My son is about to become a graduate…of preschool. Well, actually, of two different preschools. And yes, there will be graduation parties.
I am as proud as any parent, of course. Who doesn’t love an opportunity to celebrate their child? But, part of me is a little ambivalent. It’s preschool, for chrissakes. Little Man will be five years old. And while he understands that he is going to go to a spiffy new kindergarten classroom next year, I really don’t think that he looks at it as some great rite of passage. Certainly it’s not one that deserves the fanfare of a graduation ceremony.
I have three degrees: a high school diploma, a bachelors, and a law degree. So I know a little bit about graduations by now. For me, each graduation was a significant milestone in my life, one that I will remember forever. It mattered to me that my family and close friends were there to share it with me. Each time I graduated, it was with the understanding that my status in life had irrevocably changed somehow. And that change was cause for reflection.
At first glance, it just doesn’t seem like that big a deal. Preschool, even a good, challenging preschool program doesn’t do much more than your garden variety episode of “Sesame Street.” Letters, numbers, some basic math and science, reading. Sure, the preparation provided by a good preschool seems insignificant, but it does establish the building blocks for learning.
But in my son’s case, there’s more than meets the eye. As some of you already know, Little Man has aspergers. That means developmental challenges. When he was diagnosed, there were a laundry list of issues that needed tackling. Among the most critical was his ability to pay attention and sit still, a skill educators sometimes refer to as “attending.” Now nearly every four year old has a slight issue with sitting still and paying attention. My son, however, was worse than most.
Another issue my son has is “scripting.” When you or I want to talk about something, we decide what we want to say and say it. Well, imagine if instead of constructing thoughts and putting them into words and making sentences, you essentially memorized bits of speech you’d heard before and parroted them instead of creating original speech. And then you repeated them over and over, especially when you wanted attention or were anxious. That’s scripting.
Then there’s the motor skills issue. Little Man has some issues with both gross and fine motor skills. He has trouble crossing his midline, meaning that he is not comfortable using the left limbs on the right side of his body and vice versa. He also has trouble operating some of the reflexes in his hands, which makes it difficult to hold a pencil or crayon to write.
Even with all his challenges, Little Man is one smart little boy. He’s known all his letters since about three. His numbers too. He understands how things work, and he remembers what we tell him, sometimes uncannily so. He likes to find out how things work. He’s known how to find the on and off switches for all his toys since he was nine months old. My husband jokes that in a few years we’ll have to put the toolbox under lock and key, lest we find the television dismantled on the floor.
But these challenges he has have the potential to disrupt his learning process. If he can’t learn to attend to tasks, he’ll have trouble absorbing instruction from his teachers. He’s already behind in his speaking and writing skills.
For the past year, Little Man has been in the public school system’s special education preschool five afternoons a week, and in a regular community preschool three mornings a week. Now, he’s about to graduate from both.
A few weeks ago, the local elementary school where Little Man will attend kindergarten held an open house for new families who would have kids attending the school for the first time in the fall. Of course, most of the parents had kindergarteners like my son. For them, this would be their very first foray into the county public school system. They were dutifully concerned about all the things they should be – how were their little darlings going to handle riding the bus to and from school? Who would get them to and from their classrooms? What would lunch be like? While the parents sat in the assembly hall fretting, the children were herded off to their future classrooms to meet their teachers and classmates, and tour the school bus.
I sat in my wooden elementary school assembly hall seat somewhat bemused. After all, Little Man had been riding the big yellow bus home from school for almost a whole school year. (Contrary to popular belief, the special ed kids don’t ride a short bus in my county.) Very little of the carefully reassuring presentation was of use to me. I already knew the drill. Apparently, off in his soon-to-be classroom, Little Man demonstrated equal aplomb on his tour of the school bus, nonchalantly sitting on a seat, buckling his seat belt and patiently waiting to actually go somewhere in the bus.
Starting Kindergarten at the public elementary school wasn’t really that much of a milestone. He’d already been in a public elementary school for a whole year. Having a full day of school wasn’t a milestone, either. He’d been doing that three days a week all year.
No, the milestones my son was going to celebrate with his graduation would have nothing to do with riding the school bus or attending a new school.
When he started this year, the majority of his speech was scripted. Now, the majority of his speech is actually original speech. He only scripts when he’s stressed out or bored. He’s sometimes too quiet, and his ability to engage in longer exchanges, particularly with peers, is still developing.
When he started this year, he did nothing but scribble with pens and crayons. Now, he can write his name and draw simple shapes and trace lines. Although he’s still not decided which is his dominant hand, left or right.
As for his ability to attend, he’s made dramatic improvements. He now sits in circle time with the other children and participates as required, eagerly, in fact. He has his moments, of course. But it’s markedly improved.
Little Man is not finished developing the skills he’ll need to support himself in an academic environment. And he may never be fully capable of connecting to his peers in a “normal” fashion. But he’s on his way. He’s going to be in a regular kindergarten class, receiving only minimal support from special education programming. And if he keeps making progress at the rate he is, he may soon be able to operate without any special services at all. Even the “gifted and talented” program isn’t out of his reach. Given how strong his cognitive skills are, I’d say he’s got as good a chance as anyone.
It’s not quite the graduation anyone expected. Certainly not the one his peers are experiencing. And it’s not the life-changing, earth-shattering experience that comes from a diploma. But it is a milestone. And I have to believe it’s not the last.