I want to preface this with a few words.
Making the choice to send your child to a specialist school or a mainstream school is an extremely personal and sometimes controversial one, No special needs parent takes it lightly. There’s so much to consider, it depends on each individual childs needs, the area you live in, what schools are available and so much more. – This post is based on my own personal experience, and is merely one opinion, and should be taken as such.
I started thinking about school when Ella was about 3, whether or not to ‘mainstream’ her. It’s a huge choice to make for any special needs parent, and one that I, and I’m sure many others like me, deliberate over for a long time. At that stage I was all about the mainstream, I wanted her included with all kids, I wanted her to have exposure to ‘normal’ children and I thought that it would help her in the long run, she could copy their behaviour, they could teach her so much! Another benefit I thought is teaching the other kids about acceptance, if there’s more kids like Ella in schools, we wouldn’t be so unusual to see at the parks, which is a win for everyone!
I sent her to a mainstream kindergarten, which was lovely! She had an aid obviously, and at that age the other kids weren’t too bothered by her, and still included her in their play, even though Ella was very behind even at that point, and developmentally still only into ‘parallel play’ (playing near other kids, not necessarily ‘with’ them) and no where near the pretend play that the others were doing. It was a little sad to see Ella’s ‘artwork’ (still just scribble, and mushed together paint colours) up next to the other childrens paintings of people or drawings of houses, and even some attempts at name writing! But all in all it was a lovely experience for both of us.
2 years Before she was to start school I started really looking at schools in my area and the more I looked into it, I realised kids like Ella are usually more segregated in mainstream schools. Because I live in a rural area, Ella would have been the only, or only 1 of 2 special kids in her class, and in situations like that? Generally they’re placed at the front of the class alone with their aide, or taken out of the class completely because they’re disruptive or not able to participate.
I wondered what Ella would do when the other kids are learning to read, while Ella is still working on a few singe letters, or when the other kids are learning maths, while Ella is still learning the numbers 1-5. She’d get left behind, or left to learn alone. It just didn’t seem like a good fit for her.
I also worried that because she can’t communicate well, and because she’s still in nappies, that she could get bullied and she couldn’t tell me. Or possibly even led astray – kids telling her to do things she’s not supposed to do because she doesn’t know any better. You don’t want to believe it but kids can be so cruel, and it isn’t Ella’s job to teach inclusion.
Even though I knew it was the best decision for us, I still cried when I made the choice. I don’t think any parent wants their kid to need a specialist school.
Once I came to terms with it, I started looking seriously at the only 2 options I have here for specialist schools, neither are in my town so it would mean travel no matter which one I chose. The bigger one, was slightly further away (45 minute drive) and no bus service which would mean 3 hours in the car each day for me. The ratio of students to teachers is also higher. But they are well funded and the facilities were really nice.
In the end I went with the closer school, only half an hour drive plus it has a bus, and there’s a teacher on the bus as well as the driver, which is definitely needed because I know Ella wouldn’t stay in her seat otherwise. The ratio of 3 students to every teacher/aide was also really appealing to me, and when I went on the visit it was really great, they had a sensory room, and were really knowledgeable.
The other great thing is that everyone in her class are grouped together by skill, so sometimes some of the older kids sit in for a lesson, and some of the kids Ella’s age go into the other classes for certain lessons that they are ahead in, So Ella is always learning with her peers, and never by herself.
I had the pleasure of sitting in on one of her literacy lessons recently and if I wasn’t sure before that I’d made the right choice, I definitely was now! It was amazing to see her interacting and learning alongside kids of similar abilities. They all picked out the first letters of their names, and practised recognising and saying the sounds of 8 letters that they’ve been working on all year. After that they had a ‘movement break’ where they all got up, crawled under tables, and walked over balance boards, after a quick couple of rounds they were all ready to sit and learn again.
They then did ‘Mr tongue’s house’ which is an interactive book to practice tongue movements and sounds, they had it up on the projector screen and all the kids participated, and laughed at Mr tongue. It sounds silly but think about how much your tongue moves when you talk to make different sounds? Some of these kids, Ella included, need practice to be able to do this, and ‘Mr tongue’ helps them learn! Having them all doing these things together was actually really heartwarming. You just couldn’t get that in a mainstream school, and I understand, because kids her age don’t need things like that. Ella would be tucked away, reading the Mr Tongue book with just her aid.
They also teach a lot of ‘life skills’ which is great, so instead of teaching straight maths, they’ll teach counting money, adding and subtracting by paying for things or they’ll go on trips to the supermarket to buy things for cooking class, which is so important and Once a week the older classes do lunch orders, (cooking, getting ingredients, money etc) for the younger classes.
There’s also the little things, the fact that they understand when Ella needs a day off for speech pathology or Drs. The fact that they all use some key word sign, and there’s visuals up everywhere to remind her to walk, or to wash her hands etc. There’s also their own speech pathologist, a physio and occupational therapist that Ella has access to sometimes.
It hasn’t all been great, because nothing ever is, but the positives are definitely outweighing the negatives.
And I’m not saying Ella will always be at a specialist school, and I don’t know the other side. maybe there’s more benefits to a mainstream school that I didn’t think of, and maybe if I was living in a different area I would have made a different choice. but for us, and for now, it just makes sense.
And for anyone facing this choice, a specialist school isn’t as heartbreaking as I once thought it was. x