FALMOUTH — For many kids, starting kindergarten is an exciting time, even if it is a bit scary.
But for children with disabilities or behavior disorders, starting kindergarten can be a traumatic transition, that, if not negotiated well, can set the stage for a lifelong struggle in school.
So when the Falmouth School Department found out last spring that it had five incoming kindergartners who needed special attention, the district set up a “therapeutic kindergarten” to meet their needs.
“What we really are doing is trying to serve the needs of a huge range of kids with a variety of disabilities,” Special Education Director Polly Crowell said. “We happen to have a group of young children with similar needs, but they are not the same by any means.”
The district hired special education teacher Cindy Smith to design the program, and two education technicians to assist her. Two more education technicians were hired shortly after the program started, when the school realized two would not be enough.
“When we talked about it initially, really, we said it was like we’re building a plane while we’re flying it,” Smith said.
The entire therapeutic kindergarten staff, with the exception of one person, and all the students, were new to the district.
“You have to try to protect and preserve the integrity and the dignity of your students and their families during this very important transition,” Smith said. “These kids are beginning to make one of the biggest transitions of their young lives. … You try to make it look as smooth, as calm and as safe as possible.”
For many children with disabilities, transitions can be incredibly difficult. For Deb Davis’ son Teddy, who has Asperger’s syndrome, that became immediately apparent when he started in Falmouth last September.
“He was going from a half day to a full day,” Davis said. “We knew that would be a challenge.”
Early in the school year, Teddy refused to go inside after recess and attempted to run away from the special education staff. He was restrained in a basket hold, where a teacher wrapped her arms around him from behind.
“From that moment on, my family was very traumatized,” Davis said.
Davis said she had read stories about the use of restraints in schools, but that she never thought it would happen to her son. After he was restrained two more times, including a prone restraint, she said, Davis in October asked for a meeting with the school.
She pushed for a time-out room that would be a safe space for kids when they were upset, where they could be loud and physical without embarrassing or hurting themselves. The school immediately responded.
“They really rose to the occasion,” Davis said.
The school converted a Lunt School closet into a padded time-out room where Teddy and the other children could go if they needed to safely blow off steam.
“I really do feel like I trust them now,” Davis said of the school staff. “Cindy Smith has been open to all my ideas.”
Davis said she’d like to see an unlocked time-out room used only in emergency situations, when there are no other options. Smith said she agreed that restraints and seclusion should only be used at the end of a long line of interventions that have been discussed and decided upon by the parents and staff before they happen.
“(Restraint and seclusion) is the last alternative,” Smith said. “Using the baseline of safety, that is built in as part of a much larger protocol.”
Instead, Smith said the students can choose to go into a specialized sensory area in the classroom, where there are bouncy balls, soft bean-bags and other physically therapeutic options to help kids unwind.
Thanks to these kinds of options, Teddy hasn’t had an intervention since January, Davis said.
Maureen Booth, who is a guardian for 5-year-old Isaiah, another student in the therapeutic kindergarten class, said she was thrilled he has been able to be part of the program.
“When he was in a mainstream program, we were his case managers,” Booth said. “We used our best judgment, but we weren’t always right on.”
Booth said the teachers worked closely with Isaiah, who has behavioral issues, to integrate socialization with academic work.
And now Isaiah loves going to school, Booth said.
“He says, ‘I love the feeling of coming home after school and I love everything in between,'” she said.
Isaiah even likes school lunch now because one of his classmates eats school lunch, something Booth said he never would try before.
“We’re mirroring what’s happening at school, because they have such great results,” Booth said “I’m just so grateful for the resources they put into this program.”
If the school budget is approved in June, the district will spend $180,000 next year for the salaries, space and materials for the program, which will continue next year.
“The fact that they took this major step last year, which I’m sure was difficult considering the resources, says a lot about the administration,” Booth said. “But not taking these steps costs the system later, down the road.”
In the meantime, Smith and her team will soon begin transitioning into first grade, with many of the children from the original therapeutic kindergarten joining them in a new “therapeutic primary” program.
Smith said having the full day instead of half-day, so kids can transition between the mainstream class and therapeutic class more fluidly, will help significantly.
“They need as much peer modeling as possible,” she said.
Crowell said that while rules and regulations on special education change often – including a proposed federal law banning some types of restraints, and a group, including Deb Davis, that is working on changing state rules on the use of restraints and seclusion – at the end of the day, “you’re working with little human beings.”
“The bottom line is, a little being walks into the room, and that’s the focus,” Crowell said.
Six-year-old Teddy Davis stands on a chair at the counter at his home on Bentridge Drive in Falmouth while his sister, Jessi, 9, puts the final touches on some school work before the bus comes Tuesday morning. Teddy is part of the new Falmouth “therapeutic kindergarten” program, designed for children with special needs.