This is the first of a series of posts detailing our journey moving from a special education setting to a mainstream class. You can read part 2 and part 3 here. I hope sharing our experience will give you a balanced view of the pros and cons of the process and inspire you to perhaps consider a similar journey, if and when, the time seems right for you.
Earlier this year we finally felt confident enough to make the decision to transition Gilbert Bear from his special education class to a mainstream class for next year. He has received early intervention for his vision since he was 3 months old, first in the form of one-on-one home visits from a vision therapist from the Royal Institute for Deaf & Blind Children (RIDBC) and, later by attending their specialist pre-school.
A few months after receiving his autism diagnosis he was accepted into a pre-school class at the base school for the Hunter School for Children with Autism (ASPECT). Towards the end of his first year there we did consider transitioning him to his local public school so he could start kindergarten in a mainstream setting.
However, by the start of term 4 of that year, we were not convinced he was ready for the demands of mainstream so we moved him to an ASPECT Satellite class instead. A Satellite class is based at a mainstream school so the kids have the chance to regularly experience what a mainstream classroom is like while still having the safety and security of their special needs classroom to return to afterwards.
Our son has really enjoyed the variety of experiences this education setting has given him and has particularly enjoyed the integration classes where he gets to participate in a mainstream setting. According to his teachers he is the first to put up his hand to answer the teacher’s question (and usually gets it right too!) and has learnt to sit still and participate appropriately.
He still requires verbal prompting at times to keep on track and has periods of swearing when frustrated but he is much further along than he was when we last considered transition two years ago.
This time feels different. He is a little older and wiser and has a greater understanding of what we want him to do. He still has his moments but he can more easily verbalise how he is feeling now and is motivated to do the right thing by a tick reward chart. If he gets a set amount of ticks, he can receive a reward (usually a comic or a mini-magazine or something similar).
This has been a big turning point for us. Don’t get me wrong, he still has his moments and he always will, but, for the most part, he tries to do the right thing and can now be motivated to keep striving to make the right choices.
This is also working at school and has eased some of our fears about taking him out of a setting where there are 4 teachers and aides to 12 kids, and putting him in a classroom with over 20 kids, 1 teacher and the occasional presence of an aide.
We won’t know for a little while yet what level of funding he will be eligible to receive which will dictate how much access to a teacher’s aide he will receive. We already know that he will not have access to a full-time aide so we have to cross our fingers that he will receive some regular aide time, else it is going to be tough for everyone.
Having Matilda Bear start at the school this year has given us the chance to really make a meaningful relationship with the school and the staff there. Their support and understanding throughout her recent journey to an Aspergers diagnosis has also given us hope they can provide the same support and understanding to our son.
They are openly welcoming to him, each staff member taking the time to say hello when they see him in the playground. The principal (a former special education teacher who “gets” us and our needs) has welcomed our request for Vision Australia to be involved in the transition process and keeps asking me if there is anything else they can do to help us.
This all sounds so promising and is giving us a boost of confidence just when we need it most. Gilbert is starting to feel anxious about the upcoming change in school and we are starting to get jittery wondering whether our decision is still the right one. Having such a welcoming and understanding school community should, hopefully, get us over the line…
So that’s the background around our decision to transition to mainstream. Next week I will go through the many hoops families need to jump through to get the bureaucratic wheels in motion…stay tuned…
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First things first. Is the change irreversible? In this, I mean if he tries it, for say, a term and it doesn’t feel right, can he go back to where he is?
We went through this for Alexander. He started Prep in 2 schools. A special unit attached to a special school (an ECDU) that had just a small number of children to a class (something like 5 or 6 kids to 2 teachers) for 2 days a week and 3 days a week in Prep in mainstream. At the end of term one, the ECDU felt strongly, as did the mainstream school that he belonged in mainstream full time. (SO obviously, I do understand that this may not be helpful, as he is HF and had no behavioural difficulties at all with his autism. Social, FM, GM, Phobias, Obsessive behaviours, but no actual meltdowns really to speak of).
We agonised over it. Especially as once the decision was made, that was it. His place would be taken in a heartbeat (there was a waiting list) and we were stuck.
And in the end we decided to trust that they knew what they were talking about and let him show us what he could do. He absolutely thrived. He was ‘technically’ attached to the SEU at the school. But really, until this year (when he has suffered a lot of bullying and is very sad because he lost his best friend and I’ve been very ill), he hasn’t needed the unit at all.
Does the school have a Unit? Will there be a ‘safe place’ for him to go if he needs to retreat?
Thanks, Melissa! This is exactly what I wanted to hear – someone else who has already gone through this successfully (although very sad to hear of your son’s bullying this year – one of my greatest fears for my son).
