Move schools or not? Reflections from parents and carers

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‘I think it’s really important for families not to become disillusioned. Other families have also taken this journey. There are avenues.‘ – Tania

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Try to resolve issues first

Your child is at school for many years. Perhaps inevitably, there will come a time when issues arise. It’s important to know that you can raise your concerns and try to resolve them, perhaps with support from an organization like ACD.

Learning Together is full of stories and tips from families who have established positive working relationships with their child’s school, and resolved many issues along the way, including by raising formal complaints to the department. Often, the experience has resulted in a stronger relationship between the family and school, better outcomes for the student, and more knowledge at the school about supporting all students with disabilities.

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When might a move be the best outcome?

But what if you can’t resolve the issue, or problems keep arising? When should you consider a move? Sometimes a move is the best choice, for example to an environment that better suits your child’s needs.

This isn’t always about mainstream versus specialist. It might be about choosing between mainstream schools with differing approaches. Or exploring alternative environments – an alternative government school, learning at home, a ‘re-engagement’ program, an independent, community or Catholic school, or some form of dual enrolment.

The decision is very personal, and is usually a very stressful one to make. There’s so much to consider – your child’s wishes, the impact of a move, the available options and other pressures on your family. Below are some reflections from parents and carers. Many – but not all – chose to move schools. Stories and quotes throughout Learning Together reflect the experiences of parents and carers who made many different choices, for many different, individual reasons.

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Go for what you want – if it doesn’t work, reassess

“Choosing a school was a hard decision. We were advised by a lot of people to put him in a special school, to the point where we actually enrolled him in special school at one stage. For quite a lot of reasons, that would have been fantastic. Small class sizes – you know, six children generally to two teachers, that individual sort of care. He would have been able to catch a bus to school and back.

“It’s such an individual family decision. Watching Noam with his peers, and how much he learns from his peers and from his siblings, and from friends’ kids – his abilities are way beyond what I could ever have imagined. So it was so important for me to [try mainstream]. And if it wasn’t going to work then that’s fine, we’ll reassess and move on.” – Limor

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Mainstream to specialist and back again

“You can see whether it’s going to work from the goals they set for your child. If all they’re interested in is, ‘Oh, his bad behaviour, we’ve got to get that right’. But if they’re not challenging your child as well, that’s not going to work. So that was the first warning sign. The teachers were just concentrating on behaviour, and not setting any educational goals for him. When it came to projects, they’d give him the sheet, but didn’t expect him to do it …

“The teachers just didn’t have the time to help him. When you start seeing that, when they leave it all up to you – discipline, dealing with the issues, or finding out what’s wrong – that’s a big message. I did think about putting him into another mainstream school, but I felt he would bring those issues with him. So I felt, ‘Well, maybe he needs to go to a special school’. Because of the assessment process, he had to go to an SDS (special development) school [for students with an IQ score below 50]

“The great thing about the SDS was the small classrooms – the teachers were consistent, and his behaviour improved within two terms. But I asked them to please give him some challenging work, because he’s literally going backwards. It was breaking my heart each day, because he started phonetically spelling words that he knew how to spell. He refused to write unless it was tracing. He started signing – he’s a good talker, is Ethan, we’ve never done signing with him. We’ve never had to, because he’s always talked.

“I was starting to see this change, and I thought, ‘He’s just going backwards and losing what he’s worked so hard to do’, So after another term of this, I made another decision, to move put him back into [a different] mainstream school.

When it doesn’t work, well that’s when you change it. And if it’s working, well, you know, try to keep it going. Nothing’s ever set in concrete. If it doesn’t work, you don’t have to settle for that situation. You can change it, to something that does work.

