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April 1, 2011
Vol. 68
No. 7

The Early and Elementary Years / Road Map for a Dream

How can schools and families ease the transition into kindergarten for children with disabilities?

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Nick was an energetic 4-year-old with a passion for classical music. At home, he would listen to Bach and Beethoven for hours at a time in his room. Classified as having both Down syndrome and autism, Nick attended an inclusive preschool near his home that his parents had fought hard to get him into. Nick had begun developing many early academic skills and could follow the school routine well with the support of the preschool staff and his peers. He was making steady progress on his individualized education program (IEP) goals, which included using a simple assistive technology communication device, playing with peers, and following two-step directions. Nick had limited verbal communication and many sensory needs that were met through frequent "sensory breaks," such as jumping on a small trampoline or wearing a weighted vest.
Despite the progress Nick had made, when it came time for him to begin kindergarten, school district administrators suggested that the only option for Nick was a self-contained program 15 miles from his home. Nick's parents, having already developed a good relationship with teachers at their neighborhood school where Nick's older brother attended, were not receptive to this suggested placement. In this final year before Nick would enter formal schooling, his parents would have to muster great strength and resources to help their son successfully transition to his local school district, which didn't seem to be ready to accept him.
This year, we commemorate the 35th anniversary of the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which gave students with disabilities the right to a free, appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment. Yet, even after 35 years, the transition from early childhood programs to kindergarten continues to be difficult, producing anxiety for both families of young children and the school districts they attend. What can we do to ease the often contentious process of having children with disabilities enter kindergarten? I'd like to suggest a few simple steps.

Dream Big

Visions of school success, college attendance, and a bright future come easily to many parents of typically developing youngsters. Even if they themselves struggled in school, such parents tend to believe that their children can reach any goals they set if they study hard enough and apply themselves.
Parents of children with disabilities are often in a different boat. Although they would like to believe anything is possible for their children, most do not really know whether it is. This uncertainty sometimes leads parents to be leery of developing a vision for their child's future.
As uncertain as the future may be, developing a vision early on can be a powerful step in the transition to school. As educators, we are familiar with the concept of backward design, beginning with the "end" or the desired results in mind (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005). Parents and teachers of children with disabilities need to consider this concept as it relates to the future for a young child with a disability.
Person-centered planning is an approach that articulates the dreams, desires, hopes, concerns, and aspirations of individuals with disabilities and their families (Meaden, Shelden, Appel, & DeGrazia, 2010). In this process, the student, his or her family, and others close to them (such as teachers or friends) consider positive outcomes for that student in different settings, such as school, home, community, and relationships. It may seem scary, even senseless, to develop a vision for a young child with disabilities, but such a vision can help all involved to construct a road map in which specific practices, education placements, IEP goals, teaching methods, and supports are geared to the desired outcomes or vision for the future.
When students with disabilities, their families, and their teachers lack this vision, the road to the future can take many dangerous detours. Today, only approximately 21 percent of people with disabilities are in the labor force, compared with 70 percent of nondisabled people (U.S. Department of Labor, 2010). Students with disabilities are more than twice as likely to drop out of school as are their nondisabled peers (National Collaborative on Work Force and Disability, n.d.).
What did dreaming big look like for Nick and his family? Their vision for his life after high school involved possible continuing or higher education in a music-related program; part- or full-time employment involving music; community service opportunities; long-term friendships, hobbies, and community participation (YMCA, community band or orchestra); and a supported living situation (apartment or small single-family home) near his family.

Make a Road Map

Once a student, family, and teachers have developed a vision for the future, the next logical question is, How do we get there from here? That's where the hard work of communicating, collaborating, and planning come into play for young children transitioning to school. Once families and teachers understand this vision, they can use it to facilitate transitions and develop plans for the next 3–5 years. A collaboration team that includes the school district, the family, and the sending and receiving teachers and staff has an important role to play in bringing this plan to fruition during transitions.
For Nick, an important part of the road map for the next 3–5 years included such benchmarks as attending his neighborhood school with his sibling; developing relationships and social skills with classroom peers and teachers; gaining communication skills; learning to follow more complex school routines with more independence; continuing to develop academically, especially in literacy; and using his gifts in music to learn and grow. A special educator working together with a general education teammate, related service staff, and Nick's parents could easily translate most of these benchmarks into authentic and meaningful IEP goals.

