Special needs & getting ready for high school
I must confess, the whole thought of high school is scaring me.
Gilbert is now 12 and in Year 6. We have been thinking about high school for a long time (we need to with all his additional needs) but I’m still not ready to face it.
When I look at him, I do see a fast growing boy with long, lanky legs. Really long legs. He is nearly as tall as me now. He definitely looks ready to leave primary school behind and take on the adventure of high school.
But I also see the small boy he used to be. Deep in his eyes I see his vulnerability.
I know the challenges he faces. I know he will struggle initially with finding his way around a new school with his vision impairment.
And I know he will have difficulties getting used to the massive change that high school represents with his autism. New classrooms, classmates, teachers and the continual movement from classroom to classroom throughout the day.
I confess I’m terrified of the demands high school will place on him.
We’ve been so lucky with our little primary school. It’s small (there are less than 250 kids in the whole school), we know everyone, we are comfortable and we know we belong. Gilbert is happy and I’m happy. We’re all happy.
We’ve been even luckier to never have experienced bullying or unkindness. Although Gilbert was suspended once back in his first year at the school, he’s never been in trouble since – not once.
Anyone who has a child with special needs will appreciate just how lucky we are.
So you can understand why we are not exactly excited about leaving all we know and love to start all over again in a bigger school. And that goes for me, as well as for Gilbert.
There are so many things to consider when approaching the high school years for a student with special needs and there are challenges for both the student and their parent.
8 challenges facing our family as we get ready for high school
The challenge of establishing effective working relationships with multiple teachers
I’ve been able to work with a single class teacher over the years, making the transition from one to the next at the end of each year. But keeping the lines of communication open with 8 or more teachers at once? I have to admit that does intimidate me a little. But it’s a challenge I need to accept and prepare for so I can continue to help advocate for my son’s needs.
Throughout primary school we’ve maintained communication with our son’s teachers by utilising a communication book and also catching up regularly at the end of the school day. I know I won’t be able to catch up as regularly with all his teachers in future but I am hoping to continue with some form of communication book moving forward (either in paper or electronic form). It’s definitely something that I will be requesting in his transition process.
The challenge of getting to know a new principal, learning support team & office staff
Over the years, I’ve found establishing and maintaining great relationships with these crucial elements of the school hierarchy has been vital for effective advocacy. The office staff are the guardians of the executive and having them on side really does help if you need information quickly. Likewise, being on good terms with the learning support team means you can ask for assistance, understand how things are really going for your child and have a chat when everything seems a bit too hard.
However, I’ve found having a cordial relationship with the principal is perhaps the most important one you can cultivate at school. Principals (and their deputies) preside over issues of discipline, staff training, risk assessment and, most of all, funding. It’s crucial to take the time to make yourself known to them and to engage in honest and constructive dialogue, about all things school-related, not just the needs of your own child.
I know it’s going to take time, effort and commitment to establish these relationships anew but I know they will be worth cultivating.
The challenge of navigating the layout of a new school
I have to confess I’m not relishing the thought of getting to know the layout of an even bigger school. Of course, I don’t need to know every single nook and cranny but it’s definitely an advantage to understand the layout, especially when considering the impact of a change in classroom on my son’s needs.
In addition to his vision impairment, he is sensitive to glare so we’ll need to understand the lighting in each room. Plus we also need to assess how many stairs he will be navigating, how often he will be moving indoors to outdoors & vice versa and what safety measure may need to be put in place to warn him of a slope or change in height.
The challenge of re-engaging with specialists
We’re already in the process of re-engaging all of Gilbert’s specialists again to get him through the coming months of transition. We have his psychologist, speech therapist and occupational therapist already on board to help. We’re hoping his psychologist can help with his increasing anxiety and worry about the impending change. We haven’t seen him in nearly 18 months so it’s going to be interesting to see where he thinks Gilbert is now, compared to 18 months ago.
We’re also hoping the OT can assist with self-regulation and in developing some of the organisational skills he will need for high school. And, as always, we attend our speech therapist to improve his social skills and communication. The real challenge for me, is to not overwhelm him with the number of appointments or the number of specialists required. I’ll be watching Gilbert closely to ensure he does not become overwhelmed over the coming months.
The challenge of engaging new specialists to help with the transition
Then there’s the new specialist staff we are bringing on board to help with the transition itself. We will be seeking guidance for orientation and mobility for his vision impairment through Guide Dogs Australia who will assist him to learn to catch a bus independently and provide him with skills to safely navigate his new school.
We’re also utilising the services of a behaviour clinician from ASPECT to assist with Gilbert’s transition from an autism perspective. The clinician will visit his current class and assess his needs before checking in on the high school to see what he will be facing there. Supports, strategies and a transition plan will be developed, and training will be delivered to the new school in preparation for Gilbert’s arrival. Fingers crossed all these measures will help smooth the transition for him.
The challenge of coordinating information for the new school
We’re already under the pump to provide reports and letters to support application forms for funding for next year. The receiving high school needs to understand Gilbert’s needs as early as possible so they can secure the necessary funding to deliver what he needs from day 1. And it hasn’t been fun having to be the middle guy, chasing up the eye specialist to get a report to give to the vision team, in order for them to give a further report to the school…
But I know we need to get all the information together as early as possible to ensure my son has the technology he needs to do his school work. So the school can upgrade painting and facilities to ensure his safety. So he can have the support he needs in time for orientation and transition visits later this year. It’s vital we get this right now to avoid issues down the line. So I’ll keep being the middle man for as long as required to get this right.
The challenge of advocating for necessary special provisions
Meanwhile, we’ve also been advocating for adequate special provisions so Gilbert can sit academic selective tests on a level playing field with his peers. While there is no guarantee he will be selected for an academic school or class, he deserves the chance to have a go. Which has meant more forms, more reports and more interactions with bureaucracy to give him this chance.
It hasn’t been easy but we owe him every opportunity to prove what he can do. Even if he isn’t selected, we’ve proven to him, to the school and to the department of education that kids with special needs have the ability to do anything they set their minds to. Plus, I think we’ve also helped increase understanding of the need for reasonable adjustment along the way too…
The challenge of uncertainty
Did I mention that we still don’t know what high school Gilbert will attend until we receive the results of these tests?It’s just another layer of uncertainty to add to the growing stress and angst already following us on the preliminary stage of our high school “journey”. There are so many unknowns going into high school, even if you are certain of the school itself.
Until that first day we will not know the teachers, the classrooms, the classmates or the subjects that he will have. That’s a lot of unknowns for someone on the spectrum.
At this stage Gilbert is dealing with this uncertainty better than I am. Apart from the odd outburst, he really is taking it all in his stride right now. Meanwhile I’m struggling with the prospect of cultivating relationships with one school, with the distinct possibility that we may have to turn around and do it all again with another.
For now, we are working with the local high school to coordinate his transition until we find out otherwise. And in the end it will be Gilbert’s decision as to where he wants to go.
Which is perhaps another source of my own stress right now?
Perhaps I should be taking Gilbert’s advice here???
I am doing my best to look at these coming months in a more positive light (despite all the challenges documented above).
But no-one can deny that there are many challenges involved in preparing the way to high school for our kids with special needs.
Have you been able to make this transition? Any tips or advice to share???