Saturday, May 9, 2015

Finnish Education for Foreign Parental Dummies - Lesson 3 - Applying for Primary School with a Special Needs Child

For Lesson 1 on starting to understand Finnish Primary Education please follow this link.
Lesson 2 on Esikoulu (kindergarten) here.
Lesson 4 on Starting Primary 1 at a Finnish school here.
Lesson 5 on our choice between a Finnish and International school here.

Reading back over old posts I realise I left you in suspense with my last lesson and then gave away the ending without explaining how things happened. Well, you'll learn nothing that way and that's what we're here for, isn't it? 

I had gotten to the application process and all the fun that entailed. I had the LEOPS (a child's individual learning plan that follows them through their school life from kindergarten) meeting where the nursery helps plan out what your child needs for primary school. We had our physio, occupational therapist, speech therapist, the special needs teacher from our nursery and the lead teacher from our group as well as the special needs teacher from the international school Mouse goes to and an educational psychologist from a local school that the nursery was recommending. And a translator and little old overwhelmed me. Full house. 

But it's amazing how much all these people cared about what happened with Foo's education, that they wanted to make sure he got the best start and that I knew all our options. 

It helped a lot because immediately we could rule out the international school. They confirmed there was no way they could support Foo's special needs. The local school that he was already registered at also wasn't a good fit. This is why the educational psychologist from the new school was there. 

Now a wee reminder, don't take my word on all this as gospel. This is our experience and I also don't speak Finnish so I may be misunderstanding a lot, as you will see later. 

What I understood is that every few years one Finnish school in each area starts a small Primary One class for children with mild special needs. For those who need a slower start, Finnish language assistance and a little more one-on-one attention. This class has about 10 children, with a teacher and a permanant assistand and the option of another assistant if needed, and it can prepare them to join mainstream classes  or they might continue in this group for their whole primary experience. 

We just missed out on our local school running the class a few years back, but the alternative school is only about 5 minutes away by car and seems very nice and small and safe. So the Educational Psychologist from this school explained how they work and why it would be a good fit for Foo. And the specialists, nursery staff and so on all agreed that it sounded perfect. So the meeting felt like a success and that the decision was done and dusted. But Finland and my life doesn't work that simply. 

The nursery wrote up their recommendations called a Lasunto and gave it to me to give to our local school with our application to have Foo transferred to this special needs group. And to our neurologist and psychologist because we still had those hurdles to face. 

The psychologist who was infinitely patient with me after I had a mega-breakdown after getting lost trying to find her office in the maze that is the children's hospital took two sessions to make her assessment. Which was that Finn should attend an English school, preferably one with a special needs group. I was once again left confused if I should apply to the international school and have Foo take the entrance exam, just in case. But a call to the head teacher who passed me on to the secretary, who we all know really knows what's going on and runs the school, soon reminded me that they had no special needs support and Foo would just have have to muddle along in the mainstream class. The psychologist's second recommendation was a Finnish special needs group, so she was pretty much with us.

On 28 January I went to our local school and handed in my application and piles of reports from various therapists and the nursery to confused school staff who passed them on to the Head and their Educational Psychologist who had to confirm that they couldn't support his needs either. We had a brief meeting with the EP a few weeks later who confirmed that we had most of our papers but still need the neurologist's Lasunto, but that it was ok to bring that in when we got in later in February as the meeting wasn't until the end of March, I think. 

We had the appointment with the neurologist and hospital physio where they assessed his issues again and agreed that he still needed care under the hospital for his legs and his sensory issues, so therefore was also in need of special support in his education. So they wrote their reports and the neurologist wrote an all important Lasunto to include in Foo's application. I turned in these last reports and sat back to wait.

I thought I had been told by the nursery there was a big meeting with all the hospital specialists to make a final decision and had asked on behalf of the nursery and our personal specialists if they could be invited. Well, this is where the idea of leaving the non-Finnish speaking person in charge of organising and passing on info blows up in your face. The first meeting was booked for a school holiday so none of the nursery staff could make it, so it had to be changed. The second meeting none of Foo's therapists could come so it was just me and the nursery's special needs teacher and the hospital neurologist and psychologists. 

We all sat there expectantly waiting and no one knew why they were there. The hospital thought the nursery wanted the appointment, the nursery had just been told to be there by the hospital. Turns out the meeting with the neurologist and physio was the 'big meeting' and the decisions were all made and the lasuntos all written, so we spent 15 minutes confirming we were all on the same page and then parted. It was good to hear that they all agreed in the end that the school we applied for was the right choice. 

Even though I was told that he was pretty much guaranteed a place in a special needs class because the Lasunto asserted he needed one. We've had this several times with Foo's care and I love it. If someone official says Foo needs something, then the system finds a way to get it for him, even if he doesn't fit in all their neat little boxes because he's not Finnish and we aren't part of the KELA system. If it wasn't for this little Finnish quirk, then Foo would have been screwed for care. 

I was still quite nervous. If he didn't get this place, he should get a similar one in another area's school. But I really needed him to stay local, next year I will have my boys in 2 different primary schools and Bump in nursery. Three schools to hit every morning and afternoon, all with varying schedules. I needed things to stay as simple as possible. 

In mid-April we found out Foo got his place. Relief, until I saw the pile of papers they include with the acceptance letter. The realisation hit, he's going to a Finnish school, everything will be in Finnish for me as well and I don't speak it anywhere near as well as Foo does. 

So I muddled through the application for after-school group and for transportation assistance in Finnish, though I think they might also be in English on the Helsinki council website. As Foo will be in a special needs class, he is eligible for help with travel to and from school and therapy sessions that might take place during the school day, through taxis. I don't know if I will need the taxi help or if Foo will handle being in the after-school group, but I thought it was better to apply now as I would struggle to get the help later. We don't live far enough to get the free bus pass which Mouse got but rarely uses, but it wasn't really an issue since we should be eligible for the taxi assistance. 

So in 9 days we get our first glimpse inside Foo's new school. We've driven by once, but he's a bit stressed about the whole idea of school so we haven't mentioned it much. I'm more excited than he is.

I'll report back if there's anymore helpful info. Sorry for the essay, but I hope it helps some other lost and confused expat parents. I can't praise the system enough which has made sure that my son who needs that bit of extra help gets it without quibble. 

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