Top Ten Tips for Beginning in an Early Childhood Setting when your child has Down syndrome {guest post}

Joelle’s natural warmth and positivity shines brightly and I’m pretty sure it would be physically impossible not to fall in love with her and her beautiful family as soon as you meet them. From the moment Joelle welcomed her daughter, Josee, into their family, she became an incredible advocate for the Down syndrome community. While I don’t get to see her nearly often enough, I am proud to call Joelle a friend, and I am so incredibly thankful for her love and support, especially over the past six months in the loss of our gorgeous boy xx


Starting in a new early education setting can be daunting when your child has additional requirements to consider. Whether your child is beginning Kindy, Preschool, Daycare, or even an Early Intervention centre, here are some helpful ideas to ensure a smooth transition for all.

1. Approach and Inform Positively

Most educational settings are very open to having children with additional or diverse needs however some parents report that they have faced hesitance, tentativeness or even negativity when they’ve begun to search for an Early Childhood setting for their child. As hard as it can be, putting on your VMA (Virtual Mum Armour!) in these situations, and reacting to any negativity with information in hand, and a positive but firm attitude, can be the push that they need. Hesitation generally comes from a place of ignorance and often from not having had the experience (read – privilege!) of a child with Down syndrome in their setting before. It can feel overwhelming as a parent to begin to seek out early childhood settings, knowing that you may face discrimination or negativity. If you find a setting is extremely negative in the initial stages of looking at places, then consider whether you would want your child there anyway! It will be their loss, not yours. You will know you have found the perfect setting when staff don’t bat an eyelid when you explain your child’s diagnosis and they ask you all the right questions!

josee22. Biggest Issues First

Once you have found that ‘perfect’ setting the next thing to consider is needs and challenges, both your child’s and your own. Whether your biggest concerns lie around your child’s developmental needs, medical conditions, or just new Mum nerves, identifying your biggest concerns first will help you with planning your child’s entry in to the setting. This in turn, will make you feel more at ease that you have ‘all your bases covered’. In an open and honest manner actually write down your greatest concerns first, which will allow you to address each concern from most to least important. Usually when the greatest needs are dealt with first, the rest of your concerns and/or challenges are addressed naturally as a consequence of addressing your first concerns. Let me give you an example; say your biggest concern is your child’s speech development. You are worried about how they will be able to communicate their needs to staff. Other concerns on your list further down may be establishing communication with peers, interacting with peers, participating at group time, handling transitions etc. By addressing the biggest concern of speech development first and creating a set of strategies around this, it will then naturally help all of the other concerns. See it as like a waterfall approach where one area trickles down and feeds into other areas.

3. Funding and Support

Early on in conversations with your chosen setting it is important to address the levels of support and funding your child is entitled to and will receive. Each state will have different models and agencies enacted for funding, so make sure you ask your setting to research this for you. An important point to remember is that when an additional staff member is placed into your early childhood setting, it is usually on the premise to reduce the overall ratio of staff to children, not necessarily one-on-one support. As a parent we want to be reassured that our child is being included, supported and involved as much as possible within the program, but a 1-1 aide is not always ideal either. The idea of a person continually following your child and aiding them is sometimes referred to as ‘Velcro Support’. What you ideally want to happen is for the support aide to be like ‘Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother’; she is there when really needed, but then disappears and works her magic in the background. A person who can successfully facilitate and scaffold experiences for your child to be a part of, establish communication strategies with peers, and encourage independence for all self-help skills, is far more beneficial than that same person following your child around in an ‘enabling’ way. Your child is beyond clever when they know someone can do something for them and will quite often manipulate that person to do everything for them. See if you can spend some time talking to your child’s support aide so that you are all on the same page in regards to their support techniques.

4. Planning Documents 

If your child doesn’t have access to a formal individual education or adjustment plan, then it is worthwhile considering constructing a document that is similar to this yourself. A document that outlines your child’s strengths and identifies areas that you would like to focus on, including goals you are working towards, can help everyone to be on the same page in regards to your child’s development. Use this for all your child’s therapists and early childhood settings. For those of you who are lucky enough to have a key worker then this should be done for you!

5. Begin Talking to Your Child

Even if your child’s expressive language is not fully developed, their receptive language skills will be soaking in more than you can imagine. Talk positively to your child about their new setting; use the same word ‘Kindy’ or ‘Playgroup’ or however you will term it, so they have time to adjust to the vocabulary. Ask how your child’s teacher prefers to be referred to and use this too. Sign the first letter of the teacher’s name or sign ‘teacher’ as you say their name and then do this every time you see their teacher too, to help build that connection.