Basically, he will lose his place at ASPECT but his new school gets support for a year after the transition so if they need extra help or if we need support we can still access that. I have also heard of cases where a place has been found again for those who can’t cope with mainstream but that would depend on the waiting list for ASPECT, I guess. My son is HF but as he also has a vision impairment that complicates things for him. But his current school thinks he is ready and his new school are keen so we are going to put our trust in them and give it a shot.
We haven’t worked out all the details yet but the school offers the library and an aide-supervised COLA as areas for retreat already. They also have their aides out in the playground and have a lot of supervised activities in the playground which will hopefully help give him some direction.
We will see how he goes and adapt things for him as necessary but as it is a small school we are hoping he will cope with these existing strategies. I am more concerned about providing him with regular classroom breaks – he needs regular movement to keep focused and calm – so we are working with the school to see what we can put in place to prevent meltdowns and reduce his stress. I’ll let you know how we go!
Sorry for the essay. *blush*
Melissa, the “essay” was very informative, well constructed and on topic!!!! Thanks so much for sharing your experience with me – if you have any other thoughts, please let me know!
Having a supportive school is so important. Our principal applied twice and made many many phone calls in order to get my son an aide. His pediatrician was so impressed as so many other worthy kids don’t get the specialist assistance they deserve…so it really pays to persevere. My son has nystagmus and some learning difficulties so it is always scary to have them side by side with the more able kids, however he is doing so well because he does have that support. And as Melissa said, if it doesn’t work out you can reassess. Either way he will do well as he has such supportive parents who are constantly striving for the best for him.
I really feel our faith in the support of the school is the major difference this time around – and they are doing all they can to get him the support he needs. The main issue we face is that he is quite high functioning and has no identified learning or communication deficits – it’s mainly his sensory needs, anxiety and behaviour where he needs support and these areas get little funding. He will get funding for itinerant vision support (his vision is 6/60 so he is legally blind) but from what the school says this will not get him full-time aide time so we will have to see what comes of the funding meeting which should happen early term 4. Nevertheless I like the way the school integrates aides into all parts of school life and I hope this structure will assist him if he is not entitled to a full-time aide. I will definitely talk to them again before the end of term to see if they can chase this up further on our behalf – thanks so much for sharing your experience!
Golly, I can’t even begin to imagine these days and decisions, it feels so far away but I’m so grateful for all this early knowledge you are sharing; hopefully it will make our process and anxiety on the whole thing when the time comes much easier. I hadn’t heard of ASPECT, will have to Google them but I’m assuming its your local equal to our AEIOU? Thanks for sharing 🙂 🙂 🙂
Thanks Carly, I hope someone gets something from these one day! ASPECT is the NSW autism association that provides early intervention and schooling for kids on the spectrum, I think it must be similar to AEIOU (I had a quick google of that myself!) but goes beyond the age of 6 – they even have some ASPECT high schools in other parts of NSW (but not here, alas…).
Hi Kirsty. It was great to read your perspective on schooling. Gosh. I think I’ve got it bad. I really have to hand it to you. You’ve got your work cut out for you and you certainly are an inspiration to me. I’ve joined in on Gemma’s blog hop too.
Thanks for reading Anne. I have a lot of good people around me which makes things easier, not to mention the fabulous teachers and aides who care for him each day! I’m a bit behind in reading and commenting this week but hoping to read your post later today. Thanks again for stopping by!
That was such an extensive and worthy read for me, coming from the school side of the fence, so to speak.
I was a principal of 2 Autism Classes within my primary school.
They were called Outreach then
We did all we could to ensure involvement, lessons and assemblies for whatever the child was ready for, in conjunction for what we could provide. Two boys eventually left, and were transitioned into their local school near home.
Most children who attended were not local, and were bussed in.
In saying that, not every child was High Functioning (don’t we get into acronymns easily in schools & medical terms) so a placement in Mainstream didn’t warrant integration.
The children wore our school’s uniform, attended whatever events were on that suited within the school’s day, and were part of us. R.P.S. Prefer not to say the school’s name!
Came here from the blog hop at http://www.denysewhelan.com.au and am sure we shall chat more as time goes on.
Denyse that sounds exactly like the satellite class that my son currently attends. They wear the uniform and have their own classroom but integrate for certain classes with mainstream each week and are a part of all school activities. You are right, not every child with autism can be successfully integrated but I do feel the more high-functioning kids need more understanding and support to make transition a success.
I wrote a part 2 to this (http://myhometruths.com/2011/09/the-road-to-mainstream-part-2/) which is all about the funding side of things as a parent and I am working on part 3 which is concentrating on the positive ways to facilitate the child’s preparation for integration. Would really appreciate your thoughts on this and would love to collaborate on more posts aimed at the challenges of special education, if you are interested, sometime in the future.
Thanks for holding this bog hop – I think it’s really worthwhile for all parents to see what’s involved in transitioning to big school, whatever the circumstances!