From the day I first thought about schools for Seren, I always knew I would allow her to lead the way. Schooling and education are important to us as a family, and I knew I wanted to have Seren educated in a setting most suited to her needs. As time went on it became more and more apparent that a mainstream setting would be able to meet Seren’s needs, and with support from outside specialists (speech and language, OT, physio, the complex needs team etc) that it would work.
This is NOT the case for all children with Down’s syndrome. Some go straight in to special needs schools, others start in mainstream and transition to special needs school when the time is right and other make it all the way through mainstream primary and secondary. As is the way of life, it is completely unknown when a child is born as to what path that child will follow. None of the paths are a failure, none a success – they are all simply paths, followed to the best intention for the child. I have no idea if or when Seren will transition in to a special needs school – she will lead the way and I will pay close attention to her and decide what is right for her on an ongoing basis.
I had my reservations about mainstream education – Seren was only in size 18-24 month clothes when she started reception class with her 4 year old classmates. She had no speech as such and used a mixture of grunting, repetitive noises, Makaton (a type of sign language) and gesticulation to get by. Would she have friends? Would she be lonely? Would the other kids give her the time of day? Would she be bullied or babied? I had major wobbles about my girl being an outsider and that was before the issues of accessing the curriculum and actually getting an education!
What made the matter worse at the time of applying for schools was the the headteacher of our local school (at that time) was a complete buffoon. Incompetent and rude, he made it abundantly clear that he didn’t want Seren at his school and would do everything in his power to stop her from getting in. The happy ending to this particular story is that he left… who knows why, the rumour mill went in to overdrive.
So as it transpired, Seren had the school named on her statement and she got in. Ava, who was going in to year 2 when Seren started in reception class knew all about what was going on (in the simplest of forms) with the evil head teacher, as I had to prepare her for the chance that I might have to change her to another school if Seren was indeed stopped from getting in. It was a celebration all round when Seren started in September 2014. The t/a’s assigned to Seren were, understandably, very, very nervous. They had never looked after a child with Down’s syndrome and quite frankly it would have made no difference if they had. Every child with Down’s syndrome is totally unique and their abilities vary so vastly that I can only liken it to a moped riders being given a Harley Davidson and told to hop on and ride a slalom course! Each has 2 wheels and an engine, but they operate differently enough for there to be a whole new skillset needed to be comfortable and safe on one.
Within 2 weeks, Seren had won them all over. The t/a’s were smiling, Seren was having a great time (and learning!) and I knew it was the right place for her. She got invited to enough parties to keep me happy, and I will not talk about the one child who handed out invites to every girl in the class EXCEPT Seren… Luckily I averted Seren’s eyes and that kid will NEVER be invited to one of Seren’s “do’s”!!
My “mummy worry” went in to overdrive over the summer. Year 1 is a different kettle of fish to reception. The more structured learning was going to be a struggle for Seren, she is only just learning to hold her pen and can’t independently write her name yet. She can only sight read about 40 words and her speech is still completely under developed (but coming on in leaps and bounds!)
But then the most incredible thing happened which both restored my faith in our younger generation and also made me realise that I have another few months of not having to worry about Seren. The school councillor positions came up.
I wont lie, it would be unfair… there is no way on Earth I ever expected Seren to even get a single vote. She was expected to stand and do a speech and her “speech” consisted of 2 words by the sounds of things – “friends” and “safe”.
Having had an older daughter who tried (and failed) to become school councillor in year 1 and 2, I had learned that kids live in the moment. All else goes out the window and the kid that makes the best speech generally wins. This means that friendship allegiances are forgotten, and tactical voting is something that their little minds are not capable of. Often its the kids with the longest (and completely parent influenced) speeches that win. One year, Ava came back with a story about a speech that had us rolling on the floor laughing… It was about 7 minutes long, in perfect order, with immaculate content. No way the work of a child!
A pity vote? A sympathy vote? If she had been 13 years old then yes, that is what I would immediately think, but she is 5. Her classmates are 5. Half the parents didn’t even know the speeches were happening on that day.
Do you know what I think happened? Seren won because she is completely, totally and utterly accepted. She is non-judgemental, she is not mean. Seren wont bully and wont take sides because she has no idea what that even is. Seren will play with anyone and has no idea that there are social groups or friend groups. She is just happy to have a person to play with. Seren says hello to everyone and is completely uninhibited with her enthusiasm and passion for life. When she turns in work, it’s of such a low standard (in terms of what a neurotypical child can achieve) but she is super proud. She will look at her work and shout “me, me!!” to claim it as her own even if it is next to the most immaculate bit of work that would ordinarily make a child embarrassed or shy to admit the lesser work was theirs.
Seren makes the kids in her class realise that they are all great. There is always going to be Seren – the one who comes last with a bloody great big smile on her face. The “underachievers” are propelled up a level because Seren has got their backs.
Seren makes the most mess at lunch, she doesn’t care. Seren has a toileting accident, she doesn’t care. Seren is teaching lessons that no teacher can teach. She is teaching kids that its ok not to be perfect, its ok not to achieve. It’s ok to be different. Different really is ok. Seren is giving those kids a clear cut lesson on being happy with who you are, and by the looks of things, she is teaching them well.
So this year we will relish her title and be grateful for those little souls who voted for her. As they grow older they will realise that the position is something which Seren wont be able to fulfil adequately and so this will probably be her only year as school councillor. We intend to relish it and when she is presented with that badge on Wednesday we are going to celebrate like you wouldn’t believe.
Ava (Seren’s older sister aged 7) was voted in as school councillor this year too – and it was a hard slog for her! She even beat the *parent speeches* (that we had a good laugh at again) with her 20 second talk about gymnastics in the playground!! I have learned such a valuable lesson as a parent – my girls will succeed off their own backs and fail off their own backs. There is nothing more empowering for Ava than to have succeeded all on her own with no input from me.
Both Ava and Seren have showed us that actually, it’s not always the speech that gets the votes!