This morning Michael and I, along with Finn, visited the special ed preschool class in which Finn’s IEP “team” (sans parents; I use the term “team” extremely loosely since there has been no collaborative effort from day 1 of this process) recommends he be placed, post-haste.
It’s true that, for a variety of reasons, we have already decided that we are leaning against placing Finn in any preschool program at this time, and it’s also true that we (or at least I, maybe more so than Michael) have our hackles up about a segregated special ed program. That said, I really wanted and attempted to go into this morning’s visit with an open mind.
Finn’s IEP “team,” in their last communication with us (see here), offered to make arrangements for us to visit the preschool program they are recommending for Finn. Given the adversarial nature of our relationship to date, however, I didn’t want to make the arrangements through the “team,” and figured we were pretty capable of contacting the school and making the arrangements ourselves. So a couple weeks ago I contacted the school, a Title 1 school, and was put in touch with the school psychologist to arrange to visit the preschool class.
In an interesting turn of events, it turns out that this particular school psychologist has replaced the psychologist originally on Finn’s IEP “team” (I know, it’s irritating seeing those quotes around “team” all the time, but I will keep using them until the “team” actually starts being a team that values us, Finn’s parents, as members), and she is the mother of a classmate/friend of Joey’s. I don’t know at this point if this is a good or a bad thing (or meaningless), but I did think it might be worth some name-dropping this morning when we met with her.
Anyway, she was nice enough (maybe friendlier, knowing that her son and our son are friends/classmates?). She oohed and ahhed over Finn (I’ve gotten used to this, but still rarely know how to take it) and took us over to the special ed preschool classroom.
My initial internal reaction was, “Well, this doesn’t seem so bad.” In a lot of ways, it looked like a typical preschool classroom, with lots of artwork on the walls, toys and books and little tables and chairs. There were twelve children in the class, ranging in age from 3 to 5, and there was one teacher and two aides. There was a section of tables and chairs in the center of the classroom where most of the children were sitting, each engaged in a different activity: one was painting, one was playing with a puzzle, one was banging some kind of toy on the table, one was looking at a book, etc. Two children at a time were pulled from the group and taken to “stations” at the periphery of the classroom where they received specialized instruction in 10-15 minute segments (I believe one of them was receiving speech therapy, and the other station involved a computer). I could see that two of the children had Down syndrome; the rest of the children appeared to have varying diagnoses. There were no “typical” children in the class.
It took a few minutes of being there to start getting a sense of what I didn’t like about it:
- There are no typical children in the class; no typically developing peer models.
- There did not seem to be a real sense of cohesiveness to the class. Because there are varying diagnoses/needs/ability levels/behavior issues among the children, to a large degree it seemed like the teacher and aides were engaging in crowd control (not that it’s a big crowd; it is a small class, which is a plus), trying to keep each child occupied and on task. But each child was engaged in a different activity, I assume based on that child’s IEP (??). We were only there for a half hour, but we didn’t see any group activities or any interaction between the children.
- Neither the teacher nor the aides seemed particularly warm, and in fact, seemed a little harsh at times. I saw the teacher and one of the aides, at different times, grab different children’s hands, say “Hands down!” sternly, and rather roughly move their hands away from whatever it was they weren’t supposed to be touching. Frankly, I’m not at all keen on my kid being manhandled like that.
- This is a five-days-a week, five-plus-hours-a-day preschool program. All the children in the class attend full-time. There doesn’t seem to be an option for fewer days or hours of attendance.
Look, I know from a purely clinical standpoint, there is truth to this theory. But I hate this line of thinking more and more all the time, for so many reasons. First of all, it seems like every “expert” who has tried to sell us on this “fact” has come by their “expertise” by training and not by first-hand observation and experience as a parent of a child with Down syndrome. The same way that obstetricians are trained to believe that highly interventive hospital births are by and large the safest option for having babies, SLPs are trained to believe that formal speech therapy from infancy is the best way to overcome speech issues, physical therapists are trained to believe that if not for their intervention, children with Down syndrome would come by their gross motor skills much later, and in the wrong way, and special ed teachers are trained to believe that kids with developmental delays of all varieties belong in special ed classrooms promptly at age 3. I just can’t buy into this wholeheartedly. Sure, this is true for some kids in some situations, but it’s not a one-size fits all proposition. And it overlooks the value of organic learning that comes from just being loved and cared for and fully included in a family and that family’s experiences.
