind of hidden and not obvious when you first meet him and we are regularly faced with disbelieving uncaring attitudes. We want to say thank you for the efforts you have made to both understand and accommodate his sensory processing difficulties. For the training you organised for the staff, the equipment you have provided, and the extra support you have given him with his eating.
We are grateful to Mrs K who is supporting us in finding a suitable place for our son to continue his education when his time in the assessment’ unit comes to an end. We hope that when he does eventually move on at some point in the future that he will be as happy as he is here and will receive the same high quality care and teaching, although I have to say that this school will be a very hard act for any other school to follow. We want to say how we are both thankful and relieved that Mrs K helped us to finally see an educational psychologist, after 2 years of us banging on doors and getting no answer, having the report from the educational psychologist is like having a missing puzzle piece that we have been desperate to find.
We are also grateful to Mr D, Charlie’s teacher, for the love and care he shows the kids, for all the hard work and attention he put into their education. It is a delight to see how he engages with the children and how much they love him. It is great that Charlie has such a positive male role model during his early years education.
We have found this caring attitude from the school staff extends even outside of school hours. One night we were struggling to find ways to encourage Charlie to eat in Mcdonalds. When Mrs H one of the teachers from blue group arrived in the restaurant with her family, she very graciously took time out of her family meal to sit with Charlie and encourage him. It is hard to put into words how much something like this which may seem small, actually really matters.
Please be encouraged that you are doing a very important job and in our eyes you are doing it very well. Whilst we know that this is what you are paid to do we also know that positive attitudes, love, care and understanding are things that money cannot buy. Being part of this school is a huge blessing to our son and to our whole family.
Sarah, Will, Lillie and Charlie