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6. Make Their Setting Familiar

You know why you pore over travel sites and brochures before you travel? To get a sense of what to expect, and what it will look like before you go! Same applies to an early childhood setting for a young child! The more they know before they start, the better chance of settling in with ease. Ask to go and take photos of learning areas a few months before starting and flick through these on an ipad, or print them off in a mini photo booklet for your child to peruse. These photos can also be used as part of a communication book at a later stage. Ask about their orientation program or alternatively ask to visit for play dates or walk throughs in the weeks leading up to commencement. Let your child lead YOU through their setting, instilling confidence and independence in navigating through each learning space.

7. Communication Book – One of the best ways to develop two-way communication with your child’s teacher is to use a communication book. Often when teachers hear the words ‘Communication Book’ they hear ‘another thing to do’! There are many ways to use a communication book and they don’t have to be time consuming. Before beginning it is necessary to know the intent behind using one. Is it to let you know as the parent what the child engaged with? Is it a place for you to share what they are doing at home so it can be incorporated into play ideas in their setting? Is it more about what your child ate, if they toileted and slept? If your child has an ipad it can be an easy way to stay in touch using some great apps or plain old photos of your child’s day. Some settings use an online system of sharing their planning ideas and child’s learning journey with various software. Other times a simple tick and flick type of book is an easy way for time poor educators to use too. Spend some time with your child’s setting developing a communication book, if they don’t already have a method in this area. Use the photos from point 6 and print these to make small, laminated cards. Put Velcro dots on the back and on a simple laminated A4 piece of paper ask your educator, or even your child to place the photos of the areas they engaged with during the day.

8. Establish friendships

As a teacher and a parent I know one area of concern with any child is whether they will make friends, this isn’t just for kids with diverse needs! Let me assure you that your child’s concept of what makes a friend is really quite different from our concept as an adult. Quite often we complicate our young children’s first friendships by putting our expectations on the friendship and pressuring our children to define their ‘friends’ and ‘best friends’. Friendship is quite an abstract concept for young children; on the one hand Mum can be encouraging their child to play with their ‘friend’ and their teacher can be calling all of their classmates ‘friends’. Take the pressure off your child and enjoy them interacting with a wide range of classmates. Use class mates’ names at home and don’t be afraid to set up play dates with many different children. As a parent of a child with diverse needs your child can make a huge impact on their peers and their understanding of diversity. Children are not born with prejudice, they acquire it! So whilst your child’s classmates are still young, know that your child will be making a difference to their lives. Do not be afraid to hand out some information about your child and their diagnosis to the parents within the setting. After having done this each year ourselves, we always get parents thanking us in helping them to learn more about our child and how to talk to their child about ours if questions from their child arises.

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9. Engage others

Engage the services of professionals that you’re currently working with to be a part of your child’s early learning setting too. Ask your child’s therapists to conduct some professional development to staff, get them to visit for a therapy session whilst your child is in the setting, and share what they are learning in their early childhood setting with your professionals. This gives your professional team a wider understanding of your child and they may get to see a different side to them whilst in another setting. Any opportunity for professionals to network across professional settings is a plus too!

10. Tune in to learning

When in your child’s setting, look around for what your child may be exposed to in their learning experiences. Take a walk around their indoor and outdoor learning areas and soak in the many and varied concepts that your child is being exposed to. Point out interesting art works, particular play spaces, cooking in the sand pit, anything! Refer to these and other concepts at home and make those connections between home and their setting (for example; “Look there’s a saucepan in your sandpit, we cook with a saucepan at home”. When at home, “Here is our saucepan, just like your saucepan in your sandpit at Kindy”. Even if your child doesn’t reciprocate this with expressive language, you will be strengthening all that they are learning by continually connecting their learning in their early childhood setting, to learning at home.

Remember although this transition to an early childhood setting can be overwhelming, it is also a beautiful part of your child’s life and their step into the big wide world. It is a time that your child can shine in a new environment and share their life with many new families and friends. So don’t forget to enjoy it! Take lots of photos and soak in all that this precious part of their life offers.

Joelle is a mother to three active kids, a wife and, in her spare time, a teacher and she lives with her family in the bush, yet not far from the beach. Joelle is a passionate advocate for early childhood education and for people with Down syndrome, and she runs Josee’s page ‘Josee’s Journey of Faith, Hope and Love‘ to showcase the ‘ordinariness’ of their life living with a child who has Trisomy 21.

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