Communicate in Advance

Schools can facilitate a smooth transition and avoid possible conflicts by sending a welcome letter to the family at least six months before the start of kindergarten (Fenlon, 2005). A simple letter or phone contact from an administrator who will coordinate services for the child can let the family know what to expect—for example, how services might be provided and dates of kindergarten screenings, orientations, visits, and more formal meetings.
For several months before the transition to school, sending and receiving school teachers and staff (speech therapists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, and a special education administrator) should visit one another's school and the child's home. These brief, informal visits enable families to share their vision for the child's future and give preschool staff and receiving school staff an opportunity to share information on the child's strengths and interests, successful teaching strategies, useful adaptive equipment or assistive technology, and other educationally relevant information. Allow receiving staff to observe the student in the early childhood program and sending staff and families to observe prospective kindergarten classrooms. This kind of collaboration helps build trust and facilitates good working relationships among team members. It also allows team members to better understand the expectations in each education setting. School personnel who collaborate in this way are more likely to develop individualized education programs with goals that clearly address the child's strengths and needs and that refer back to the vision for the future.
Nick's parents began to communicate regularly with the district special education director and teachers at his school about eight months before his transition. Then, visits were scheduled to both the preschool and the prospective kindergarten classes for the family and respective staffs. Several informal and formal meetings occurred in which Nick's sending teachers and therapists shared specific strategies (such as movement breaks before intense periods of work) and information about necessary materials (such as the particular communication device and software Nick used).
Common practice suggests that students with disabilities, especially those with autism or intellectual disabilities, adjust much better to school when they have actually seen the classrooms they will be attending, so it's a good idea to give the student and family opportunities to visit the school informally several times before the child begins kindergarten. Many proactive teachers and parents have even taken photos or videos of the new school to use in social stories or scripts (Gray, White, & McAndrew, 2002) or video modeling (Banda, Matuszny, & Turkan, 2007) to ease the child's anxiety about starting at a new school.
Nick's mom took him to school to visit regularly in June and then again in late August and early September. He was able to meet his prospective teachers, walk the hallways, see the cafeteria, and check out the music room. By the first day of school, Nick already had a sense of familiarity and comfort with his new surroundings.

Stay in Touch

Ongoing communication and collaboration following the child's entrance into kindergarten is a key step that should not be overlooked. Effective teams find it worthwhile to meet at least once or twice in the fall, generally during the first quarter, after the student has started school. The team at this point typically includes the teachers—general educator, special educators, related service staff—and parents. At these meetings, which need not be overly formal, the team might discuss what is going well, what needs improving, and what support or training is needed for the student to be successful. Presumably, the school-based team (teachers, related service staff, paraprofessionals) would meet more regularly (usually weekly) to plan lessons, activities, accommodations, and supports for students in the classroom.
In September, October, and November, Nick's team, including his family, met informally for approximately half an hour each time. No administrator was present, just the family and the teaching team. Team members felt comfortable talking about successes they were having with Nick and ways his program could be improved. Regular e-mail correspondence helped keep the family and school team in touch after the fall meetings and between regularly scheduled formal parent conferences.

A Positive Kindergarten Experience

Nick's transition to kindergarten was a positive one, despite the initial reluctance of his school district. By engaging in a collaborative, proactive process, Nick's parents and preschool providers— together with his kindergarten teachers, related service staff, and a school administrator—were able to plan for his successful transition to school. It was not always a smooth ride, and such specifics as determining what services and supports Nick needed required extra efforts on the part of some team members, but the road map was clear.
Nick's first year in school included an inclusive kindergarten class in the morning and an afternoon session in a special education classroom, both in his neighborhood school. Related services (speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy) were delivered through a combination of sessions in and outside of the classrooms. His team continued to meet and collaborate to coordinate his program on a regular basis. Best of all, Nick got to go to school and learn alongside his neighbors and friends and got to greet his big brother every day on the way to the cafeteria. This was his parents' dream for Nick's kindergarten year.

Banda, D., Matuszny, M., & Turkan, S. (2007). Video modeling strategies to enhance appropriate behaviors in children with autism spectrum disorders.Teaching Exceptional Children, 39(6), 47–52.

Fenlon, A. (2005). Paving the way to kindergarten for children with disabilities: Collaborative steps for successful transition.Young Children, 60(2), 32–38.

Gray, C., White, A. L., & McAndrew, S. (2002). My social stories book. London: Jessica Kingsley.

Meaden, H., Shelden, D., Appel, K., & DeGrazia, R. (2010). Developing a long-term vision: A road map for students' futures. Teaching Exceptional Children, 43(2), 8–14.

National Collaborative on Work Force and Disability. (n.d.). About high school/high tech. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from www.ncwd-youth.info/hsht/about

U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2010). Table A-6. Employment status of the civilian population by sex, age, and disability status, not seasonally adjusted. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved fromwww.bls.gov/news.release/empsit.t06.htm

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by Design (Expanded 2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

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