“It’s so easy to get caught up and think, ‘I’ve got to do this’, and you put yourself under so much pressure and stress and strain. Sometimes its really worthwhile to step back, and have a look, and think, well, you know, ‘This is affecting me in this way, it’s affecting my husband, it’s affecting our children, it just doesn’t seem to be working’. And that’s when you really have to once again get your thinking cap on and start looking for another solution.” Marie

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The ‘too-hard basket’

“[The school] just don’t get my child. They didn’t want to get him. It seemed to me that it was just in the too-hard basket. They didn’t want to get to know him as a person and a learner. They’ve continually gone down that track of ringing every other day about his behaviour, regardless of how many strategies I’ve given them. Regardless of recommendations from his psychologist, recommendations from books.

“He seems to be picking up again this year, but it fluctuates throughout the year. So we’ve identified another school [an alternative government school].” – Megan

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My child doesn’t want to move

“I can’t make any decisions in a hurry. I’ve made lots of rash decisions. But my son doesn’t want to change schools. You know that whole thing, the system versus the child. The child doesn’t want to change schools, because he’s got friends, and to transition for him is really challenging. You’ve got to put a lot of work in. “ – Mel

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If ‘the battle’ takes over

“It gets to a point where everybody is coming from a different perspective. And as much as you try to encourage people to move in the right direction – if they’re not willing to hear you, that’s where you’ve got to go, ‘What’s the purpose I’m doing this for?’ You’ve got to ask yourself that question. Because are you here to fight a battle, or are you here to educate your child?

“I just want what I believe is the right thing, to be able to give him an education, and allow him to communicate. And that’s the point that I got to. It was like – I don’t want to fight with you any more.” – Christel

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My child made the choice

“His primary school was the local Catholic school. They were fantastic and supportive within their bounds. He also then went to high school at a Catholic college – and again, they were fantastic within their bounds. But you’ve got 700 children at this school. And they actually suggested that we go to the specialist school in year 9 or 10. I wasn’t as keen, because I didn’t think he’d want to go. I thought it would be too much for him, but he loved it.

“We went a few times, and [then] did two days a week at the specialist school, and three days at [mainstream]. And then it got to the point where the school blazer was getting too small, and I either had to buy a new one, or whatever. And I said, ‘What do you want to do?’ And he wanted to go to the special school. So he chose, which was good. Which is what we do with all our children.” – Lee

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It’s a parent’s journey too

“Coming to terms with Patrick having high grades in grade 6, and then the reality in high school that he just wasn’t coping with the structure and the setting, and even the material that they were learning, was a real shock to me. I’d always felt that as long as I’d supported well, and pushed hard enough, and spoken to enough people, that we would have a fairly normal high school experience.

“But there was a point where I couldn’t ignore any more that this was just too hard for him, and he needed a different kind of help. I needed to come to terms with it being a different journey … And we’d been pushing, we’d been trying. And his high school had actually been really considerate about how they might adapt the program in the coming year – thoughtful about what to put together … But it was clear Patrick wasn’t there. He wasn’t in it.

“I was really flying by the seat of my pants, and with what I presumed would be some good models. In hindsight, and having spoken to some other parents – what seems to have worked best is the slow and steady approach. Being a bit more settled in life, and making sure that, from about grade 4, grade 5, I was planning what might be best for those senior years.

“And even if you’re not sure, having a plan A and a plan B, and really understanding why you’re choosing a particular option is important. Is it because this is what I want for my child? Or is it because it’s actually what’s best for who they are, and what they’re capable of in this moment? That’s not to diminish that it’s okay to have a stretch. But I am a bit sad that I put my son in an environment that tested him to the extent that it did. But it came to a point where I couldn’t ignore any more that this was just too hard for him, and he needed a different kind of help. I needed to come to terms with  being on a different journey.

“In those hard moments when I didn’t know what the right decision was to make, I couldn’t foresee that it could turn into such a happy thing – to make a big change. It’s been the best outcome for all of us. It’s changed our family experience, and Patrick’s experience of himself, to feel that he’s doing well in a school setting.

“It was that sense of welcome. That sense of, ‘This community is for me’. And I can trust that he goes to school, that he has a happy experience, and it’s about who he is as a whole person. It’s about his educational needs, his social needs, his physical needs. And he comes home glowing, and says that it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. – Tania

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