Also, this line of thinking promulgates the whole cultural belief that kids like Finn are a set of problems and issues to be addressed and fixed. He is a human being, not a problem that I want a lifetime spent on trying to fix, or make as “normal” as possible. Frankly, “normal” is an ideal that I don’t think he should have to spend his life trying to achieve; it only sets him up for failure and promotes the attitude that he’s defective. This is not to say that certain supports at certain times throughout his life won’t benefit him, but I’m just weary of this whole notion that speech therapy is going to fix his speech, and occupational therapy is going to fix his fine motor skills and physical therapy is going to fix his gross motor skills, and special ed is going to . . . what? He’s always going to have Down syndrome, and this means certain things that can’t be changed. I accept that, with all my heart. It seems like it’s everyone else who can’t accept that. Let’s try to improve him. Let’s try to fix him. Let’s try to make him as close to “normal” as possible, and then maybe, just maybe, he will be more acceptable.
I digress. Obviously, this is an emotionally charged issue for me. And I guess it goes without saying that I’m not sure. Of course I’m not. This whole thing would not be such a struggle for me if I were sure about everything. Am I selling Finn short? Am I overshooting? In my heart of hearts, I don’t know.
Anyway. The school psychologist explained to us that there is actually another special ed preschool class that is categorized as “mild to moderate” (this one, the one recommended for Finn, is “moderate to severe”), and the main differences between the two are that: (1) the kids in the “mild to moderate” class are fairly verbal, (2) they are toilet trained, and (3) there are more kids in the class and only one teacher and one aide, so a higher student-to-teacher ratio. This explains why the IEP “team” wants Finn placed in the “moderate to severe” class: he’s not toilet trained (truth be told, we have not even attempted it yet, but I am psyching myself up to tackle it in the near future), and he has little speech (though, I have to say, he is picking up words left and right lately, it’s been pretty amazing to see just how verbal he has become in the last couple of months – and with no speech therapy! Imagine that.).
She also told us that the goal is to have the kids “mainstreamed” by kindergarten (and in special ed, kindergarten starts promptly at age 5, period; the powers that be see no benefit in some parents perhaps wanting to delay kindergarten for a year as many parents of typically developing kids do). Now, for those of you who may be under a widely held misconception, “mainstreaming” and “inclusion” are two entirely different animals. “Inclusion” means that the child is in a regular classroom with regular, typically developing peers, full-time. They may have an aide, and they may get pulled out of class for things like speech therapy and the like, but they are enrolled in a regular classroom. A lot of lay people think this is “mainstreaming,” but it’s not. “Mainstreaming” is when a child is enrolled in a separate, special ed class, and is allowed to spend limited periods of time each day or each week with the typical kids. The school psychologist told us today that for this particular preschool program, the goal is to have them “mainstreamed” by kindergarten, which she explained specifically to mean that in kindergarten they spend 30 minutes a day (or less) with their typically developing peers.
Sigh. So where does all of this leave us? Good question. What I can say is that what we saw today, and what the school psychologist explained to us about how his future education might look through the eyes of the school district is just not what I envision – or would like to envision – for Finn. We visited the preschool program today so that we could go to the next meeting with the IEP “team” and be able to articulate our thoughts about their recommendations. I’m not in favor of this placement for Finn; I think it is very possible, and not unrealistic or unreasonable to think that he could start preschool in a year at some type of preschool with typical peer models, perhaps do two years of preschool, and maybe start kindergarten, fully included in a regular kinder classroom at our home school, by the time he’s 6.
As it stands right now, we have been waiting two weeks to hear back from the IEP “team” about scheduling a meeting.
And that’s all I have to say about that. For now.