Playing the Game

I cornered Michael’s afternoon teacher at the end of the day.  Normally he came home on a special bus, the “short bus” as it was commonly known.  A bus that I’d sometimes had to belt him into, kicking and screaming as traffic backed up behind its red lights.  But today I was picking Michael up, because it was the best way to have an off the record conversation with this woman, off the record.

“Do you have a second?” I asked the teacher as she walked my son out of the classroom.  Only four children were in her afternoon class, a small group of children who needed intensive, specialized social speech program.  The twelve extra hours a week that Michael had spent with this woman for the last year and a half had brought my son from having no real language to being able to speak in small sentences of two to three words.  Most of Michael’s talking related to things that were concrete:  things he could see, people he could see.  He still couldn’t understand abstract concepts like plans for tomorrow or the land of make believe, but he had come a very long way under this woman’s oversight.  I trusted her completely.

“Absolutely, what’s up?” she asked, leading me back into her classroom.

“Well,” I started slowly, “At our last parent meeting we were talking about Michael going to kindergarten next year.”

She nodded.  We had brought up what that would mean for my son, who had been educated for the last two years in the special needs preschool.  He’d clearly come a long way in the very nurturing, small classroom where aides flowed in and out of the loosely structured program.  “Are you concerned about that?”  she asked me.

“Well, I just don’t know how he will fare in a mainstream classroom.  Right now there are ten kids in the room in the mornings, four in the afternoons, and aides and therapists all of the time, making the adult to child ratio really small.  And he’s done well, really well.  Do you think he can continue to progress in a regular classroom?”

I knew what her answer was supposed to be.  It was supposed to be an immediate reassurance that he would do fine.  But instead, she looked at me and turned the question around.  “What makes you think he won’t?”

I sat down in the tiny chair at the table where Michael had started playing with blocks.  “I just don’t see how he could handle being in a regular classroom.  I mean, the class size will be so much larger.”

“Sure, but we’ll plan out everything in his planning meeting.  He’ll be given whatever he needs to thrive in that setting.”

I raised my eyebrows at her.  “Do you really think that’s true?  They’ve already told me that they see him doing half days next year.  How can he continue to progress if we cut his classroom time and increase the class size?  It just doesn’t make any sense.  I know the state recommends at least twenty two hours of instructional time for kids on the spectrum in kindergarten.  Right now he gets 24.  They are talking about taking him down to 17 and a half.  It just doesn’t seem like he would do as well.”

She nodded.  “I see what you’re saying.”

“I am wondering if I should hold him back for another year in preschool.  He’s doing so well here.  Maybe if he gets another year under his belt, he will be closer to what a typical kindergartener would be like.”

I could see her thinking.  “What if he was offered a full day program, with an aide?  That would help you with the higher class size, and then he would have the same amount of hours of instruction.”

I smiled.  “Do you think that would be possible?”

She looked at me.  “I could quietly get the word out to the team that unless you were offered something like that, you are considering keeping him back.  That would probably compel them to offer you more than what they originally had planned on.”

I pondered this.  “But in the past, it has always seemed like the team has offered my son what he needed.  Obviously, he’s done well.  Why is it now that they wouldn’t?”

His teacher looked around and quietly said, “Things are different when you leave the preschool.  You lose a lot of the funding for special needs kids.  In K-12 it can be a battle sometimes because the budgets are always so tight.  You have to really be aware and make sure your child is getting what they need.” She paused and then said, “It would be helpful to you if your doctors wrote notes agreeing with your assessment that Michael needs more time than the traditional half day program.”   She gave me a long look that clearly told me she was sharing something with me that she likely shouldn’t.

‘I understand,” I said, returning her look with one that expressed my appreciation for her trust and concern.  “Thanks for the tip.”

“I’m really glad you stopped by,” she said much louder now, indicating that it was time to end the conversation.  “I’ll see you in a few weeks at Michael’s planning meeting.  I’m sure it’ll go very smoothly.”

I took my son by the hand and left the room, bewildered.  I’d heard often at my support groups of how parents had to “play a game” to get their special needs child the services they needed to help them move forward.  It was the first time I’d experienced anything like it myself.

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