Early Childhood Development and Special Education

Sophie school

When It was first suggested to me that we take Sophie to our local Early Childhood Development Program (ECDP), I was reluctant.  ECDP is a version of early intervention that has been available in Australia that is directly linked to Special Education Schools.  ECDP has playgroups  that parents and children can attend from birth until 3.5 years of age.  From the age of 3.5, children can attend a classroom for up to two days a week without parental supervision.  Children can then proceed into the Special Education Schools if needed, or enter main stream schooling with supports.

I knew that my beautiful daughter needed extra supports.  She was already receiving physiotherapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy, and she needed assistance with social skills.  I knew she had a genetic disorder.  I knew this would be a lifetime journey.  I had fought for many long months to actually obtain a diagnosis. But for some reason I was still struggling with acceptance.  I didn’t want my child to go into “Special Education”.  I was worried that her behaviours might regress.  I didn’t want other people to see her as “different” (although I had known she was “different” from birth).  I thought we could battle it out in the mainstream system.

Despite my desire to believe that the mainstream system would be sufficient, I thought I owed it to my daughter to at least find out what the ECDP had to offer.  Sophie and I went along to the ECDP playgroup for a few months when Sophie was about 18 months old. But then I stopped taking her, and reverted to a “normal” playgroup.  And  I found myself caught in a bind.  Going to playgroup with “neurotypical” children was difficult.  I found it hard to connect with the other Mums.  Our experiences and concerns were so vastly different.  And seeing the differences between Sophie and the other children tugged at my heart strings.  Their journey was so different to ours, and I longed to be around other parents who understood what it was like to have a child who was “outside the norm”. But going to ECDP playgroup felt just as hard.  There I was reminded of the reality of our situation.  There, there was no denying that Sophie was surrounded by her peers.  And I suppose I wasn’t yet ready to fully accept that Sophie needed the support that the ECDP had to offer.

Finally I swallowed my pride and fears, and more than a year after leaving the ECDP playgroup, we went back and enrolled her into the ECDP kindergarten program.  Sophie was three and a half years old, and I was ready to accept that we could benefit from the help that the ECDP would provide.  At the time, Sophie was also attending a mainstream daycare/kindy for a few days per week.  While Sophie loved her mainstream kindy, she was always on the edges.  Every time I picked her up, she was playing alone in the playground.  She struggled to choose tasks and follow through without assistance.  The shear number of children in her group (25) made it easy for her to “fall between the cracks”.

At ECDP Sophie thrived.  There were only eight children in her class.  The teachers were experts in their field.  They knew just how to encourage Sophie so that she started to take an interest in her peers.  They helped to keep her on task when she was struggling and wanting to retreat.   They provided extra assistance with her speech, fine motor development and gross motor development.  Here were the people who could help my daughter to thrive.  As an extra bonus, with the expert help provided by the caring staff at her ECDP, Sophie started to become much more engaged in her “regular” childcare setting.  The skills she was being taught at ECDP flowed over into her “regular” early childhood environment, and she started to thrive there as well.  The staff from the ECDP even visited her “regular” daycare centre and provided guidance to the staff there on how to best help Sophie enjoy her days, and the types of support that would help her blossom.

And when it came time for Sophie to start Prep (the first year of formal schooling in Australia), the wonderful staff from the ECDP were absolutely invaluable.  They wrote reports for us to give to her school, outlining her strengths and weaknesses.  They provided the school with guidance in regards to what accommodations Sophie would benefit from in the main stream system.  They talked me through my fears, taught me how to advocate within the school system, and assured me that I was welcome to speak with them at anytime if I needed more help with transitioning Sophie to school.

I know without a doubt that without the input from the ECDP, Sophie’s transition to mainstream school would have been much more difficult.  With the help she received from ECDP she was equipped to start school along with her peers. She had learnt how to manage her bag and her lunchbox, how to ask to go to the toilet, how to sit in circle with other kids, how to play in the playground without pushing her peers away, how to eat her lunch without assistance.  Basic things for kids without special needs.  Things that can require a lot of time and effort to teach for children who are struggling with motor skills or social problems.

So in the end, sending Sophie to a “special school” in her very early years was a gift.  To any parents struggling with this decision..if you have the opportunity, I would say..take it! Grab it with both hands. You will know soon enough by the changes you see in your child whether it is a good place for your child to be or not.

But here’s the rub.  In Australia, they have just passed a bill that will abolish ECDPs.  Our children will no longer have access to this amazing and invaluable resource.  Kids will miss out on the specialised support they need to thrive.  In my opinion, this is a travesty,  There is no doubt that early intervention can make a huge difference to kids with special needs.  Removing this valuable service feels like a crime against our kids.  And I imagine that Prep teachers in mainstream schools could be overwhelmed when they start to have kids coming into those schools who need more support than ever before, because early intervention was denied to them.

For anyone reading this post who is in Australia, if you would like to have any chance of seeing the ECDP system remain..I would urge you to sign the linked petition.

To those in other countries…if you have a service like this available…my advice would be to give thanks for it and give it a go.  You may very well be surprised, and see that any fears around special education are unfounded.  Special kids often need some special help.  Let’s hope and pray that legislators in Australia will see the folly of their decision to abolish this invaluable service, and that it will be reinstated, giving parents and children for years to come the best opportunity for a great start.