Last year my daughter entered 6th grade and middle school. Rachel has Down syndrome and has always been fully included. Middle school conjures up visions of all kinds of difficulties for families of typical students. Add in an intellectual disability and the imagination can go wild with all the “what if’s.” Based on the testimony of many parents and students, some of those “what ifs” are real and not imagined. We had a fabulous first year of middle school and I’d like to share some of the reasons I believe this to have been so.
Rachel’s first nine years of life were spent in another city and state. We moved to Olathe, KS when she was nine. We had many struggles in our former school system that we have not had in Olathe. So I want to start by complementing our school system. Remember, nothing is perfect and you as a parent must always stay on top of your child’s education. Having a progressive school system with a group of educators who are willing to think out of the box with you is most helpful. It is an understatement to say that I am a planner. My first tip about middle school is to be a planner. We started in the spring with transition type meetings. We, including Rachel, met the new team. One good result of this was our difference of opinion about electives. Because of extra educational supports, we were told there appeared to be no room for electives. We didn’t think this was the best thing for Rachel. Honestly, I don’t’ think it is the best thing for most kids with developmental disabilities. For some of our kids who struggle with academics, electives such as art, theater, choir, orchestra, foods, computer, etc. give them something to look forward to. They also give them the opportunity to be on a more even playing field. Rachel walked into her Communications Media class and told the teacher, “I am good in front of the camera.” It was a great class for her to display her stage skills.
As we planned and progressed, these are some of the key things we addressed:
Locker. Her locker was located near the resource teacher and Rachel had a key instead of a combination lock. She wore it on a lanyard with her ID card. Because all students are required to have their id cards with them, many students wear lanyards so she was no different than anyone else. A friend told me that I would regret the decision on the key. She would lose the key, but I only had to go to the school once with a key issue. I knew my child and knew managing a key would be much better than her fine motor skills managing a combo lock.
Friends in classes. We feel it is critical to Rachel’s success (not to mention good for the other students) for her to have a support system in the form of friends in her classes. This is a win-win for everyone including the teachers. Her friends already know she will ask for help when she needs it. They know when/how to offer to help. They interpret. They give Rachel a comfort level. The friends get the opportunity to show leadership skills too. Several parents contacted the school and requested for their child be in her class. The counselors worked with us to be sure there was at least one student Rachel knew in each class. This was enormously helpful.
Communication. This is always the area of challenge. Because writing is quite challenging, we needed communication directly from school personnel regarding assignments, homework, extracurricular activities, etc. We developed a system for a para-professional to email me each day with homework from each class. Individual class teachers also emailed me or we could access classroom information online. A few glitches but this worked well overall. This coming school year her iPad will go to school with her. She should be able to be more organized using an online planner and will be able to record homework and the teachers/para’s can also record messages. Our goal is for Rachel to be more and more independent and self-sufficient. We believe that technology is the key to this for her. We are all excited about the possibilities the iPad will create!
School tour. All 5th grade students went to a middle school for a day to learn about the school. We toured the school several times without students there. Once we were registered and the school was open, we took the opportunity to walk her schedule multiple times.
Visual organizer. Rachel wanted a pink notebook. I made a color coded grid of her classes and put in the clear lining of the notebook. This was also posted in the door of her locker. It also had reminders about our lunch paramenters, room numbers, teachers, etc. Rachel is very visual and since the notebook travelled with her all day, it provided good visual prompts.
Lunch. I am overwhelmed by the middle school’s lunch options. Line a. Line b. A la Carte. …. So many choices. We were afraid that Rachel might treat the entire 6th grade to ice cream and cookies on a daily basis. We were surprised. We talked through the options (multiple times) and told Rachel that she could have a la carte one day a week and a treat one day a week. We even agreed to which day she could do ala carte and a treat. She figured out that a la carte took longer and she was tardy to class so she opted to rarely do the a la carte. She wanted to change her treat day from Friday to Wednesday so we said fine. We only had a handful of instances where she did her treat more than once a week. Just reviewing this with Rachel and her team seemed to make it all work smoothly.
