Special Education v Mainstream: Our Schooling Journey
What do you do when your child doesn’t fit neatly into a single educational setting?
What do you do when your child has multiple disabilities?
I have to say that decisions on schooling options have been the most challenging to make for our special needs family. Our eldest son, Gilbert, has albinism, autism, anxiety and sensory processing disorder. He is a smart boy, curious and well read.
However, the complex ways his individual diagnoses work, mean he still faces many challenges to learning.
Our Son’s Unique Needs
His conditions make it harder for him to:
- navigate the playground
- read text in the classroom
- spend time outdoors
- interact with his teachers and peers
- learn in traditional ways
- interpret unwritten rules
- process auditory input
- deal with sensory distractions
- problem solve
- overcome small hurdles
- work in groups
- manage his time
- organise his work
- prioritise tasks
It’s no surprise his mix of conditions has made it difficult for us to make decisions on the right educational setting for him. On top of that, the fact he doesn’t have intellectual or learning issues also means he doesn’t fit neatly anywhere.
Disabled yet gifted. Able yet needing extra support.
A square peg in a round hole.
Like most special needs families, we’ve struggled with all sorts of decisions. Decisions on the best therapy options, finding the right specialists, navigating the funding maze, how to deal with friends and family, finding support, managing personal relationships and trying to balance the needs of the whole family. These are all hard obstacles to overcome.
However, trying to find the right education setting at any given time for our son has been our greatest challenge over the years. And it will continue to be that way for a while yet.
Our Schooling Journey
We’ve had to make several pivotal decisions over the years. Decisions between special education settings. Decisions on whether to transition to mainstream. Decisions on high school placement. Decisions on funding applications. Decisions on support options.
These decisions have always been hard.
Without a crystal ball, it’s impossible to know if any educational setting will be right for your child. You have to take a leap of faith and make a decision based on the information on hand at the time.
And when you have so many complex needs in the mix, as in the case of our son, it makes it doubly hard to know what the right decision will be.
Here’s a snapshot of the various education settings we’ve been in over the years and the reasons behind our decision to use them.
Special Education – Vision
Our son received an albinism diagnosis when he was 11 weeks old. From this point, we began early intervention for his vision needs through the Royal Institute for Deaf & Blind Children (RIDBC). For the first four years of his life, he accessed early intervention through home visits, assessments, centre visits and then enrolment in their specialist pre-school.
RIDBC introduced us to the world of special needs parenting and guided us through the maze of support and funding in those early years. They helped Gilbert navigate the world around him, encouraged his early reading and gave us all support and encouragement, when we needed it most.
It was with heavy hearts that we made the decision to leave this setting once we received his autism diagnosis at the age of four. After investigating options and discussing our needs with RIDBC, we came to the mutual decision that we needed to prioritise his autism needs before he started school.
We’d had four years of intense early education concentrating on his vision. We knew it was time to concentrate on his autism.
Special Education – Autism
After making the move from RIDBC, we needed to find our feet all over again with our new education partner, Autism Spectrum Australia (ASPECT). While the transition was tough in the beginning, we were again wonderfully supported in this new setting.
Gilbert spent three years at ASPECT. The first year, in the base school and then the following two years in a satellite class (an autism classroom located in a mainstream school). In addition, he also received early intervention services, focusing on speech therapy, psychology and occupational therapy.
ASPECT helped us better understand his autism and how we could help him, both at home and at school. They introduced us to IEPs, parent advocacy, a local community of autism families, positive behaviour support, sensory regulation tools and taught us that autism is just a different brilliant.
While we felt protected and safe at ASPECT, Gilbert was clearly outgrowing this educational setting. He thrived in the mainstream classes he participated in, however he began playing up in his autism classroom. It was with great trepidation that we made the decision to transition him to his local mainstream primary school.
