Tuesday, April 7, 2009

opportunities for social skills development

When Kanani turned 3 years old and was transitioning from our state's early intervention program, my husband and I struggled with whether or not we needed to continue on with the developmental preschool program our local district offered. Initially, we decided that she was too young to be away from home for so long. We wanted her to have the opportunity to have the same experience as typical kids do- which often involves staying at home with mom or daycare.

However, after one trip to the local pool, we quickly changed paths. A little girl was trying to interact and play with Kanani and was pulling her by the arm to come with the girl. Kanani had no idea what was happening or why this little girl was pulling her. She was terrified, but did not cry, scream, or pull away. She offered a little resistance, looked in my direction, and called for her younger brother to save her. At this point, it was apparent that she needed to learn some social skills.

When she entered our developmental preschool program, she was not eligible for services because the testing for SLP, OT, and PT put her at age appropriate performance. Since she had a diagnosis, though, they accepted her based on her "at-risk" status.

Over the course of the three years she spent in the preschool, I developed a strong dislike for her teacher. Miss Pam treated me as if I were a dumb parent who did not know any better. I insisted that Kanani knew her ABC's, rote counting, numbers, and shapes. But because Kanani did not share this information at school, they did not think she could do it. We tried to advocate her moving into a less restrictive class where there were more typically developing kids, but Miss Pam insisted that she was too small and too sickly to be in a class with healthy kids.

At her kindergarten transition meeting, all of the intial testing was repeated to check her progress since her last school evaluation. Her scores from her performance ranked her functioning at the level of a three-year-old level. I was devastated to think that for three years, no progress had been made.

As I have gotten to know my child better over her kindergarten and first grade years, I have come to the realization that on some levels, I failed her. Failed to advocate strongly for her when it came to her IEPs. I did not realize how much power we, as parents, do have (not planning to repeat this mistake again). I also learned how she thinks as an individual. While she doesn't always understand what other kids are doing and why, she is motivated to be doing what other kids are doing. So for the three years in developmental preschool, she constantly copied her peer who could not speak and only said "dee!" when asked a question.

So with this in mind, I have been struggling a lot this year with her developing peer relationships. Her younger brother often gets invited to play at friends' houses. She rarely is invited and she has noticed.

I've relinquished some and bought tickets to special events so that we could do mommy-daughter outings with other girls who have special needs. I've gotten brave a few times and let her visit her cousins house where there is a foster child the same age as Kanani. Heck, about a month ago, out of necessity I set up a play date with my home teacher's daughter (which turned out to be a not so great experience).

So recently, I was listening to an expert talk about child development and peer/social interactions. Now, I find myself at a crossroads. The gist of the lesson I learned was this:

Typically developing kids learn social skills beginning at birth. As toddlers (and older kids), they need to have play interactions where they 'fight' and learn to share with other kids. THIS is where they learn how to negotiate and interact with other kids. THIS is where friendships are born. THIS is where the basics are learned.

I also learned that video and computer gaming are detrimental to social skills development... (naturally, I am in trouble for this one as well) but that is a different story for a different day...

So following the presentation of this lesson, I had some pretty specific questions in my mind. First, what is the optimal placement for our children with special needs? Is it better for them to be in a resource room with kids with similar abilities- or is it better for them to be with typically developing kids where they would notice and struggle with the disparity between academic performances??

The answer I got was interesting; the only children who benefit from being with other children with similar abilities/disabilities are children of the Deaf culture. All others, including the blind and visually impaired, are benefited more by being with typical kids. Hmmm. Ok, I seriously did not know that.

My second question was, is Kanani better off having play-dates and social opportunities with kids who also have special needs? In my mind, I wanted to be told that yes, this was a good thing for her! I wanted to be told that she needed to have friends who didn't exclude her because of her differences... who would accept her as she is... who would have same experiences with being excluded... I thought that this commonality would help them to be more sensitive and kind to one another.

