The Importance of “Fitting In”

This has been a very special week in my house. My sensational little girl has just celebrated her 5th birthday! In my opinion, the age of five holds a great deal of significance. I feel like it’s the end of the era where I look at this child and consider her a baby. Of course, she will always be MY baby, but in the last year she has grown leaps and bounds in so many ways. Some changes are when I look at her face and see that baby look has gone and the face of a “big kid” is staring back at me. She’s lost that baby roundness to her body and she’s longer and leaner. Her speech has developed and I am starting to miss the cute way she used to mispronounce common words. Some changes are minor, only things a parent would notice about their own the way she turned the hall light on by herself yesterday because she is finally tall enough to reach it. It is also the last year I will have her home with me more than I will have her out of the house. Come September, my sensational little girl goes to kindergarten. No more lunch dates at McDonald’s or afternoon snack time in my bed while we watch cartoons. She will be off to school in the morning, returning in the late afternoon and we will be spending the time we are together doing homework and enjoying some brief family time before we get ready for bed and repeat the same routine the next day.

This is why, in the special education world, they call the age of five the “transition.”  Once your child starts Pre-K districts start to have informational meetings on this transitional period to prepare you for what is to come. Your child will be thoroughly evaluated midway through the school year and, by spring, a meeting will be held to “transition” your child into the school aged population. If special education services are still necessary, your child will be handed over to a new committee who will oversee your child’s services. Otherwise, a child may be declassified which means that they have made enough progress as a preschool child and they will enter kindergarten in a general education setting. And this is where I am currently daughter being evaluated by her teachers and waiting for March 7th when my daughter’s kindergarten fate will be determined.

To best prepare myself for this transition, I made appointments last week to discuss my daughter’s progress with her teachers and therapists. All accounts have her exceeding expectations. She is academically on grade level and beyond. She is social and, most importantly, she is happy. She is needing less support in the classroom and her teacher says that if a stranger were to walk into the classroom they could never point her out as one of the children who were having difficulties. Her other therapists state the same type of progress. Any behavior she exhibits is typical of her age group. She is able to work through her difficulties quickly. She is able to verbalize her frustrations and label her emotions. This is what I have been waiting to hear for the last three years.

And while I can credit the countless hours of counseling and therapies for her progress, there is one fundamental difference between the past and the present that I truly believe is the number one contributing factor to my daughter’s success…her school environment and the patience, respect, and understanding of the support staff who work with her. My daughter has been receiving counseling and occupational therapy since she is three years old. However, even with all of these interventions, she was not successful in school. Part of this had to do with the fact that she was too young and immature to generalize the skills and tools she was practicing in therapy. But, a larger part had to do with the fact that the teachers who were working with her judged her behavior as something she was doing purposely regardless of how many professionals reported that her reactions to things were beyond her control. Also, these same teachers denied any recommendations made by my daughter’s therapists to help her be successful in the classroom. So I pushed to place her in a special education preschool program and today, with a little bit of maturity and hard work on my daughter’s part, school has become a success because her teachers understand her issues and respect her needs. For example, her teacher reported that sometimes, when using the Smart board, my daughter will tell her that it is too loud. What does the teacher do? She lowers the volume, plain and simple. This tiny accommodation isn’t a special education intervention or fancy behavioral tool. It is simple respect and understanding for someone’s needs. As a result, my daughter feels confident and she has trust in the adults surrounding her. She is no longer the child screaming in the classroom for everyone to stare at.  She is in an environment where she fits in and she is respected and understood. The teacher told me that when my daughter would get upset over something earlier in the school year, she pulled herself away. She would immediately start looking around the room to see if everyone was staring at her. She would say things like, “My friends are mad at me” or apologize to the teacher for being bad or sad. This behavior comes from the scars of her past school experiences. At the tender ages of three and four, when screaming in school because she was grappling with feelings that were bigger than she could understand, her teachers ignored her. They left her screaming in the middle of the class. In one instance last year, the teachers started singing “Big Girls Don’t Cry” as my daughter had a meltdown in front of her peers. In her former school settings, she would be forced into situations that she could not tolerate. I was told it was because she had to learn she cannot always get what she wanted. But forcing a child with sensory issues into situations they cannot process is like throwing me into an ocean without a life preserver because I can’t swim. All I need to keep from drowning is to stay in the shallow end of the water and not get pushed too far in over my head. And, as it turns out, so does my daughter.

So, as I move forward in preparation for my daughter’s transition into kindergarten, I am collecting all the data and information from her teachers to decide where she belongs next year. My goal is to simply find her a place where she fits in. Her teacher doesn’t know if she will qualify for a special education placement. But, as I reflect on what it has been that has truly made her successful, I am seeing that there is much more to this transition than making the determination between choosing special education versus general education. Quite honestly, I could push to keep her classified as a special education student and she could end up with a teacher who doesn’t understand her or who is unwilling to meet her needs. Or, on the flip side, she can go into a general education setting with a wonderfully supportive teacher who provides her with the right accommodations to help her succeed. As I learned in a recent meeting, my district supplies a lot of services for students who do not meet the qualifications for special education but still require some additional support. I am in the process of exploring all of my daughter’s options by setting up a meeting with the Chairperson for Preschool Special Education to see what they have to offer for a child with her needs. In the end, I will make a decision based on where I think she will be most successful. A few months back when I was speaking to an administrator at my daughter’s school, she told me that my daughter was doing well because this was a “safe place” for her and now I know exactly what she means. There is no worse feeling than the feeling that you don’t belong. As parents we try to teach our children that they should be proud of who they are. That has been hard for my daughter to understand when being who she was made her the outcast. The idea of “fitting in” is often viewed negatively because it has come to mean that someone must become something they are not in order to belong.

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