Our Five Ring Circus: Why We Opted Out Of Extended School Year

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Why We Opted Out Of Extended School Year

Why We Opted Out of Extended School Year (ESY)

When Liam was born, we were introduced to a whole new world, and a whole new lingo. IFSP, IEP, LRE, and ESY became everyday words for us. Just like any other child, having a child with extra needs can be difficult at times, and navigating the school years is probably the most stressful thing to deal with!

From birth until age three, children who have special needs are given an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP), which helps the child with development, and helps the family with services they need to support them. We live in Pennsylvania, and Liam qualified for Early Intervention. He received weekly therapy from three different therapists within our home until his third birthday, then transitioned to the preschool years with an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Suddenly, we had to stress over LRE (Least Restrictive Environment), Inclusion, and ESY (Extended School Year). 

When you have a child who has extra needs, so many questions fill your head. Am I doing enough? Am I overwhelming my child? Am I making the right decision? What is the RIGHT answer? I know I tend to stress over every single decision I have to make, and I know I'm not alone. Sometimes you just have to weigh the pros and cons, and go with your gut. YOU know your child best!
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As the school year comes to a close, decisions about Extended School Year need to be made. Extended School Year is basically a period of learning over the Summer that helps reinforce the skills the child learned the previous school year. The child must qualify in order to attend, and it becomes part of their IEP. Before I had Liam, I had no idea ESY even existed!

Liam has qualified for ESY four years now, but has only attended twice, during his preschool years. I want to give Liam every possible opportunity, but sometimes those opportunities aren't the right fit. I tend to overthink decisions that need to be made, so when we chose to opt out of ESY the past two years, we weighed the pros and cons, and trusted our instincts. 

Extended School Year was the right fit for Liam in preschool. We struggled so much with our decision to opt out of ESY after Kindergarten, but we made the right choice for him, and stand behind our decision. This Summer, ESY is online. The decision was made as soon as we received the official document of the recommended placement. Although Liam's teachers and therapists were amazing with Distance Learning during social distancing, Liam fought it every step of the way. Virtual ESY is NOT a good fit for him!

The benefits of Extended School Year are great! Not only does it reinforce skills that were learned, but it's also a great way to work on social skills and communication, and maintain a school routine. Plus, school-based therapy, such as occupational therapy, speech therapy, and physical therapy often resume during ESY. 

Initially it might not seem like there are any cons, but there can be. It isn't the right fit for every child, even if they qualify. The program can vary greatly between schools. Other things to consider are timing, family routine, Summer plans, and the child's well-being. 

For two years, ESY was a great option for Liam. Last Summer, we opted out of ESY, after a lot of thought and research. And this Summer, opting out didn't require any thought at all - we never intended to send him virtually!

Why did we choose to send Liam to Extended School Year in preschool?

At age 3 and 4, ESY was PERFECT for Liam! He attended three afternoons a week (MWF) for one week in June, one week in July, and one week in August. During those weeks, he had a regular day at preschool with his regular teachers, and received all of his therapies.

It was a perfect balance between school and Summer. The amount of time he spent at his school was just right, and he had a 3+ week break between sessions to enjoy Summer. It didn't overwhelm him or our family!

ESY was a great fit for Liam when he was 3, so we opted to send him at age 4, without putting any thought into it. It was a great experience for him, and I just wish the school district followed the same plan! But what we're learning during these school years, and having an IEP, is that everything can change drastically with each passing year. We constantly have to figure out how to navigate new territory, and that can be exhausting!

Why did we opt out of ESY after Kindergarten?

Despite being one of the youngest kids in his grade, Liam had a great year in Kindergarten! When we received the document that said he qualified for ESY, we weren't really given any information about how it would work. We didn't know who would be teaching ESY, how many hours a day he would attend, which building it would be held in, or what the schedule would be. Obviously, I held off on sending the paperwork back until I had solid answers. 

When I finally found out how ESY worked in Liam's school district, I was overwhelmed. It didn't sound like it would work well for him at all, but he had such a positive experience with ESY in preschool, and I didn't want him to miss out. Still, I couldn't bring myself to sign the paperwork agreeing with the decision to attend ESY, and I should have realized that my heart was telling me it was not a good fit. Instead, I worried about the decision for weeks, and kept changing my mind, even with my husband's input. 

After weeks of stress, we opted out of Extended School Year. It was to be held in a different building in the district, with a teacher we didn't know. Unlike the preschool schedule, ESY was the ENTIRE month of July, and it started earlier than school started. Liam is not a morning person, so I knew it would be a fight to wake him early every morning. I would then have to wake all of my kids up, get everyone in the car earlier than we would leave during the school year, drive Liam to school, come home for a few hours, then go back to get him. Did I mention all of that would be done on very little sleep due to having a newborn? 