Unfortunately, I did not get the validation I so desparately wanted. Instead, I was told that the best case situation for social skills development occurred through adult-mediated activities with typically developing kids. I guess its a crucial thing for social interactions to be mediated because without the adult supervision, then my (our) child is at-risk for being isolated, excluded, etc. even more and then typical developing kids are at-risk for behaving in a less-acceptable manner and bullying, exclusion games, etc. are more likely to occur without that adult presence. After requesting clarification two or three times, I came away feeling overwhelmed and defeated.

Defeated because honestly, I can't think of very many typical kids whom I feel have the capacity to be nice to Kanani in a way that I think she deserves. Defeated because I don't know that I could NICELY stick up for my little girl without resorting to mean words myself.

Overwhelmed because this means that I can't just send her along with typically developing kids (not that I would to begin with). Instead, I feel as though I have yet one more therapy appointment to add to my week; one more obligation. Overwhelmed because this sounds like a whole lotta work to me.

Now, with her birthday approaching this summer, I'm at a loss of what to do. I feel like I would be ruining her birthday if I invited typical kids who exclude her or are unkind... I would rather make for a small gathering with a few girls who are a little delayed as well.

Tell me; what would you do?


tiptoe mama said...

I just had this situation. M.K. turned 4 and really wanted a birthday party. I was so torn. Should I invite the neighborhood kids who are all 'normal' and risk having them be bored if we did games that were on a level that M.K. could do? Or only invite her special needs friends? I'm not sure how I ever came to the conclusion, but we ended up inviting the kids from the neighborhood. I think our reasoning was that these are the kids she will grow up with and go to church with, and see at school. We thought perhaps it would be a good way for them to get to know her and accept her, and a good way for the other parents also to understand that she's just a little girl like their own little girls.
I thought about putting some schpeel on the invites about how she is 'different' and that some kids (meaning some parents too) might have questions about her, and that we would be happy to answer anything they might like to know....I didn't end up doing that. But I was so glad that we invited the neighborhood kids. They were so good to her, and so kind. They just loved her, and played with her. It made all the difference in the world to me.
One little girl stood and stared with her jaw hanging open as M.K. struggled awkwardly in her way to climb the stairs. I realized that they have mostly only seen her in her wheelchair at church, and that they probably didn't know she could move on her own at all. It was a good experience.
My sister also had some to do with the decision I think. She said that as a parent to 'normal' kids that she wouldn't dare, or feel comfortable just asking about a child's disability, but that she still wants her kids to learn to love and accept kids with special needs. She would love to have one of us Moms explain to her kids about our 'special needs' and let them play together.
Hope any of that helps.....

Melissa said...

Oh I am in the same boat with my oldest son with autism. He is turning 7 in a couple days, and my middle son just turned 5. My 5 year old had friends he plays with and does playdates. But my 7 year old had no interest really or even talks about playing with other kids. But when my 5 yr old has his friend at our house and he happens to be home.... it all falls apart. He tries to play in the only way he knows how and ends up causing all kinds of conflict. I have been going over in my mind the last little while if it would be better to find someone more on his level... but I don't know where to even begin. He doesn't understand why the kids all think he is mean. I hate it.. and it breaks my heart. I don't know what the best coarse of action is either. But that was some interesting information... something I had never thought of. Thanks for sharing, I have some thinking to do.

Luke and Erin said...

I would invite all the kids; special needs and not special needs. I feel it is one of the safest places to create an environment for some GREAT education to take place. "Normal" kids can learn that special needs kids can be just like them but may just do things a little differently. Our special needs children can learn the same the thing, they are just kids that do things a different way.
It is a wonderful to make friends and take the fear and curiosity away. It promotes questions... More often than not, I would rather answer a question than have someone just stare...
Of course, this may not be the best for your family. We really struggle with communication. Bree does say very many words and the ones she does say are very hard to understand. It is frustrating for her, other kids, grandparents, friends and even me sometimes. The more we are around speech and other children the more likely it will come for her. I just really think that the more we isolate the harder it becomes later in life. Social skills are key for making friends and feeling as much as a “normal” society as possible.
My suggestion would be to invite everyone. The more people know about your situation the less fear and awkwardness there will be.
Whatever you chose to do I wish you guys the very best possible outcome, and I hope she has a blast at her party!