Transition to Secondary School
As a parent of a child with a disability living in a rural area, I found myself faced with a very limited range of options and choices when my son made the transition from primary to secondary school. We came to a final decision that was ultimately not ideal, but a compromise between the needs of my child and what was available in my region.
We live in Horsham, in western Victoria. My son, Tom, is 14 years
old and has cerebral palsy, left hemiplegia, an intellectual disability,
speech problems and some challenging behaviour, which seems to be
increasing with age.
Throughout his primary school years he was integrated into Horsham West Primary School in what I would describe as an example of best practice in integration and inclusion. We were lucky! Tom had one integration aide for the duration of primary school, whom we lovingly refer to as Saint Margaret.
Yet the primary school years were not exactly a dream run. We faced a number of issues, such as teasing, bullying, isolation from peers and exclusion from key events. That's not to say that Tom was perfect either...far from it!
The transition from the nurturing environment of primary school to the secondary school system with a focus on developing independence is a big step for any child - a monumental step for a child with a disability.
Consider the changes: The physical changes of a new school and adapting to a totally new environment and layout. The systemic changes - timetables, different teachers for different subjects, changing classrooms and the great locker bunfight. And on a personal level - the developmental changes of adolescence - the hormones raging, relationships with and acceptance by your peer group becoming increasingly important. Being 'different' is not cool. It is a huge step.
There are 5 key points to consider as a parent facing this transition:
1. Begin early
Saint Margaret and I began the process when Tom was in grade 5. We visited all the potential schools in the second half of that year. The local secondary college and SDS were ruled out for various reasons and the Catholic secondary college was not an option, with no guarantee of funding for an aide. That was it for Horsham - the radius had to extend further.
We looked at Warracknabeal SDS, 60km north - a fantastic school but no transport and with a daughter boarding in Ballarat, 200km in the opposite direction, this was geographically and logistically impossible.
We then visited Murtoa Secondary College, a small school of 250 students, a mere 35km and a 30 minute bus trip away. And in desperation we even considered Ballarat SDS - at least close to my daughter, 200km from home.
When going through this selection process, don't be afraid to be creative in your ideas and suggestions. In desperation, I even thought of dual enrolment in Ballarat and Horsham.
Seek out other parents of integrated students at the school and find out about their experiences. Talk to other school parents and get a feel for the school.
Ask probing questions of the school Principal, integration teachers and other teachers to assess their attitudes, flexibility and preparedness to communicate and work as a team.
Find out if the school is disability friendly in terms of access. This is something we didn't do and it became an issue following surgery when Tom needed a wheelchair for a month.
2. Take your child
Once you have narrowed down your options, take your child to visit the school. In some situations, their perceptions and reactions may be useful in the decision making process.
3. Arrange an extended orientation and transition program
Prior to the commencement of the normal transition program in October, Margaret carried out an individual orientation program with Tom. This included using a sample timetable and map of the school, familiarising him with the layout of the school and reading and understanding the timetable.
We also made an early visit to the school. Tom, camera in hand, took photos of key areas of the school which were placed in his album, and then used with the timetable and map as further orientation. Practice scenarios with questions like where are the toilets, how do you get from the bus stop to your locker, how do you find your way from your locker to Room 5, where is the canteen - although that never was a problem for a hungry adolescent!
Tom was then well prepared for the normal transition program with the other students. The information day included a 30 minute bus trip to and from school, with an aide to assist him during the day, followed by an orientation day using a normal timetable.
4. Good Communication and Flexibility
Successfully dealing with any issues and concerns that arise is based on establishing good communication with the school. If possible, be involved in setting the selection criteria and the selection process for the integration aide. Let them know your child's capabilities, strengths and weaknesses.
Set realistic goals in terms of class work and homework. Murtoa has established a personal program for Tom in each subject whilst maintaining his inclusion in the classroom. Be prepared to drop subjects that are not working.
Arrange for the primary school aide to meet with the secondary school aide to discuss all facets of your child's integration - Margaret remains a valuable resource in this area.
If challenging behaviour is an issue, work out cohesive strategies between home and school. The staff at Murtoa admit that Tom is the most disabled child they have had at the school, and weve had to work very hard as a team on many levels to make it work.
5. Constantly Reassess and Re-evaluate
Be flexible and accept that the situation may change over time, necessitating a major rethink. Murtoa have been very accepting, tolerant, understanding and communicative but I feel that there are times when the boundaries are being stretched to the limit and it is simply not working. The needs of the other students have to be considered, as does Tom's self esteem as an adolescent. I receive feedback saying he is teased mercilessly in the school ground; his reactions get him into trouble. I hear that he is coerced into inappropriate actions at school - I see a lonely boy with few friends who will do anything to gain acceptance by his peers. I also see a boy whose behaviour at times causes frustration and anger.
Tom's first year at secondary school has been his toughest year at school, and I fear it will become even tougher for us all as he grows older.
Association for Children with a Disability Committee Member