Perhaps one of your fondest memories is when you graduate from school. Finally! No more exams, out into the real world!
Graduation is a happy occasion after all. Parents definitely will be proud and glad for their children. It is a milestone in one’s life journey.
Not for some parents though.
I was at an event recently where several parents shared their thoughts and feelings about their children’s experiences of school. Their children have special needs, having some form of disability. The school specialises in serving students with disabilities, providing a customised curriculum to help them learn.
The invited guest asked the parents what made them choose this SPED school for their children, and how long their children have been in the school. This one question led to very deep sharing amongst the parents. A few shed tears as they recounted their experiences of trying to find a suitable school that will admit their children.
One parent said something that stuck in my head:
“My child has been in this school for 6 years. He has a wonderful time here. I feel very appreciative of what the school and teachers did for him. But I am emotional now, because tomorrow is his graduation ceremony, and I don’t know what to expect after this.
“Graduation is supposed to be the happiest occasion for parents, but it isn’t for me.”
When I first joined my current workplace, several colleagues told me that graduation ceremonies in SPED schools are the saddest events in the school year. Parents are unhappy, students are unhappy. Even teachers can be unhappy. Why? Why are parents unhappy when their children graduate from a SPED school?
Hearing this parent speak, I realise why graduation ceremonies are framed in such a manner. The perception of parents is that their children are graduating and going out into the adult world. They are leaving an environment where they were cared for and supported throughout their schooling years. Now they will be on their own.
The unknown can be either frightening or exciting. For parents, it is probably frightening. They do not know what to expect for their children. Where previously they can rely on teachers and other adult figures to care for their children and keep them abreast of their children’s development and growth, now they have to accept that their children are grown up, and will have to face the world on their own terms.
Not knowing what is ahead can be terrifying.
Sometimes the unknown can be moderated somewhat by searching for information. Instead of feeling that one is in the dark, be on the lookout for information to plug the gaps.
Not so easy, I know, for some caregivers. They need to make ends meet, take care of their children and may not have the bandwidth to look into such issues. The same for the poor who struggle to address their basic needs. They may be too stretched to pay attention to their children.
This is where the state can come in. Instead of being seen as interfering with the private lives of individuals, the state can decide how best to channel public resources to enable and make more meaningful the lives of individuals who need more support to live.
In Singapore, the moment a child graduates from a SPED school, he or she can receive support from dedicated facilities set up and operated by social service agencies. These facilities range from day activity centres to supported employment centres that will allow persons with disabilities to receive services and earn an income alongside too.
I think the agony some parents may feel, despite knowing the existence of these services, is probably the result of not knowing what the future holds for their children. What will happen when they pass on? Who will take care of their children? Can their children live a life like what others can?
Honestly, I do not have answers to these questions. My work with children with special needs has made me aware that some parents only hope for the best for their children, while others take active steps to create the best possible path for their children. There is a third group of parents who may not be too active in seeking for support for their children, for whatever reasons.
If social service agencies will take active steps to reach out to parents, I am sure that will go towards addressing some of the anxieties parents have. And if more of us in society take an active role in helping those who are less advantaged, who knows how society will develop?
I hope graduation ceremonies can eventually become one event parents will look forward to, because they form a milestone in their children’s development. May these ceremonies fill the parents with hope that their children have the skills and attitudes to venture out and create their own memories. I aim to strengthen the ways teachers work with these children, in order to help them build memories, form friendships and pick up useful skills.
What do graduation ceremonies mean to you? What hopes and dreams arise because of your graduation ceremony?