My kids are back to school this week and even though Damion is now going into the third grade, I found myself thinking back about Damion’s initial start of his Kindergarten year. Every new year is tough, but him starting kindergarten was a whole different level, and it set the bar for years to come. Lots of big emotions going on at that time for both him and me. We were fortunate that his preschool years had been spent at the same school that he would continue attending through elementary, but preschool had only been set up for 4 half days and he would be moving to a schedule of 5 full days a week. This would be his first year with a new teacher as well. I was thankful still that the setting would be the same (building and school at least) and his preschool teacher was close by to help communicate additional strategies to all those who would be new to working with Damion for the year. I remember feeling so scared for him to move onto kindergarten, but I also appreciated the amount of effort that it appeared the school staff and his new teachers had put in ahead of time to try and ensure that everything with the big transition went smooth. Here is what the team did that I know really helped him get a great start in his Kindergarten year:
- Prepping the Room
Damion has a tendency to get stuck stimming. His stimming is mostly visual and includes him looking at things that reflect light or that he is interested in, while he also hand flaps. He tends to do this more when he is in a new or overstimulating setting, but sometimes just having objects around that he likes to stim on can add to the time he gets stuck in this phase. So, his preschool teacher took some time to go through the new Kindergarten teachers’ room and identify areas that he would likely get “stuck” in stimming, and they removed them or hid the items.
2. Keeping some familiar faces
This is an item that I tend to push for every year when possible. Change is hard, so what can be kept the same can really help the transition to not be too overwhelming. His school was accommodating in this request where they could be. His main teacher would be new, but they gave him an aid that had originally worked as his bus aid for a few years, he also was able to keep the same speech therapist. Some changes are obviously non-negotiable just due to how the school is set up, but it never hurts to ask for consistency when possible.
3. Staggered Start
I’m not sure how popular this starting strategy is overall, but it seems like most of the schools around here utilize a staggered start for kindergarten. This is essentially where a portion of the class starts on one day, and then a different portion begins another day and so on. Then by the end of the week the whole class joins together as it would be for the rest of the year. The idea behind it is to get the kids familiar with all their settings in a smaller group. I had concerns about this type of scheduling for his first week. The school staff agreed with the concerns and allowed him to go for all the staggered start days without a break. This allowed him to start his new all-day schedule without a break in the week, as well as get familiar with his settings in a less crowded classroom. It went very well.
Damion was a very picky eater. I was terrified that he would be going to school all day and would be going hungry. But I also didn’t want to get into the habit of just packing his favorite snacks everyday as we had been working so hard at home on his feeding therapy to help him overcome some of his sensory issues with food. So, I made a point to have this as part of the discussion during his IEP as we prepared for him to transition into kindergarten. I’m not sure if it is a common item for people to put in IEPs, but we did. We had it set up that his aid would work with him to get a school lunch and eat some non-preferred and new foods and then I would also pack some of his favorites as reward items. His aid is amazing, and this system worked so well for him.
5. Communication is Key
Another item that will continue to be a big part of how well any school year goes is communication. Damion can verbally communicate, but his ability to have a conversation is still very lacking. He may be able to give me very basic answers to what his day was like, but not much beyond that. So, it is important that you set up a good system with his teacher or aid to make sure you know what is going on throughout the year. We utilize a paper form that the aid fills out each day to help me know how various parts of his day went.
Every child is different. So, the needs of each child as the transition into kindergarten will be different as well. The main take away that I want you to get from this is push for open communication with the school. There are no stupid questions, there are no stupid concerns. If it is something that you are worried about, talk with them. Your best time to get this done would be during the IEP process but if you forget about something and want to address it after that, don’t hesitate to bring that up either. You may not get everything you ask for, but hopefully they can accommodate and work with you on most items. I am hopeful that your school system has been as helpful and accommodating as Damion’s has been. Starting kindergarten is such a huge step for any child, and for a child on the spectrum, putting in the work ahead of time can really help ensure a smooth and happy transition to this big milestone.