Two days before Nicholas started kindy, I found myself cranky and irritable. It was Australia Day and I enjoyed spending the holiday with my extended family and friends, but when we arrived home and the day drew to a close, I felt on edge. In the hope of improving his wife’s mood, Ben sent me off to a local Thai massage therapist (who was hilarious, but that’s a whole other story) while he looked after dinner for the boys. It was a lovely gesture, but didn’t really help.
Later, as the children slept and I was finalising preparations for the big boys to start school the following the day, it occurred to me that I was actually worried about Nicholas starting kindy. In the leadup, I had been excited for him and knew that he would love it, but as when Ben asked me a simple question (something poignant like “do you know where the remote control is?”) I felt teary and I realised that I had bigger things on my mind than the remote control.
I felt disorganised and unprepared for Nicholas’ first day. And I realised that we would soon be stepping outside ‘the bubble’, that safe haven of home.
Late last year, I went along to the kindy orientation night for the 2016 class and felt like an old hand, listening to the details of a kindy we’d be attending with our third child and one we’d already spent three years at. While I felt like ‘just one of the parents’ that night, I knew that pretty soon we would be well known around the centre for being Nicholas’ parents. With white blonde hair, almond eyes and an extra set of chromosomes, he is a bit hard to miss.
Down syndrome is our normal. Our life feels very run-of-the-mill, and at the end of the day, we’re just an average family with three handsome, crazy and noisy boys, but to the external observer, I can imagine we might seem quite different. As we were about to meet a whole range of new people in this kindy community, I began to feel quite exposed. Suddenly, this amazingly wonderful child of mine who has flourished in his home environment would no longer be in the bubble with the family who adores him, but be outside our comfort zone, filled with comparisons with typical peers and potentially difficult conversations. And that scared me.
So, while I didn’t feel teary or emotional that my ‘last baby’ was off to start kindy, I was feeling nervous about the new adventure ahead of us.
But as soon as we walked in the kindy gates that first morning, my fears melted away.
We were greeted warmly with friendly hellos from familiar faces, both the teachers and parents we’d met in previous years. Even the new families we encountered gave us warm smiles. Our Centre Co-Director said “Yay! We get to keep him this time!”
This was the same centre where I did my first parent ‘roster day’ when I was pregnant with Nicholas. When Nicholas was eight weeks old, we bathed him in front of all the kindy kids in Sam’s class. He had learnt many songs from the mornings we joined Charlie and his friends in a circle on the mat. He had loved coming along on roster days, and inevitably never wanted to leave when it was time to say goodbye. Nicholas had been part of this kindy community since before he was born.
This was where Nicholas belonged. This was where Nicholas was already loved.
In true Nicholas style, he walked in on his first day like he owned the place and, according to his teacher, had a “divine divine divine first day”. Hearing those words made my heart burst with pride.
Starting Pre-Prep in Queensland
In Queensland, many children go to pre-Prep (otherwise known as ‘kindergarten’) in the year in which they will turn four years old by 30 June, which is generally the year before they begin formal schooling (for us, this first year of school is called Prep). Pre-Prep is not compulsory. We have chosen a dedicated pre-Prep program at a local community kindergarten with play-based curriculum based on the Early Years Learning Framework. The kindy day runs from 8.30am until 2.15pm on five days per fortnight (eg. Mondays, Tuesdays and alternate Wednesdays). Many children attend a kindergarten program within a long-hours daycare, which is a great option as I know a community kindergarten’s hours can be really tricky for working parents.
Choosing a Kindergarten for Nicholas
While Nicholas had been at a great daycare one day per week in 2015 and could have stayed there for kindy, I never questioned our decision to move to a community kindergarten. My main reason for choosing it over a daycare centre is knowing Nicholas will be with the same group of 22 children each day, arriving and departing at the same times, which is a great way of facilitating a bond with the other families over the year.
By its very nature, a community kindy needs family participation and close relationships with the skilled teachers in order for the centre to run smoothly. They often hold gatherings, such as the Annual General Meeting, working bees, family sports day and Christmas concert, as well as parent social nights, for building relationships outside of regular kindy hours.
Choosing the specific centre for Nicholas was not a difficult decision for us. On the recommendation of a very good friend, both Sam and Charlie had attended the same kindy in previous years and we’d had a wonderful experience. It was actually the Centre Co-Director who encouraged me to submit Nicholas’ name to the waiting list early on. They were obviously very familiar with Nicholas’ Down syndrome diagnosis. While I don’t think they’d had any other children with Down syndrome attend in recent years, I know the centre was used to catering to children with varying needs. More importantly, I knew they were willing to welcome Nicholas for who he is and open to changing and adapting the environment and activities as required, rather than having pre-conceived ideas about what it means to teach a child with Down syndrome.
In the leadup to starting at kindy, Nicholas’ teacher (and Co-Director of the centre) and I had a few informal chats about Nicholas’ development to date and how I thought he would be best supported. She was keen for me to be involved in choosing who the extra teacher (or ‘inclusion support’ teacher) would be for Nicholas’ class. As the Universe would have it, I happened to ask a good friend of mine, who is also a teacher, if she knew of anyone who would be interested and she said, “Are you kidding? I would LOVE that job!” And thus we now have three amazing teachers in the classroom. The teachers and I agreed to ‘wing it’ to a certain extent, and just continue to talk openly about Nicholas and his needs throughout the year. It’s been great to have such a fluid environment, to adapt and flow as required to ensure it’s a warm, nurturing and stimulating classroom for both the teachers and students.
