If you have a child with disabilities, starting Kindergarten is a milestone that requires some thoughtful preparation and hard work. Begin by conferring with your son’s or daughter’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) team, which often includes Pre-K teachers, local agency workers, and doctors. An IEP is a legal document guiding appropriate individuals (teachers, parents, administrators, etc.) in your child’s unique, specific needs and disabilities.
Six months to one year before your child is scheduled to begin Kindergarten or Pre-K (some school systems count Pre-K as the official entry into school) meet with your IEP professional team and discuss your child’s readiness for the school environment. Make a list of skills your child needs to master before she will be successful in the Kindergarten classroom. These could be social, mental or physical, and usually include: the ability to communicate what he needs or wants (i.e. bathroom urges, hunger, thirst, to be alone, help on instructions), knowing how to share toys and materials with peers, the ability to wait his turn, the ability to pay attention and sit still (within reason for his age), hold and use a pencil and crayon, count as high as 20, write and understand the letters of the alphabet. These could change based on your school’s Kindergarten curriculum.
Note which of the basic Kindergarten readiness skills your child needs the most work with and ask your IEP team for suggestions of activities you can do at home during the next several months.
As a team, decide if your child is ready for Kindergarten and the school environment. Remember that day-to-day interactions with other students, teachers and non-home environments can help your child learn skills she may be missing now.
Make the transition as smooth as possible by visiting your child’s classroom before the school year begins. Most children feel better after one official open-house to meet the teacher and see the room, but your child might need a few visits. In the spring before your child’s entry to Kindergarten, ask your prospective school if you and your child could come visit Kindergarten or Pre-K classes immediately after school. You may not know who your child’s teacher will be yet, but let your child see a few Kindergarten rooms, explore the activity centers, and look at all the bright, fun bulletin boards. Ask the teachers to tell him about fun activities her students did that day. The entire visit could be less than 10 minutes, but it will make a huge impact on your child.
As summer draws to a close, take your child to the school open-houses one more time. If your think your child needs a little more familiarity with the school, spend some more time there. Walk with your child around the school, take the hallway route she will take with her class to the lunchroom, library and music or art class. Visit the library and look at the reading areas. Take a snack and eat it in the cafeteria, sitting at the tables just like she will on her first day.
As you visit the school, keep a digital camera handy. Take photos of your child’s room, main halls, the office, cafeteria and other important places. Use the photos at home to help your child remember what she saw during her visit. Visual prompts are essential to help disabled children visualize things they have not seen in a while.
When you visit your child’s room, teachers often post a list of the students in their class. Look for any families in the community with whom you are familiar. Introduce yourself and your child to other children and their parents at the open house who will be in your child’s class. Ask parents if they would mind arranging a few brief play dates with their children to help your child make some friends before the school year starts. If you have an easy, neutral play-date location in mind, parents will be more likely to agree to this, especially if you are a stranger to them. For example, explain that your child would transition better if he had some friends in his new class. Offer to spring for lunch if the parent and classmate would be willing to meet at McDonald’s or Chik-fil-a. The children can play in the play area and the adults can get to know each other too. The other parent has complete control of the situation, making her feel safe as well.
Read books with school and Kindergarten themes during story time with your child. “Look out Kindergarten, Here I Come!” by Nancy Carlson or “Amanda’s First Day of School” by Joan Elizabeth Goodman are classics.
Get more tips for preparing a child with disabilities for Kindergarten by emailing the PACER Center (mnpirc@PACER.org) for their free “K is for Kindergarten” booklet.