Maia Starts Big School
Maia turned 5 years old in August. So we have had to decide if she will repeat kindergarten or start school next year. It has made me think a lot about whether Maia has to be ready for school (and what that even means?) or whether the school has to be ready for Maia.
In New Zealand whenever a child turns 5 years old during the school calendar year, they start school. No one questions their school readiness. Regardless of whether a child is intellectually, socially, emotional, or developmentally ready, once you turn 5 you are off to school, including children with disabilities.
In Australia, you start school at the beginning of the calendar year. Deciding when to send your child to school can become an anxiety inducing decision. My experience has been that parents often delay sending their child to school for a whole year, because for whatever reason they feel they are not ready. In this environment, what then happens when you have a child with an intellectual disability? They will likely be ‘behind’ their typical peers. When are they going to be ready to go to school?
My two older children attend a private school nearby and our local primary school which opened this year is a mainstream inclusive school. I met with both schools to discuss the possibility of Maia enrolling and asked them to be open and honest about how they would be able to support Maia’s learning.
The private school admitted they had never had a child with Maia’s needs at their school. They admitted to not having specialist knowledge about providing support for someone like Maia, so it would be a learning curve for them. They were pro-active in visiting Maia at kindy, speaking with her therapists and investigating how to apply for funding. They were kind and didn’t say Maia couldn’t attend their school. But some of the comments and concerns they raised hinted to me that they wanted us to look elsewhere. Somewhere that would be more appropriate for someone like Maia. They also felt an extra year of kindy would be beneficial and better prepare her for school.
Our local primary school is an inclusive school and combines mainstream and special school elements under one model. They told me that Maia didn’t need to repeat kindy and that she would be fine and to send her to school. They told me she would qualify for funding and the school would facilitate the process to have a cognitive test, which is required to determine the level of funding she receives. The fact she had a language delay and wasn’t toilet trained wouldn’t be an issue. They reassured me she would receive the extra support she needed to be part of a mainstream class, working at her level, alongside her peers.
The Victorian School Building Authority website states that ‘Inclusive education is about ensuring that all students, regardless of disabilities or other differences, are able to fully participate, learn, develop and succeed in Victorian government schools’. So to answer my original question, I don’t think Maia needs to be ‘ready’ for school, I think the school needs to be ‘ready’ for her. The best school for her will be one where she feels accepted and included, regardless of her disability. I think you can probably guess which school Maia will be attending next year.
I think Maia will learn best by modelling the good behaviour of her peers, by working alongside them, at her own rate. While this does take extra work for her teacher, we hope the funding will be there for this additional support to be provided. I also believe there are many things Maia can teach her classmates such as patience, kindness, acceptance and love. Because these are the things she teaches us and everyone she comes into contact with every day.
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