We knew if we sent Liam to ESY, the entire month of July would be exhausting and stressful. After a busy school year with four kids, we look forward to a bit of a break over the Summer. It would be unfair to Liam, unfair to his siblings, and unfair to me. Plus, something was nagging me, and I was finally able to pinpoint it - I focus so much on More Alike Than Different, and it just felt like we would be robbing Liam - and our family - of a normal Summer. It was too much for all of us, and the cons outweighed the pros. We officially opted out, and we don't regret it one bit!

Why did we opt out of virtual ESY this Summer?

If this year had been a regular school year, we would have made the same decision as last year. We have a lot of kids, and our school district's ESY schedule is not a good fit for Liam or our family. I can't say with 100% certainty that we will opt out of ESY every year, but it's just not the right choice for us now. 

This year was far from regular, though. We were thrown into a world of social distancing, learning at home, virtual schooling, and teletherapy. I mentioned in previous posts about Liam's inability to separate distance learning and home life, and how he began to fight back every single day and refuse to work or participate. 

When it was first announced that ESY would be virtual, I thought we might give it a try. Then I came to my senses, and realized it wasn't worth the stress. We learned that Liam can have a great Summer at home without falling behind, and we plan to do as much as we can for him this Summer as well - just on our own!

What to do INSTEAD of ESY

This Summer is much different from last Summer. Liam hasn't been in public since his last day of school on March 13th. The only place he has gone was to my parent's house. Until we know, without a doubt, that it's safe for him (and Coen) to be in public places around more people, we will be staying home. That makes maintaining those social skills a bit difficult, but I know a lot of kids are going to be in the same boat. Adjusting to NORMAL school life when that becomes possible, is going to be a challenge - a welcome challenge, but still a challenge - for so many!

So here's the plan, and it's a simple one:

  • PLAY! During distance learning, we learned an important lesson. Liam does not learn well on an online platform, or by completing worksheets. Liam learns best through play! I have a huge Pinterest board full of learning activities for kids, and I used them as inspiration to come up with fun learning activities that Liam will enjoy. (As an example, I recently hid letters and numbers from a puzzle in a sandbox, and had Liam dig them up. As he found them, I asked him to identify the letter or number, and put it in the puzzle. He LOVED it!)
  • Go outside - it's Summer! Exercise and outdoor play is so important for health and well-being. And if your child will sit and focus, take a learning activity outdoors. Going for a walk, and completing a simple scavenger hunt by finding certain numbers of items (3 rocks, 9 flowers, 6 leaves) can be a lot of fun!
  • Play a game! There are so many learning games out there for different age groups. We play several games a week! (I have an upcoming list of our favorite games for all ages - each one tackles an important skill!)
  • Get creative! The world is in chaos. Typically, we would spend the Summer going to the library, playing at parks, going on educational day trips to zoos and museums, and swimming, but so many places are still closed or have too many social distancing measures in place that my two little kids can't follow. So we will take advantage of book pickup from our library, we will spend more time taking hikes and exploring nature, and we will log in a lot of hours in our backyard. It won't be the same, but it can still be fun and full of learning experiences!
  • READ, READ, READ! Liam can't read yet, but we are working on sight words. In the meantime, we are reading so many books each day, and I point out sight words along the way!
  • Talk...a lot! One thing I learned from watching years of speech therapy, is that narrating EVERYTHING is the way to go!
  • Make a recipe together! Kids can learn so much from measuring out ingredients. Some of the measuring concepts are too complex for Liam right now, but he can definitely do things, like count out a certain number of eggs. He loves to help me cook!
  • Don't dismiss the apps! Too much screen time isn't good, but there are an abundance of quality learning apps. I make iPad time a treat throughout the day, and set a time limit for Liam to play a learning app, then watch what he wants to watch. 
  • Review skills while working on motor skills! We review a letter, a number, a sight word, and simple math skills every single day. I love teaching Liam through a variety of methods, and we have been doing a lot of reviewing through motor skills - stamping letters, gluing scrap paper to numbers, smacking sight words with a fly swatter, etc.
  • MOST important of all - LET YOUR CHILD JUST BE A CHILD! I think so many special needs parents become so focused on giving their child every single opportunity, that it takes over their lives. We often lose sight of one important fact - our child is a child first, and that comes before the diagnosis! Sometimes they just need to enjoy ordinary, mundane, everyday life!
Special Needs Blogs

When it comes to raising children, especially those who have extra needs, it's difficult to know what the right decision for them is. What is right for them today may not be right for them tomorrow. What's right for my child, may not be right for yours. I can share my experience and my ideas, but this is our own personal journey. Yours might look a lot different, and that's okay! By sharing, we are able to learn from each other. ESY has not always been a good fit for Liam, but that could certainly change. For now, I feel confident that we are doing the best we possibly can for him, and he is enjoying Summer as a little boy - exactly how he should be!

Extended School Year

Do you have any experience on ESY? If you have a child with extra needs, was it a good fit?

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