Mainstream – Primary
With the support of a principal with a special education background, we moved Gilbert to mainstream in Year 2. There were some dicey moments, leading to an early suspension. However, with the assistance of ASPECT and Vision Australia, we worked hard to make the transition a success and partnered with the school to put in place the right support to help him.
We discovered early on that Gilbert was holding his own in the classroom. We were pleasantly surprised by this as we had worried he would be behind after several years in special education.The following year we were stunned when he topped his class in the literacy portion of NAPLAN. It was clear he had strong abilities in certain areas.
It was tricky trying to balance his very different educational needs. On the one hand, he didn’t display any learning difficulties. He was on par with the class in all areas and leading them in others. However, he continued to require support in the classroom to stay on task, organise himself, access learning material and regulate his emotions and sensory needs.
He was assisted by an Itinerant Support Teacher – Vision and pooled support from the school. Unfortunately, he was not eligible for individual teacher’s aide time but received help from floating aides throughout the school. This was the biggest hurdle we faced in mainstream – the rigid funding criteria to access support. Even now, in high school, we are facing the same issues.
Mainstream – Secondary
Gilbert began high school this year and it’s been our most challenging transition to date. After considering all options, we decided to send him to our local high school with his peers. He’s been placed in a gifted and talented class to give him the chance to further develop his abilities. This placement is being monitored closely to ensure it remains the right fit for him.
The high school have been approachable and are as keen as we are to see him succeed. We’ve already had a couple of learning support meetings and we’re due to have another when we return for term 2. We are looking at ways to help him better navigate the school and be better prepared for lessons and assessments.
The school have been happy to listen to our suggestions and his teachers have been proactive in ensuring he knows what he needs to do. But there’s still a lot we need to address to ensure all his needs are being met. It’s not easy balancing his vision needs with his autism needs and with his anxiety needs. I suspect we will never get it perfectly right, but we’re determined to do the best we can.
What We’ve Learned
We’ve learned a lot of things over the years throughout our many educational settings.
No single placement may be THE right one
I’d love to have been able to find one school for my son. I’d love to have given him consistency and stability. But over the years his needs have changed and we’ve had to meet them. None of our placements have been perfect but they represented the best possible fit for him at that point in time.
Educational & learning needs change and sometimes we need to experiment with different placements to meet emerging needs. We also need to look at the social, sensory and emotional needs of our kids in order to make these decisions. As special needs parents we have to be prepared to be proactive and make the hard call if required.
Special Education & Mainstream both have their place
For us, special education was a starting point and a valuable way we learned how to best help Gilbert. But his academic needs were not met in that setting, which led to behaviour and emotional regulation issues. So we looked to mainstream to better meet his needs. However, special education is always there should we need it.
Mainstream doesn’t completely meet his needs either. It better meets his academic requirements but further accommodations are needed for him to succeed. His vision impairment is easy to spot but his autism and anxiety diagnoses are not as obvious. At times his invisible disabilities are ignored and accessing funding and support has not been easy.
Special education and mainstream both have a place in special needs schooling. There really is no right or wrong choice here – in the end the choice has to be the best one for your child.
It’s important to establish a partnership with the school from the start
In each setting we’ve worked hard to establish a positive relationship with the school. We’ve also been clear on seeing that relationship as a partnership, putting our son’s need before anything else. We’ve made sure we’ve listened to the school and we’ve been open to sharing our knowledge and ideas with them too.
Establishing a good relationship and having open communication is the key to developing a real partnership between home and school. Without that relationship, it’s very difficult to help your child thrive in any education setting.
How have you found your child’s schooling journey?
This post is part of a Parenting a Child with Special Needs blog hop where myself and other special needs bloggers share our thoughts on a set theme each month. This month’s theme is “education & schooling.” I’d love for you to check out all the other posts linked up for this month!
Special Education vs Mainstream: Our Schooling Journey | My Home Truths
The Secret Tip to Helping Kids with Autism Have a Good School Day | And Next Comes L
5 Tips to Prepare Your Autistic Toddler for Preschool | Kori at Home
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