Teamwork/Team meetings. We made sure that the entire team including teachers, resource, para support, and administration knew our expectations, needs and challenges. We met with her team about once every six weeks. This just helped to be sure we all knew what was going on and to be sure we were on the same page.
Teachers. Really, I had nothing to do with this. We just had great teachers. They were all good to communicate with me about ideas and work with the resource teacher to make modifications and accommodations. They came up with many great ideas to help Rachel be successful.
Social development. We worked with the social worker and speech therapists to organize a girl’s group and a lunch bunch. We dropped direct speech services because we all believed that it was more important for Rachel to work on conversational speech. These conversational goals were incorporated into the girl’s group and the lunch bunch. Each group was comprised of a couple of students with communication needs and a couple of typical students. They had topics and projects and Rachel looked forward to the groups.
PE. Middle school students take PE every day. They change clothes every day for PE. Rachel takes care of her own personal needs but she usually has longer than five minutes. One of the things we did to help address this was shoes. Rachel can tie her shoes but it is a challenge. When hurried, it takes longer. Her daddy and the school social worker are both runners so they came up with the idea of the runners strings that aren’t tied but just adjusted. Many students wear these so she was not much different than the other students. Rachel enjoyed PE and the teacher reported that she did well.
Clubs/extracurricular. Our kids need to participate in these activities so they can feel like they are part of the school Rachel wanted to be in the clubs and we worked to determine the best clubs for her. She was in CougarManiacs (Pep Club) and dance and cheer club. All things she loves. She was able to ride the bus and be a part of the pep club activities at a football game. She was just like everyone else. We did asked one of her friends to help her with her snack money because this is a bit of a challenge. Rachel wanted to try out for cheerleader. We met with the principal and the cheer sponsor and agreed on some minor accommodations. We wanted her to go through the process like the other students. In the end, she wasn’t chosen but she did her best and had a great attitude. The sponsor and principal were impressed with her resilience and commitment, so they invited her to be the cheerleading assistant this year. She is very excited.
IEP Understanding. Rachel made the honor roll each nine weeks this year. She worked hard as did her teachers and her parents. A couple of things written in Rachel’s IEP that I think are critical for success relate to teachers getting study guides, tests, etc. to her parents. Her IEP says that teachers will get such items to us including notices of upcoming quizzes at least one week prior. This gives us time to work with Rachel and help plan out her time so she is not up until 11 studying one night. We need study guides formatted using the type of question Rachel will be given and load them all to her iPad to make flash cards. We have determined this is the best method for Rachel. Your child may benefit from another method. I need to know if it will be yes/no or multiple choice or will she have a bank of answers to fill in the blank. She has to prepare using the style that will be used or she is lost. There may be teachers who have not had to do this for a child in the past so make certain that this is communicated to the teachers. Our teachers even want our opinion on the way they have set up the test or the assignment and will it be the best way to assist Rachel in being successful in sharing what she has learned.
I’m sure that I have forgotten something but these are just a few little tips that helped us to have a great year. About six weeks into the school year I was chatting with another mom. Her daughter had been in elementary with Rachel. The mom told me that her daughter said, “Rachel is doing better than any of us with middle school, mom. She loves it!”
Bio – Jawanda B. Mast
Jawanda Barnett Mast, host of her www.sassysoutherngal.posterous.com, is mom to Rachel who happens to have Down syndrome. Rachel is 13 and participates in theatre, dance, soccer and is fully included in 7th grade at her neighborhood school. Since Rachel’s birth, Jawanda has become an advocate for the rights of people with Down syndrome and other disabilities. Specifically she enjoys policy advocacy and speaking to and training educators, community professionals and parents. Currently, she serves as the National Down Syndrome Society’s Down Syndrome Policy Ambassador for the State of Kansas. Formerly she was Executive Director of the Down Syndrome Association of Memphis and the Mid-South (DSAM), DSAM Buddy Walk Chair and Special Kids and Families board member. She is also a graduate of the TN Partners in Policymaking Institute. Jawanda is married to Jonathan and they both hold bachelors and master’s degrees from the University of AR. Professionally, Jawanda has spent 20+ years working community education and volunteer management through various non-profit organizations.