‘If a child can’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way that they learn’ – Ignacio Estrada
Seeing your child go off to school for the first time, is an emotional and heart wrenching moment for any parent. Your ‘baby’ has now grown up. But for parents of a child with special needs, it’s just that little bit harder. Whether your child was diagnosed after birth, or during pregnancy, there were dreams and expectations that parents were hoping their child would fulfill. Then the dream changed.
When Nicholas was born in 2012 and subsequently diagnosed with Down syndrome, I put his name down at the school his brothers would be attending the following year – Grade R and Grade 000. It was too early to really know what Nicholas would one day accomplish, but we didn’t want to limit his potential. Time would tell and decisions could be made at a later stage.
I’ve always believed in inclusive education. Everyone deserves the right to be educated, to be given a chance, regardless of their ability. But at the end of the day, it is our responsibility as parents, to decide on the path of education for our children. It should never be about proving a point, but rather about our children’s happiness and wellbeing.
A couple of months ago, I spoke to a group of moms from Soweto. They have children with Down syndrome as well as a hearing impairment, ranging from ages two to seven. Many of the children were at a crèche and they were scared of what the future held when they were inserted into the education system. Besides the worry that the teachers won’t be able to address the special needs of the child, other factors such as finances and logistics also play a huge part. My heart breaks for those that have no choice – no ‘special’ treatment for the special child that just gets lost in the system and most of the time, are not able to afford the necessary therapies.
When Nicholas received his acceptance letter to attend Grade 000 in 2016 at his brothers’ school, I’m not going to lie, I shed a few tears. 95% of the time, I go through life not thinking ‘what might have been.’ But when the letter arrived, my first thought was ‘if he didn’t have Down syndrome, this would automatically have been his path’. And I felt sad. And then I moved on. I moved on from feeling sorry for myself and for Nicholas, because no one can dictate their future or the journey of life, no matter how hard you try.
I did consider sending Nicholas with his brothers, if the school considered giving it a try. It certainly would have made my life easier. But I had to look at his needs. Nicholas wasn’t yet talking coherently, not yet potty trained, still not wanting to chew his food and he required numerous weekly therapy visits. There was a school I had my eye on, where he would be able to do his therapy during school hours and where his individual needs would be addressed. It wasn’t a special needs school, but rather a remedial one catering for children with speech and language difficulties. A dedicated team of speech therapists, physios and OT’s work closely together with each child to help them obtain their maximum potential. For me, that environment sounded ideal for Nicholas. He spent 2015 at a Montessori pre-school and thrived, despite being the only child with special needs. However, he was going three days a week and the other two days were devoted to therapy. For Grade 000, in addition to therapy, he needed five days of school a week.
I grew up in a small town where there was only one bilingual government primary school. Each grade had one English class and one Afrikaans class. Then there was the ‘Special’ class – only one in the entire school; a mixture of grades. Here children with learning difficulties would receive additional assistance, for a subject or two or on a more permanent basis. It was essentially a remedial class, but to the rest of the school, they might as well have been lepers. And so the kids were treated as social outcasts and stuck together. Well, that’s how the memory plays back in my mind anyway, give or take 25 years!
That’s exactly what I don’t want for Nicholas, for him to be treated differently purely due to him not fitting into the cookie cutter mould of ‘normal’. It needs to be about inclusion, not being stuck away as a class of ‘misfits’ because the children need extra guidance and attention, but rather a part of the class just like everyone else. And that extra assistance could perhaps be introduced by means of a facilitator, bridging the gap between teacher and pupil.
Thankfully Nicholas was accepted into the remedial pre-school and we haven’t looked back. He has been so happy there this year in Grade 000 and not a single tear has been shed, well maybe a few by me as he gains independence! Nicholas is making such progress and the teachers and therapists guiding him, are incredibly loving and caring.
I am content that Nicholas is in the best place possible for the next 3 years (the school goes up to Grade R). For Grade 1, we enter a whole new world, but I am not too worried. We’ll find the right fit for him, just as we have done in the past. Will he one day attempt to mainstream? We just don’t know. Time will tell. What we do know, is that Nicholas’s happiness is of the utmost importance and we hope that he continues to be given every opportunity to learn, just like everyone else. I firmly believe that he is capable of great things, both in and out of the classroom.