I will warn you in advance that this post may be longer than some of the others. Gray’s education and services are such a huge part of our journey. This is our story…
Yesterday I received a letter announcing Grayson’s school session and teacher along with a school supply list. I’m sure countless other families in the district received a similar letter in the mail. Our letter felt like SO MUCH MORE than a teacher assignment and a supply list. Our letter felt like a prize. A reward for our efforts. The proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. Although in reality I suppose it is more like a flashlight at the beginning of the tunnel. But heck, light is light and I will take it! Because over the past two years we have spent a lot of time in the dark. We have logged a lot of hours listening and asking questions and making plans. Sometimes things felt so much bigger than us; so we just blindly followed where the path led. And this particular path is leading Grayson to mainstream 4K in our home school district!
When we first received Grayson’s diagnosis I looked at everything in way too big of a scope. I looked at my 2 year old and my head skipped ahead to high school and college and marriage. I worried about how the diagnosis would impact his ability to live a full life. I worried until I realized that I had to make my scope much smaller. I had to look at Grayson in the moment. I had to set realistic and attainable goals. Short-term goals. I had to understand what I really wanted for him, and then we had to make the best plan we could to get him there. I threw myself 100% into his care plan. I remember describing this to a friend saying that it felt like the most important recipe that I would ever create. I had to pick just the right amounts of “this” and just the exact amount of “that”. And because it felt so important I labored over the many decisions.
Just 2 short months after the diagnosis we had our first IEP meeting. Grayson was not even 3 years old at the time. And as I sat in that room surrounded by strangers I did my best to take in all of the information and recommendations that they shared. In case you have never been in an IEP meeting before, let me set the scene. There were 6 people around the table in addition to myself and my husband. The 6people consisted of (1) Birth to 3 representative (1) School District Special Ed Coordinator (1) Speech Therapist (1) OT, (2) Classroom Teachers. I listened to these complete strangers tell me exactly where my child should go and exactly what he should do. It was such a surreal out of body experience. At that very first IEP meeting the team recommended that Grayson spend his 3K year in a school in our community focused on providing special education services to students in the district. During the time of the diagnosis my husband and I toured this school. We walked around the school and absorbed the environment. We marveled at the swimming pool, Grayson loves to swim. We explored the sensory room. We met the teachers and interacted with the students. And as we sank into our seats in our car we both let out a big exhale. You see, the school was great. But, we both just had a gut feeling that the school was not the best environment for our son. Not then. Maybe not ever.
Grayson spent his 2 year old year at the Lake Geneva Montessori School. I just cannot say enough amazing things about this school! At the time we enrolled Grayson we did not have a diagnosis. In fact, we did not receive Grayson’s diagnosis until he was 2 months shy of finishing the school year. The school and the teachers embraced Grayson with open minds and pure love in their hearts. We all knew early on that something was different about Grayson. They took the time to schedule extra meetings with me. They filled me in on his progress. They did not hesitate to call and let us know if things just were not “on track” that day. And when they did that we picked him up and knew that we could start fresh the next day. When we went to Iowa for our diagnostic testing we told them that Grayson attended Montessori school. There first reaction was a noticeably surprised “oh really?” They went on to explain to us that children on the spectrum can struggle in a Montessori environment. This surprised me because everything I had ever learned throughout my education taught me that Montessori was by definition an approach to help children with varying needs explore at their own pace.
Quick Montessori Cliff Notes for those who are unfamiliar:
The Montessori environment allows children to engage in their own activities (or “works”). The activity selection and pace is up to each individual child. They can perform the work individually or in a group. There is a structured group component of the day as well, but the guiding principles are focused on letting the child work within their own natural development. Some people believe that children on the spectrum may not have enough innate social development to thrive in an environment that does inforce a firm social structure. This was not our experience. We found this environment to comforting for Grayson. We also found him learning to read and respect the boundaries of the social development of other children. For a child on the spectrum, this is incredibly difficult.
As part of our diagnostic process the therapist asked to speak with Grayson’s Montessori teacher. After returning from the phone call she said “wow, I totally get why that environment works for him.” You see, there was something so nurturing and so individualistic about their approach with Grayson. And in a classroom of only 8 children and 2 teachers; Grayson had a lot of attention. And sometimes he requires a lot of attention.
Up until the diagnosis, and then up until the IEP meeting, it was always our intention to send Gray back to Montessori for his 3 year old year. And even though we understood all of the reasons to send him to the special education school; we had our own reasons to keep him at Montessori.
- The environment was familiar to him. Many of his peers would move on to the 3 year old room. He knew the building and the classroom.
- The rules were familiar to him. Grayson had already learned the rules, the schedule and the structure at Montessori. At a time when so many things were changing for him; it was hard to wrap our heads around more changes.
- The school had become a comfort zone for James and I. We trusted the teachers. We valued their efforts to communicate with us.
- He was thriving in the environment. Being around typical peers was helping Grayson progress in his speech and social development. We really worried about Gray’s regression or failure to continuing progressing in an environment without typical peers.
- In an oddly selfish way, our friends were at this school. It had become a part of our social identify as parents. And the idea of making another change, retreating in another way, seemed scary.
In the end, we kept Grayson at the Montessori school for his 3 year old year. It was a decision that felt right from the beginning. And after weeks of talking and back and forth we decided to listen to our instincts. And, Grayson had an amazing year. He grew and changed and progressed in so many ways. He learned social ques and norms from watching the 22 typical aged peers in his classroom. He embraced rules and structure that were new to him. He found ways to communicate his needs and wants within the classroom.
As we sat back and watched his progress in awe, the time to yet again make a decision about Grayson’s future loomed over us. For Grayson’s 4 year old year we would have 3 choices (1) continue at the Montessori school (2) Mainstream School or (3) special education school. Again we listened to the recommendations on our team. However, this time our team was divided in terms of what exactly was the best environment for Gray. There were so many reasons for us to stay at the Montessori school. In the end we choose to prepare Grayson to enter Mainstream 4K. One of the biggest deciding factors for us was the speech and OT services. Right now so many of Grayson’s services happen in the house. And the ability to receive these services in the school environment meant more time at home just being a kid. Another big deciding factor was that Rowan will be at the Montessori school next year. My Grayson is a creature of habit, and we had too many questions about how Rowan’s presence would impact Grayson’s focus (or lack thereof). Lastly, we hoped that Grayson could benefit socially from starting 4K with all of the other children who would move throughout the grades with him in our school district.
Grayson’s goodbye to the Montessori school was sad for all of us. He grew there. He changed there. He went there as a two year old struggling to find his voice; and he left as a 4 year old with so much to say. I went there as a scared and confused parent, and left with answers, a diagnosis and a plan. I am so grateful for the Montessori environment. I am thankful for Grayson’s amazing teachers and aids over our 2 years there. I can say whole heartedly that without it, without them, I am not sure that I would be holding this Mainstream 4K shopping list in my hands.
This next year will be another year of many firsts for Grayson and for our family. But we will face them like we have faced every other first we’ve met along this journey; face on, full of hope and ready to move mountains!