Families & the Community

Off to Kindergarten in a Special Way in Chicagoland

By Maureen Kelleher — September 16, 2011 3 min read
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Today’s new-school-year reflection is from my friend Chicago Burbs Mom, whose daughter started kindergarten in late August.

Our daughter, J., is literate, confident, and friendly, but she officially meets criteria for “special needs”. She has significant motor-skill delays, and her senses get easily flooded. As a result, she’s not much of a group participant, although if she gets you cornered, you’ll hear about tulip species and insect life for the next hour.

We’re lucky to live in a small suburban district with decent funding for special ed. Still, my husband and I fretted about how our kid would fare when her teachers and classmates found out she can’t open juice boxes, trace shapes, or hold her balance in a chair. We sent her off to kindergarten in a pinafore dress and plastic barrettes, with bunny crackers and raisins for lunch. We felt the same pride and loss as all first-time kindergarten parents when the bus pulled away, and then we held our breath...

On August 25, the second day of school, I got a call from the teacher that started my cold sweats. She told me that my daughter had lost a barrette on the playground and had a thrashing, screaming fit requiring the social worker’s intervention. “Tantrums are very unusual at this age,” she said with a tinge of indictment. “If this continues, we may need to all meet and talk about this defiance.”

Of course, I knew exactly what had happened. No one from the district had yet informed the teacher about J’s challenges, so for two days she had been asked to do things she can’t. And been chastised for wandering off. The missing barrette had pushed her to the brink. I don’t think my kid is the next Gandhi—she frequently lobbies for more sugar and less bedtime—but she’s also not a brat. She is like a crawfish boil: a little extra work to figure out, but tender inside.

Once I stopped sweating, I wrote the teacher a respectful email. I explained a few things about J’s disabilities, and how to make simple accommodations. I emphasized that we discipline our child at home, and that we have great respect for teachers (my mom and stepdad being two). I suggested a “count of 10" approach to tantrums.

Thank God, that email was the turning point. Once J’s teacher knew we were her allies, she was willing to bend the rules for J. There were no more tantrums, and suddenly my kid was enjoying school. The nervous diarrhea stopped. The teacher even reported to us one day that J. was “bright, delightful, and brings a lot of spunk to the group.”

When the psychologist called to set up an IEP meeting, she called J. “adorable.” That meeting won’t happen until October, so I’m grateful that in the meantime all of J’s teachers have the scoop on her challenges. I’m even more grateful they like her. The lunchroom staff is teaching her to open her own milk carton and cracker bag. For J’s part, she loves music and reading, and makes the best of recess by wandering the perimeter of the playground, inspecting weeds. She is making it, just fine.

I can’t help but speculate about children with disabilities who don’t ever get diagnosed. Who live in districts with poor funding and crowded classrooms. Whose parents don’t have the resources to advocate for them, or even to understand what’s going on with them. Because it’s so easy for these kids to be misinterpreted as dumb, manipulative, or defiant. And that would make for a lousy kindergarten experience, indeed. I am grateful every morning that J. bounces down the street in her trademark rainbow leggings, knowing the bus will take her to a friendly place where she can be herself and learn to get along in the world. I wish that were true for every kid.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.