Big Change, Big Challenge
Jillian Lewis-Darden, the primary inclusion teacher at Edmondson Heights Elementary School in Baltimore County, says, “Changing teachers from year to year is difficult for students, whether they’re disabled or not.”
But the kindergarten-to-first-grade transition may be an especially difficult transition, with special challenges for students with special needs.
Kindergarten is probably more academic than it was when today’s parents went to school, but the move to first grade still brings changes, some of which may need to be addressed in the student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) or 504 Plan.
Louise Coakley, IEP chairperson at Edmondson Heights, says, “A lot of [IEP] team meetings for students going from kindergarten to first grade discuss placement.”
She says that it’s important to review IEPs for accommodations in light of the different demands of kindergarten and first grade.
“You have to consider strengths versus needs,” she says.
Coakley also explains that, after students have been in kindergarten for one year, the IEP team gets a clearer picture of their needs. When preparing the first grade IEP, the team needs to look at current functioning, progress throughout the year and expectations for the child given his disability. The team must also look at the curriculum expectations for first grade.
Keeping the child in the least restrictive environment, of course, remains essential.
Arlene Creighton, a teacher of an inclusive kindergarten classroom at Edmondson Heights, says, “If there are alternatives to the regular first grade classroom, visit the choices. See them and compare what’s happening in the classroom during the year and at the end of the year, so that you can see the progress that’s made during the year. Don’t wait until the school year is ending.”
Changes to Keep in Mind
In first grade, you may find
Longer days. Children who have attended a half-day kindergarten will now be attending school all day, and some children may become fatigued, physically or emotionally or both by the longer day.
Seating differences. In kindergarten, students typically sit on the floor or in chairs at tables—not at their own desk. In first grade, students may have their own desk for the first time and be assigned seating. Both seats and desks may need to be adapted to meet the child’s needs.
First graders will be expected to sit for longer periods of time and will not have as many opportunities to move about the classroom as they had in kindergarten. For students with physical disabilities, kindergarten may actually be more challenging since kindergarten students move around more and getting down to the floor for seating may be difficult or impossible.
More movement throughout building. First graders may move around the school building more, going to special classes such as physical education or music. They also may be given more independence to travel within the building, such as being allowed to go to the bathroom, the office or the school nurse by themselves.
More responsibility within the classroom. Students are also expected to work more independently in first grade, with less teacher assistance. While kindergarten tends to be more of a “sharing community,” first grade requires more self-accountability; students are expected to be responsible for themselves.
First graders are expected to be able to follow directions and pay sustained attention to tasks. While the repetition of directions is typical in kindergarten, they may be repeated less frequently in first grade.
Students typically must start being more organized and more responsible for their materials. For instance, they may be expected to be able to take out all the materials they need to begin an assignment or participate in a special class.
More demanding curriculum. The curriculum in first grade is more demanding than in kindergarten. A big increase in the amount of writing that’s expected of students is typical, which may be an important difference for students with fine motor skills problems or visual deficits.
There’s more copying from the board (far-point copying), which some students with visual or working memory problems might find difficult. Additional emphasis is placed on reading skills such as phonemic awareness, fluency and comprehension. Also, the school day is more structured with less play time than in kindergarten.
Physical education. Students may begin participating in physical education classes for the first time, and adapted activities may be necessary. ASE
The following staff members of Baltimore County’s Edmondson Heights Elementary School contributed information for this article: Joe Wilson, Principal; Louise Coakley, IEP Chairperson; Arlene Creighton, inclusive kindergarten teacher; Beth George, occupational therapist; Kathleen Green, physical therapist; and Jillian Lewis-Darden, primary inclusion teacher.
Transition Planning—the Earlier, the Better
Even though formal transition planning—planning for your child’s life after high school—may not begin for many years, transition planning really begins the very first day of school, says Tom Barkley, Transition Specialist, Division of Special Education, Maryland State Department of Education.
In school, the goals and objectives of each Individualized Education Program (IEP) are actually steps toward adulthood. When parents fully participate in the IEP team process in partnership with teachers and other school personnel, they’re making decisions that will eventually impact the child’s adult life.
Barkley says that during the elementary years, parents also can help their child prepare for adulthood by providing as many activities and experiences as they can that might lead to interests—which may lead to a career.
For example: Take your child out to dinner. While you’re in the restaurant, talk about what’s going on, who’s preparing the meals, what other jobs people have there.
Ask your child, “Did you have a good time? Do you think you might like to work in a restaurant when you grow up?”
In other words, Barkley says, “Help children think about their experiences.” ASE
–by Nancy Knisley
© Baltimore’s Child Inc. September 2008