About six months ago, Will was finishing his first year of special ed preschool. He had made a lot of progress since he started preschool last fall, even despite moving across the country around Thanksgiving. The transition into his class here in Oregon was very smooth and his teachers were great. I documented some of his progress in a recent blog post (you can read it here).
Even before Will's diagnosis with ASD, we felt like Will's summer birthday (August 17th) meant that he would turn 5 years old just before the cutoff for kindergarten to begin. Our plan all along had been to keep Will in preschool until he turned 6 and then start kindergarten that year. Unfortunately, the way special ed services are set up in Salem, children under 5 can receive services from the Willamette Educational Services Department, but once a child turns 5, they must receive services from Salem-Keizer School District.
In short: Will could not do another year of public preschool, since the school district does not provide preschool. In May, we had a transition meeting with Will's preschool teachers as well as the principal at the elementary school closest to us (the same one Ashley attended as a child) to discuss the best way to meet Will's needs.
Sumpter Elementary is also the school with the big US map that Will loves
As the meeting approached, Ashley and I discussed some of the options we thought would be available to Will and prayed about them. We were concerned that Will was too far behind his neurotypical peers and would be out of place in a kindergarten class with its heavier emphasis on academics. We decided instead to enroll him in a private preschool that Ashley and her siblings attended.
At the transition meeting, Will's special ed preschool teachers recommended that he attend a mainstream kindergarten class this fall but only for half a day until he could build up his stamina to be there longer. They also would hire an aide to be with him at all times in order to keep him from running away (a continuing struggle with Will) and to help him stay on task with his work. While at school, Will could be tested for occupational therapy as well as speech therapy. If they determined that he needed such therapy, he would receive it from the school.
Ultimately, we told the school district that we'd like Will to have another year of preschool before advancing to kindergarten. We felt like the most important thing for him would be to have more interaction with peers in a less structured environment. In other words, we wanted to give him a chance to "be a kid" for another year before starting school.
The administrators at the elementary school were accommodating but also emphasized the importance of having all the paperwork ready on their end in case we changed our minds. In the meantime, Ashley met with the teacher from the private preschool and discussed Will and his needs. Ashley even provided Will's IEP. The school has the proper training and credentials to be able to accommodate children with special needs. In fact, they have had students with autism in recent years. The teacher gave us assurance that she and her co-teacher would be able to meet Will's needs.
Soon, the first day of pre-k was upon us. Will was excited to start school again after spending WAY too much time with his younger sister this summer. He was also looking forward to being in the same class as his cousin Anthony, who is only nine days older than Will. Here is a picture of the two of them on the first day:
Within the first week of Will attending the preschool, his teacher reached out to Ashley and expressed her concerns that it was too difficult to keep Will from running away without disrupting the class. Given the number of children in the class, and the limited manpower of the school, it would be necessary for Will to have a full-time aide.
A flurry of text messages and phone calls between me and Ashley led to us deciding that maybe we should re-think having him be in kindergarten this year. Unfortunately, we moved into a new rental home in July, and it was in the boundaries of a different elementary school than we had done all the paperwork with before. Nevertheless, Ashley went straight to the school whose boundaries we now live in and started the registration process there.
By the end of the day, Ashley had received a phone call from the principal assuring us that Will would be welcome to start attending kindergarten immediately and they would make arrangements for bus transportation and would also hire a full-time aide for Will. By a weird coincidence, Will was sick for the next week or so. By the time he was healthy enough to attend school, everything was in place for him.
So far, Will has seemed to do better than we imagined he would in kindergarten. It helps that he is only there for half a day at a time. In fact, he is often quite tired when he comes home. He also has a fantastic aide who meets him at the bus stop and rides to and from school with him. We are able to get regular reports from her at the end of the day and we get detailed weekly reports from his teacher.
Will still has a difficult time not running away constantly but he is doing better. Some days he only tries to get away once. Another area we find promising is that he seems to care more about the fact that there are other kids in his class. Whenever we would ask about his friends in preschool, he wouldn't really say anything. It was like he didn't even notice there were other kids there. On his first day of kindergarten, I asked if he made new friends. He responded by telling me the name of a girl who sits next to him.
One thing that is also helpful is that two of his kindergarten classmates are also in his Sunday School class at church. The mother of one of those girls recently told us that her daughter described Will as "the one who likes to run". That's a pretty good summary of his personality.
Will's teacher has been motivating Will to behave throughout the day by rewarding him with a fun activity before he goes home. It is sometimes reading a book or playing with a certain toy, but often it is engaging in an activity with one of his classmates (playing a board game, building with blocks, using play doh, etc).
I've talked before about Will's ability to read at a higher level than normal at his age. One thing his class has been working on is learning vocabulary words which are written on flashcards in the shape of hearts. There are several different groups of words based on the color of the paper heart they are written on. The kids are supposed to work on learning the words and then passing them off in class by demonstrating that they can read them all.
Will's ring of heart words
Will recently became the first kid in his class to pass off ALL of the words in ALL of the colors. According to his aide, one of the other students came up to her and asked "Did he REALLY read all of the words?" and the aide said she was a little annoyed that the other student didn't believe it. In a few shorts weeks, she has gotten to know Will very well and she knows reading is one of his strengths. It's nice to know that she is also proud of Will's accomplishments in that area.
The hearts Will earned by reading all the words.
I think I've mentioned before that Will often has a hard time being flexible with plans changing. The last few months have involved a lot of necessary changes and he has handled them like a champ. One thing that we definitely need to give some credit to is the TV show "Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood". If you are not familiar, it is a cartoon on PBS based on characters from "Mister Rogers Neighborhood". Throughout the show, Daniel Tiger repeats shorts songs to teach kids how to cope with things like frustration, being scared, and plans changing.
On several occasions, Will has responded to a change in plans by getting upset, but calming himself down by singing "Things will change and that's okay / today you can do things a different way."
Life never seems to go the way you planned, and having to make changes is inevitable. We feel very fortunate to have Will's recent schooling needs met fully. In hindsight, we would have done things differently but it did give us a chance to figure out what was truly important for Will. It's not always going to be this easy, but it will help if we are willing to be flexible along the way.