The inclusion support teacher in Nicholas’ room currently works 9.30am until 1pm on the days he is there. Nicholas is far too independent to want someone hovering over him (and ‘inclusion support’ isn’t really about having a one-on-one aide anyway), but it is great having an additional adult in the room to assist managing the needs of 22 children, especially when Nicholas still needs help with toileting (he is not yet toilet trained), an extra set of eyes to ensure he is safe (and not wanting to leap down the fireman’s pole solo) and, when required, to help the other children know how best to include Nicholas in play if that’s not happening spontaneously. While he loves all the teachers, he quickly worked out who has the authoritative voice and must be obeyed, and who he can bat his eyelids at if he wants to get his own way 😉
Nicholas and I talked about starting kindy quite a bit in the leadup, so he was very familiar with ‘kindy’ and was attempting to say the word. On the day before he started, we drove to the centre and had another chat in the carpark about the fact that he’d be starting there the following day. He was rather perturbed when I then drove off and he didn’t get to stay! He was certainly very ready by the time he started and happily kissed me goodbye when it was time for me to go.
Gung-Ho Start to the Year
Nicholas also attends an Early Childhood Development Program (ECDP) pre-Prep at a local special school one day per week in a small class of five children (with varying diagnoses) and two teachers. While it is a different day and group of children to last year, he has been attending the same ECDP since July 2015.
We chose not to ease Nicholas in to kindy gradually and he started his five-day fortnight doing full days from the first week, which he seemed to cope with perfectly well. Although he doesn’t have daytime sleeps at home anymore, he is offered the opportunity to nap at his mainstream kindy. In the first week, he crashed on his little bed in the afternoons (generally no longer than 45 minutes, based on the time available) but he hasn’t been napping since. We didn’t notice any excessive tiredness from him being at kindy, but the busy weeks have certainly made for a very easy bedtime at night.
He is quite a busy boy, now being at kindy at three or four days per week!
Communication with Other Families
According to the teachers, Nicholas has transitioned quite easily into the kindy class and has developed some lovely relationships with his new friends. Naturally, some of the children are noticing differences between themselves and Nicholas and it has been really important to me that we keep lines of communication open between us, the teachers and the other families open from early days. I think it’s perfectly normal for children to be curious and we want to be able to answer questions in a positive way. After the first week of kindy, we sent home a letter to the parents of children in Nicholas’ class introducing ourselves and talking a little about Down syndrome*. We also personalised a social story* about Nicholas (thanks to the Coburn family for letting us
plagiarise share that resource) to be read to the children to help facilitate further discussion and understanding. We live in a world with people of wide and varied nationalities, religions, abilities, skin colour and interests, and we firmly believe that all children, even those considered ‘typical’, benefit from inclusive education and realising from a young age that it’s okay that we’re not all the same.
(*Please see Resources at the base of post if you’d like to download a copy).
Communication with the Teachers
Having an open and honest relationship with Nicholas’ teachers has been so valuable. Whenever the teachers have identified a potential challenge, they have adapted the environment or tried new methods to see what works, and chatted to me about everything along the way. For example, as Nicholas is currently finding it difficult to sit still and concentrate when a story is being read to the whole class (but not during other group times on the mat), they have explored using chairs around the circle so that some of the kids (including Nicholas) are on chairs instead of on the floor, which seems to be helping. Another option suggested was having stories in smaller groups.
Similarly, whenever I notice something working particularly well at home (such as playing ‘following the leader’ if I’m having trouble getting Nicholas travel in the direction I need him to), I let them know in case it could also work well in the classroom.
The Centre has recently started using a password-protected online portal to allow even more enhanced communication between staff and parents, and it’s wonderful to read little stories and see photos from Nicholas’ day. For a child who has limited speech, it is so beneficial for me to be able to prompt a discussion from what I have read on the portal.
Our First Term
It seems hard to believe that next week will be the end of Nicholas’ first term at kindy and we’ll soon be stopping for the Easter holidays. That time has flown!
From my point of view, I think the introduction to kindy has been an incredibly positive experience. Nicholas’ teacher said that she has been really happy with his transition into kindy, and that she really couldn’t have imagined a better start. According to our friend and inclusion support teacher, Nicholas is showing great independence in the classroom and has naturally developed some beautiful relationships with his peers.
Nicholas was away from kindy for a day recently when he had to attend an ophthalmology appointment. It was funny arriving back at the kindy the following day to hear his friends saying, “Oh Nicholas, where were you?” His teacher agreed that it just wasn’t the same without Nicholas in the classroom, which was lovely to hear.
At the end of the day, Nicholas LOVES being part of his kindy. He will often talk of particular friends and teachers in the morning before kindy, and it’s common to hear a “woohoo” from the back seat as we drive down the street towards the centre.
I do miss my little friend hanging out with me as much during the week, but I know he’s busy having loads of fun at kindy and our days apart have made our ‘days off’ and weekends together even more special. I’m pretty sure Nicholas thinks I’m a celebrity, the way he introduces me to all of his friends and excitedly says “Mum!” repeatedly when he sees me in the afternoons at pickup time. He sure knows how to make me feel loved.
We know that our beautiful boy will flourish in such a loving, warm kindergarten environment, with capable teachers and delightful little friends doing fun and exciting things together every day. We also hope that the other children, families and teachers are learning from what Nicholas has to teach them too. I may be biased, but he has a way of brightening the day of anyone who is lucky enough to meet him.
It warms my heart to see Nicholas reach this next milestone. We may have stepped outside our bubble, but a beautiful world awaits outside the comfort zone.
Kindy Social Story
Letter to Kindy Families