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All about Albert

Parent Carol Ward describes how close communication with the school has helped in her son's reception year

Albert has had a happy and successful start to his school life. He has Down's syndrome, and started his reception year last September at West Bridgford infants school. His having an older brother, Henry, aged 9, has undoubtedly helped since we were already familiar with our local school and convinced it was the right place for five-year-old Albert. Henry's induction gave us a taste of the anxieties that face any parent whose child is about to start school for the first time, but for those with a child with special needs, the worries can be different and more deep-rooted, especially if the child is your first.

I taught English and media studies for 10 years and now occasionally work with staff involved in early years teaching, offering parental perspectives on special needs issues. My husband Rob I live in Nottingham with Henry, Albert, and Oscar, aged 3. During Albert's pre-school years we were encouraged by stories of effective inclusion into mainstream schools. However, when talking to parents of other children with Down's syndrome it became clear to us that in a few cases things had gone wrong with the relationship between home and school. Various factors had contributed to the breakdown in communication, sometimes before the child's date of entry. Liaison had sometimes got entrenched around the issue of statementing and the number of hours of support allocated.

Once in school, some parents had felt unwelcome by staff and uncomfortable about mixing with other parents and their children. They believed that their child was perceived as a problem.

Various professionals I have met and worked with have confirmed that such an impasse can happen. In some cases they have found it difficult to forge links with parents who have found it upsetting to discuss their child's needs, especially during formal meetings. It is important for professionals to realise that from the moment a child is diagnosed with a condition such as Down's syndrome, it is the parent who can feel labelled and experience a sense of social exclusion from the mainstream. In our case, a whole range of professionals have monitored and made detailed records of Albert's progress educationally (from six months of age) and medically (from birth). Developmental targets are regularly set. We are offered courses and literature on topics such as behaviour and numeracy.

While appreciating and understanding the need for such support, we can unwittingly find ourselves focusing on his weaknesses. We have tried hard not to lose sight of the fact that Albert is a child and needs to play and establish friendships.

Everyday situations can also create difficulties. I have become used to the fact that Albert and I are often stared at and discussed by strangers during the most routine of situations; I have had my age debated in a supermarket queue and we are occasionally asked if we knew of his condition before he was born. When visibly pregnant with Oscar, I was amazed at how many people I had never met before felt they could ask whether or not I had undergone tests.

With such factors in mind it is perhaps easy to see how intimidated parents can feel about introducing themselves as well as their child into a mainstream setting. Certain key factors have assisted the social inclusion of both Albert and myself: * Early informal contact. This can provide a valuable opportunity for parents and their child to acquaint themselves with the geography and atmosphere of the school away from the hustle and bustle of orientation evenings.

I was invited to chatwith headteacher Angela Davis shortly after Albert's place on roll was confirmed. This allowed us to discuss his needs and personality without paperwork and the presence of outside professionals such as the educational psychologist. I also met his class teacher, Wendy Pickering, and chatted about his character and what he enjoyed doing at home.

I felt able to express concerns very specific to Albert: toilet-training was going badly - would he cope at lunch-time? What would happen if he got sleepy? It was clear that such matters were not a problem and would be addressed. Many four-year-olds without special needs have such difficulties.

Since then, open and productive dialogue has evolved to include the needs of everyone involved.Together we have been able to address important issues: * Support. We were included in discussions about support staff selection and agreed that it was important Albert did not become reliant on just one assistant. The number of hours was agreed with the LEA and it was decided that Albert should be monitored over a couple of weeks to see how the time was most appropriately divided. This was useful since our assumption that Albert would not cope during lunch and playtime was unfounded. This has enabled him to establish his own relationships with ancillary staff such as lunchtime supervisors simply by being encouraged to go with the flow of daily routine.

* Other children. We felt unable to predict the reactions of Albert's fellow pupils towards him but felt fairly certain that he would attract interest. It was clear right from the start that many aspects of his appearance and behaviour intrigued the children. This had to be addressed since the well-meaning attention he was receiving was overwhelming him. We agreed that it would help if someone explained the nature of Down's syndrome and how this affected Albert. Mrs Davis and Miss Pickering offered to talk to the children but, because of my teaching experience, I felt happy to speak during morning assembly. Pupils had shown when we met in the playground that they were keen to ask me about matters such as Albert's lack of speech.

The assembly provided two key benefits. First, the curiosity of the children was largely satisfied. Many simply now play with Albert and have adopted a supportive role as well as offering him their friendship. Second, other parents used the opportunity to introduce themselves by telling me how much their child had enjoyed hearing about Albert.

* The curriculum. We are invited to regular reviews which involve Albert's teachers and other specialists, such as his speech therapist. We piece together his progress at home and school and negotiate targets for the weeks ahead. This allows us to reinforce concepts he is learning at school, for example colour identification, in the home environment. I am able to chat about Albert's activity and developments away from the classroom. This allows staff to key into his interests and explore them at school.

Importantly, we have built social targets into his curriculum; photographs of the teachers have enabled him to learn their names and understand their roles. He is now learning the names of friends and classmates. The social agenda must be kept in mind. Rob and I have taken as much pleasure from his invitations to parties as we have from his new-found ability to count to five.

It is vital to establish open and flexible channels of communication as early as possible. Inclusion must be meaningful, not just for the child with special needs, but for parents, staff and other children as well.

Carol Ward can be contacted by e-mail:

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