Experiences of the Reluctant Parent
The first day of preschool - a rite of passage for hearing children. Preschool typically starts at age 4. You know those four year olds - those short creatures who like to explore the world, make decisions, tell you the rules, and often no longer need naps. Our deaf and hard of hearing children can attend preschool starting on their third birthday in our state. What a difference another year makes! For some parents, there is no question about whether or not their child attends. For many, the decision creates ambivalence.
First of all, there is the whole "my child is just a baby" idea. Even for parents using childcare for part of the day, the structured school environment can seem like light years away from what their child needs. I looked down at my then twoish daughter in diapers and wondered how on earth she would manage to sit in a chair at snack time, follow directions in a group, or even take turns, let alone express her needs and wants to teachers and other children. Parents themselves must weigh the pros and cons of exposing their child to peers with and without hearing loss, to teachers skilled in deaf and hh issues of developing language and thinking skills, molding social skills, and to the ancillary services of school speech therapy and audiology. In our story, I couldn't justify keeping Maddie home with me when those 2 hours and 45 minutes a day were so richly geared toward closing the gap between her development and that of her same age hearing peers. I was, and still am, learning about all those issues - I couldn't see learning about them on her time. The diaper thing? Somehow a little peer pressure (let's show Maddie our big girl underwear!) exerted just the change of perspective we needed to get Maddie on the fast track to potty training.
Parents already using childcare may find that their childcare workers, uncomfortable and unused to working with children with hearing loss, place their charges with younger groups or even avoid interacting with them beyond basic needs. "My son was 18 months old and should have been in the process of moving into the 18 - 24 month group yet was still being held back with the 6 - 12 month old babies because of his communication delay," notes Colorado Springs mom Michelle Seib. Now at Jefferson Elementary in Colorado Springs , a preschool program for three and four year olds, her son enjoys a communication rich environment with his same age peers. My daughter was in a family childcare home until 18 months of age. While she had same age and older peers, the caregiver gave lip service to incorporating signs but clearly had enough to do in addition to learning a new language for our late identified child. For both of us moms, preschool filled a serious gap in modeling social behaviors and teaching language for our young children.
Secondly, parents worry about how their child will communicate and how the parent will learn about what happens at school. Typically hearing three year olds can give only the sketchiest, here-and-now type of information about their time away from parents. Our deaf and hard of hearing kids might not have age appropriate language even at the three year old level to tell us if they were scared or had fun or were surprised by something like the fire alarm. Teachers understand this barrier and might suggest anything from a communication book to travel with the child to e-mailing between home and school. Preschool teachers can give you a sample schedule and a calendar of topics of the week to further facilitate home-school communication. Emailing is also a great, quick way to communicate between other members of the team, including the school speech pathologist. Many of these issues can be dealt with at your first IEP (Individualized Education Plan) meeting, which is the school age version of the IFSP or Individualized Family Service Plan that you have already been through at home.
Perhaps most difficult for the majority of parents to deal with is the transportation issue. Putting your child in the care of a bus driver if transportation is needed can be very scary. Some parents avoid this altogether and work out schedules so that parents do the transportation. Some realize that getting on the bus after school when other peers are likely doing the same thing may be easier to adjust to, and transport only for the start of the school day.
Our experience of bus drivers thus far has been wonderful, but each year we worry about our daughter's safety and wellbeing on the bus. Before that fateful "First Day", we visited the transportation office at the school district so that Maddie could see and sit on the bus, as well as meet the bus driver and aide. I felt a lot better, anyway, that Maddie could recognize the ladies picking her up in the morning. Many of our drivers have incorporated stickers and other treats for good behavior. There was a period in which Maddie refused to get on the bus, but some wonderful ideas put in place by her teacher and the drivers soon quieted those storms. Maddie's quote, "I hate mornings, Mommy."
Living out of the district, I pursued an exception so that my older children could attend the same center based program school that my daughter attended. The kids rode the bus together in the mornings and Maddie rode home alone (and often slept on the bus) after school. That way, my older children would be there on the bus at least half the time so that they could do some basic interpreting for Maddie and could also participate in the sign language club, and have a greater opportunity to have other deaf and hard of hearing students in their classes than would have occured in our neighborhood school. Obviously all three children missed out on getting to know more neighborhood kids because of this arrangement, but we felt the benefits outweighed the loss.
Just like in childbirth training or learning any new skill, parents can use knowledge to combat anxiety. One parent created a ranking system to assist her in making the decision about where to send her son to preschool. Knowing that all options have been carefully explored can ease the fear in choosing a program.
Included below is the sample chart Tracy McGurran created for her son, Tristan. The most important part of Tracy 's process was to discern what factors were critical ones that the preschool program should address. She then listed these personalized attributes of a program that were important to her, and then visited her neighborhood school, a centerbased program, a private school, and a state school with these values in mind. The rating system went from 0-5. Programs earned a "0" if they had nothing in terms of the attribute, or up to 5 to indicate that this factor was clearly in place.
She used this chart while making interview visits to the different locations (5 in her case) and the total scores made it clear which program would best suit the family's needs. Of course, these attributes must be customized for every family.
What can the reluctant parent do to ease the transition to preschool? Experienced parents recommend working with your Part C provider (like CHIP) to identify options for preschool, meet other parents for references, and visit visit visit during your child's second year. Teachers often welcome parents as volunteers, and the program can be run almost like a co-op if your child is relaxed about you being present. (Mine left whatever she was doing, plopped on my lap, and sucked her thumb, so I tried to stay away until she got more used to the environment.)
A summary of ideas to ease the transition:
By December of that first year, we couldn't believe the change in Maddie. She had daily, normal interactions with peers that forced her to communicate beyond her one sign or one sound routine. Now finishing year three of preschool, she is capable of joining the kindergarten class next year, and she won't be at the low end of the academic spectrum. Best of all, she initiates play with both her deaf/hh and hearing peers.
For parents who are reluctant to have their child start preschool, I suggest considering what the objections truly are. For some rural parents, there may not be a good preschool option but perhaps something can be created if the transition team starts soon enough. Certainly some parents choose to homeschool or use private schools, but each district considers on its own whether or not to provide support services at some level or sees the family as opting out of preschool as a service. Perhaps with deaf education reform, more options will be available.
I will miss the family friendly, open doors of preschool. But since Maddie has learned to sneak over to the job board and put her own name first in the pile of name cards (so she could get the choice jobs), I know it is time for her to move on. We both learned so much during our stay in the preschool years
McGurran Preschool Evaluation Chart