by Margarita Isakov
Your child is about to start school – it is the most exciting and terrifying time of your life as a parent. You want your child to be treated with respect, dignity and to be welcomed, supported, well-instructed, and accepted by the teachers and the other children. Anxiety is running high!
Registration time is here. You’re doing everything right by requesting a meeting with the principal (for semantic purposes: a case conference). You’ve got your support person to attend with you. You have the photograph of your beautiful child at the ready. Here comes the hard part. How do I introduce my child? What should I be discussing? Is asking for full-time one-to-one para-professional support in the classroom going to alleviate my fears and concerns, or will it create new ones? Are we going to be working at cross-purposes with ourselves in our pursuit of an inclusive education? What is it we’re really asking for?
The first thing to remember is that this actually isn’t your child’s first school experience. You are your child’s first and best teacher. You’ve been teaching your child the most important skills for life! Independent living: dressing/undressing, washing hands, toileting (or comfort with the routine). You are building the stepping stones of school success right at home, working through every obstacle (step-stools, toilet-inserts, loose elastic-banded clothing, etc.), anything and everything to nurture independence, pride and confidence in your child. Your child is already a member of a social network: within the family, a preschool/nursery, early years centre, community centre, your neighbourhood street…Those early social skills and connectedness to others were something you’ve already fostered and facilitated.
Introduce your child in a positive manner. It is important that you help the school see the strengths and capabilities of your child. Focus on what your child can do and when extra help is not needed. What strategies worked well and what interests helped your child to learn and to participate? Be honest about the specific supports that will help your child be successful, keeping the focus again on your child’s ability to learn.
Research and empirical evidence tells us that there are many detrimental effects of excessive and unnecessary paraprofessional proximity: separation from classmates, unnecessary dependence, interference with peer interactions, insular relationships (student/paraprofessional), student begins to feel stigmatized, limited access to competent instruction, interference with teacher engagement (and low teacher ownership of the student), student’s loss of personal control, loss of gender identity (e.g. male student in female bathroom); the probability of provoking problem behaviours (when student rebels against the paraprofessional support). Get creative! Emphasize instead that the para-professional do administrative tasks to free the teacher to spend more time instructing students; engage in follow-up instruction if needed; provide supervision in group settings; assist with personal care needs if needed; facilitate social skills, peer interactions, and positive behavior supports (Giangreco, M. et al, 2005).
Think of the future and what the drawbacks are to having a full-time paraprofessional shadowing or hovering over your child. Do I want a future for my child involving more adult support and dependency (primarily paid support), or a future that encourages normalized experiences with my child’s peer group in our community, exploring natural supports and opportunities for self-determination?
(Giangreco et al, Teaching Exceptional Children, Vol37 No5, pp28-34, 2005 Council for Exceptional Children)
Margarita Isakov is a staunch supporter and promoter of quality, equitable and accessible inclusive education, and full engagement and participation of all children and families in their communities. With 25 years in the field: as an inclusion coordinator (Toronto Parks and Recreation), preschool inclusion facilitator (Mothercraft K.I.D.S.), special education resource staff with both Toronto school boards, and Resource Consultant and advocate for families of children with extra support needs in early childhood programmes, Margarita is devoted and passionate about her cause. Margarita holds a Masters degree in Education from OISE. She is also the Integration Action for Inclusion -Toronto chapter representative on the TDSB SEAC.